Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: Nothing's Ever Good Enough
You're never happy with anything I do. I feel like giving up.
When it comes to love relationships, things are often not what they seem. The common wisdom is that romantic relationships would stay happy if people did a better job of giving to each other. But that's not what we've discovered. We've found that many people need to do a better job of receiving the gifts their partners are already offering. It's surprising how often the compliments, appreciations, and encouragements of a well-intentioned partner make no dent in the armor of an unhappy partner. The compliments are brushed off, the votes of confidence are discounted, and the words of encouragement fall on deaf ears. Why does this happen? And why does this universal but unexplored quirk of human nature carry with it implications for the health of marriage as an institution and the quality of our lives in community with others?
Let's begin with the couple who first inspired our odyssey into the hidden complications of receiving love. After we had been working with George and Mary for several months, George finally understood that Mary wanted more affection. He learned to listen to how she wanted it expressed: gentle tone of voice, looking into her eyes, light kisses on the lips, and a hug twice a day. He worked on it until he got it just right, and then he started giving her these expressions of affection every day as a gift.
What was Mary's reaction? She rejected him. As a separate knower, she had taken in the information that George loved her, but she didn't feel it.
"It's perfect, but you're only doing it because Harville is guiding you." Or, "You never did it before, so I don't believe that you mean it when you do it now." To some degree these objections make sense. Yes, the therapist did help, so maybe it doesn't feel completely genuine. The behavior is new so there may be some distrust.
But after weeks of this we confessed that her continuing resistance puzzled us. Wasn't George doing exactly what Mary said she wanted? She answered, "Yes, but it doesn't feel right."
We asked Mary to pause and go inside her body for a moment and pay attention to her sensations and feelings: "Take your time and re-create what happens when George shows you affection just the way you want it."
She closed her eyes and waited. Then she said, "I get anxious."
Although there's nothing very startling about this scenario, it was our entrée into a whole new way of understanding why some relationships are stubbornly resistant to healing. At first we didn't realize we were seeing the tip of a problem that had deep roots in the ground of personal identity and relationships. After working with several more couples in crisis, however, we began to wonder whether praise-resistant behaviors in partnerships might be both more common and more significant than we thought.
A Broken "Receiver"
Inside very different relationships we began to notice that the same puzzling barrier to receiving love was leading to frustration and in some cases toward divorce. What is happening when a willing partner is able (sometimes after much coaching) to express caring and admiration, and it isn't received? When one partner is finally able to say and do the right things, why doesn't the relationship always get better and the other partner always get stronger? Answering these questions will take us deep into the heart of the power that close relationships have to shape and reshape those traits and characteristics that make us distinctly who we are.
In each of the three marriages discussed below, one partner learned how to give appreciation and encouragement to the other, but still ran into resistance. Apparently there was some sort of invisible wall surrounding the intended recipient that made it difficult for gestures of love to penetrate.
Stan and Suzanne
Stan and Suzanne live in the same neighborhood they both grew up in, surrounded by old houses that are occupied by friends, in-laws, and cousins. Stan's quietness and his wiry physique give him an air of competence. It's easy to imagine him managing details and solving problems in his job as a building and grounds supervisor. His capacity to hold facts and figures in his head and coolly analyze problems is matched by Suzanne's capacity to feel the emotions of every single person involved with the problem. When they work together on an issue, they balance each other out. But when they're at odds, Stan's need to stay with the facts and Suzanne's need to stay with the emotions add up to a lot of miscommunication.
Suzanne is short and slight, but her personality is outgoing. She was a stay-at-home mom until their twin sons entered first grade, and then she became an insurance clerk. With all the creative housekeeping she put into it, Suzanne loved staying home. Cooking from scratch, sewing curtains, canning her own vegetables -- even though these tasks didn't really need to be done the way she did them, she felt good maintaining the domestic standards she'd been raised with.
