“It’s so interesting. There are so many aspects of my wife that remind me of my mother. What’s so weird is that I promised myself I would never marry someone like her, and then I did.
“I find it immensely frustrating that my wife doesn’t seem to be interested in me. My parents had many children, and my mother was constantly overwhelmed. She was also raised by Holocaust survivors and did not seem to have the emotional-connectedness that I craved from her. I just wanted her to be interested in me, and I found myself constantly disappointed. Over time, I felt more and more alone. I resolved to marry someone who had a great interest in me, someone who would appreciate what I had to share. When we were dating, my wife seemed interested.”
“Was there any indicator that you may have missed while dating, attesting to a lack of interest?”
Shalom knots his brow. “Not really,” he says slowly. “I mean, we had very enjoyable conversations. She seemed bubbly, exciting and very open.”
“Interesting. What did she speak about?”
“Oh, she spoke about anything under the sun. She was very enjoyable company. How can it be that our relationship looks the way it does now?”
Something that Shalom said caught my attention.
“You mentioned that she was an easy talker and fun to be around. I wonder what you can tell me about what you shared with her?”
“Well, I was just so enamored by her personality that I didn’t talk a whole lot. I remember being fascinated by her stories, opinions and depth. There was so much about her that I appreciated.”
“I’m starting to sense that throughout your dating experience with her, you spent a considerable amount of time listening to her. However, I am not hearing that you made yourself listened to by her. Does that resonate with you?”
I see Shalom’s wheels turning. “I see what you are saying…”
“Can you tell me why that might have been?”
“I guess I was so used to not being listened to that it didn’t occur to me to bring myself into the relationship more actively. I suppose I was a passive participant who enjoyed her company.”
“I see. So, in meeting with your wife, you reenacted what you would have done in the past. Even though you promised to never get into another relationship with someone like your mother, you continued in this relationship because not being heard was familiar to you and did not raise alarm bells.”
“Yes, that sounds right.”
“How does it feel for you to realize this?”
“It’s devastating. I feel so ashamed that I did exactly what I promised myself I would not do! In the one area I was so confident about I let myself down. I don’t understand, though. Even if the relationship had some familiarity to me, how could I have not seen it?”
“In psychology we say that people often marry what is termed as their ‘unfinished business.’ Because the part of you that needed to be nurtured through being heard never got its needs met, you marry your ‘mother’ in a continued attempt to finally obtain that need. You then continue to hope that your new symbolic mother meets those needs for you and when she doesn’t, you withdraw as you did in the past. When your wife disappoints you in the same way, it is especially devastating because it reaffirms that sense of rejection and inadequacy.”
“I see,” Shalom responds. “But because the person I married is so similar to my mother, she just keeps doing the same thing my mother did.”
“Exactly. And that’s really hurtful, especially because you hoped that this would be a better relationship. You unconsciously hoped that your sense of inadequacy and loneliness would be repaired through the relationship with your wife.”
Shalom is quiet. He seems to be processing and formulating something.
Finally, he says slowly, “I think there is something more here than what you are saying. Not only does it feel like I hoped to get acknowledgement from my mother through my wife, I think I specifically married someone similar to my mother in order to see if I could get acceptance from my mother.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you are adding to the discussion, Shalom. Can you elaborate?”
“Yes. This is hard to explain, but I must have married my wife to prove to myself that I could even get acceptance from someone who naturally rejects me! If my rejecter finally shows me respect, then I really know I am adequate!”
I am enjoying Shalom’s insight and want to reflect to him that I understand. If I can properly show him my understanding of his interpretation, he will feel particularly heard and accepted. This is particularly important in Shalom’s case.
“Shalom, if even your wife can begin to hear you, that will undo the sense of loss and rejection that you developed in early childhood. And unbeknownst to your conscious mind, that is likely precisely why you chose her to be your wife!”
Shalom nods. “Exactly! But now I’m really messed up because my wife cannot listen to me.”
I understand why Shalom feels helpless in this moment, and I allow him to grieve this terrible revelation. Still, I know that with therapeutic support, Shalom can come closer to getting his needs met.
Clinically, I need to deliberate which approach to take. One approach is to teach Shalom how to assertively ask his wife to listen to him. We would accomplish this by having him tell his wife what he is struggling with in the relationship, and once she’d fully understand, he’d ask her if it would be okay to remind her when he feels she is not listening adequately. This approach can work if his wife is open to suggestions and not too defensive.
The second approach would be for me to enact a strong relationship with Shalom in which his self-esteem flourishes and he becomes self-sufficient. This deeper (and usually slower) work would effectively strengthen Shalom and bring him to a place where he either does not need this acceptance anymore from his wife, or he can assert himself on his own without coaching.
I will need to gauge his strengths, her strengths, and what level his ego strength* is on to make this decision.
Psychobabble: Ego strength is often used to describe an individual’s ability to maintain their identity and sense of self in the face of pain, distress, and conflict.