Feeling Empty in Marriage

y Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Marriage CounselingAs a marriage and family therapist I have learned techniques to help marriages and family relationships work. The one that works best by far is the use of unconditional love. How that works out in the marriage is my next question.

One thing I’ve noticed is that when I would have an argument with my wife, we would have spirited discussions about the same old topics. Often for us, it was about the use of time. We have lots of kids and a lot of work falls on her. We also have lots of bills and that weight falls on me. For you, you might argue about something that happened that you are having a hard time forgiving.

Unconditional love is impossible without humility. My relationship with my wife started by being selfish, thinking about how the qualities of my wife would benefit me. Then I gained my wife’s love by impressing her. However, this is not unconditional love. I cannot depend on a love that depends on my ability to impress. Certainly, it is not the kind of love that can last.

Turning toward our own ability to love someone, have you felt, as I have, that there are moments where you just do not feel like you have love to give? Often when I feel this way I criticize my wife and defend myself, or I act like a victim and run away. Then I dwell on what is right and wrong in order to think of a way to get my needs met. Then I present my argument to my wife, but it seems to have the same impact as if I am saying to her, “I don’t love you.” I am not saying that, but I wonder how if this is what she feels when I argue with her.

I remember the time my wife was telling me about the frustrations of her day and I was tired but attempting to be empathetic. I recall an instant turn in my emotions when she unexpectedly added, “And if you were around, this would not have happened.” It ignited anger in me, so I retorted, “Do you really want this to blow up?” Luckily I came to my senses enough to walk away. “Empty” is the word that came to mind as I retreated. “I’ve got nothing more to give.”

Greg Baer in his book Real Love compares arguments to feeling attacked while drowning. When someone is drowning they lash out. In fear, someone drowning may hit you or grab onto you and pull you under, resulting in two victims. When we are arguing, we are drowning and lashing out. Research shows that similar events are occurring in our brain when we argue as when we are drowning.

When I realize that I feel like I am drowning when I do not feel loved, and I am feeling empty and alone, how can I respond with unconditional love?

First, I remember that my wife may also be drowning, feeling empty and alone. If I view my wife who at times lashes out at me as drowning, my anger at her is reduced. I feel less interested in criticizing her and defending myself, but I still feel like a victim and want to run away. I am drowning and need to get back on solid ground myself.

My wife nor I may be able to unconditionally love at any moment. If someone was overwhelmed and upset, or stressed, or maybe has had a lifetime of not feeling loved, there will be times that person will not be able to love. Unconditional love means I am accepted with my faults, struggles, and weaknesses. So it falls on me to search myself and speak the truth about myself to someone, (not the opposite sex of course) that will accept me for who I am. Then I may have the energy to improve myself.

So I reflected on my own emptiness and thought about ways I can restore my energy for unconditional love. This may involve self-care, for which we are responsible, and seeking care from others. I thought of this acronym, “ACES” to remind me of ways to restore energy for unconditional love.

“A” stands for a sense of accomplishment.

“C” stands for the connection I have to God, family, and friends, that I need to seek out to feel loved enough to love my spouse.

“E” stands for enjoyment, the “small” parts of life, often overlooked, that I need to remember in gratitude.

“S” stands for self-care, sleep, diet, exercise and other needs for which I am responsible to meet.

Most importantly, I needed to confess to someone my struggle and feel their acceptance. If I am loved for what I do for others, what is that? That is a performance-based love. That is how we got married in the first place. But I need the kind of love where someone who sees me for who I am and then accepts me. I need this kind of love in order to love others.

I may have seek this out on a regular basis. It takes courage. Who wants to talk about their struggles and faults? I would rather talk to someone and they tell me I am in the right. But that is back to performance-based love. So I turned to my “ACES,” and turned to a friend to whom I can admit my faults. He still liked me, and accepted me as I am. With time I was ready to understand and give to my wife.

What are some ways I can unconditionally love my spouse? Here are common needs for men and women, as highlighted in Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn’s research-based books on relationships, For Men Only and For Women Only.

