She said, he said: Learning through your differences
She Said, He Said
Dear Jeff and Lori,
My wife is one of the most caring and compassionate people I have ever known, and I love her for it. However, sometimes I feel that the level to which she cares for others is unhealthy. We have a longtime mutual friend who has been going through some challenges, and my wife has lost all perspective on what is appropriate. She goes to her house multiple times a week and talks to her every night, then complains that she doesn’t have any time for herself. I feel like she’s neglecting our marriage. I keep asking her to set boundaries with this woman, but she won’t. How can I help her see what’s happening?
Lori and Jeff: At the core of your complaint is what we refer to as the two-sided coin phenomenon. The traits and characteristics that initially drew you to this person, tend to be the same that later in the relationship drive you the most crazy. We’re often attracted to partners who bring balance into our world by adding what we lack. Those differences create intrigue and provide us with models to help us grow and expand in positive ways. But they also are unfamiliar enough that we sometimes struggle to understand our partner’s actions, intentions or motivations.
Lori: It sounds like your wife is suffering from compulsive compassion. This type of caring for others beyond what is healthy for yourself often stems from unconscious drivers. People who struggle with “CC” often received the message in their earlier life that their value, worth and lovability was directly tied to taking care of others, putting others first, or not needing anything themselves. As a result, when they feel a little vulnerable or insecure, they default to “CC” mode in order to boost their sense of self worth or to feel OK in their own skin. The paradox with “CC” mode is that it is the default way that they seek love, and yet there will likely be a part of them that resents feeling loved for what they give and not for all of who they are.
Part of the work in your marriage is certainly for your wife to explore her own sense of value and to expand her own definition of what makes her loveable. But it is also for both of you to be curious about why it has become more appealing for her to care for others than it is to spend time connecting to you. Perhaps she has become burned out or resentful in the marriage, or has felt unappreciated for the efforts she has made. If you are inviting her to re-engage with you, be clear about what you are willing to do to make that more emotionally fulfilling for her.
Jeff: I think it’s important to elaborate on what Lori said about the possibility of it being easier for your wife to connect to her friend-in-need than to connect with you. If part of your wife’s relational pattern is to create more caretaking, codependent relationships with others in order to feel a sense of value or worth, then her friend is the perfect, perhaps subconscious, target. This woman clearly needs your wife, and her response is to show up in spades. It may also be that, over time, your wife has begun to believe you don’t need her. She may want to show up for you in similar ways but is left feeling rejected if her desire to connect comes across as smothering or overwhelming to you.
These behaviors are manifestations of attachment patterns (how we learned to attach to our primary caregivers). Your wife sounds more anxious or overly dependent, and you may lean toward the avoidant or overly independent side. Neither is right or wrong, good or bad — they are simply the ways we learned to adapt to challenging situations as kids. Most couples are made up of one partner leaning toward the anxious and one toward the avoidant. Your work is to learn to appreciate the differences and how they may benefit your life, even if they may sometimes leave you feeling a bit frustrated and annoyed.
Lori and Jeff: A lot of our work with couples focuses around attachment patterns. Developing a deeper understanding and awareness of our own patterns as well as those of our partners can create a much clearer understanding of our relational behaviors. A good quick online assessment can be found here: http://www.web-research-design.net/cgi-bin/crq/crq.pl.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Visit http://www.aspenrelationshipcoaching.com/blog-1 for all previous She Said, He Said columns.