Do it when you don't feel like it [68]

By Dr. Keith Witt
November 12, 2012
Mature couple fighting Greg and Katy are in their early forties, sitting across from each other in my office, visibly uncomfortable with the conversation. They’ve been discussing each other’s faults for about four minutes and we’re all getting progressively more bummed out. I figure it’s time to interrupt: “Can you two feel how depressing this conversation is?” They both nod their heads. “So let’s change this to something that works. You’ll never get to love with critical, angry talk about problems. If you want to make progress, you have to at least shift to mutual respect, and ideally affection.” Greg lightens up, but looks skeptical, “That’s sound fantastic, but how do we get there?” I immediately feel lighter. This is the first positive move either has made this session. “Well, first of all, don’t you feel little better right now?” Both nod. “That’s because we stopped talking about problems and complaints and started talking about affection. So, Greg, make a positive overture. I suggest you go over and touch Katy with a little tenderness–you know, warm expression, a hug, like that.” Katy smiles for the first time in the session. Some people are actually so distressed by suggestions to touch affectionately that they can’t stand the idea, but not Greg and Katy. They both like affection and–typically for couples–bitterly blame the other guy for it not happening more. Greg slowly rises and approaches Katy as they maintain eye contact. He pauses briefly at about three feet away and looks intently into her face, searching for evidence of welcome or rejection. She seems open so he moves closer and hugs her for about ten seconds while I make approving sounds. He then sits down. Both of them are smiling nervously and a little awkwardly, but clearly the energy in the room is more positive. Then I ask Katy to do the same and she does, with similar results. As they look back at me I capitalize on the moment, “I suggests you each do this at least five times a day.” Katy turns to me and protests, “What if I don’t feel like it?” I’m briefly distracted by all the times I’ve heard this question over the last forty years. I take a deep breath, smile, and look into her eyes, “Especially do it when you don’t feel like it.” Relationships are little ecosystems that need nurturing–like gardens. We’re often enlivened by our partner’s love and guidance, and are usually moved to give in return. But, when caught up in life, responsibilities, and waning romantic infatuation, people can get lazy. This is especially true when couples don’t have effective mechanisms for processing irritations, or good skills to repair inevitable marital ruptures. If you don’t effectively tend the marital garden, it can become dry, barren, and neglected. In spite of myself, I start a Therapist in the Wild type rant. “You brush your teeth when don’t feel like it. You go to work when you don’t feel like it. You put up with your demanding/sick/distressed/obnoxious children when you don’t feel like it–even force yourself to love them and help them when all you want to do is have them shut so you can get some sleep! So, love each other when you don’t feel like it!” By now both Greg and Katy are laughing. Katy answers first, “OK, OK. I get it! I’m game if Greg is.” Greg gets a little more serious, “I have a feeling if we do it when we don’t feel like it, we’re going to feel like it a lot more.” Katy and I sit in quiet admiration for Greg’s wisdom. When people reach for love, quality insights often show up. I smile and give them one more Therapist in the Wild line. “For now, my work here is done.”

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