Women need to be pursued. They are wired for relationship. Women feel it when something is missing here. They write, “Pursuit is likely to make you a great husband in her eyes.” Relationships need energy like anything else of value. A little time can yield big dividends. Perhaps consider “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman.

In the movie, Parent Trap, Nick asks his ex-wife. Elizabeth, how their relationship died. He said, “It ended so fast. So about the day you packed, why’d you do it?” She replied, “Oh, Nick. We were so young. We both had tempers, we said stupid things, and so I packed. Got on my first 747, and… you didn’t come after me.” After a period of dead silence, Nick admitted, “I didn’t know that you wanted me to.”

A common need for a man is to feel their spouses’ respect. They are wired for accomplishment. Men feel it when something is missing here. The authors write, “What is at stake isn’t his pride as much as his secret feelings of inadequacy as a man.” Many unmarried men described feeling inadequate as a major barrier to getting married in the first place. They do not want to feel inadequate the rest of their lives.

Let me conclude by asking if love is the goal in marriage, and unconditional love is what makes marriage work, then what does unconditional love look like for you? Everybody may have a different definition. For some, unconditional love may mean that they set boundaries so that harm does not occur in a relationship. For others, love is characterized as giving without getting. Immediately, when I hear this definition, I think, “But what about me? What about my needs?” I guess the better question is, what is the best way to meet my needs? If I am angry or disappointed in my partner, I am thinking of myself and my needs. I may be feeling empty, overwhelmed or drowning. Here’s a lifeline: confession. It is speaking truth to someone who accepts and loves us as we are, faults and all. I think that is better than finding someone who agrees with you that you are in the right. I do not know about you, but being right has not inspired me to be more loving. Feeling loved has inspired me to be more loving.

 

How to Stay Married

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Marriage Counseling

At times people think about how problems would be solved if they were married to someone else. Some problems may be solved this way, but it also is true that we carry our response to problems from relationship to relationship. John Gottman, a leading marital researcher, gives this example:

Paul married Alice and Alice gets loud at parties and Paul, who is shy, hates that. But if Paul had married Susan, he and Susan would have gotten into a fight before they even got to the party. That’s because Paul is always late and Susan hates to be kept waiting. She would feel taken for granted, which she is very sensitive about. Paul would see her complaining about this as her attempt to dominate him, which he is very sensitive about. If Paul had married Gail, they wouldn’t have even gone to the party because they would still be upset about an argument they had the day before about Paul’s not helping with the housework. To Gail when Paul does not help she feels abandoned, which she is sensitive about, and to Paul Gail’s complaining is an attempt at domination, which he is sensitive about. The same is true about Alice. If she had married Steve, she would have the opposite problem, because Steve gets drunk at parties and she would get so angry at his drinking that they would get into a fight about it. If she had married Lou, she and Lou would have enjoyed the party but when they got home the trouble would begin when Lou wanted sex because he always wanted sex when he wants to feel closer, but sex is something Alice only wants when she already feels close.

Even rock-solid marriages have sensitivities like the ones described above. This is where it can hurt. It is common to think of marriage as something that is difficult, discouraging, and even hurtful. Many think of personal failure. It is difficult to respond well in an intimate relationship when we are not treated well. We all can think of examples where we are not treated well. Maybe you can think of a time you were betrayed by a childhood friend. Or, you ask your teenage daughter how her evening went, and she nearly bites off your head. Possibly you are caring for aging parents and in spite of all your efforts, they are still unhappy. Or, you are unhappily married but stay together for a number of reasons. Others do not. Every 45 seconds a marriage ends in divorce (Dr. Greg Smalley).

An incredible statistic is the one that predicts divorce. Marriage is one of the most researched topics over the last 40 years and this prediction is well-documented. John Gottman and other researchers underscore that your response, when you are treated poorly in your marriage, is predictive of eventual divorce with 91 percent accuracy.

