Let Go of the How to Find the Why – Part 2


Third Alternatives almost always exist, even when it looks like there are just two options and each of you can stand only one of them. And to discover them, you let go of the how to find the why.
For example, think of Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages.
One thrives on Quality Time together, especially time spent in meaningful, soul-revealing conversation. When they first met, there was quite a bit of this as they revealed themselves to each other. Now it’s stopped. One craves it. The other has nothing to say.
One says she craves it because she’s home alone with the kids and had few adult conversations, but when asked if spending more time alone with friends would satisfy her, she knows it won’t. Deep down, at a level she cannot reason with, this sort of conversation makes her feel loved and she feels unloved without it.
The other has nothing to say. Why? Because processing his own day-to-day feelings takes a lot of unfamiliar effort with no apparent payoff. And listening to her feelings makes him feel rather helpless. How do you fix a bad feeling? And now she wants to talk about her bad feelings about him not fixing her bad feelings? No thanks. Whether or not she feels loved when he does this, he feels loving only when he’s doing something helpful for her, the Acts of Service Love Language.
What Third Alternatives are available for them? What will give her the satisfaction of connecting with him in deep conversation and let him feel competent, helpful, and valued?

  • Start their own private book club and discuss the ideas of the great philosophers or of today’s political and social reformers.
  • Find and make time for friends who will work through her thoughts about her personal feelings with her, so they are not so near the surface when the two of them talk.
  • Get him into an Active Listening course, so he can learn to be helpful to her by asking good questions.
  • Schedule time for Quality Time together, including conversations, so she’s not trying to start conversations when his mind is elsewhere.
  • Mix conversations with things that say love to him, like watching her prepare his favorite meal or helping her with the heavy lifting in her garden.
  • Have conversations by email or online chat if he finds these more comfortable and she can still appreciate the one-on-one time this way.

What do you think? If you and your mate share this difference, would any of these work for you? Have you found your own Third Alternative that both of you can enjoy?

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.


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  • Marvelous post! Our lives are one meeting after another – with each other. And I say this in the most positive sense. Every morning is a long walk followed by coffee at a cafe where we “catch up”. Practicing conversation each day has made it easy and fun and I am a quiet person. Delightfully, these meetings helped us discover that we had far more in common than we even thought.

  • Not only would they, but they do! My husband recently asked me to sew a speaker cover for him. He laid out the fabric and I helped him measure the various pieces. Then as I sewed, he sat at the table with a stack of magazines/catalogs and just “hung out” with me, chatting, as I sewed. It made ALL the difference in the world that I wasn’t downstairs sewing alone while he watched a movie in his office upstairs!
    I’m also just realizing that when I cook for him, he actually LIKES to help; he just needs to know what he can do that I find helpful. So asking him to get ingredients from the garage pantry or high shelf allows him the pleasure of performing an act of service (which is his love language, not mine.)

  • love this:
    “The other has nothing to say. Why? Because processing his own day-to-day feelings takes a lot of unfamiliar effort with no apparent payoff. And listening to her feelings makes him feel rather helpless. How do you fix a bad feeling? And now she wants to talk about her bad feelings about him not fixing her bad feelings? No thanks. Whether or not she feels loved when he does this, he feels loving only when he’s doing something helpful for her, the Acts of Service Love Language.”
    from Love and Respect’s course, women tend to feel better when they have emotional release, but how do you fix a bad feeling? So, the wife has had no emotional release all day, the husband comes home, and it all gets dumped on him. She feels better, and now he’s depressed and feels utterly useless because although she feel’s better, the problem’s (which may or may not be actual marriage problems) aren’t actually solved. (useless=inadequate), and men would rather be alone and unloved than disrepected and inadequate (in general). it would be true to say that I feel most like I’m being loving when I’m being most helpful. and if I’m not being helpful for something (that isn’t a marriage problem, but a problem that is starting to interfere w/ the marriage), then I feel inadequate. suddenly everyone feels bad all around.
    anyway, i loved the “no thanks” part to the original line… seemed to strike a chord w/ me 🙂

  • We do have this problem. The ideas don’t work for us because he apparently NEVER wants, or is able to have, conversation. (Have been trying for 25+ years!) He feels left out if I have conversations with friends instead, but seems incapable of having them with me himself, regardless of when or how or about what. The only way we survive is I do without and feel unloved but try to be appreciative rather than resentful. It doesn’t work all that well!

