‘Tiz the season for valentines. It’s also a time when I get the most requests for insight into the things that couples complain about the most. I see so many problems: money, kids, in-laws (!) — it’s tough to nail it down. 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. When I hear 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 it. Why would anyone want to give up such a good thing?
Cherishing and visibility apply to everyday life. For example, I’ll hear one partner say, “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.”
Bingo! When you cherish someone, you’re motivated to be with him or her. So my question for the TV- or computer-loving spouse is, “Did you get married because you love to be with her?” Most of the time, the answer is, “Yes.” Then I ask, “Why are you cheating yourself out of these things by spending all your time elsewhere? Don’t you deserve those things you say you love about him or her? Would it be better if he or she just wasn’t there?”
Cherishing means treating your partner as a 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 — you try to understand. 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 run on automatic. Deep down, they still cherish one another. If one or the other became ill or died, the grief would be monumental. The problem is that they’re not showing it while their partners are alive and well.
Spouses who don’t feel visible often feel hurt and angry, but that isn’t going to change anything. What’s 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 encouraging people to blame themselves unfairly, but the truth is that it almost always takes two to make a relationship flounder. And it takes two to bring it back on course. Leading the way yourself is a good start. If your spouse still loves you, he’ll respond in kind, and appreciate your efforts. 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 feel like you’re the center of someone’s universe simply because you’re … YOU. It’s a mistake to associate it with sacrifice, hard work or other misery. If a relationship starts with two people feeling cherished, but develops into something different, then both parties must take responsibility for identifying their roles in causing things to go awry.
When you live a long time in a house, it eventually needs some renovation. Relationships are that way, too. People change. The fact that you’ve become unhappy is no reason to divorce or break up. More likely, somebody has stopped feeling cherished. With a little effort, sweetened by the promise of things “getting back the way they used to be,” both of you can become uniquely visible, and happy, once again.