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Couples and Their Biggest Misunderstandings

Couples can make problematic assumptions.

Key points

  • Partners may not anticipate each other's needs.
  • Partners may need to remember that support and reassurance are necessary at every relationship stage.
  • Even extremely successful partners need validation.

I recently received a letter from a wife concerned about her relationship with this query.

Dear Dr. G.,

I have been married for five years and thought that I married the right man, but now I am not so sure so I need your help. During the course of the past five years, many things have changed. My husband and I have two beautiful children, now ages 2 and 4. They are beautiful and healthy girls, and we adore them. We have an excellent nanny for which we are grateful because we don't have to worry about the kids while we are at work. Five years ago, I started a job that I love and have since received two promotions for which I am very grateful. I have a lot more responsibility, and I manage a staff of 30. My husband has a good job but has not received the promotions that he had hoped for. I continue to encourage him as he is smart and very capable.

Here is my problem. At the beginning of the marriage, my husband used to provide me with a lot of praise, compliments, and reassurance. I used to feel seen by him and very understood. Since the promotions and the kids, my husband has been less attentive in so many ways. He doesn't anticipate my needs the way he used to. He allows me to make important decisions on my own with very little input. This feels very passive, and it sometimes makes me feel like I don't really have a partner and that I am in a relationship with myself. When he is with his friends, he behaves differently, often making the final decisions on plans for when and where they get together. I witness this frequently. My husband is also very good with the girls. He is clearly in charge of them and dotes on them. I am ashamed to admit that I am a bit jealous.

Dr. G., I need your help figuring out what is happening here. I want the decisive and attentive version of my husband back. Please help.

My response:

I am delighted that you wrote to me. Your concerns echo those of so many others that I have worked with. As I am sure that you are aware, the early years of a marriage, when couples have young children, are often the most difficult. Attention to one another clearly decreases as little ones require a great deal of attention. Nonetheless, I understand your feelings of jealousy. It sounds like your husband is doting on the children the way he used to dote on you.

Additionally, you have had tremendous success at work while your husband has not. Your husband may feel you no longer require the praise and reassurance you used to. He may feel like you no longer want his input on important decisions. Is it possible you are having difficulty separating work behavior from your behavior at home? Are you acting in charge at home the way you are required to act at work?

If so, this may account for your husband's passivity and lack of input. He appears to take charge of his friends and children, so he clearly still has the ability to make decisions and provide input. My suggestion is that you speak with your husband about the following issues. Also, refrain from making assumptions about why he does and does not do things. Assumptions are often incorrect and lead to misunderstandings and resentment. Speak with your husband about:

1. Feeling that he is less attentive to you. He may not be aware of this and instead feel he is helping you by spending time with the girls.

2. Your need for reassurance and supportive feedback. This will likely surprise him. People often forget or don't realize that their competent partners also need support.

3. Ask your husband if he feels overshadowed by your success. And do inquire about whether or not he perceives you as no longer in need of praise because of your accomplishments at work.

4. Perhaps you are somehow giving your husband the message that he is no longer as important to you as the years have passed. Encourage open and honest discussion. He may be delighted that you still need him in so many ways.

5. Find out if your husband feels similarly to you. Is he perhaps mimicking your behavior? Have you started to attend to him less often and in less positive ways? Couples often take their cues from each other.

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