  • Liza, if you need a different Third Alternative, this is how you look for it.
    First, you affirm that you want him to feel included and loving and competent. Then you affirm that it must happen some other way, because this one isn’t working for you.
    Then you need to discover what a better alternative looks like for each of you. What does it need to do for you? What do you need it to avoid? Be specific about how you want to use conversations. Do they need to come to a mutual choice or decision? Do they need to reveal his emotions? Do you need your emotions acknowledged? Do you want to feel understood? Do you want to be rescued from bad stuff or celebrated for good? Do you hope to explore ideas and learn something new or to set new mutual goals? Do you get more from longer conversations than shorter ones, or are your other goals more important than the length?
    Get really clear on what could constitute a satisfying outcome for you. If you say you want to learns his emotions about a topic, would you be okay with a non-conversational way of sharing them, like shirt color or the choice of a particular mug for his coffee? If not, there’s something more you have to say about this spec.
    Once you can be specific about what you want and you’re convinced you want both this AND whatever he wants, including whatever he wants to avoid, it’s time to ask him to share his side of the specs. Give him time alone to thing of them if he needs. And let him offer them to you in any format he’s comfortable with. You don’t get to veto any of them, only to ask for clarification of what you don’t understand.
    When you have your full set of specs, both of you can toss out ideas (reasonable ones, crazy ones, devil’s advocate ones) while you record them without judgment. If one of them sets off a “what I need to avoid” spec to add to the list, just add it as a spec. Don’t bash the idea that helped you discover it.
    You don’t need to have a conversation to share your ideas. A shared notebook on the kitchen counter would work. So would text messages, sticky notes on the bathroom mirror, emails, or writing them in wet sand with a stick while you walk the shore.
    And you don’t need to limit the idea-generating to just the two of you. Post your specs here, and I’ll add ideas. So will some of your fellow readers. Eventually, you’ll hear or read the one that makes both of you say, “I like it!” And that’s YOUR Third Alternative.

  • Thank you! Those sound like great ideas, but I have doubts about my case.
    My husband is very practical, a man of action, and easy going. He doesn’t seem able to articulate his preferences or goals at all. I don’t think he has interest in thoughts, feelings, or goals of his own, much less mine. I don’t think he is able to have a tossing out ideas problem solving conversation, no matter when or in what medium.
    If I were to tell him what I wanted, he would see it as an unreasonable demand and shut down in response. He finds talks about emotions “annoying.” If I try to have a conversation, he simply does not look at me or respond. If I question that, he says he just has nothing to say. If I continue, he says he doesn’t understand me and says he is too tired to talk any further. No matter when it is, it is not a good time.
    We have tried an active listening course, but he is so stilted and fake about it, which just makes it obvious that he would rather be doing something else. I end up feeling foolish.
    I would enjoy having inside jokes and sharing knowing looks. He never does this. I would like to look each other in the eyes, but he usually does not look at me. If we do catch each other’s eyes, he makes a silly face. I would like to feel understood, but he emphasizes that he does not understand me. Even when he is praising me, it is always that “he doesn’t know how I do it.” I would like to be taken seriously by someone who was interested in my opinions. He just is not! He makes jokes, or gets upset and withdraws, but does not talk. And as for taking me seriously, when I have told him it hurt me to have him ignore my attempts at conversation, he dismissed it, and said he didn’t believe it could be so bad. He seems to have very little sympathy or empathy in general. What I say seems to bounce off whether I am crying in sadness or talking about where the steak knives should go in the drawer.
    We can live peacefully if I take good care of myself and work hard. But I have to stifle my enthusiasms and expectations. He has said that he wants companionship and a good mother to the children. OK. But I don’t feel very loving or loved. I do not feel like a partnership or friendship. I’m not sure how to feel that way without conversation, and I don’t think we can use conversation and idea-sharing to figure out an alternative to conversation and idea-sharing.
    He makes me feel like a silly, annoying, talkative female who wants to fritter away productive time with idle chat. And if I am really hurting, he withdraws, which makes me feel like I must be a hopeless nutcase.
    I think he’s a simple, decent guy who has no interest in emotions or discussing ideas. As you said above, listening makes him feel helpless. I understand, but I don’t see how I will ever feel much personal connection just by appreciating that he takes out the garbage.
    I think I have to live without personal connection. But I feel I must not be friends with anyone else either because conversing happily with kind friends makes me feel like I’m missing out in marriage and makes him jealous.

