In the television show, This is Us, Miguel tells his best friend Jack that he and his wife are divorcing because they “stopped noticing each other.” Miguel explained that he started every day of their relationship by making coffee for his wife, just the way she liked it and bringing it to her in bed. One day he woke up, made himself coffee, but just didn’t feel like making a cup for his wife, and so he didn’t. Miguel said “The worst part is she didn’t even notice. We stopped noticing each other. We stopped trying to make each other happy. When we realized that, we knew it was over.”
It may seem to you that not bringing your wife a cup of coffee isn’t much of a reason for divorce, but I believe that each cup of coffee that Miguel brought his wife was a critical reminder that he still loved her and was committed to doing what he could to make her happy. We like to think of ourselves as being essentially self-contained, secure, and not needing this kind of reassurance from anyone. The truth is that we all need it a lot more than we let ourselves or anyone else know. Being in an intimate relationship with someone is one of the riskiest most vulnerable things we can do. Being intimate with someone means that you will inevitably and repeatedly be hurt in ways that you could never even imagine when you were alone. For men, it recreates the early fears of abandonment we experienced when we began to separate from our mothers and form stronger attachments with our fathers and male friends.
I think that people in successful relationships have learned to tolerate this vulnerability by practicing acts of kindness and reassurance on a regular basis. A text to your wife to let her know you’ve arrived safely, remembering to ask about the big meeting she had that day, bringing home her favorite ice cream because you know she had a rough day, stepping in to take on extra responsibilities with the kids without waiting to be asked, etc.
Couples generally find it easy and pleasurable to be generous with each other in these ways early in their relationship. Over time, however, a series of resentments, feelings left over from conflicts they have not been able to resolve on their own can lead to a mutual withholding of this critical reassurance. As Miguel said, they stop noticing each other. Men in particular often withhold this kind of reassurance from their partners because they have been socialized to fear being controlled by women, and to think of loving acts of kindness as not manly, something women coerce men to do. The couple may think of their mutual withholding as a series of petty retributions, not understanding that their accumulation can threaten the trust that is essential for their marriage.
When couples fall out of the habit of spontaneously reassuring each other, they need to learn how to find their way back to each other in a more intentional, deliberate way. It feels awkward at first, but each of them needs to learn how to do in a more conscious deliberate way what is no longer happening spontaneously. Equally important, they each need to learn how to be intentional about expressing their appreciation for the reassurance they are receiving again from their partner. Often times I see the healing process in couples fall flat when one person takes a risk to be more open or intimate, and their partner doesn’t reciprocate simply because it’s been so long that she has learned to protect herself by not noticing all of the disappointing, hurtful interactions and simply did not notice that her partner was doing something different this time. I tell couples that there is no known toxic limit to appreciations. If you like what you are receiving from your partner, slather on the appreciation. It’s hard to overdo it.
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