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Taking Responsibility for
Defining "Love" in Marriage

QUESTION: My husband has been laid off and is going to school for five weeks, taking an intense course on computer repair. I'm concerned because he spends at least five days a week sun-up to sun-down on the computer. I miss him. He says "oh honey you know your the most important person in my life, and if you need me, I'll stop." Well, I've never asked for any man's attention. I feel if he wants to spend time with me, he will. I feel so alone and get so angry that sometimes I think of taking a sledge hammer to his computer. Am I being selfish?

ANSWER: Take your feelings seriously. Your "sledge hammer" metaphor is a displacement of your anger at your husband. Do not destroy his computer. Instead consider asking for what you want!

It is possible that your husband is suffering from intense anxiety about his performance as a provider. Losing his employment may have catapulted him into a frenzy to succeed at his new endeavor. Though his feelings are understandable, his actions may prove self destructive. Obsessive study with no relief in sight not only starves the marriage but contributes to exhaustion resulting in less than average performance. Still, he appears to take weekends off and sundown is only about 6 p.m. in the wintertime. This seems to be within fairly standard work hours for full-time employment. Is it possible that you are overreacting?

It is likely that you need some form of connecting at pivotal times during the day. Transitions like homecoming or leave-taking can be eased if you ritualistically carve out time to relate over chores and duties that must get done. A few minutes can go a long way in meeting your needs if you ask for it! Perhaps you are overly shy in asking to come first in ways that still allow him to meet his need to complete this "crash" course. Ask that he punctuate his studies by greeting you or relating to you for a short period of time when you get home and consider saving at least 20 minutes for relating at the end of the evening. Make agreements that meet your need to "come first" while allowing him the right to be temporarily engrossed through this period of intense learning.

What makes you susceptible to playing the "martyr" in order to prove you are loved? Did you grow up believing that if you had to ask for something it was not worth having? Was communication direct or were people required to "mind read" the needs of others in your family? For some reason you are guilt tripping yourself. Is your self esteem based on what your husband will do without asking? If so, you need to take your self esteem into your own hands rather than rest on your spouse's "mind reading" abilities.

The cost of "waiting for your husband's affection" is mounting anger and pain. Is the juxtaposition of pain and love a familiar one to you? If it is, you may be recreating deprivation that repeats a childhood pattern of neglect. By not working out a realistic agreement between the two of you to meet your needs and his, you may be recreating a cycle of emotional abandonment.

Consider yourself the "canary" for the relationship. Canaries were carried down into mine shafts by coal miners to alert them to the dangerous thinning of oxygen that occurred at certain depths. By truthfully expressing your needs to your husband you are warning him of the potential danger of not saving time for the relationship. Your feelings are an indication that the marriage is in some trouble. Yet you have been unwilling to express this to him.

Your spouse agreed to marry. Marriage requires effort. If he did not want to invest time and effort, he should not have married. This first year of marriage is an important one as it serves as the foundation for the years ahead. It is clear that your life is full of other things besides your relationship. Consider that noncommunication results in an "all or nothing" test of your relationship which can only inevitably fail to meet the realistic needs of both partners. Accept the reality of his commitment and express your needs clearly and directly.

Tell your husband that "knowing" he loves you and "feeling" it are two different things. Many couples who are considering separation still express love for their partner. And it is possible to "love" someone from afar. Marriage is not just about love. It is also about sustaining a relationship by hammering out ways to meet your partner's needs without overcompromising yourself!

The good news is that your very passionate anger shows that your feelings for your husband are still quite alive. But ongoing frustration of your needs will deaden your passion. Without change it is likely that you will become less angry over time, but increasingly withdrawn and disconnected.

Befriend your anger. Listen to the passion present in your fury. Use it to communicate instead of repress who you are. Not communicating your needs will ensure your continued disappointment. It is your job to express to your husband the "way" you want to be loved. It is his to respond within means that allow for a balance of his needs, too.

Perhaps he can learn to resist being overwhelmingly absorbed by his studies, and carve out appropriate time to connect to you during the day. And maybe you will find ways to get the attention you need by coming first at specific times that you can count upon.

Consider that noncommunication results in an "all or nothing" test of your relationship which can only inevitably fail to meet the realistic needs of both partners. This is your marriage too. Do not shy away from your responsibility to define it!

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

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