  • Liza, a lot of your description sounds like Asperger’s. If you do a Google search for “living with someone with Aspergers” you may find some of their tips and the reasoning behind them helpful in your case.
    “I don’t know how you do it” sounds like he admires you. Silly faces and jokes sound like a character strength of playfulness and good humor, a strength that others see as a weakness because he lacks the ability to recognize when it’s inappropriate.
    And if his lack of empathy comes from a neurological problem rather than a lack of love for you, you may need to be more explicit about what you want when you feel bad, and he might benefit from a course (or therapy sessions) to learn what signs others watch for instinctively to intuit what others are feeling. I know someone who benefited greatly from such a course.
    Withdrawing when you’re in lots of pain? That’s a typical male pattern. Many men prefer to be alone when they are in lots of pain, so they may withdraw to be kind. Others feel a strong need to solve problems for their women. When you have a problem he can’t solve, you can change the problem you present him with by saying you need 15 minutes of hugging or someone to hold your hand for the next half hour to give you strength or help finding someone you can talk with, because you have an unsolvable problem you need to talk about.
    Thanks for your reply. I’d love to hear whether any of this advice better fits your situation and whether it works for you.

  • Patty,
    I profoundly appreciate your listening and thoughtful, compassionate, insightful replies.
    I read up on Asperger’s, and yes, many of the characteristics sound familiar.
    I can’t imagine him being able to hug me for 15 minutes or hold my hand for 30 minutes! He could never last that long. He might make a joke, get antsy, or just sit there annoyed and comatose, dutifully holding my hand without feeling for about 60 seconds. And to be around someone who shows no tenderness, interest, or understanding is more hurtful than being alone. I’m trying to just go it alone.
    He doesn’t exude physical warmth or tenderness to children or animals, either. He is playful and full of fun, but not protective or compassionate.
    I will look into Asperger’s more and counseling.
    Thank you for your ideas.

  • For someone with limited ability to intuit another’s feelings, a long hug or hand-holding is likely to feel a bit silly at first. But you might be surprised at what’s possible after you both get past that awkward learning phase. It is entirely possible your husband wants to get closer to you but is incapable of reading the cues. Those of us with working mirror neurons read others’ behavior assuming their brains work like ours, and from this we inaccurately infer how they feel toward us.
    The playfulness and the admiration he shows for you suggest something other than a cold, heartless man taking advantage of you. While you’re waiting with exasperation for tenderness and warmth, it’s easy to ignore those, but then you’re denying him as he denies you, except you are doing it intentionally. The only way back to love is through love. You can’t get there through punishment or withdrawing.
    You might enjoy reading about this disconnect through the eyes of Lynn Soraya, a woman with Asperger’s Syndrome, at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/aspergers-diary/200805/empathy-mindblindness-and-theory-mind
    I’m very glad you’ll be getting to know more about this problem and talking with a counselor. It has to be so very frustrating to receive so little of what you very much need from your husband, but the answer may be as simple as changing the ways you convey your need for it. My heart goes out to you.

By Patty Newbold

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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