The problem has its origins in childhood, long before a young man and woman stand at the altar to say, "I do." For her part, the girl is taught subtly by her culture that marriage is a lifelong romantic experience; that loving husbands are entirely responsible for the happiness of their wives; that a good relationship between a man and woman should be sufficient to meet all needs and desires; and that any sadness or depression that a woman might encounter is her husband's fault. At least, he has the power to eradicate it if he cares enough.
In other words, many American women come into marriage with unrealistically romantic expectations which are certain to be dashed. Not only does this orientation set up a bride for disappointment and agitation in the future; it also places enormous pressure on her husband to deliver the impossible.
Unfortunately, the man of the house was taught some misconceptions in his formative years, too. He learned, perhaps from his father, that his only responsibility is to provide materially for his family. He must enter a business or profession and succeed at all costs, climbing the ladder of success and achieving an ever-increasing standard of living as proof of manhood. It never occurs to him that he is supposed to "carry" his wife emotionally. For Pete's sake! If he pays his family's bills and is a loyal husband, what more could any woman ask for? He simply doesn't understand what she wants.
Inevitably, these differing assumptions collide head-on during the early years of marriage. Young John is out there competing like crazy in the marketplace, thinking his successes are automatically appreciated by the lady at home. To his shock, she not only fails to notice, but even seems to resent the work that takes him from her. "I'm doing it for you, babe!" he says. Diane isn't convinced.
What gradually develops from that misunderstanding is a deep, abiding anger on Diane's part, and a bewildered disgust from John. This pattern has been responsible for a million divorces in the past decade. The wife is convinced that her low self-esteem and her unhappiness are the result of her husband's romantic failures. With every year that passes, she becomes more bitter and hostile at him for giving so little of himself to his family. She attacks him viciously for what she considers to be his deliberate insults, and bludgeons him for refusing to change.
John, on the other hand, does not have it within him to satisfy her needs. He didn't see it modeled by his father and his masculine, competitive temperament is not given to romantic endeavors. Besides, his work takes every ounce of energy in his body. It is a total impasse. There seems to be no way around.
In the early years, John tries to accommodate Diane occasionally. At other times, he becomes angry and they slug it out in a verbal brawl. The following morning, he feels terrible about those fights. Gradually, his personality begins to change. He hates conflict with his wife and withdraws as a means of avoidance. What he needs most from his home (like the majority of men) is tranquility. Thus, he finds ways of escaping. He reads the paper, watches television, works in his shop, goes fishing, cuts the grass, plays golf, works at his desk, goes to a ball game—anything to stay out of the way of his hostile wife. Does this pacify her? Hardly! It is even more infuriating to have one's anger ignored.
Here she is, screaming for attention and venting her hostility for his husbandly failures. And what does he do in return? He hides. He becomes more silent. He runs. The cycle has become a vicious one. The more anger she displays for his un-involvement, the more detached he becomes. This inflames his wife with each greater hostility. She has said everything there is to say and it produced no response. Now she feels powerless and disrespected. Every morning he goes off to work where he can socialize with his friends, but she is stuck in this state of emotional deprivation.
When a relationship has deteriorated to this point, the wife often resorts to some very unfortunate tactics. She begins to look for ways to hurt her husband in return. She embarrasses him by telling his business associates what a cad he is at home. She refuses to attend office functions or provide any other support for his occupation. She tells stories about him to their church associates. She shuts him down sexually and undermines his relationship with the children. To be sure, she can be a formidable opponent in the art of infighting. No one on the face of the earth could hurt John more deeply than his own wife.
Let me make it clear that I'm not condemning this woman out of hand. She has a good case against her husband. He doesn't meet her needs properly and he's an inveterate workaholic. To that extent, the man is guilty as charged. I attempted to express this feminine perspective in my book, What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women, because I believe it is valid.
But every story has two sides and John's version should also be told. His wife is wrong to believe that her contentment is exclusively his burden. No one should be expected to carry another person emotionally. Only Diane can make herself happy! She has no right to lay that total load on John. A good marriage is one in which the dominant needs are met with the relationship, but where each spouse develops individual identity, interests and friendships. This may be the most delicate tightrope act in marriage. Extreme independence is as destructive to a relationship as total dependence.
I remember counseling a bright young lady whom I'll call Janet. She came to me because she seemed to be losing the affection of her husband. Frank appeared bored when he was at home and he refused to take her out with him. On weekends, he went sailing with his friends despite the bitter protests of his wife. She had begged for his attention for months, but the slippage continued.
I hypothesized that Janet was invading Frank's territory and needed to recapture the challenge that made him want to marry her. Thus, I suggested that she retreat into her own world—stop "reaching" for him when he was at home—schedule some personal activities independently of his availability, etc. Simultaneously, I urged her to give him vague explanations about why her personality had changed. She was instructed not to display anger or discontent, allowing Frank to draw his own conclusions about what she was thinking. My purpose was to change his frame of reference. Instead of his thinking, "How can I escape from this woman who is driving me crazy," I wanted him to wonder, "What's going on? Am I losing Janet? Have I pushed her too far? Has she found someone else?"
The results were dramatic. About a week after the change of manner was instituted, Janet and Frank were at home together one evening. After several hours of uninspired conversation and yawns, Janet told her husband that she was rather tired and wanted to go to bed. She said goodnight matter-of-factly and went to her bedroom. About thirty minutes later, Frank threw open the door and turned on the light. He proceeded to make passionate love to her, later saying that he couldn't stand the barrier that had come between them. It was precisely that barrier which Janet had complained about for months. Her approach had been so overbearing that she was driving him away from her. When she changed her direction, Frank also threw his truck in reverse. It often happens that way.
From Dr. Dobson's book, Love Must Be Tough.