After twelve years of marriage, Stan and Suzanne entered therapy because she was sure that he was having an affair. Infidelity was the only way she could explain her husband's gradual but steady retreat from their marriage. Despite Stan's heartfelt denials that he was not involved with anyone else, Suzanne could not be convinced. After a difficult year and what Suzanne described as "a mini-breakdown in the supermarket," they decided to get some help.
Suzanne told the therapist: "When we were first dating, Stan followed me around like a puppy....But the truth is that we've had problems ever since we married. We're so different. And we don't know how to talk about what's bothering us. Now, we either fight or avoid each other as much as possible. Stan comes home late during the week, and on the weekend he goes fishing with his brother and his buddies whenever he can. Recently, one of our sons asked me if I was a single mother."
Stan winced when he heard Suzanne say this. It was painful for him to hear how absent he was from his sons' lives. He loved his family. He said he was willing to put in the effort to make things better, but surprisingly, he also said he wasn't sure anything would help. His wife was hard to please. In fact, he confessed that he secretly thought of her as "not good enough" Suzanne. He didn't like thinking that way, but twelve years of marriage had taught him to expect Suzanne's general dissatisfaction with the way everybody did everything. Suzanne was a perfectionist, which was okay, but she was also controlling, which was hard to take. Even though he was considered a master at fixing things at work, he learned not to offer his services around the house. He didn't want to be criticized for choosing this color over that or for using one particular material when he should have used another.
Unfortunately, Suzanne was also critical of the gifts people gave her. In the early years of their marriage, Stan would sometimes pick out small presents to bring home. But after a while, he began to tense up for her inevitable response: "The thing wrong with this is..." And then she would explain about the wrong color, the wrong size, the extravagance, or some other flaw he hadn't noticed. They would have to find the receipt and return the items to the store where Suzanne usually chose something more to her liking. When she told him, "You shouldn't have," she meant it. And, eventually, he no longer did.
Despite his discouragement, though, Stan was willing to work with the therapist and Suzanne in exploring these issues. Both of them said they wanted to make things better. Over the next few months, they were able to follow the suggestions that are part of Imago Relationship Therapy for creating a conscious partnership. They learned to tell each other what they wanted and needed. They learned how to talk and listen to each other in a way that made them both feel heard and validated. They even took that last, difficult step of trying to fulfill each other's requests.
The most significant request came from Suzanne. She said she needed Stan to be more involved in their marriage and parenting their sons. When she told him how lonely she felt, he agreed to make some changes. He told her he would keep his Saturdays free so he could spend time with the boys. And he asked her if she wanted to set aside one evening a week as a date night for the two of them alone. When he made the offer, she was thrilled. This was exactly what she wanted!
She eagerly anticipated Stan's first at-home Saturday with the boys. As the days passed, though, she got more and more grouchy. By Saturday morning, she was downright anxious. She couldn't pinpoint the problem exactly, but it looked like the closer she got to having her desires fulfilled, the edgier she got.
After a month on Stan's new schedule, the boys were happy, but Suzanne was full of complaints, and Stan was exasperated. She acted as if he still wasn't doing enough or wasn't doing the right thing, and he felt truly burned by her lack of appreciation.
To see why he felt that way, we have to hear what happened when Stan started giving Suzanne what she'd asked for. This conversation took place in the therapist's office:
Therapist: So, let's get into a dialogue. Who would like to go first? How did your first week with the new behaviors work out?
Stan: I would like to go first. (He turns toward the therapist.) I don't know what to say. I did what I said I would do, and I can't see that it made any difference. (The therapist redirects him to Suzanne, whom he addresses.) You're still...I don't know...unhappy. On Saturday, I didn't go to the game with Bud so I could take the boys to practice.
Suzanne: (She repeats what Stan has just said to show him that she has heard and understood.) So you think I'm still unhappy, even though you canceled your own game so you could be with the boys. Did I get it? (Stan confirms Suzanne heard him correctly. Then she continues.) Yes, you made that sacrifice, but you didn't get home from the store in time to check their equipment lists before you took them. I had to interrupt what I was doing and check them at the last minute.