It is not exactly what is said, or what is done, that is so predictive. It is the feeling that one spouse is above or below the other. It results in defensiveness. It can come from dwelling on the injustices in your relationship, or from ruminating on the weaknesses of the other. It leaks out in one’s tone, facial expressions, and non-verbal body language. It is contempt. We often do not mean to be contemptuous. Maybe you just want to bring up an issue, or just talk about it, and your spouse interprets it as criticism and wants to defend, attack back, and finally withdraw. Dan Allender, in his book with Tremper Longman III, Intimate Allies says that “many couples live with an underlying contempt for each other.” Later they write, “Spouses degrade each other when they show a contemptuous, shaming, judgmental spirit.”

We are all treated poorly at times. We all have different desires and these can turn into expectations. When these expectations are not met, we get angry, or at least disappointed. We can feel that the other is not living up to their end of the bargain. The contract is not being fulfilled. If you a sign a contract, there are certainly expectations to be met. If you use that mentality in marriage, you are set up for more disappointment and hurt. Tension develops between the idea of marriage being a contract, and marriage being a covenant.

So what do spouses do, who generally get treated well, in their marriage, act at those moments when they are not treated well?

If there is any recourse from a hardened heart to one that is open, safety is key. It is hard to open up and admit feelings and failures, if you are afraid of your partner’s response. If one feels safe, you can be honest about feelings and failures. It creates a joint struggle to expose the beautiful, and the broken. It allows for true love, the grace that provides the elements needed to grow, and it feeds passion.

Contempt, on the other hand, is beyond the inevitable frustration with your spouse. It does not just say that I am angry, afraid or sad; it puts the emphasis on that the other is wrong or bad. We are all wrong or bad at times. We all struggle. But people that get treated well do not put down the other resulting in defensiveness. This approach seeks to make sense of your partner, and understand what he or she is feeling, and to make his or her feelings as important as your own. Marital researchers underscore that this non-judgmental approach happens in the context of equal regard, creating a sense of safety. It acknowledges underlying needs on both sides of the equation.

Here are common needs for men and women, as highlighted in Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn’s research-based books on relationships, For Men Only and For Women Only.

Women need to be pursued. They are wired for relationship. Women feel it when something is missing here. They write, “Pursuit is likely to make you a great husband in her eyes.” Relationships need an infusion of energy like anything else of value. A little time can yield big dividends.

In the movie, Parent Trap, Nick asks his ex-wife. Elizabeth, about what happened between them. He said, “It ended so fast. So about the day you packed, why’d you do it?” She replied, “Oh, Nick. We were so young. We both had tempers, we said stupid things, and so I packed. Got on my first 747, and . . . you didn’t come after me.” After a period of dead silence, Nick admitted, “I didn’t know that you wanted me to.” Elizabeth felt if she asked him to come after her, she would never know if he would on his own.

Men need to be proud of. They are wired for accomplishment. Men feel it when something is missing here. The authors write, “What is at stake isn’t his pride as much as his secret feelings of inadequacy as a man.” Many unmarried men described feeling inadequate as a major barrier to getting married in the first place. They do not want to feel inadequate the rest of their lives.

What if I am not open to this kind of covenantal approach? Impulsivity, stress, lack of time and energy, built-up anger, hurt and resentment are all facts of life but get in the way. A formidable obstacle is the belief that one’s partner is more to blame for the relationship problems. An urgent need is for personal support to make personal changes from reading, friends, and support groups.

What if my partner isn’t open to this kind of covenantal approach? This kind of approach is for the sake of the giver as much as the receiver. It allows the giver to feel settled and in control about their part, even if your partner does not respond well. Researchers underscore that when one partner is not treated well, this is precisely the time that this approach is needed. When it gets tough, take a break and come back allowing both sides time to process to a better conclusion. Or break the discussion and ask your partner for proposals, or make proposals. Living in a fallen world and being self-responsible means that we have to set personal boundaries. The challenge, according to marital researchers, is to not look down on your partner in the meantime, because looking down on your partner itself puts your relationship at risk.

The Art of Communication

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Relationship Communication

Communication

Is harder than many people think. Since the strength of a relationship is based on connection between people, communication is often underestimated as well. It is a skill that must be practiced over and over. Even when making casual conversation, there is opportunity to strengthen relationships by reflecting the interests of another. One’s words can also strain relationships when they stir up emotions. The intent of one’s message may be lost leaving both parties feeling misunderstood. Three ingredients to resolving relationship issues apply to spouses, parents, children, friends and coworkers: Understanding, Showing concern, and Agreements.

