Listen, learn, love
Take the next step in finding out who your mate really is
By Patti Carmalt-Vener 08/23/2012
My wife, Emily, and I have been married for 12 years, are best friends and have traveled the world together. When she began nagging a lot about being invisible, I’ll admit I usually ignored her and just tuned her out. Two weeks ago, she left me. I was devastated. I’ve always known deep down she meant the world to me, but at times her complaints seemed too much. But now I want her back.
We met yesterday for the first time since she left. I told her I really want to listen and to know how I can make her happy. It was a good talk, because I got a chance to explain that I felt she was sometimes hard to please and that it seemed like she didn’t appreciate I’m a great provider, I take good care of the house, I’m an affectionate lover and I’ve always treated her family well. While she agreed I do all of these things and it made her feel good, she admitted what really bothers her is that I don’t seem to see her as an individual separate from the relationship. She said I don’t support her personal dreams or encourage her to be her best. Specifically, she feels I don’t see “her”; I just see “us.”
That seems like a lot of mumbo jumbo, but I also understand she needs to be recognized as an individual with her own ideas and visions and not just as my wife. I confess, I figured she’d always be there, even if the needs of others often took priority. She’s always been at my side, making me look good at social functions and in front of my business partners. I could see how she could get a little lost in the fold, because it wasn’t very often that anyone asked her what interested her or what she was involved in. I’ve also been pretty self-focused not to see she felt invisible.
Any suggestions on how to turn this around?
I think she’ll come home, but I really want to help change things so she’s happy. I realize I can’t be happy if she’s unhappy
You’re beginning to really listen to each other and, in particular, you’re starting to listen to Emily. Good! It sounds like your neglect was unintentional and that you’re willing to make the necessary changes to reconnect. As you’ve already discovered, it’s difficult to be the best couple you can be if Emily feels wounded.
You’ve explained quite clearly that she wants to be acknowledged as an individual. The next step is to ask yourself, “Who is Emily?” Be specific. What makes her stand out from others? What makes her unique? What are her strengths? What traits about her do you most admire? Support those qualities. If there’s something you think is special about her, let her know. Encourage her to be her best. Tell her that not only is it OK for her to be herself, but that it’s also wonderful. Do so with intention. Encourage her to be vulnerable and to share her deepest feelings with you. Reassure her that it’s safe to be herself around you. Promise to make time for her and keep that promise. Pay attention. Be sensitive and attuned. Accentuate the positive, especially when she forgets to do so herself.
It sounds like Emily has done quite a bit to support your dreams and goals. What are her dreams, ideas, yearnings and hopes? What’s important to her? What does she want most in life? What is she truly passionate about? When appropriate, ask helpful, clarifying questions. Listen carefully, so as to truly understand her dreams. What can you do to encourage and nurture them? Try to recognize the difference between her needing you to actively participate and assist her in overcoming obstacles in her way and her needing you to just listen and quietly, lovingly bear witness with love, respect and acceptance.
Lastly, understand that “sympathy” is when you feel something “for” another person; “empathy” is when you feel something “with” them. When you have true empathy for Emily’s dreams and share in the excitement of those dreams “with” her, this will invariably bring intimacy and renewed energy into your relationship.
Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.