Stan: (He repeats what Suzanne has just said. When she confirms he heard her correctly, Stan continues.) You told me we had to leave at one o'clock and I was home at one.
Suzanne: Well, sort of. But if you'd ever done this before, you'd know that I meant all the preparation had to be done before one.
Stan: Oh, brother!
Therapist: (Looks at both of them.) What about your date together on Wednesday evening?
Stan: Well, we went.
Therapist: How was it? What did you do?
Stan: (Turns to his wife.) Why don't you tell him.
Suzanne: I appreciated the effort, I really did.
Suzanne: I had suggested that we go to Mario's. It's quiet there and I thought we could talk and relax. But Stan made reservations at that seafood place down on First. It turned out to be crowded and noisy. Frankly, it was irritating. We're not teenagers. I don't know why...we go out so seldom...why do you have to choose such a scabby place?
Therapist: (Turns toward Suzanne.) It sounds like you were disappointed with the choices Stan made. Is that right?
Therapist: Is there more about that? About the effort he made to make the evening special?
Suzanne: I could tell that he tried, but I wished he'd thought about it more.
Stan: And I wish you'd appreciate it more! What's the point of even trying?
It doesn't take professional training to hear that Suzanne couldn't absorb the positive efforts her husband was making. She could tell, as a separate knower, that Stan was doing things that showed he cared about her and the boys and wanted to be more loving. But she didn't connect to his loving actions in a way that made her feel loved. For his part, Stan heard her say she appreciated his efforts, but it didn't feel as if she did. It felt as if her disapproval canceled out her appreciation. His attempts to make her happy met with a wall of resistance. In this case, it looked as if doing what the dissatisfied partner requested wasn't enough to change the underlying negativity in the relationship.
Stan did not want to live with a critic. None of us wants to. We're usually plenty good at criticizing ourselves without a lot of outside help. In the face of an intimate's continual judgment, frustration boils over into anger. Some partners turn the anger inward and assume their spouse is right: they are incompetent and inadequate. Others turn it outward and attack their spouse for being impossible to please. Thus begins a cycle of attack and counterattack, or attack and withdrawal. Without some deeper understanding of what is fueling this adversarial mentality, the battles get worse. At some point, to make the simplest suggestion seems like taking your life in your hands.
After months of effort, their therapist began to think that Stan and Suzanne simply fell into the category of "difficult" couples whose hidden resistance remains a mystery. But because we'd had similar experiences with other couples, we began to see an underlying pattern.
Al and Rena
When you meet Rena, you are struck by her beauty. She is tall, dark, and exotic, with her handcrafted garments and her unique jewelry. After working as a graphic artist for several years, Rena had gone back to school as a student in conceptual art. Her husband Al is the same height, good-looking, and inclined toward the tailored look his university job demands. Anyone seeing them together would have speculated that this match was going to be either a surprising reconciliation of opposites or a contest of opposing wills. Al's career in higher education had trained him to be an expert in separate knowing, and Rena's artistic personality naturally led her to develop her capacity for connected knowing, sometimes at the expense of her analytic skills.
After four years together, it looked as though what had begun as a grand passion was becoming a grand contest. Both Al and Rena had complaints. Rena felt as if she was being stifled in the marriage: "Al knew who I was when he married me. My art is very important to me. I thought he loved that about me." Then she quoted the Swedish filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman, "I don't create to live; I live to create."
Al acknowledged that he loved his wife's creativity and free spirit, but he needed her to be more "normal," as he put it. In one early session, he turned to her in exasperation to ask, "Why can't we eat dinner together more often? Why does the house have to be such a mess? Why can't you sit down and plan things with me?"
Establishing some order and predictability was especially important to Al because he needed to coordinate visits with the two young children he had from his first marriage. He accused Rena of being uncooperative when it came to accommodating them. If she couldn't welcome his kids with her whole heart, at least she could be around more and act like she cared.
