Dear Neil: I've been married for 37 years. My husband no longer notices me. For Christmas, he bought me a book I'd already read, the same calendar I'd already purchased and a lovely pair of earrings. I had told him about the book and calendar when I read and bought them. Last evening, I put on a nice nightgown and perfume and he didn't even say anything - we just had sex.
I've given up trying to reach him and I don't know how much more I can take. I've asked him to give me one compliment a week, as I don't think that's too much to ask. But recently he said he thinks I'm being selfish for asking for that. An example is: "I wish you'd tell me I look nice" and the response is: "You know you look nice, so why should I say anything?" I feel invisible and am concerned that my marriage is over. Could you address this issue?
- Invisible in Denver
Dear Neil: I've been seeing this man for more than seven months. In some ways he makes me feel cherished, but in other ways it feels like he does many little things to prevent a successful reciprocal relationship. He's very passive. I feel like I'm the only one managing to keep the relationship going much of the time. He acts very ambivalent, and I don't feel he makes an effort to show me I'm valued.
- Confused in New Orleans
Dear Invisible and Confused: One of the most common power struggles couples fight about is related to the theme in your two letters. It's the question, "How important am I to you?"
If I'm important to you, I need for you to show it - through words, being "sweet," being affectionate, romancing me, treating me as if I am valued and cherished, and being responsive to what I say. If you will show me how much I matter to you, I will feel blessed to have found you and I will richly reciprocate, as long as I am still invested in our relationship.
But if you ignore my requests, are insensitive to my needs or wishes, if you act like it isn't necessary to romance me, if you hold back affection or sweetness, if you wait for me to put forth all the effort, then I will feel unwanted, un-nurtured and not valued. It will feel to me that you've lost your desire to please me, and I will interpret that as you saying you no longer care how I feel. That feeling will eventually turn into anger or resentment, and at some point, I will respond to you in kind: I will start ignoring your requests and being insensitive to your needs or wants.
We are talking about a basic tenet of how intimate relationships function (and malfunction): show me how important I am to you, and do so frequently. To do otherwise is to let our relationship become withdrawn, detached and disengaged, which is what happens to a large percentage of relationships over time. Intimate spouses become intimate strangers.
They quit trying to please, quit giving as much, quit feeling lucky for having found having found someone who can be theirs, quit romancing, quit working at it - until one day the relationship has grown empty, void of friendship or depth, disconnected, passionless.
My advice is similar to both women whose letters appear above. You're going to have to tell your man exactly what you need.
It is not selfish to ask your husband to offer you a sincere and genuine compliment once a day, let alone once a week. If he doesn't want to, he has grown complacent and remote, and he has quit trying to keep the relationship connected and engaged - or perhaps he just doesn't think highly of you anymore. That's when the decision is in your court about exactly how invisible you are willing to be in this marriage.
For the reader who is in a relationship with an ambivalent, passive man who doesn't make much of an effort to show you he values you, I would recommend that you offer him very specific guidance. Tell him what you need for him to do. Don't just complain about what he's not doing, tell him in very clear terms what you need and desire. If he wants the relationship to continue, he will take seriously what you say. If he doesn't, he is saying that you're not all that special to him, and that he is not willing to put forth any more effort in order to make the relationship closer.
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder. His column is in its 21st year of publication, and is syndicated around the world. You can reach him at 303-758-8777, or email him through his website: www.heartrelationships.com. He is not able to respond individually to queries.