I received a comment today on this blog from JS, who is looking to put some romance back in his or her marriage. Like so many of us, they have fallen into parents-instead-of-lovers mode.
For their anniversary, JS arranged a romantic weekend without the kids at a hotel and spa she likes, but it backfired. She did not like being surprised. She claimed to be ill and refused to go, then went shopping. She is a woman who sets high standards for herself and others and measures love in acts of service that do not always manage to meet her standards.
JS asks, “The big question in my mind is how I could try to get her to change her expectations and try to see the things I try to do as a sign of love.”
Here is what I recommend to JS and to you if you ever find yourself in the same shoes.
JS, isn’t it just horribly frustrating when we try to change the people we married so we can have the marriage we expect? It’s enough to leave any of us in tears. People are not easily changed.
Many women would be thrilled to have a surprise romantic getaway. Others feel blindsided by any surprise. Not much hope of changing one into the other.
“My way or the highway” does not work very well in a marriage. When she did not accept your proposal for how to celebrate your anniversary, you chose to get out of town until you cooled off, using the kids as an excuse, and she chose to buy things to make herself feel better/prettier/wealthier, using illness as her excuse.
Neither of these made the two of you feel any closer, probably not even any happier. Both, however, are perfectly natural responses from people who do not want their love to end. We tend to protect ourselves from the horrible suspicion we may not be loved by acting as if we no longer care if we are loved. Fortunately, when we do this, it is usually because we care a lot.
Instead of trying (in vain, I am sure) to change her expectations, why not try to change your experience of your marriage. It turns out to be much, much easier. Assume, just for the sake of this exercise, that she loves you dearly and wants a romantic relationship as much as you do. If you knew this for certain, if there were no question of whether she finds your loving acts good enough, how else might you explain her reaction to the surprise romantic weekend?
I do not know your wife, so I will just get the ball rolling with a few possibilities. You can keep adding to my list until you come to one (or two or three) that sound like her.
- She hates surprises in general and feels life is out of control when hit with one.
- She loves that spa but can only feel comfortable there with the right clothing or haircut or weight, so she feels she needs more notice.
- She expected the weekend to involve more sex than usual and did not feel well enough or in shape enough or happy enough to enjoy it.
- She has recently felt you call the shots a lot, and she needs to flex her muscle a little to feel comfortable in the marriage.
- She already had plans for the weekend, whether reading a book, watching a movie, or lunch with a friend.
- She had her heart set on some other way to celebrate the anniversary and your plans made it clear she was not going to get whatever she so looked forward to.
- You heard an off-the-cuff “no” based on some momentary upset, but your reaction to her “no” killed her interest, so she did not change it to a “yes.”
- Your anniversary coincides with another anniversary that makes her feel sad or with an allergen outbreak that makes her feel ill.
The purpose in this Assume Love technique is to help you see the story you tell yourself while you digest a rejection may not be the real story. In fact, the way our brains work, it almost certainly is not the real story, because our distress at rejection floods our brain with chemicals that force it to look for other threats, not better explanations.
Remember, though, you Assume Love only to help you come up with the other possible explanations. If your I-am-not-loved explanation is still the best fit, do not feel you must select one of the others. This would be Pretend Love, nothing I recommend.
Let’s say you recognize that it is possible she still loves and just does not show it in the way you expect, like running off with you for an impromptu romantic anniversary weekend. If she loves you, you can stop trying to love her well enough to get the loving you want and instead put your attention on noticing all the ways she shows you she loves you.
Since you know her love language, you know what to look for first: acts of service. But look, too, for the other four love languages. Just start making a list (privately, of course). If you get a kiss on the way out the door, take note. If she does something with the kids, take note. If she prepares a meal, take note. If she says something encouraging or complimentary to you, take note.
Do nice things for her when you feel inspired to. Skip doing any you resent doing. If asked to do something you will resent, say, “I am sorry. I cannot do this today. Can I help you find another way to get it done?” You probably will not need to do this much, because once you are actively managing your resentment and actually seeking out signs of her love, you just might find yourself scrambling to find nice things to do for her.
You may also find that as you express your delight in the things she does, you can ask for more, knowing that she is free to say no, just as you are.
Give it a try. I would love to hear your experiences with these two techniques. This includes anyone who reads this, not just JS.