After months in therapy, Al and Rena were able to do more verbal negotiation in their relationship. Rena was sympathetic when it came to Al's desire for more organization and predictability in his life. To please him, she told him she would make an effort to be more involved in activities with his kids. And she let him know specifically when and where she would help with the household chores. To fill the cleaning gap, she hired a high school girl to come in and do the heavy housework once a week. Her biggest concession, though, was to cook dinner at home for the two of them more often. When Rena thought about how she had responded to her husband's requests, she gave herself an A+.
Al, however, was not so pleased. He focused on what was still missing. He told the story in terms of what was wrong rather than right. Talking about the three dinners she'd cooked for them last week, he complained that Rena "didn't put her heart into it. She just did it because it was an assignment in therapy." And he was not impressed when she arranged to have the house cleaned: "It feels like she's buying a solution, one that allows her to spend just as much time in her studio as ever." He couldn't shake the feeling that she was going through the motions instead of really shifting her priorities.
When Rena heard this, she threw up her hands and exclaimed, "I give up! What do you want from me? Do you want the blood in my veins?" Although Rena wasn't able to fulfill all of Al's requests, she had moved quite a distance in his direction. His negative reaction was exasperating.
Although Al had a point -- it would have been terrific if Rena had offered to make these changes without so much prompting -- he was refusing to welcome the improvements she was making. Both Al and Rena found out what many spouses already know: a flesh and blood partner is not as satisfying as a fantasy lover who anticipates and perfectly meets every desire and every need. Living with the reality that your one-and-only has to creak and stretch to make you happy isn't nearly as gratifying as the dream of a romantic twin. Nevertheless, Rena had been willing to do more of what Al wanted by assuming a more conventional role as helpmate. In return, she expected Al to appreciate the effort she was making and respond by easing up on the criticism.
At some point, we realized we were seeing another example of the same puzzling pattern we had noticed with Stan and Suzanne. Neither Suzanne nor Al responded to their partners' positive efforts as we thought they would. What were we missing? Why were these hard-to-please partners so resistant to positive change? We had to become acquainted with one more couple before we began to get the full picture.
Joshua and Anna
Their family and friends at church considered Joshua and Anna a model couple. Joshua was a good breadwinner, a dedicated father, and a big, take-charge kind of person. He was a lay leader in his congregation and had a special place in his heart for the summer camp they ran for disadvantaged children. During the summer he would take whatever time he could from his home remodeling business, drive his own kids up to the lake, and volunteer as a camp counselor. Anna, too, was devoted to home, family, and her religion. She was a little on the quiet side, but you could always count on her to get things done. Both of them were highly emotional and inclined to see the world through their feelings first. Fundamentally, they were connected knowers. Through time, though, they learned to develop their problem-solving skills -- Joshua through his work, and Anna when she eventually returned to nursing school.
Joshua was raised by older parents, part of a small religious community in the Deep South. They brought him up to believe that he had a special role to play in God's plan. When he was seven years old, he fell down some stairs at a construction site, and wasn't expected to recover the use of his legs. When he did, the community called a meeting for praise and thanksgiving and treated him as a special child. Shortly after that, his revered father died, leaving his mother to raise him alone. Joshua's dearest wish was to become as good a man as his father.
Like Joshua, Anna was raised in a devout home; she was also reared by a single mother, but the tenor of her life was entirely different. Instead of being considered special, Anna was brought up with shame. Her mother never got over the guilt she carried from having gotten pregnant out of wedlock. And she never stopped blaming Anna for being the living reminder of her sin and the reason she was ostracized by her family.
Joshua had loved Anna deeply when they married, and he continued to love her fifteen years later. Now, though, he had to admit that his feelings were tinged with exhaustion. He did his best to protect and shelter her, "as a man should." And he did everything he could to convince her that she was a good wife, a loving mother, and a fine person. But he felt he was butting his head against a brick wall.
