Thursday, January 20, 2011

He's More Needy than He or She Realized

It had been a narrative that Hugh and Esther had adopted early on in their marriage, and it had stuck: Esther was more needy than Hugh; he was more independent.

It sure seemed that way. Once, during one of our early counseling sessions, Esther was in tears telling Hugh how much she needed more time with him and wanted to feel closer. She pleaded with him to turn off the TV and come be with her and their three kids.

Hugh shrugged and shook his head. He didn't get why this was all so important to Esther. As I watched him and listened, I was almost convinced that Hugh simply did not need Esther as much as she needed him.


I wasn't entirely convinced, partly because Hugh had been hooked on porn for seven years of their marriage. That made me suspect there were "pressing needs" underneath his seeming independence. The biggest clue, however, was this seemingly aloof guy's sensitivity to his wife's displeasure:

"I hear her sigh and inside I clench up."

"If I keep the TV on after one game ends, I know she's going to be bent out of shape about it."

"I sometimes wonder, if I remain the person I am, will she ever have confidence in me?"

It may have seemed to Esther like all Hugh needed was to be entertained and well fed to be fine with his life. And yet he watched five hours of TV a night and was gaining a dozen pounds a year--and yet still did not feel fine.

If you watched and listened closely, it was clear that Hugh felt that the essence of who he is was a letdown to Esther.

He needed her alright. He needed her acceptance and approval. Its warmth would have been like the sun on his face on a bitter cold morning.

However, unlike Esther, when he didn't get what he was needy for, he didn't keep coming to her and pleading and letting her know how much he yearned for it. He simply assumed he wasn't going to get it from her, and then pulled away from her in order to feel emotionally safer.

He retreated. To the comfort of the couch in the basement where he watched TV. And silently hoped that she wouldn't come down and want to talk or ask him when he was going to get to this or that chore. Or simply stand behind the couch and sigh.

Turns out Hugh is just as needy as Esther. And he was getting as little of what he needed as she was.

Their old narrative slowly gave way as Hugh told Esther how sad it felt to him when he thought he'd never be good enough in her eyes. How that deflated him and his desire to keep trying. Made him feel like he couldn't bear to draw close to her even if he wanted to.

Once Hugh voiced it, Esther could do what came naturally to her once she knows someone's needs. She was more attentive to and respectful of what was going on inside him.

It's not that she started walking on eggshells, just being more restrained in what she conveyed. Especially now that she knew a lot more had been getting through to him than she once thought. Even a sigh could make him want to retreat! She started feeling like her acceptance and approval were the nuclear rods that could power an entire city. And she loved feeling that important to Hugh.

By talking about what was going on inside, Hugh interrupted his old pattern of retreating when he felt emotionally threatened. By softening the way she approached Hugh, Esther interrupted her old pattern of amplifying her complaints when she was in need.

It's no crime to be needy. In fact, it's part of life for all of us. The tragedy is when very meetable needs go unmet because we don't go to the trouble to put our finger on what they are or let our spouse know how they can help.

What are you learning about your own neediness--or your partner's--on this journey of recovery? What are you learning about how you can better help each other get those needs met?

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to let you know I appreciate these articles! I recently came upon them and am reading through your blog archives. I especially appreciate the articles that touch on this topic from the wife's perspective and what she can do to help her husband. Keep up the great work! I'd been praying for some help from this angle!

    p.s. i would think you'd have MANY more comments on your site. Do the comments get re-directed and not posted here?