One must be calm and focused to use these tools. Otherwise one’s brain, flooded with adrenaline, does not cooperate and one’s intent in communication is much different than the impact of one’s words. On the contrary, when relaxed, usually taking turns without interruptions works. Taking time to understand before you are understood even works better. Technically, one does not have to prove oneself or convince someone to be valid.

U nderstanding
To show understanding one cannot assume he or she understands the other. One cannot also assume the other is wrong. People tend to repeat themselves, argue, or criticize unless they feel understood. To make sense of what someone is saying does not mean you agree, feel the same, or would do the same as someone else in a given situation. To understand, instead, accomplishes the purpose of communication: to make sense to someone else. People who feel better or closer after a discussion usually feel connected rather than corrected. A couple of guidelines can greatly reduce adrenaline-fused verbal spars. When showing understanding, focus on the following:
Fouls: avoid insults and topic-hopping. Starting sentences with “I” may receive less resistance that starting sentences with “You.”
Feelings:what one is feeling is more important than facts to feel close to someone.
Future: the future can be changed, the past needs understanding but cannot be changed.

S howing concern
Demonstrating that one cares is an essential ingredient in satisfying relationships. If one is in a relationship but no longer cares, perhaps one is dwelling on the negative, or there is a lack of common goals. There are a number of ways to show you care not only about a person, but also about their statements.
Talk: tell the person how much you appreciate them or what they feel.
Time: spend time doing something enjoyable together.
Touch: affection can say a lot more than words when done appropriately.
Tasks: whatever you do for another that’s not expected but appreciated.
Tokens: notes, small gifts or offering to get someone a drink.

A greements
Even though one may not agree about the past or about a given topic, one can make agreements for the future. Adhering to agreements yield trust, commitment, and even passion. The following considerations can increase the chance of success, even if one has to go back to the drawing board.
Optimism: agreements should not bring future resentments.
Options: commit to find options that will work for both parties.
Outcomes: (not threats) that are understood if agreements are not kept.

For many, “I” statements are recommended to be used to communicate. For example, “I feel ______ when ______.” To connect and strengthen the relationship, try an experiment using a particular kind of “You” statements. For example, “You are feeling or thinking ______ and wishing for ______.” Instead of saying, “I understand,” or repeating what another is saying, show understanding with your words. Check with the person or look for signs that they feel understood. Instead of using “You” statements to criticize, condemn, or complain, see what happens when one makes comments showing interest in another’s views, whether they are wrong or right, over time. Even though you may not agree, you can make agreements.

 

Listen
When I ask you to listen to me
And you start giving advice
You have not done what I asked.


When I ask you to listen to me
And you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way
You are trampling on my feelings.


When I ask you to listen to me
And you feel you have to do something to solve my problems
You have failed me, strange as that may seem.


Listen! All I ask is that you listen
Not talk or do – just hear me.
Advice is cheap: the world wide web is full of free advice.
And I can do for myself. I’m not helpless.
Maybe discouraged and faltering, but not helpless.


But when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel,
No matter how irrational, then I stop trying to convince you,
And can get about the business of understanding what’s behind this irrational feeling.


And when that’s clear, the answers are obvious and I don’t need advice.
So please listen and just hear me, and if you want to talk,
Wait a minute for your turn, and I’ll listen to you.

Anonymous

Communication Cheat Sheet

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

D escribe the other person’s feeling, or show appreciation, or make sense of what they are thinking, even if you disagree.

A sk for what you are wanting, or ask the other person to make sense of what you are feeling. Make multiple proposals. Don’t debate.

B oundaries make clear what you are not willing to do, but end with what you are willing to do. Meet in the middle.

 

This approach can also be used for kids. Start by connecting with your child to increase the chance of being heard, describe their feeling (even in one word). Ask your child to do the right thing, or for a “time-in,” (teaching him or her how to calm yourself), or to take a “time-out.” Set boundaries by making it clear what is not okay, followed by what behavior is okay. Consequences can also be clarified or negotiated also at this point.