Spouse sometimes just wants to be noticed

The wife wishes they would travel more. Go out. See a show or an art exhibit. “Sounds great,” says the husband. “Just tell me where you want to go.”

An almost imperceptible purse of her lips. Slight nod of the head. A sigh. This is not the body language of resolution and blooming contentment. No, she’s stuck. And she’s not sure how to get unstuck. Probably because she doesn’t understand the nature of her own stuckness.

I try to help. We talk as if her husband isn’t sitting right there.

“Well, you asked for what you needed. Your husband seems more than amenable. Gangbusters, even.”

“Yeah,” she says.

“Then why don’t you look happy?”

“I’m not,” she says.

I think she’s stuck between the husband’s undeniable logic and her deeper, as yet unexpressed need for a symbol.

Not all words and behaviors in marriage are merely words and behavior. Some words and some behaviors contain symbolic value. And great marriages nurture and observe a swirling repertoire of symbols — symbols of connection, courtship, respect, trust, reliability, desire … the list goes on and on.

The husband’s response to his wife’s marital request is perfectly rational. And for now, I’m willing to trust his motive. He desires to please her. Wants her to be happy. With all deference to her desires, he does the White Knight thing and “back seats” himself. “Just tell me where you want to go,” he says. The maneuver also is a self-protection. He doesn’t want to fail her by guessing wrong about what the date should look like.

So she’s stuck. She can hardly assail him. Yet something is missing.

See, she doesn’t want a taxi driver. She doesn’t want an escort. She doesn’t want a travel agent. She wants a mate. She wants to be sought, longed for and desired. She seeks from her husband the symbols of solicitation, initiative and inquiry.

The husband wishes they would have sex more often. “Sounds great,” says the wife. “Come and get me, baby.”

Hmm. She seems amenable. Even enthusiastic. But something is missing. See, he doesn’t want an on-call. He doesn’t want to be serviced, placated or patronized. He wants a mate. He wants to be sought, longed for and desired. He seeks from her the symbols of solicitation, initiative and inquiry.

In thriving marriages, our mates are solicitous of us. They mark “hellos” and “goodbyes” with eye contact, warmth and other symbols demonstrating presence and connection in relationship. A smooch. “Have a great day.” A hug. “Welcome home!” A tousle of the hair. These are the symbols that tell us we are noticed, both in our presence and in our absence. We matter.

In thriving marriages, our mates initiate. They bring up ideas and desires of their own accord. They don’t wait for us to ask (though they also are happy for us to ask). Initiative is the symbol telling us we are consistently included in our mate’s thinking, plans, hopes and dreams. We are wanted — in the rhythms of homemaking, in the practice of spirituality, in recreation, child-rearing, adventure, learning, play.

In thriving marriages, our mates inquire. Inquiry is the symbol telling us we are important enough to remember. When, at the breakfast table, we tell our mate we are anxious about a meeting at work, we are flattered and pleased when, that evening, our mate inquires about that meeting of his/her own solicitous initiative.

Solicitation, initiative and inquiry: If we’re only talking about my anecdotal experience, I’d be forced to admit I think men are lousier at these symbols than women. Can’t prove it. Have never read research to support it. And I don’t think men are inherently more lazy about relationships than women. Men and women are lazy about the same; they just tend to be lazy about different things.

But I remember working with a guy about inquiry. I recommended that, as he got in the car to head to work, he write down in his day planner a few references he’d heard from his wife about her upcoming day. Then, when he pulled in the driveway at night, he glance down in his planner, recall at least one thing, and within the first few minutes of reconnecting, say, “How’d your meeting go this morning?”

“She looked at me like I just handed her a bag of gold,” he told me later.

It ain’t rocket science. Our mates dig being seen. Being noticed. Being sought, longed for and desired. It’s not enough to spend your married lifetime shrugging your shoulders, feigning incredulity and saying, “What’s your problem? All you have to do is ask.”

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling and Wellness Center in Las Vegas. His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to skalas@review journal.com.

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