Anna undercut herself constantly. Several times a week she would say, "I'm no good at that," or "My opinion isn't worth very much," or "Not that I'd know anything about it..." But what really drove him crazy was the way she put herself down physically. It was painful to hear how often she referred to herself as fat and homely.
Joshua was more patient than most husbands in his position. He understood that underneath Anna's take-charge persona was an insecure little girl. He wanted her to know how much he loved her, how beautiful she was, and how valuable she was. So he praised her. He encouraged her and told her she was wonderful. He could not believe that his rain of love wouldn't give Anna the nourishment she needed to grow beyond her low self-esteem. When these tactics didn't work, Joshua was at a loss. What else could he do?
Sometimes Anna's sense that things were not going to be okay spilled over onto others. She was often short-tempered with the children and conveyed to them a pessimistic view of the future. He wanted her to be more like his mother: good-natured, confident, and certain that everything happens for the best. Unfortunately, Anna's experiences had not confirmed that rosy view of life. He knew when she was really stressed because she lashed out at him and found fault with whatever he was doing.
The truth is that Anna did not criticize Joshua any more than she criticized herself. Take her garden. Whenever she looked at it, she wanted to cry. Other people told her how gifted she was with growing plants, but when she surveyed her efforts, she despaired. She had a vision in her mind that was always out of reach. When her friends complimented her, she warmed a little because it was pleasant. But mostly, she ignored or disparaged their efforts to compliment her. What did they know?
Anna thought of herself as someone who gave more and worked harder than anyone else. And it was true. She had constructed her life so that it had more demands than any one person could possibly meet. Raising three children while actively volunteering at school and church, plus trying to keep a good house for her husband and doing the payroll for his business kept her stretched emotionally and physically.
Whenever the phone rang, she thought to herself, "Who wants what from me now?" She knew it wasn't very generous, but in the privacy of her own mind, she thought of herself as a martyr to the needs of others -- while (and this is the point) not getting very much in return. It felt as if giving was the right thing to do, but instead of feeling fulfilled, she felt depleted. Although she would never say it out loud, she secretly thought of herself as Poor Me.
Over time, Joshua became disillusioned with his marriage, and Anna wasn't happy either. As committed Christians, divorce was not an option, so they had to find other ways to fill the void in their marriage. Joshua started consoling himself with extra hours at his business, and Anna became obsessed with returning to school to finish her degree. By the time they entered therapy, he was a workaholic, and she had developed a separate life. When their therapist mused out loud about the possible connection between their marriage problems and their addictive behaviors, they were surprised. They hadn't made the connection.
When we cast a sympathetic eye on people like Suzanne, Al, and Anna, who have trouble accepting the good things they are offered, what do we see? We see that they have partners who are willing to reach out to them, but they are not able to accept and profit from these loving gestures. Apparently, they have a "receiving deficiency."1 But they probably would not volunteer that receiving love is a problem for them. Not only would they not use those words, they wouldn't be able to guess the degree of responsibility they carry for the frustrations they feel in their relationships. This isn't because they are self-centered or dense; it's because they don't know they are putting up barriers that shut out the help and positive feedback they need.
All three of these people felt as if they were running deficits. They believed they were giving more than they were getting. They were unable to see that they were receiving a lot more than they could acknowledge. Although they didn't realize it, their predisposition to be critical of everyone else was just a reflection of how harsh they were with themselves. Their self-criticism manifested itself as criticism of others and made it difficult to be fed by any surrounding goodwill and good opinion.
You can tell when people are having trouble receiving love because they say essentially, "Yes (I acknowledge what you just said or did)...but (I can't accept it, I deny it, I trivialize it, I discount it, I don't really need it, or it wasn't good enough). These exact words may not be spoken every time, but this is the underlying sense of what is being said.
The following examples are quite different from each other, but see if you can hear the underlying similarity. It turns out there are a lot of ways to say, "Yes, but..."
