I recently received a question from a woman whose husband won’t ever show affection. She says:
I take care of the kids alone, the house alone, the cleaning/shopping alone, I work full time and I help him in his business (he’s self employed). I do most of these because I have to, not because I’m trying to be a martyr. Sometimes I do feel that no matter how much I do it’s never really enough. My husband will walk in the house and criticize that things aren’t done his way. The problem that I’m having lately is that I try to connect with my husband, by talking, and I also like to hug and kiss him when he gets home, but my husband doesn’t show affection. I have trouble accepting that he pushes me away when I try to cuddle him. He always has good excuses such as he just go home and needs space, he gets too hot if we cuddle, he’s too tired and just wants to go to sleep (I tell him it’s ok to just cuddle for 10 seconds but he rolls his eyes at this, even though he will spend 15-20 minutes looking at things on his phone before bed). I have tried talking to him about how my heart aches, but when I bring this up he just says “oh you’re upset about THAT AGAIN!” Now I feel like my heart is lost. I go trough the motions of life, but I feel like a shell. Is there a way to accept that this is life? I try to think about it rationally to make sure I’m not making a martyr out of myself, and that I’m seeking God, and that I shouldn’t expect my husband to fulfill my needs. I’m not sure how to stop caring so much about this.
I’m so sorry for her!
The root of her problem, I think, is this: When she got married, she did so because she wanted a relationship. But because they’re not connecting emotionally, it feels as if it’s become a job. She has tasks that she has to do, but there’s nothing beyond it. That’s very difficult to live with long term.
I think how she expressed it is so key as well. She says: “I feel like a shell.”
We all have different emotional needs–different things that we need in order to feel like the relationship is healthy. And they’re genuine needs. As we teach in the FamilyLife Canada Weekend Getaway sessions, they’re like “oxygen”. Without them you feel like you’re suffocating.
And not everyone has the same emotional needs. Some people need security and safety. Some need to do lots of activities together. Some need physical affection. Some need lots of affirmation. Some need sex. These aren’t exactly love languages, though the concept is similar.
What do you do when your husband isn’t affectionate? Find out if it’s that he doesn’t understand or that he doesn’t care!
When we’re not getting an emotional need met, we often assume it’s because our spouse just doesn’t care. But what I’ve seen is that this is rarely the case. Usually it’s that the spouse is absolutely clueless. And that’s important to understand, because one of the best indicators of a happy marriage is that people believe the best. Before jumping to the conclusion that your spouse doesn’t care, ask if it could be that he just doesn’t understand?
Keith and I speak at marriage conferences (we do some on our own and some with FamilyLife Canada). Another speaker couple recounted the story of their first time at a marriage conference (that time as participants). When they went, she literally had had her bags packed, ready to leave with the kids. The conference was her last ditch effort to patch up the marriage.
He, on the other hand, had no idea that this was his wife’s state of mind. He was going to the conference because she really wanted to, but it wasn’t until the second day that he clued in that this conference would determine whether his wife left him or not.
Why wouldn’t a spouse understand that you feel like you’re drowning?
I know that sounds ridiculous to those of you who are floundering. How could he/she not get that I’m seriously miserable? So let’s dissect this for a second.
They have totally different emotional needs
Your spouse may have completely different emotional needs. In our letter writer’s case, she seriously needs affection. Maybe what he really needs is sexual contact, affirmation, or knowing the domestic front is in good hands. If your spouse doesn’t share the same emotional needs, your spouse may be feeling absolutely fine, and may listen to your complaints and assume that they’re far less serious than they are, or that you’re making a big deal out of something small, because they don’t understand how big a deal this is for you.
They’re focused elsewhere–often in “emergency mode”
When a spouse spends most of their mental energy outside of the family, they may miss important clues that there is something amiss with the family.
This was the case with that speaker couple. He was a busy family doctor, who was dealing with emergencies all day (both in the office and with politics in the hospital). He was operating at 120% all the time at work, and frequently brought work home. Because he had trained himself to pay attention to things only when there was a major fire breaking out, since so many things were vying for his attention at work that only the most serious warranted it, he often overlooked small things.
At home, there didn’t look to be any fires. The kids were doing well. Meals were made. Bills were being paid. So his wife may talk about how sad she was, but it didn’t “look” like his idea of a fire. He missed the clues.
You haven’t expressed your need in a way that they understand
Let’s say your spouse tends to only pay attention to something if there’s a “fire”, and at the same time you’re not comfortable speaking clearly. Many women have a hard time asking their husbands for help, for instance. So they may beat around the bush and not say things directly because they don’t want to be seen as “nagging”. Or they don’t make it clear how serious this is because they don’t want to be seen as unsubmissive, and they don’t want to make demands on their husbands. But then your spouse really may not see that this is, indeed, a fire.
They run from conflict because they have a deep seated fear of inadequacy
Finally, someone may interpret any need on your part as a criticism. If you need something, it means that they are somehow “bad”. And being bad is something that they can’t emotionally handle, and so they try to quiet any criticism so that they don’t have to feel inadequate.
I actually was like this for a large part of my marriage, and I’m only slowly recovering from it. Keith can tell me when he’s upset about something, and I tend to minimize it or try to talk him out of it because, since one of my biggest needs is for security, I don’t want to feel like anything’s in jeopardy. I’ve had to grow more mature to see that Keith expressing a need does not mean that Keith wants to leave the marriage or thinks I’m a bad person. (I share a lot more of our personal story in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage!)
All of these things may LOOK like your spouse doesn’t care. But that’s not necessarily true at all.
Tomorrow we’re going to look at what to do if your spouse truly doesn’t care about your emotional needs. But let’s assume that they do care, but they’re just clueless. Let me now share a few quick things that I might do in this situation:
Try to spend some time together doing something
Cultivate a hobby. Go for a walk together. Spend a few minutes a day catching up on what happened today. If you want a crash course on this, I have a FREE email course on how to build emotional connection here.
But the more time we spend together, the more we bring the tension level down so that it’s easier to talk about issues, and the more natural time we have to talk about issues. But here’s the key: don’t ask to talk. That can be threatening. Instead, ask to DO something, and you’ll find you talk more naturally.
Ask him what his emotional needs are
It’s rare that one person is getting none of their emotional needs met and the other is getting ALL of theirs met. You may feel as if you pour your life out for your spouse and they don’t see it, but often the things that we are doing aren’t necessarily filling their emotional needs cup, either.
If you want to start a fruitful discussion about emotional needs, then, ask about theirs as well.
See a counsellor and take this seriously
I have never seen a situation like this turn out well in the long run if it is not dealt with seriously. When you are feeling this distant in your marriage, and when you are becoming a shell, that should be a major warning to you that you simply cannot continue like this. You will make yourself sick, and you are endangering the marriage.
So if the first two steps don’t work, then seeing a counsellor is likely in order. And we’ll be following up more with this thought in the next blog post–about how it is okay to have some expectations of your spouse in your marriage.
For today, let’s talk about this: Have you ever had a hard time getting your spouse to understand what your needs are? How did that conversation go?