True ‘givers’ don’t define themselves as such because they know they’re also healthy receivers – and are comfortable with that.

Mark sat down in my office for the first session and announced that he’s the “giver” in the relationship. He was a man with an agenda: That is, to introduce me to what he was sure was “the problem” in his marriage.  He went on to describe a woman who was seemingly ungenerous, self-involved, only concerned with her needs, not having enough time for him, and a workaholic.

What I was hearing as he was talking, however, was someone very different than his characterization of her. (I often tell patients that I come to know a tremendous amount about their partners, not because of “the facts” they tell me, but more by how they describe their interactions and the roles I come to know that they themselves play.

What came across more palpably in Mark’s description was his anger and annoyance that she wasn’t somehow “taking good enough care” of him. What I’d suspected – and what became increasingly clear – was that his wife, Stephanie, was vibrant and interesting, smart, creative, fascinated with life, with her work, and with the people with whom she interacted; she wasn’t at all the narcissist that he’d been describing. Further, from what I could gather from Mark’s narratives, his sullen and demanding nature was what was pushing her away and, in fact, making her less attentive to him and his needs.  A clear feedback loop, but he couldn’t see it because he had learned to externalize blame rather than looking at himself as well.

He couldn’t see, for example, that he’d offer to do various things for Stephanie but then resent her if he didn’t get the (immediate) response he expected. And with the resentment would come various criticisms over how poor a partner she was. He has said to her often, “I give you everything, but what do you do for me?” (See Post : “Criticism Does NOT motivate better behavior”)

It took a full six months of work before he started to understand that what he “got” from her – among many other things – was her contagious sense of excitement, her energy, an entrance into a world that was fun and interesting, and a perspective on life that anything could be conquered. In fact, he came to acknowledge that he’d never met anyone like her.

Although the full work to get to this point would be too lengthy to describe here, the main attitudes and behaviors he began changing were the following:

  • De-coding his annoyance and criticisms to understand that there was nothing he truly thought was wrong with her, but just that he felt ignored, unloved (and unloveable). It’s this latter piece that is key: People who often feel they lack the attention or love they need are really just highly unsure of their own worthiness – but project it onto the partner.

  • Coming to identify that feeling of being ignored and unattended was an ‘old’ experience for him that far preceded this relationship with Stephanie; further, that it probably had less to do with what she was doing and more with how he frequently felt about himself in most of his interpersonal dealings – including at work.

  • Learning how highly dependent he was on her to make him feel okay about himself, and thus was angry whenever she didn’t make it her job to do that.
  • That he, himself, could come to re-process these experiences – and the attendant anger – before complaining to her about what she was doing ‘wrong’.

  • He could in fact start paying attention to (and acknowledging) when she was doing things he did like (which would concomitantly reinforce in her a feeling of wanting to do them more frequently).

  • Instead of seeking ‘proof’ of her caring (i.e., testing her)  he instead began to generate some ideas as to what they could do together (i.e., suggesting options rather than complaining about what wasn’t happening)

  • His offering options, (e.g., Hey, let’s get out of the city and go hiking today) rather than complaining about what wasn’t happening, allowed Stephanie to see him more as the individual she’d originally thought she’d met

  • His old method of ‘trying to get her to have sex’ came off as just that: controlling her or manipulating her into doing his bidding. Instead, he could start behaving more ‘attractively’ and the sex would likely follow (over time, this absolutely does happen if attitudes and behavior are truly changing) (see Posts: “When Sex becomes Underwhelming”, “Finding Yourself No Longer Attracted to your partner and Wondering Why,” “Learning to Behave More Attractively” and “Affairs: A Model for Better Coupling”.

Many more steps were taken, and Mark learned as well to request specific changes in things that were truly legitimate; not solely as a way of venting frustration. Doing so frees both sides up to want closeness as opposed to avoiding it. (See “Venting”).

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