One of the biggest issues to plague couples I see in my practice is the tension between what is happening and what is desired/needed/wanted.
I have couples of all ages, races, genders, and relationship configurations come in with the same story: a deep yearning for a certain kind of experience with their partner (with ideas about how they could get that experience) coupled with the pain of not getting it.
As I see it, there are three parts to this issue:
This is a very special category and no assumptions should be made about the deep desire that lives in this yearning. It is absolutely crucial that the yearning not be taken on face value. In other words, what are you actually yearning for? Sometimes we believe we want our partner to “just do x” and then we will get what we need, but we don’t actually understand, in the deepest way, what it is that we need. Do I long to feel loved, to feel special, to feel intimately connected to my partner? Do I want to feel safe, secure, important? Do I want to feel held or anchored? Do I have old wounding I’m driven to have healed?
Asking deeply what the desire is truly about can yield a wealth of important information. The investigation can lead to deeper needs or yearning that need to be met and are more at the core of the dissatisfaction. But the reverse can also be true: sometimes the investigation can lead to a discovery that the needs are not really about the relationship and need to be met internally or spiritually or through healing. Knowing what the yearning is really about is crucial before moving forward.
The Idea of How
This is part two of the process and equally important. If it’s discovered that there are needs and desires that are appropriate for the relationship (feeling cared for, for example), the next question is: How is this to be achieved? Oftentimes we walk into a relationship with certain paradigms and ideas about how needs get met and/or communicated and these are very different from our partners.
For example, it may be that I feel really cared for when my partner greets me at the door with a big hug and asks me about my day. But my partner expresses their deep care for me by making sure the house is clean before I get home. When I’m not greeted at the door I feel sad, unloved, and uncared for. What I miss is my partner’s attempt to express deep caring as I look around the clean house. We can completely miss that we are getting that need met already. Or we miss that we just need to tell our partners the way WE need to feel cared about, and vice versa—doing things for them that make THEM feel cared about. In other words, I’m feeling uncared about and missing the care is there, just expressed differently. So can I receive it this way? Or can they shift the way it’s expressed?
Expression of Pain
This last piece is tricky and needs to be thoughtfully and consciously executed. Once someone is clear that they have a need/desire with a partner, and they are ready for a conversation about how it can (or can’t) manifest, then a clear, open exploration is warranted and can create a fruitful, growthful process of exploration and deepening intimacy.
That said, anyone who has been in a relationship where they hear the same complaints and disappointments over and over will attest to how demoralizing it can be, and how it can erode feelings of love, connection, and excitement about the future. Hearing “I don’t feel close to you,” “You don’t seem to love or care about me” “You are selfish and don’t think about me,” “I’m disappointed, again, about how you are” over and over again creates an experience of chronic failure and, ultimately, a shift from “something isn’t right for this person I love” to “I’m just not right for this person I love.” While this ultimately may be true, that’s a discussion to be had with thoughtfulness and care, rather than the unconscious erosion of complaints that can lead a person to end up there.
Finally, it may be that we need to accept that our partner has fundamental differences, and the difference is not about whether or not they love me, or care about me, but instead they just have a different way of being in the world. That way of being may not, ultimately, meet our needs…but it may be that from a place of radical acceptance we find that we can be happy and appreciative of who they are and their unique way of offering love to us.
Bird’s Eye View
Stepping back again to a bird’s eye view, the deeper questions in this process are these: What is the true purpose of an intimate relationship? What do I think I want from it—why am I truly in it? This requires a deep investigation into purpose and expectation.
Once these questions are answered the next question is: Who is this person, truly, that I am partnered with? Are they in it for the same reasons as me, and if so, are they simply expressing it differently? This part requires a clear-eyed view and nuanced understanding of your partner and their motivations, desires, and actions. It may surprise you that you are interpreting things differently than their intent. Or it may be that we discover a fundamental mismatch of what we are wanting.
Finally, there is the question of what and how things are communicated. Exploring needs, desires, and purpose can be an exercise in creating deep, fulfilling intimacy, or it can be a process that creates alienation, loneliness, rejection, and grief. It can lead to radical acceptance and freedom, or an experience of feeling trapped and miserable. Skills are necessary as well as trust and an attitude of openness.