Psych-Talk with Dr. Mike: Do you love me?

Dr. Mike takes a deeper look at communication in marriage and how to avoid the syndrome of "miserably-ever-after."

fiddler298 (photo credit: Production Still)
(photo credit: Production Still)
Dr. Mike Gropper is an American psychotherapist and marital therapist living in Ra'anana. For further details, see end of story. In the scene from Fiddler on the Roof, before the marriage of their daughter Huddle, Tevye turns to his wife Golda and asks her if she loves him. Golda, somewhat taken aback by the question, doesn't immediately give her husband the answer he seeks, but instead reminds Tevye of all the labors of love she has provided to him during their 25 year marriage such as cooking, cleaning, bearing and raising children, and even milking the cow. Nevertheless, Tevye, still not satisfied by Golda's responses, persists in asking his wife for verbal affirmation that in fact she does love him. Golda replies: "For 25 years I lived with him, fought with him, starved with him, 25 years my bed is his, if that's not love what is?" Tevye responds: "Then you love me..." and Goldie answers, "I suppose I do." Tevye responds, "I suppose I love you too!" Finally they sing together: "It doesn't change a thing but even so, after 25 years it's nice to know." It's nice to know is exactly the point. Couples get sidetracked and distracted by life's pressures and stresses such as job demands and making a living, raising and worrying about their children, taking care of aging parents, and for a new immigrant, adjusting to life in Israel. These pressures, instead of bringing couples together, often make spouses turn away from each other. They tune out and forget important dates, pick on their spouses over small and objectively insignificant things and show insensitivity to each other at the very times when a hug is called for. In time, they stop playing, laughing and communicating with or even touching each other. They tell themselves "this is the way most married couples live," which is, unfortunately, accurate. So they put aside romance and passion, settle for a functional relationship, and live semi-miserably ever after. They may stay together, but they don't stay intimate. The fact is that it is so easy in a marriage to get off-track, forget about your partner and forget about the person that you are sharing your life with. It isn't that most people are inherently selfish or self-centered (of course, some are), on the contrary, when spouses forget about their partner or create unnecessary battles, they are also forgetting about themselves. They allow their daily grind to swallow them up. They then also forget to exercise and eat healthy foods, and frequently fail to plan any time for leisure, fun, hobbies, or vacation for themselves or with loved ones. Many marriages go off the deep end simply because the spouses don't realize how important it is to turn back to each other and recharge the batteries in their relationship and themselves. And, so often spouses simply don't share their worries with their partner. Personal and spousal neglect is costly, becoming as it does a major source of human suffering and unhappiness which can lead to excessive fighting, depression, anxiety, psychosomatic symptoms, and/or mental breakdown. George and Phyllis, a couple in their mid-30s, went for counseling because of their constant fighting, which was usually over money matters. The parents of two young children, the couple was renting an apartment and George was very upset with Phyllis because he did not feel that she was doing enough to help him with the financial pressures they were facing. Phyllis was satisfied with being a homemaker and she felt that her role in taking care of their young children wasn't being appreciated. When she was a child, her parents divorced and her mother had the difficult job of raising Phyllis and her younger brother and sister as a single parent. The father was nowhere in sight, having moved far away from the family home. Her mother was always out of the home working and from a very young age Phyllis had to take care of herself and her siblings. It was therefore, psychologically important for her to be at home with her children. At the time of their beginning couple therapy, all communication except for verbal fights had broken down. They also had stopped making love for close to a year and George had put on a lot of weight while Phyllis had slipped deeper and deeper into a depression. Both badly needed each other's emotional support, but the wall that had been built between this couple was very high. Improving communication is the key to resolving conflicts Couples such as this one are at high risk for divorce because they have violated the golden rule of marital health the importance of communication by stonewalling their conflicts and gradually breaking off all communication. In fact, it's not conflict that turns marriages sour; it's how you handle conflict that separates successful and unsuccessful marriages. Research has shown that disagreement and fighting in marriage aren't predictors of marriage failure and divorce, but stonewalling, avoidance, defensiveness, contempt and the silent treatment are. Repair attempts are in fact crucial. They can be clumsy or funny, even sarcastic, but a willingness to make up after a fight is central to every happy marriage. Sometimes in couple therapy it is essential to teach couples about the specific skills of how to go into a fight and come out of a fight where both parties get some of what they want. They also need to learn how to fight without doing additional damage. When couples don't have good skills for handling problems, their negative emotions can overwhelm the positive in their relationship. It is almost impossible to feel any warmth or good feelings about your spouse in the heat of an emotional fight. This is particularly true if spouses are not able to resolve their differences and can't let go of heightened negative feelings. With some resolution of a conflict, the positive parts of a relationship can flourish again. One of the exercises that I use to help couples like George and Phyllis improve their communication is a special listening technique called "Speaker-Listener." Rules for the Speaker
  • Speak for yourself. Don't mind-read.
  • Keep statements brief. Don't go on and on.
  • Stop to let the Listener paraphrase. Rules for the Listener
  • Paraphrase only what you hear.
  • Focus on the speaker's message. Don't rebut. Rules for Both
  • The Speaker has the floor. It doesn't matter who goes first.
  • Speaker keeps the floor while Listener paraphrases.
  • Share the floor by switching roles after the speaker has had a chance to say what he/she is thinking. The technique, while deceptively simple, goes against our natural biological instinct to attack when being criticized. In the exercise, the speaker speaks, usually stating a complaint without placing blame. "It really makes me angry when you don't call and dinner is waiting on the table." The listener doesn't rebut or justify himself, which is the way most people deal with criticism or complaints from their partner. Instead, the listener just demonstrates that he heard, by repeating his partner's remarks. "I hear that it really makes you angry when I don't call and dinner is waiting on the table." To be heard is a powerful tool by itself, the core to all intimate relationships. You don't even need to solve the problem. In fact, it is critical to not resolve things, just to be heard by your partner. People want understanding from each other, not resolution. Couples are really arguing over things from the past. Once couples clear the air, things get resolved by means of acceptance. In couple therapy, teaching people to be heard is a powerful and important skill. It eliminates the need to be defensive and build a wall, withdraw, get angry and nasty, and ultimately close down communication with just painful hurt feelings. The idea here is that when you are being heard and more importantly, understood, then communication is opening up and there is a real chance to work things out. In couple therapy, this technique provides the couple a real opportunity to work on issues that they haven't been able to resolve on their own. Obviously, Tevye is a good role model for all of us, communicating openly about what he wanted to hear from his wife, Golda. "Do you love me?" Hearing the words "I love you," was enough for Tevye to feel that his batteries had been recharged. He was now ready to go back to dealing with all of life's problems and challenges. Dr. Mike Gropper is an American trained psychotherapist and marital therapist specializing in clinical diagnosis and therapy for both children and adults. He is a clinical consultant to the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services and Mt Sinai Medical Center in NYC and the Institute for the Advancement of Children in Israel. He has been on the faculty of the Bar Ilan University and Haifa University Schools of Social Work and the Mount Sinai Medical Center in NYC. He is also the founder and director of SmokeQuitters (, a smoke cessation treatment program. His office is located at the Golan Center, Achuza 198 in Ra'anana, (09) 774 1913, [email protected] Send your comments >>
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