desperate housewives, desperate husbands
“You just don’t meet my emotional needs!”
After seven years of marriage, I was actually thinking of leaving Greg and my two young children in pursuit of the “love” I felt entitled to but didn’t feel I was getting in our relationship. I had no idea where I would go or how I would make it on my own, but I wasn’t sure I could survive a lifeless marriage. I felt like I was nothing more than a maid, cook, nanny, and occasional outlet for sexual tension, positions for which I was sadly underpaid.
I couldn’t imagine how my heart had grown so cold toward my husband. We met on April 21, 1989, when I visited a local church’s singles group for a game night. Although I don’t believe in love at first sight, Greg definitely caught my attention that evening as he stood head and shoulders above all the other single guys (literally, since he’s six foot seven). Every time we had to pair off with a partner for another game, I hoped Greg and I would wind up together, but no such luck. However, things did begin to warm up between us as we got to know each other over the next several weeks, and we began dating exclusively that summer. Every morning I walked through the neighborhood praying, Lord, I want to marry whomever You want me to, but if You are looking for my input, I’d like it to be Greg!
I soon felt 110 percent sure that Greg was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. By Thanksgiving I was desperate for him to pop the question, and he finally did just before Christmas. He said, “You plan the wedding, and I’ll plan the honeymoon.” That sounded great to me.
We married on April 21, 1990, exactly one year after we had met. Even my dad knew Greg was definitely the one for me. He said to me on the way down the aisle, “Don’t you even think about changing your mind, or I may have to put a shotgun to your back!” The thought of backing out never even entered my mind. This was too good to be true, and I wasn’t about to mess it up.
However, before the honeymoon was over, feelings of discontent reared their ugly heads. Greg had planned a trip to Walt Disney World for five days, followed by a two-day weekend in Clearwater Beach, Florida. The first morning we woke up in Orlando, I was completely wiped out from all the wedding festivities and traveling. I just wanted to leave the shades down, the covers up, and enjoy a few extra hours of sleep. However, I was awakened when Greg sat down on the edge of the bed, showered, shaved, dressed, and ready to go by 7:00 a.m. “Come on! Get up! Let’s go have breakfast with Mickey!” he coaxed.
I gave in and dragged myself into the shower at that ungodly time of the morning. But after two hours of following Greg all over Epcot Center, his long legs trotting from ride to ride and my squattier legs galloping to keep up, I threatened to go back to the hotel room without him. He tried to slow down, fighting back his enthusiasm, and I tried to calm down, fighting my urge to complain about his choice of honeymoon spots. Although it was fun and we made some great memories, sprinting all over Walt Disney World was not my idea of a relaxing, romantic honeymoon. All that week I looked forward to lying on the beaches of Clearwater and just vegetating in the sun together as husband and wife.
But there would be no basking in the sun that weekend. We arrived at Clearwater Beach in the midst of a windstorm and a cold front that brought temperatures in the low fifties. Thinking that we’d not be spending much time indoors, Greg had booked a dumpy little hotel room, but we couldn’t get out much since we only brought warm-weather clothes. We mostly watched movies and ate leftover pizza. The ambiance (or lack thereof), exhaustion, and disappointment eventually got the best of me. I don’t remember what was said, only how we said it. Greg and I had our first major fight before we even returned from our honeymoon. I couldn’t believe that he had failed to check the weather before we came and that he hadn’t even consulted with me about how I envisioned spending our honeymoon. He, on the other hand, couldn’t believe that I was insensitive enough to get so angry with him when all he had wanted was to surprise and delight me.
Of course, I wasn’t going to let one little argument ruin the marriage. Greg was a committed Christian and a leader in the youth group, which inspired me to begin working with youth as well. He was fun and adventurous, and he took me on several group trips to go skiing, backpacking, and scuba diving. He was intelligent and financially stable, a graduate of Southern Methodist University and a certified public accountant. He was extremely laid back and had such a reputation of being a nice guy that no one ever got mad at him. No one, that is, except me.
Seven years and two children later I was constantly badgering Greg for not initiating romance anymore, for being too laid back. I had a long list of complaints: He never called me up for a date or offered to take me out to dinner. He didn’t send cards or bring me flowers. I was weary of having to hint around for my emotional needs to be met, and I felt it didn’t count if he didn’t come up with the idea of how to do so himself. I was sick and tired of always picking up LEGOs and Tinkertoys, wiping children’s noses and behinds, cleaning Goldfish and Cheerios out of the minivan seats, and feeling as if there had to be more to life.
