Joe Beam, marriage expert and chairman of www.MarriageHelper.com, answers the following question submitted by a Family Savvy reader.
QUESTION: My husband no longer seems to find me attractive. He makes comments about how I looked years ago (thinner and more fashionably dressed), but after two children, those days are gone. I know that he loves me, but his criticism is making me feel rejected, and I am beginning to have a hard heart toward him. I love him and want to grow old with him, but I know that I will never be able to be what he wants me to be. What can I do to keep our marriage strong?
ANSWER: Your question has two major components. Both must be corrected if you are “to grow old with him” as you wish. If not, the “hard heart” you mention eventually will completely solidify against him. As it does, either you will draw into a shell and live miserably, or you will leave him.
The first issue is his attempt to make you into the person he wants you to be rather than the person you are. It is reasonable for husbands or wives to tell the other what they like and what they wish the other would do. However, when that comes across as conditional love (“I would be happy with you if only you ____”), it leads the other to feel “You don’t love me; you love what you want me to be.”
Women already have enough difficulties from comparing themselves to each other and feeling they are not as pretty, thin, well dressed, or a hundred other things. Our culture creates myriad attacks on female self-esteem. His comments must be playing havoc with yours. He seems to believe that will motivate you to become what he wants you to be; however, he needs to love you as you are. You did not state your age, but the fact that he wants you to dress younger and sexier gives a hint. While it is quite all right for him to want you to be desirable throughout your life together, it is not reasonable to wish you to be younger (asking you to dress younger implies that) or that you be as sexy as some woman who catches his attention. That tactic is doomed. You cannot be 21 forever. It appears that his emphasis on sexiness leads you to feel that he does not love you for yourself, but wants you to be, look, or act certain ways to fulfill his desires or expectations.
When you do not feel loved as you are, trying to become someone or something else in order to feel loved leads to catastrophe.
People who change in order to feel loved resent the change. People who already feel loved enjoy changing to please the other. The difference is that they change because they feel loved, not that they have to change to be loved. Until you truly believe and feel that he loves you as you are now, nothing will change for the good in your relationship. When you feel loved as you are – not having to be like anyone else – you can change whatever you wish, if you wish, to make him happy, and you will be happy doing so.
The second issue is his disapproval and criticism of you. Your husband may think he is trying to make you better when in actuality, he is leading you to wall yourself against him. John Gottman, PhD, conducts fascinating research about marriages and relationships. He calls one of his discoveries the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. When one or both spouses use them toward the other, the relationship suffers greatly. Gottman identifies one of those horsemen as criticism. He explains that a complaint focuses on specific behavior (“I don’t like that dress”), but criticism goes beyond and includes blame and general character assassination. It invokes the idea “what is wrong with you?” (“You don’t care how you look! Why can’t you be like _____?”)
Intimacy – letting another see inside of you, to know the deepest parts of you – cannot exist in an atmosphere of criticism. The criticizer does not get what he wants; the criticized hardens herself and moves away emotionally.
Gottman’s research indicates that when criticism and the other three horsemen – contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling – continue unabated, the likelihood of divorce increases substantially.
In our workshop for troubled marriages, we help both spouses understand what the horsemen are, how they use them, and how they affect their relationship. In every workshop, people tell us that they had no idea how powerfully negative these behaviors are and how much will change in their marriage now that they understand them. Please explain to your husband what his criticism is doing to your emotions and ask him to stop. If he cannot or does not, I urge you to seek help from a qualified counselor or to call us tool free 866-903-0990.
Before I end, I wish to address something that you implied but did not state. You mentioned that he wants you to be thin and that he compares you to how you looked when you met; therefore, I am making a guess that you have gained weight. If you gained only a few pounds in the natural aging process, skip the next section. However, if you are overweight, please allow me to stimulate your thinking about that.
I personally struggle with weight. Therefore, I am not judging but rather pointing out a matter that we who work with marriages see regularly. When I teach counselors, we sometimes discuss the issue of one spouse being very displeased – usually even turned off sexually – by the other’s weight. We typically do not discuss it in public because we are sensitive to those who are overweight and the many issues that lead to weight problems. We do not wish to cause more issues for the overweight person or inadvertently to give “ammunition” that others might use against him.
Yet, when one spouse is overweight and the cause is not a medical condition, it frequently has negative effect on the relationship. The other often feels disrespected. One man said to me, “She knows I’m not sexually attracted to her any longer. If this were something that she couldn’t help, I’d understand. But this is because she doesn’t eat right or exercise. I feel like she doesn’t care that I no longer want to make love to her. I love her; I just don’t want to be sexual with her because she no longer appeals to me physically. Why can’t she understand what this does to us?”
If you feel you have to lose weight for him to love you, you likely will not lose it, or, if you do, you probably will resent it. On the other hand, if for your own health and for the betterment of your marriage you choose to lose weight, you will benefit both you and your husband.
I strongly urge him to love you as you are and to stop criticizing you. I just as strongly urge you to deal with your weight now, IF that is a problem, not for him to love you, but for yourself and your future relationship.
There are many who will help. If you wish my organization to assist you in getting the help you need, please call us toll free at 866-903-0990 or email us at info@JoeBeam.com.
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