Kara and Dave came in for a counseling session at his suggestion, just to make sure they were doing okay a little over a year into their marriage. They both described their relationship as being pretty easygoing and conflict-free. Kara said she thinks she is a good wife; she likes supporting Dave, and he likes her pampering attention. He just wishes she would let him pamper her too.
They continued to meet with me, and in one of their sessions, Dave expressed concern that Kara doesn’t voice any disagreement with him at all—constructive or not. He told Kara that it’s as if she’s walking on eggshells and wondered if he was doing anything to frighten her. Kara didn’t think so, but did state her focus is on keeping him from getting upset. I wondered if perhaps Kara thought she could prevent upsets between them if she smoothed out any possibility of emotional wrinkles before they even occurred. Yes, she nodded; she does this so Dave will love her.
When I followed up with Kara about preventing upsets, she told me that she did this with her mother and how it seemed to make life easier. Dave commented that sometimes his mother-in-law drinks too much and it can get really uncomfortable for everyone. When Kara said it wasn’t really that bad, Dave sighed and looked away. I asked Dave what was going on and he said, “Kara is keeping you at arm’s length the same way she does with me.” He added that seeing Kara be so vague with me about her long-standing problems with her mother made him feel hopeless. “It’s like she is there but isn’t really there, and no matter how nice Kara is to me, I end up feeling lonely.” Kara cried, then she told Dave she was trying so hard to be a good wife and she didn’t mean to upset him. She promised to work harder to make it easier for him to love her.
A common yet mistaken belief is that “goodness ensures love.” The flaw in this is that it frames love as a deliverable commodity rather than a felt emotion. Believing that one is only as good as the value they provide is a trap. Kara didn’t create this trap for herself, yet she is continuing to live it because she believes it is her responsibility to prevent upsets. In doing this, she is proving she is good and, therefore, loveable.
In couple’s therapy with Dave and by attending, at my suggestion, meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA), Kara is learning how ACOAs tend to have distorted perspectives about love. Children who have been denied good care themselves and were required to care for their parent(s) think if they were just “better” it would be different. Kara’s solution was to first anticipate her mother’s needs and, when that failed, to simply say “yes” to her mother’s demands. This habitual pattern became her default response to keep the peace.
It wasn’t until Dave told Kara how lonely he was that she started to recognize how her anxious attentiveness made her feel lonely, too. Kara sees now how loving Dave “perfectly” is going to be impossible for him and for her—because when she focuses the spotlight on him, she has no way to be in that glow with him. Kara is beginning to understand that fawning over Dave isn’t the same as connecting with him. While it still scares her to get too close to him, Kara recognizes how getting real with him will strengthen and grow their marriage.