With each passing day, I slipped deeper into depression. In hindsight, I realize that my unhappiness wasn’t about what my husband was or wasn’t doing; rather, it was about how I felt about myself. I needed Greg to affirm me, to make me feel beautiful, and to convince me that I was desirable, because I didn’t know how to feel any of these things on my own. But at the time, I felt sure that he was to blame.
I am not the first or only wife to feel this way. In fact, I’ve heard from many women who feel deep dissatisfaction with their husbands and their marriages.
STORIES OF DISCONTENT
Married fourteen years, Ramona thought she had wed Mr. Right, but feelings of fear, bitterness, and rejection surfaced as she and her husband struggled to understand each other. He is rarely home, leaving her to raise four young children on her own much of the time. There’s been little romance or time for one another. He’s consumed with his job and their financial status, and she is consumed with the kids and her work, which she admits is really just an outlet to get her emotional needs met by others. Their church obligations and kids’ sports and extracurricular activities also take up an enormous amount of time and energy. Feeling overwhelmed by the lack of joy and passion in their relationship, Ramona says:
My husband seems unable to express how much I mean to him and says it’s because of the way he was raised and that men aren’t good at that stuff. I have felt lonely, cheated, and empty, and when other men begin to compliment me, I feel I am falling for them hook, line, and sinker.
I’ve been guilty of emotional affairs but feel that God wants me to be strong and stay in this marriage. I’ve tried to romance my husband and captivate him, but it always seems we are worlds apart. I am tired of trying to be supermom, wife, and spiritual leader in this family. When is he going to step up to the plate and take over?
Of course, disillusionment can set in even before you become overwhelmed with raising children. After only one year of marriage, it’s clear that Claire’s reality isn’t measuring up to her expectations. She laments:
We’re usually either fighting or not talking much at all. The word
divorce isn’t in our vocabularies, but I frequently have thoughts about what my life could be like after my husband dies. I have a mental list of men I’d date. It’s pretty long. They have all met different needs at different times. Then I think of how wonderful it would be to be single again. I’d be better off without his college debt and dirty socks. But I
married him for a reason. What was it?
Ironically, Claire also recalls that she was miserable as a single woman and thought that getting married would solve all her problems. As her situation illustrates, getting rid of your single status only exchanges one set of problems for another, more complex set of problems.
Some women hold on to the hope that their unhappiness will eventually disappear and that life will somehow “get better.” As Helen testifies, such hopes for a more fulfilling relationship down the road are often dashed:
It seems that every season of our marriage brings a new hope that things will surely get better right around the corner. We’ll be happier when we can afford a house…when we have children of our own…when our children are out of diapers…when my husband finally gets that promotion that will allow me to be a stay-at-home wife and mother…
when our children leave for college…when we don’t have to pay for college anymore…when my husband and I retire. I’ve been waiting for a brighter tomorrow almost every day of the past twenty-seven years, and frankly, I wonder if we’ll ever have the marriage I’ve always longed for.
Some women are so unhappy, they consider pushing the Eject button and leaving to find another man. That was the case with this woman, who signed her letter to an advice column “In Relationship Hell”:
Three years [into our marriage], I’m horribly unhappy. I am no longer in love with my husband, although I do care about him. My son is deliriously happy here in the suburbs with his two-parent family, and, at 13, would be very vulnerable to emotional problems should we get divorced.…
Should I stick it out with my husband, who is my friend but not my soul mate, until my son is in college (five more years!)—even if this involves fantasizing about another man during sex? Or, should I get out and hope I find an available man to love? 1
I have to wonder what part this woman has played in undermining her own happiness during the three years she’s been married. If she finds yet another “available man to love,” she’ll more than likely discover that there’s one common denominator in all her relationships—her. As long as that common denominator is unhappiness with herself, she’ll be unhappy with any relational equation.
THE MISTAKES WE MAKE
Let’s face it. Nothing magical happens once we put those rings on our fingers. If we were unhappy before marriage, chances are we’ll go back to being unhappy shortly after the honeymoon. Marriage doesn’t make us feel better about ourselves or solve our problems in the long run. No husband can be the White Knight who rescues us from all our issues and insecurities. At some point we have to put on our “big-girl panties” and go through the work of resolving our own issues, remedying our own insecurities, and becoming happy with ourselves before we can truly be happy in marriage.
