How does it feel to be invisible?

It’s a rare dinner party or social event where somebody doesn’t ask me to tell them what subject spouses and couples complain about the most.

I see so many problems: money, raising kids, in-laws (!)—it’s tough to nail it down to a single thing. But if I had to, I would say that one of the key concerns is the issue of ‘visibility.’ In other words, spouses hate it when their loved ones don’t pay attention to them. When you feel visible, you feel important.

The word ‘cherish’ in the marital vows strikes at the core of it. When people moralize on the sacrifices and struggles involved in a committed romantic relationship, I politely respond: Rubbish! If you’re fortunate enough to feel cherished by someone else, and to cherish them in return, then there should be nothing sacrificial or uncomfortable about that relationship. Why would anyone want to give up such a good thing?

I know ‘cherish’ and ‘visibility’ might sound like lofty, unreachable terms. But they do apply to everyday life. For example, I’ll hear a husband or a wife say something like, ‘He’s always watching television,’ or, ‘She’s always on the computer.’ My first question is, ‘Do you want him to give up what he likes?’ After a thoughtful silence: ‘No, of course I don’t. I just wish she wanted to be with me as well.’

This gets to the heart of the issue. When you cherish someone, you’re motivated to be with him or her. So my next question for the spouse who’s constantly on the computer or in front of the television is, ‘Did you get married because you love to be with her?’ Most of the time, the answer is, ‘Yes. I love a lot of things about her.’ ‘Then,’ I ask, ‘why are you cheating yourself out of these things by spending all your time in front of the television (or the computer, or whatever)? Don’t you deserve to experience those things you say you always loved about him or her? Would it be better if he or she just wasn’t there?’

Cherishing means treating your spouse or partner as a very special person. You want to know his opinions, and you actively seek them out. You include her in your decisions. His feelings matter to you, even if you don’t always agree or understand. You don’t dismiss what she has to say or what she thinks—instead, you try to understand. You marry or commit to someone because you want them to be part of everything important. To do otherwise is a sad contradiction.

People who are together but aren’t very happy have, in most cases, simply neglected their relationship. They expected things to somehow run ‘on automatic.’ Deep down, they still cherish one another. If one or the other became ill or died suddenly, the grief would be monumental. The problem is that they’re not SHOWING this to their spouses by treating them as visible—and cherished—while they’re still alive and well.

Spouses who don’t feel visible often feel hurt and anger—they feel like they got a raw deal. But thinking this way isn’t going to change anything. The kind of thinking required for change sounds more like: ‘I used to be treated better, but—how did I used to treat him?’ When you’re hurt, the tendency is to think just the opposite: ‘She used to treat me nicely, but now she doesn’t. She’s changed.’ Well, that might be true, but what did YOU do to contribute to the problem?

I’m not trying to encourage people to blame themselves unfairly. But the honest truth is that it almost always takes two to make a relationship flounder. And it will take two to bring it back on course. And leading the way yourself is a good start. If your spouse still loves you, he’ll respond in kind, and respect and appreciate you for having started things up again. If he doesn’t respond, it will be hard to face the fact that perhaps he doesn’t love you, but you’ll be no worse off than when you started.

It’s human nature to want to be cherished—to feel like you’re the center of someone’s universe, simply because you are’YOU. This is a great feeling, and it’s a mistake to associate it with burdens like sacrifice, ‘hard work’ or other kinds of misery. If your relationship starts off with two people feeling cherished and special, but then develops into something different, then both of you must take responsibility for identifying what your own roles were in causing things to go astray.

When you live a long time in a house, it eventually needs some renovation. Relationships are that way, too. People change and evolve. The fact that you have become unhappy is not proof that you have to divorce or break up. It’s more likely that somebody has stopped feeling cherished. With just a little effort, sweetened with the promise of things getting back to ‘the way it used to be,’ both of you can become uniquely visible—and happy—again.