Someone who has participated in my Enjoy Being Married teleclasses - we will call her Joan - wrote me last week with a long-running problem. I think it may sound pretty familiar to a lot of us.
Her husband - we will call him John - is a serious man, quiet, hard to read, off in his own world at times, and not very good at telling a story. He's not a people person. He's more at home with numbers. Happy on the inside, he says, unconcerned that others think he should smile more.
Joan, as you might have guessed, is a people person. She loves being around people. She enjoys family gatherings and socializing with friends. She has many friends of her own, and she invests extra time and energy into cultivating couples friendships so that she and John can socialize together.
She has done this for the 39 years they have been married. Even after all this time, she can get pretty upset when John fails to initiate any friendships on his own or acts like a lump on a log when they are out with mutual friends. Worst of all is when a friend or family member tells her instead of him that they can't tell if he's enjoying himself or, worse, that he scares them. Joan wants John to carry more of the weight of maintaining their social life.
So what can we do for Joan, using our three tools, Assume Love, Expect Love, and Find Third Alternatives?
Assume Love when Upset
When Joan gets upset because John blows off a chance to connect with an old friend or because a friend expresses concern that he doesn't enjoy their get-togethers, she can try the primo tool for dealing with upset feelings, Assume Love.
It should not be hard for Joan to make this assumption. She admits John is a good man who loves her. But it is the next step that is so important. You make the assumption, and then you try to explain your mate's behavior from this assumption. How could a good man who adores a woman to whom socializing is so important do such a poor job of holding up his half of the stick?
If they just married last year, I might buy that it is because he does not know how important social life is to his wife. However, 39 years in, I expect John knows full well how hurt she would be if they lost their circle of friends because of his inaction.
If we assume he knows this matters to her and that he loves her fiercely, what would explain his failure to make a dinner date with a friend of theirs, to make plans to visit an old college buddy whose town they will be passing through, or to make an effort to chat with their barbecue guests? I can think of just three possibilities:
- He has no clue how to do this, even after all these years of hoping for one.
- He understands what is needed, but it is so horribly unpleasant for him that he is willing to let down the woman he loves, the woman whose respect matters most to him in the world, rather than try.
- Doing what is required would violate one of the pillars of his character, for example, his incredible integrity will not allow him to tell little white lies like "your tomato aspic is superb, Martha!" or his perseverance in pursuit of his goals makes spontaneous plans with friends feel dishonorable and unfair to his family.
Perhaps Jean, reading this, will know exactly which of these is true of John. And perhaps it will help her feel John's love, even when her social life is threatened by his behavior. This is what we hope for when we Assume Love. We aim to take the sting out of baffling behavior. But this won't change the fact that Joans needs to feel less threatened that they (or she) will have no friends just when they are needed most. Or that she still longs to feel proud of her husband when talking with her friends.
Expect Love when in Need
Expect Love is the tool she needs next. Expect Love invites us to let go of expecting our favorite love measures so that we can feel all of the love we are offered. There are at least a million ways for one person to love another. Even so, we pick one and say, "If you loved me, you would show it by doing this one that I chose out of the million available to you." Then we tap our foot and wait for the one, oblivious to every other sign of love we are offered.
Joan has been tapping her foot for a very long time, waiting for John to make her place in her social network more secure. She has left the responsibility for her needs in someone else's hands, even if it is only half of the responsibility. Even if she understands he can love her dearly and still be unable to take care of this for her, she will feel hurt and vulnerable when it goes undone, until she takes it back.
How can she make her place more secure if he goes on being quiet and a passive partner in the friendship game? She can devote more energy to it -- and less to something else, something where John's strengths mean he will gladly step up and take charge. She can cultivate more female-only friendships and limit the couples they socialize with to those with strong enough social skills to make room for John's limitations.
She can fend off some of the negative feedback by creating opportunities for John to contribute in different ways, perhaps managing the barbecue grill or bartending instead of chatting or trying something like geocaching or visiting museums with friends instead of dining together or going out for drinks.
If Joan takes back ownership of the problem, she can discuss it with John without incrimination. She can learn if he would like help reading other people through their own personal sign language or if he would appreciate help deflecting requests to violate his own strongly held values. She might also learn if he is aware of others' comments about him and feeling hurt when Joan fails to stand up for her husband when her friends criticize him, so withdrawing even more when it happens.
Letting go of expectations is not easy. For me, finding myself suddenly widowed and still needing the same things helped me separate what I need from what I expect from my husband. I invite everyone to consider if their need would remain if their spouse were suddenly gone and what they would do about it with no one else to expect anything from. You can read about my own struggle to let go of a big expectation in my All You Need is Love post.
Find Third Alternatives when You Disagree
John says he enjoys himself when they get together with friends, but he and Joan are stuck on just two ways to behave while enjoying oneself, two they cannot agree upon. There is no point continuing to discuss the first two alternatives once you realize each of you strongly prefers one over the other.
To get to a Third Alternative that delights both of them, Joan will need to learn more about what John enjoys about these gatherings. It is probably not at all what she notices about them. She will also need to share why John's behaviors make her uneasy, which means letting go of the idea that she already knows the best way to behave, so they can find some new ways that work well for both of them.
I hope you found this post helpful, and I welcome the opportunity to do the same for whatever situation keeps pushing your buttons. Just post a comment. If you want the comment kept private, just say so, as I read all comments before they appear.
Many thanks to "Joan" for sharing her situation with us. If you have more suggestions for her, please post them here.