But if we fail to acknowledge the need to work on our own issues, we believe that our relational problems must be our husbands’ fault. We may mistakenly assume that our lives would be so much better if we just had a different man to love, and we may not stop to consider that we might play a part in our own dance of discontentment.
The truth is, no marriage is exempt from disillusionment. Even the brightest relationship has dark days clouding a couple’s history together, raining on their “we have the perfect marriage” parade. On the exterior, a wife may appear to have the ideal marriage, but the interior landscape of her heart often reveals deep disappointment, anger, bitterness, and regret.
The same is true for many husbands. Don’t think that that could possibly be the case with your husband? You may be in for a surprise. I certainly was. If anyone had asked me during the first seven years of our marriage whether Greg felt fulfilled, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. “Absolutely!” would have been the response coming out of my mouth and the one I truly believed in my heart. But one day I got a wake-up call.
MY OWN RUDE AWAKENING
It was probably the umpteenth time we were having the same argument. I didn’t feel that Greg was making any attempt to meet my emotional needs—again. It had been days since we’d had any real conversation, weeks since we’d had sex, and months since he’d taken me out for any quality time together. Rather than lovingly asking him, “Am I doing something wrong that’s causing your heart to grow cold toward me?” I am ashamed to say I went back to that lame old “You’re too passive!” accusation and angrily blamed him for the lack of passion in our relationship. “Why don’t you pursue me anymore? Does it ever occur to you to just pick up the phone and ask me if I want to go to dinner? Or to bring me flowers? Or ask me to go on a walk? Anything to show me that you still care?”
As I lay in bed for what seemed like half an hour, awaiting a response to my barrage of demanding questions, I grew more and more furious over what I felt was a major character flaw. Finally, I threw back the covers and dramatically exclaimed, “I’m so fed up with your passivity, I just can’t sleep in the same bed with you tonight!”
Our kids were staying the night at their grandparents’, so I stumbled into my daughter’s room with my pillows in tow, only to turn on the light and discover that there were no sheets on her bed. As I went downstairs to the cold basement to fish her sheets out of the dryer, I was determined to send Greg the message loud and clear that his lack of attention to my emotional needs was not going to cut it with me any longer. When I got to the basement, the wet sheets were still in the washing machine. I had asked Greg to switch the laundry earlier, which he had forgotten to do. Now I was really mad.
Fishing my sleeping bag out of a downstairs closet, I returned to find Greg waiting for me in Erin’s room. He asked, “Could you please not do this, Shannon? Just come to bed and let’s talk this through. Sleeping apart isn’t going to solve anything!”
At that moment, I had to make a choice. I could either soften my heart, swallow my pride, and return to our bedroom like a big girl, or I could die on this hill in a desperate attempt to prove how strongly I felt about this issue. I chose to stand firm atop the hill. I stuck my finger in the face of a man who stands fourteen inches taller than I and weighs almost one hundred pounds more and declared, “I will not stay in a lifeless marriage! Every time there’s been a problem in our relationship, I’ve always gone to counseling by myself, but this time the problem is yours, so I suggest you go deal with it!” I crawled into my sleeping bag sobbing, and Greg retreated to our bedroom in defeat.
Twice during the night I heard Greg get up and walk into the room. I awoke hoping he was going to crawl into bed with me, apologize for his inattentiveness, and hold me for the rest of the night, but no such luck. Both times I drifted back to sleep by myself.
The next morning I couldn’t believe what a wicked witch I had been—as if yelling at him was going to cause him to want to do a better job of showing me how much he loves me! I finally swallowed my pride and slithered back into our bedroom, surprised to find Greg lying on a wet pillow with a flushed face and a look of fear in his bloodshot eyes. Here’s what Greg says about his night:
Shannon went to bed around midnight, and I continued to think about all the things I wish I had said or done over the past few months to show her just how much I love her. Though I felt drained of energy, I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking, I know what she likes and how to make her feel special, so why can’t I remember to do those things? Why am I so motivated to work hard to please other people but can’t seem to recognize when my own wife needs my attention? I felt like a complete failure as a husband.
Around 3:00 a.m., I began thinking about how much happier Shannon would probably be if I were just out of the picture altogether. I told myself that if anything ever happened to me, she’d be better off with the insurance money and a chance at a happier marriage with someone else than to be stuck in this “lifeless marriage,” as she so often put it.
