Dr.Fran Cohen Praver, Clinical Psychologist and Relationship Analyst
“I’m so angry with Sam. He still doesn’t think about my needs, only his.” Laurie’s fists clenched and tears welled up in her eyes.
I asked, “What happened?”
“He went to his womanizing cousin’s wake and left me here alone all day with my sick mother. I’ve been her care-taker day and night for the last month and I needed a break. I would have liked to go out for a bit.” Laura pouted.
“What did you say to Sam?” I asked.
Raising her voice, Laura explained, “After he got home, I yelled at him and told him he’s never thought about my needs in the past and he never will. That he doesn’t get it at all and it’s pointless.”
“I know he was a married bachelor, left you home alone with the kids, and neglected you emotionally and sexually. ” I commented.
Tears streamed down her cheeks, as she said, “I realize the wake wasn’t a bachelor’s night out, but it brought back all the pain of the past.”
“I can understand the association and your pain. But I wonder why you didn’t assert yourself and communicate that you needed the break before he left?” I asked.
Looking down, Laura said, “I was afraid he’d get angry.”
“And if he did?”
“It doesn’t make sense.” Laura said.
“With your childhood history it does make sense. You feared your father as did your mother. He was an abusive alcoholic, and both of you learned to avoid him. It seems this passive-avoidance response was adaptive then, and it has continued autonomously, even though it is not working now,” I interpreted.
Looking up, Laura smiled slightly. “Yes, as I’ve told you, Sam is remorseful, feels guilty about the past and is trying to do anything to make it up to me.”
“But he’s not a mind reader.” I reminded her.
Like Laura, many women do not know how to get their needs met in a marriage. Instead of asserting themselves before the fact, they passively look the other way and attack after the fact. Laura does not assert herself in a timely manner in order for Sam to hear her. That’s only one scenario of numerous marital issues.
Another common reason that marital partners don’t get their needs met is that they do not listen to each other. Henning Mankell’s recent New York Times article, “The Art of Listening,” comes to mind here. He aptly writes that we have two ears and only one mouth so we should listen at least twice as much as we speak. But how many of us do that?
In our fast paced society, with both partners working, we barely have time to talk, let alone listen to each other’s stories. I see couples in such a hurry to respond, they don’t listen to everything their partners have to say. Instead they are in their heads planning their response. As a result, they have information but no knowledge of their partners. Mankell writes that people confuse information with knowledge. Knowledge means that you listen and interpret the information your partner conveys.
Unlike animals, we have the ability to listen to and understand our partner’s dreams, fears, joy, trauma, intentions, failures, and successes and our partners have the ability to listen to and understand ours. That innate connection is explained by mirror neurons, the newest, most exciting discovery.
Mirror neurons are miniscule brain cells located behind the eye sockets that connect intimate partners at an internal level. Each partner mirrors the other partner’s actions and feelings of attraction, romance, love, lust, moods, erotic desire, memories, and intentions. And that’s what humanity, intimacy, and love is all about.
Here then are some tips on how to get your needs met and enhance the intimacy and love in your marriage.
1) Always use “I” statements, so that you express your needs without complaining about your spouse. In this way you enlist your spouse’s cooperation. Instead of, “You never have time for me. I come last on the totem pole” try “I feel lonely and need a hug.”
2) Stay focused on the issues. Don’t digress and drag in the old dirty laundry. “I need your help, darling” is a better way to get your needs met than, “You never helped me in the past and it’s about time you did. ” Then again, if you do it yourself and complain afterwards, you are ensuring distance rather than closeness.
3) Suggest a time for alone-talk that is mutually convenient. Again, this brings your spouse into the mix and shows respect.
3) Remember timing is everything. If you’re feeling angry, take a breather, and strike when the iron’s cool.
4) Do not try to prove you’re right. What’s more important, being right or getting along? That’s a no brainer, but even brainy people are out to prove themselves right.
5) Take responsibility for your role in problems instead of blaming your spouse. Blaming your partner may feel powerful, but it’s not so. When you blame your spouse, you are trying to change him or her. Then you are at your spouse’s mercy and are rendered powerless. You can’t change anyone; the only one you can change is you.
6) A wish to control the other, often, underlies marital problems. Not only is the partner who dominates responsible, but the one who submits is too. Martyrs are bad for marriage. So if you feel your spouse is the domineering actor and you are the submissive passive reactor, you can change the dynamic. A good fight for equality is an active choice, and not a passive more-of-the-same position.
7) Become a role model for your spouse. It is up to you to lead the way, to act rather than react. Listen to your spouse’s side of things, and try to understand where he or she is coming from. When your spouse feels empathy from you, he or she may reciprocate with empathy for you. It is a case of good communication skills
Here then are some of these communication skills that you and your spouse can practice to get your needs met.
A. Listen to what your spouse says without interrupting or defending yourself.
B. When your spouse has finished, paraphrase what he or she has said. Then ask if that is what he or she meant.
C. If you did not understand, let your partner explain it further. Do not defend or attack him or her, simply listen.
D. Paraphrase once more to be sure you got your spouse. When he or she agrees, it’s your turn to respond.
E. Go back to the first step, but now it is your turn to express yourself, your feelings, and your emotional needs. Your spouse may not interrupt or defend himself or herself. He or she will listen and paraphrase till he or she gets it right.
Marital partners need mutuality, reciprocity, and equality. We want love and passion, security and excitement, commitment, and joy. We want it all and if we learn how to communicate our needs, we can have it all.
Dr. Fran Cohen Praver, Clinical psychologist and relationship analyst
For more information on getting your needs met in marriage check out Dr. Praver’s latest book, The New Science of Love.