One of my recent couples, I will call them Jim and Diana, came to me with a very familiar struggle. Diana had a difficult time accepting that Jim would work late. When he did come home, he quickly turned on the computer or the TV. Even though she would often suggest they have a date night or watch a show together, Jim would find reasons to isolate himself. Diana’s resentment would build until she became irritable. She noted how much she did for Jim (and the kids) and how underappreciated she felt. Jim was frustrated. In his mind he was doing all he could to provide for the family and simply wanted to relax when he was home.
No one likes to “come in second” to a spouse’s career, the kids, or extracurricular activities. In our busy and competitive modern environment, marriage counselors see this struggle play out time and again with overworked and overstressed couples. One person feels overlooked and begins to feels neglected. The other becomes frustrated and resentful and begins to withdraw. What can couples do when this dynamic takes root and threatens to harm their marriage?
When I work with a dynamic like this in couples therapy, I’m often paying attention to your priorities and how you balance two key elements: the needs of your marriage and your own needs. (If children are present, then your children’s welfare becomes the 3rd key element that needs balancing). Let’s look at how this played out with Jim and Diana:
As Jim and Diana opened up about what they were experiencing I began to take note of how much energy and focus Diana was investing in taking care of her husband. For Diana it was a gradual process and I’m not sure she even realized it was happening. We take less and less care of ourselves as we take more and more care of someone else. This left her feeling vulnerable and less confident. She looked to Jim to validate her. The less vocal and assertive he became, the more anxious Diana was about how he felt about the marriage and about her. Diana didn’t have regular contact with healthy friends, outlets for herself where she could learn, play and/or connect. This lack of healthy feedback, encouragement and connection left Diana feeling depleted and disempowered, especially as Jim began to pull away. I used the analogy of how important good nutrition is for healthy bodies. Healthy environments and friendships outside the marriage help nurture and feed us.
Jim began to work through his attempts to self-protect by emotionally turning away from Diana’s bids for affection. He realized he felt overwhelmed by the pressure to meet all of her needs and eventually shut down and became resentful himself. He wasn’t taking care of himself, either. When we withdraw and isolate, either through tv or the internet or some other vice, we’re not taking care of our marriage or ourselves.
Marriage counseling helped Diana see how out of balance she had become. Jim started to share more of his feelings, frustrations and needs. Ironically, Diana began to feel more connected to him as he shared these frustrations. They started to find each other again. They began to implement practical solutions that balanced the needs of both their marriage and themselves.
So if you are beginning to feel like you are coming in second or you are beginning to feel some resentment building inside you, it might be wise to look at how balanced the needs of your marriage and your own needs currently are. Since we can take responsibility for our self-care more easily, that is often a good place to start. By owning our needs and taking the initiative to make sure they are met, we feel more confident and grounded. We are no longer focused outside of ourselves and thus feel less vulnerable, because whenever we wait, wish, nag or cajole, we are handing others our power. Rather, we are more focused within, owning our needs, setting boundaries and then letting our partner freely choose to honor our needs, as well as their own. This is the healthiest way to cultivate freedom in the marriage which in turn allows love to grow and prosper.