By 4:00 a.m., I had myself worked up into such a tizzy that I began wondering if she felt the same way—that she’d be better off without me. Though it sounds foolish to me now, because she has never been a physically violent person, I even had thoughts that Shannon might try to get rid of me. I envisioned her taking a butcher knife from the kitchen counter and coming into the room while I was sleeping. The thought scared me so badly that I got up twice in the middle of the night to see if she was out of bed, perhaps heading toward the kitchen.
By 5:00 a.m., I realized that such thoughts were ridiculous, and my fear turned to depression. Not only was I not living up to Shannon’s expectations, but I felt like I was letting everyone else down too. I was working long hours and accomplishing little at the office. The more time I spent at work, the less time I had for my kids. We were under a load of debt, and bills kept piling up. Life just seemed to be knocking me down in so many ways, and I didn’t feel I had the strength to get back up too many more times. Perhaps I should just put the butcher knife into my own belly, I thought. Fortunately, Shannon crawled into bed with me soon afterward, and I worked up the courage to tell her about what I’d been thinking.
When Greg told me about his night, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A small part of me wanted to get angry again over the absurdity of the idea that I would ever bring physical harm to him. However, a larger part felt convicted as I realized, Shannon, this is the effect your anger and disillusionment has on Greg. You are killing him with your own misery. This is not his problem; it’s yours. If you ever want him to meet your emotional needs, you have to learn to inspire his affections rather than to require them. And how about recognizing that he has emotional needs too?
Up until that unforgettable night, I had been blaming Greg for my unhappiness. But I could no longer deny that I was the one who had been poking holes in the bucket
of our marital bliss ! Within days we were in a counseling office together, where Greg made a vow not to harm himself, I made a vow to try to control my anger, and we made vows to each other to try to understand each other’s emotional needs.
Lest you think that in this area Greg is unique among men, think again. Some women assume that all a husband needs to be happy is sex and a sandwich, and as long as he gets that on occasion, his wife can treat him however she wants. But a man has deep-seated emotional needs too—needs he may be unwilling or unable to communicate. If his wife ignores or denies those needs, he feels devastated and will take steps to protect himself with either a fight or flight pattern. He may fight for his rights in the relationship by demanding that his wife submit to meeting certain expectations. Or, like Greg, he may prefer the flight response and withdraw emotionally from the relationship or even look for a more satisfying love somewhere else.
The reality is that men aren’t all that different from women when it comes to their basic needs. Men have emotional needs too, and they can feel a sense of desperation when those needs aren’t being met.
MEN HAVE EMOTIONAL NEEDS
September 11, 2001, was a day of countless tragedies. Thousands lost loved ones in the blazes and subsequent collapses of New York City’s Twin Towers. However, the tragic loss of loved ones didn’t stop after the fires were extinguished. For eight wives married to New York City firefighters, each would later experience her biggest personal loss in an equally startling manner. Most claim they never saw the loss coming.
What loss am I referring to? The loss of their husbands, who left their marriages because they had fallen into extramarital affairs with women they had rescued from the burning buildings or with widows who had lost their husbands in the terrorist attacks. On the August 30, 2004, episode of Oprah, a representative from the New York City Fire Department explained that this is a relatively common phenomenon following a massive tragedy. Firefighters are encouraged to play “surrogate protector” to a widow’s family, helping them to adjust to life without their loved one. However, the temptation to go from surrogate to substitute is obviously difficult for some to resist.
What struck me about the report was that the eight wives who had been left by their firefighter husbands claimed that they never saw the affair or the divorce coming. According to their perspectives, everything seemed fine in the relationship. However, the husbands told very different stories. They claimed to have felt ignored, belittled, disrespected, and taken for granted. Many reported wanting out of their relationships long before the affairs began.
Even though nothing can justify unfaithfulness in marriage, I believe there’s a lesson we can learn from this disheartening story. It is this: men need to feel like heroes to their wives. They not only want their wives to meet their sexual needs, but they also want them to meet their emotional needs for love, respect, appreciation, and admiration. When these needs don’t get met, a husband’s heart will grow cold toward his wife. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
GIVING WHAT WE LONG TO RECEIVE
As much as we long to have our husbands understand and meet our innermost needs, we have to learn to give that which we desire to receive.
So how can a woman understand a man’s emotional needs? Better yet, how can you meet those needs in your husband, igniting the joy and passion you both desire and inspiring him to treat you the way you long to be treated? Read on, as we consider how desperate times call for desperate measures.