How can I get my Partner to Pay Attention to Me?

“Why am I so miserable?” or “Why can’t I do anything right?” These questions do not have an answer and whatever “reason” we come up with will never satisfy us.

These questions actually serve to maintain an expectation of misery and failure. We cannot begin to ask the right questions until stop asking ourselves the wrong questions.

Greg came into counseling because he wanted to know why his wife wouldn’t give him any attention. She would say “Good morning” to the children, but not him. She would not acknowledge his return home in the evening after work. It was making him very angry.

Greg had been emotionally abandoned by his parents. Greg’s parents never demonstrated an example of loving cooperation between two mature adults. They never validated him either. They abused alcohol and were never around when he needed them. In an all too common scenario, Greg ended up marrying a woman who, like his parents, who was too preoccupied with herself to validate him. He loved his wife, but was continually angry at her. She was a source of pain and pleasure at the same time!

Little did Greg know that his wife felt too inferior and inadequate to give recognition to anyone. She feared by praising someone, she was degrading herself. She worried about exposing her perceived inadequacy by praising others because it would imply they were “better” than her. Little did he know that the more he screamed at her to recognize his efforts, the more inadequate she felt, and the less likely she was to meet his demand for recognition. The paradox here is that the more desperately Greg wanted something, the less likely he was to get it.

Greg came into counseling with the question – “How can I get my wife to pay attention to me?” This is the wrong question because it puts the solution to Greg’s problem into the hands of another party. In effect, he is trying to figure out how to make someone else accountable, which is something no one can ever do. We have enough trouble taking responsibility for ourselves, how can we possibly fix others’?

It soon became apparent that Greg was recreating the same scenario that existed with his parents with his wife. He did not get married to find happiness. He would not compatible with women who would meet his needs and make him happy. On an unconscious level, he didn’t deserve it. If that were to happen, he might feel guilty of the crime of being happier than his hopeless parents. His underlying agenda was to maintain the consistency of his childhood. Greg had never learned how grownups secure their partner’s cooperation in meeting each other’s needs. He could only make demands for submission. Such demands kill happiness.

Greg was as dependent on his wife, Susan for his happiness. This is no different than being reliant on his parents when he was five. I encouraged him to ask himself a better question: “What will make me happy?” This puts the matter in his own hands where it properly belongs. In response to that question, Greg caught himself expecting Susan to validate him, but knowing that she wouldn’t. This unmet expectation was disappointing and was making him angry at this “betrayal” before it even happened!

Instead, Greg chose to let it go and to shift his gears. He came to see that Susan, whose parents were no more competent than his, needed support even more than he did. He had been so preoccupied with his own pain that he could not see hers. He pushed his comfort zone by saying something positive to Susan for a change. When he came home and opened the front door, he chose to say, “The house looks so nice tonight. Thanks for all you do.” It wasn’t much, but it was a lot better than what he had been saying. Susan appreciated the compliment, but was stunned and didn’t know what to say. She had very little practice in life in accepting compliments and responding appropriately. But it broke the tension that had built up. They had a pleasant evening. Even the kids noticed that mommy and daddy weren’t hollering.

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Shared by: Aaron Karmin, LCPC, Contributing Blogger

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