I’m sitting with a single-male client for therapy. He appears calm and well put together, but he is on his third marriage. “So what brings you to therapy?” I ask in our first session.
He replies, “Well, I just moved out of my home. I’m separated from my wife. My wife and four kids still live there. Fortunately, I’m living in my company’s corporate apartment for the month. My wife tells me our relationship is over. I’m not affectionate. I don’t show her love and attention. I was good at the beginning of our relationship, but not anymore. We fight all the time so I just needed to take some time, and move out to get some space.”
I respond with the question, “How do you react when your wife demonstrates love, affection, and attention towards you?”
He replies without skipping a beat, “I enjoy it but, sometimes I feel completely overwhelmed. I don’t know why. It’s like something takes over me. I feel like I just need to get away. In my family, we’re not affectionate at all in that way. There is no hugging, kissing, or physical contact. We spoke to each only when we needed to figure out things or deal with an emotional challenge.”
I ask, “Tell me a little bit more about your first two marriages. Did you feel the same way?”
He answers, “Well, they were all very good. I thought I had great marriages. However, I realized I feel the same way now about how I felt when I was in my two marriages. I just felt overwhelmed when I was showered with love and attention. I guess maybe my marriages were not so great after all, since I’m sitting here in a therapist office again all alone.”
Just from this very small interaction, you can see that one partner in a relationship may feel smothered with love and attention. Why is my partner withdrawing from me? If you feel this way, then you are reacting as best as you can. You see, the client is confused. Your partner is probably also confused in a similar way. He cannot demonstrate love, attention, and affection because when he was growing up there was a different way of dealing with attachment in his family. Maybe he sees others demonstrate love and affection, but he has no internal experience of this. He doesn’t know how to react to this.
My clients past relationships were also full of conflict. For one, his dad had an affair. His mom forgave his dad, but there was no love or closeness in the family. After the affair, everything changed. He learned a long time ago that if you show love or get love, you will ultimately get hurt. So he grew up ‘strong.’ He protected himself. He actually opened himself up to loving his wife, his kids and his step kids, but this was his false self. He did not believe the relationship would last. He still does not believe it. If he opens himself up to affection, accepts it, and then his wife leaves, he will be devastated in the worst possible way. He will be alone. He ultimately wants to be loved, but at the same time feels overwhelmed.
To him, being alone means no one could ever love him and that is worse than death to him. He is afraid that he is unlovable. We all have our own fears, this is his. He cannot see the pattern and is unable to express it. He doesn’t even know his deepest darkest fear because he’s pushed it so deep down inside that not even he can consciously understand. He sees it better now. He has a way to go to rebuild the trust that his family will love him.
He will not only need words of affirmation as he continues to work on this part of himself. He needs actual experience with expressions of affection, experiences that he never received as a child. It will take time for him to overcome his fears and doubts; it will take time for him to believe that his wife loves him and be able to express it as openly. His fears and doubts will always be present with him, but his wife is excited to be a part of this journey with him.
He was open to getting therapy to understand these challenges, which is often the first challenge of recognizing any issue. He has a great wife that is willing to work with him on this, and because of all the effort that he is willing to put into the relationship, he felt confident enough to say something to me as he left the office, “I feel that there’s hope for me again.”