Editor's Note: Every Wednesday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My wife has given up on me and is threatening to leave. She has given me six months to find treatment for the lack of emotion I am displaying toward her. I am 64 years old and love her very much. We have only been married for a couple of years. (I was previously happily married, but my first wife died of ovarian cancer.)

My wife says that I just don’t display affection to the degree she craves. I get frustrated because this is all we argue about—she says I don’t kiss enough, have sex enough, hug enough, etc. All the pressure on me just pushes me further away. So what do I do?

Michael
Detroit


Dear Michael,

When couples come to therapy, often they start with a story they’ve constructed about what’s going on: We always argue. We’ve grown apart. What strikes me most about your letter is that the story your wife has constructed is about you and you alone. Essentially she’s saying, “You need to change”—without, it seems, much curiosity about what your internal experience might be like, and what role she might be playing in this impasse.

You say that you love your wife very much, so you don’t suffer from a lack of emotion—it’s just that she has specific ideas about how that emotion should be expressed, and demands that it be expressed on her terms. In fact, your wife’s response to not getting the physical affection she craves is ensuring that she won’t actually get the physical affection she craves. I’ve never heard anyone say, “You know what solved our relationship problem? A threat!” Even if you were to give her more hugs and kisses and sex to appease her, you’d be doing so under circumstances that are likely to create resentment.

I’m not at all discounting the importance of physical intimacy and affection, but it sounds like her expectations about what enough means differ from yours. I imagine, too, that she’s so caught up in her own ideas about how emotion—which is shorthand here for “love”—should be shown that she can’t see the ways in which you are expressing it. Maybe, for instance, you show your love by asking about her day and really listening to her, bringing her tea, fixing things in the house, choosing to spend time with her—as well as through physical affection, albeit not sufficiently in her view.

You also showed your love by choosing to marry her a couple of years ago, and she showed her love for you this way, too. And so I wonder, has this been your wife’s complaint from the beginning? If so, why was it not a deal breaker then, and why has it become one now? If not, do you have any insight into what’s changed between you two? From your perspective, does this feel more like a natural waning of intimacy now that the relationship has settled down? Is there a medical issue? Are you still grieving your first wife’s death? You say that you were happily married before—did your first wife feel that you were physically withholding, too?

In other words, it sounds like the arguments you two have stay focused on the surface of the impasse. Her: Show me more physical affection. You: Stop pressuring me—it’s hard to give affection on command. But as you’ve seen, that leads nowhere. What probably hasn’t been explored is what you think the issue is about, what your wife thinks it’s about, how much of this is about you, how much is about her, how much of this is related to what’s happening between you two in the present, and how much is related to your respective histories. (If your wife was married before, for instance, did the marriage end because she felt a lack of affection? If she’s widowed, did her first husband show his “emotion” primarily through physical affection, and now she interprets a different level of it as a lack of feeling for her?) Sorting all of this out will help to solve the dilemma between you two far more effectively than an ultimatum for you to “find treatment” and get on her page in the next six months.

About that ultimatum: People tend to give them, and to nag, when they don’t feel heard, but often people say that they don’t feel heard without considering how willing they are to listen. The therapists Pete Pearson and Ellyn Bader of the Couples Institute, a clinical-training center in Northern California, ask couples who come to see them to consider the following:

The hardest part of couples therapy is accepting you will need to improve your response to a problem (how you think about it, feel about it, or what to do about it). Very few people want to focus on improving their response. It’s more common to build a strong case for why the other should do the improving … If you want your partner to change, do you think about what you can do to make it easier?

So, you’re both going to need to change your response to this problem, starting with reframing the solution as a joint effort. You can begin by saying to your wife, “Honey, I love you very much. I’m sorry that my love and desire for you aren’t coming across in the ways that you want them to, and I don’t want to give up on us. Can we see a therapist together to try to figure out how we can each feel more comfortable about meeting each other’s needs? The last thing I want to do is disappoint you or make you feel unloved or unwanted, and I think this is something we need to work out together.”

Hopefully, your wife will hear not a “lack of emotion” in your invitation, but its opposite: a vulnerable display of affection along with a willingness to make things better.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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