Robert and Rory have been in a couples support group for several years. Although this has allowed them to explore many aspects of their relationship, they are just beginning to think about their resistance toward fully receiving love from each other. Rory says, "I don't know if I can be completely articulate about this yet, but Robert is a partner who exceeds my expectations. I've never been in a relationship that is as nurturing or loving. But I have a very hard time receiving that. During the day, I have conversations in my mind about what a wonderful husband and father he is, and then he comes home. He walks through the door and something happens. I feel a physical shift happen inside of me, and I either get quiet or I sometimes get irritable or angry or distant." Rory wants to know why she reacts to the man she loves with anxiety and irritability when he comes home at the end of the day.
Dennis and his partner Debra are social workers. But their professional training and experience have not made them immune from the problems we've been discussing. Dennis says: "When Debra acknowledges me in a positive way, such as thanking me for helping around the house or bringing her a cup of tea in the morning, I don't respond. Finally, she started asking me to acknowledge that she had acknowledged me so she could know that I heard her. What I'm finding out is that by not responding, I minimize the impact I have on Debra at some level. It's like I don't want to have that much impact on her. If I don't respond to the positive things Debra says, then I don't have to come to grips with the fact that I'm a person who affects others."
Dennis was able to go further and speculate on why he has a "deflection of receiving." He says, "I don't feel I'm lovable or valuable enough to receive what Debra is giving me. Now I have to figure out why I feel this way."
Debra adds, "Yes, Dennis is very generous at giving and offering to me what he doesn't allow himself. If he says something positive to me, such as how well I interact with his mother or how beautiful I look when we go out, I will accept it because it's wonderful. Then I think, 'Wow, but he never gives that to himself.'"
Christine says she became aware that she has trouble receiving love when she was leading a workshop for single people. She says, "I'd never thought about the possibility that I might have trouble receiving love. But I could see it in the workshop participants -- how much they rejected that part of themselves that they were told is needy. They couldn't give credit for the little things their previous partners did for them because they couldn't admit they needed those little gifts. Slowly, over the course of the workshop, I began to realize how much I identified with their difficulty in accepting all those positive gestures."
Christine had another insight, too: "I also became aware of how hard it is to give up deflecting love when there is a part of me that needs to be a victim. You know, when I demand from my partner what I don't have inside myself -- like I don't really believe that I'm a generous person -- and my partner can't really give that to me. So then I get to be the victim again because he can't give it to me. I find that it's hard for me to give that up." Christine said that once she became aware of the idea that she has trouble receiving as well as giving love, her eyes were opened to a lot of behavior patterns in her life that she hadn't seen before.
These examples, along with the three marriages we've just introduced, give you an idea of how many ways there are to defend yourself against someone else's desire to encourage, help, or love you. But the dynamics underlying this counterproductive impulse are not obvious. Without help, most partners reach a level of awareness that allows them to see their mate's dissatisfaction and their defensiveness. But that's all. They don't know why their partner is so touchy, and so judgmental or so self-deprecating. All they know is that it can't have anything to do with them. After a while they don't even care what the reason might be. They stop giving.
Unfortunately, this pattern -- of rejecting the love your partner is offering until he or she stops offering it -- is not uncommon. In fact, for reasons we shall soon see, we believe that barriers to receiving love are developed by us as a result of our early experiences, experiences that are so widespread that they are a part of the human condition. It is not an overstatement to say that every one of us has had firsthand experience in either rejecting the love of others or being rejected when we try to give love to others. And someone who has trouble receiving will also have trouble giving. You can't give back what you haven't taken in. The difficulties are compounded in marriage and other committed relationships because irregularities in one partner will set up reactions in the other.
Couples develop problems with giving and receiving love in tandem. As we shall see in the next chapter, the three couples we've just met have been affected by many complex factors that have worked together to bring them to their present difficulties.
Copyright © 2004 by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt