Linda: Years ago when our kids were small there was a recurring scenario that got played out a lot between Charlie and me. It had to do with my wanting connection and Charlie being distracted or preoccupied and unavailable to be present with me. These situations would often deteriorate into conflict since neither of us was particularly skilled at handling our differences very consciously. This situation would usually occur when Charlie would return from one of his frequent work-related trips, which often took him away from home for a week at a time. By the end of the week I would be hanging on by my fingertips, barely able to keep it together, and counting every moment until he walked through the door.
Unfortunately, when Charlie finally did walk in the door he was often so emotionally and physically burned out that the last thing that he wanted to do was to have a deep, meaningful, sustained connection with me. He had just spent the past week working fourteen hour days in intense interactions with dozens of people, and he had been barely holding it together until he was able to make it home and recover in what would sometimes be as little as 24 hours before his next trip.
Having been with people all week, Charlie’s need for some quiet time and solitude ran directly counter to my need for connection. Now, having him finally home, but being unable to really be with him was almost more painful than being separated. The lack of connection felt unbearable, and his lack of availability seemed a confirmation of my suspicion that he didn’t really love me. By my reasoning, if he did, he would feel like I did and would want to rush into my arms and melt into me.
This pattern of re-entry was a source of great suffering for both of us and we struggled with it for a long time. We came to fear and dread our reunions, but neither of us saw any hope that things could substantively change, at least as long as Charlie continued to keep his job, and he was clear that leaving it wasn’t something that at this point he was willing to consider.
The problem of course wasn’t just the re-entry process, but it was our inability to get beyond the frustration and anguish that we both felt and reinvigorate our emotional connection which was in need of replenishment after several days of neglect. We needed to get caught up, but we never seemed to get there.
Charlie: The pattern was always the same: I’d come home and get rushed by the kids who would hug my legs and wrestle me to the floor where we would all roll around and laugh until I broke free and went over to Linda, who had patiently and graciously stepped back to allow them to have their piece of me first.
Linda: I knew that they hadn’t seen Charlie for a week either and that they weren’t as able to defer their desire to play with him as well as I was. But still, a voice inside my head asked me “When is it going to be my turn” and “Why do I always have to be last?”. But it didn’t seem right to get mad at three small children so I was very conflicted within myself, and that inner conflict always ended up playing itself out between me and Charlie.
Charlie: I was in a quandary too. I really did want to be with Linda and hated to see her unhappy, but I knew that if I didn’t get some cool down time alone in my study that I wasn’t going to be much fun for anyone to be with. I felt guilty for not being able to be there with Linda and angry with myself for not being a “bigger” person. That didn’t really help very much.
Linda: Both of us were bringing conflicted feelings into the mix that was obscuring the love that was underneath them. To me the scariest thing in the world would be when I felt disconnected from Charlie’s love. At those times I would go into a panic and get demanding, anxious, and angry, which are feelings that Charlie (understandably) wouldn’t find particularly attractive.
Charlie: And I would respond accordingly, by getting angry and shoot back pretty ugly words that were designed to get Linda to back off and shut up. It wasn’t a pretty picture.
Until one day we had an interaction that changed things, permanently. The interaction went like this:
Charlie (immediately after walking into the house): Hi Honey. Hi kids. Daddy’s home. (Kids run to me and wrestle me to the floor).
Linda: Where were you? Your plane got in almost three hours ago.
Charlie: (Defensively) It took a long time to get my baggage and the traffic out of the airport was horrendous. You wouldn’t believe it. Oh yeah, I stopped by the office to file my expense report since if I didn’t I wouldn’t be able to do it for two weeks.
Linda: You’ve got time for the kids, time for your expense reports, time for everything and everyone but me! Don’t you know that I’ve been handling everything here alone all week and we have barely even spoken on the phone since Tuesday! Sometimes I wonder why you ever got married! You don’t even love me, do you? (Crying)
Linda: “See! You can’t even tell me that you love me. That proves that you don’t.” (Now crying really hard).
Charlie: “Wait a minute. Can I answer your question?”
Linda: “What question?”
Charlie: “About whether I love you.”
Linda: “I know the answer. Your silence spoke volumes!”
Charlie: “Please give me a chance.”
Linda: “Okay… what?”
Charlie: I do love you. Really. But, and I’m being honest here, I hate it when we have these fights. I hate it because when we fight I don’t feel loving towards you. I feel hurt, I feel angry, I feel scared, I feel frustrated, and those feelings obscure the love that I have for you that is always underneath them. So do I love you? Absolutely. I want us to be together always and I have no plans to ever go anywhere. And do I always feel that love at a deep level? Not always. Sometime I don’t. And when you ask me for reassurance of my love at a time that I’m feeling any of those things that I just mentioned in that moment I can’t tell you what you want to hear and mean it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not there. Sometimes I just have trouble accessing certain feelings because I’m distracted or preoccupied, or possessed by other feelings like fear, anger, or exhaustion and I’m in survival. But the love is still there and I can usually reconnect with it if I can just get myself centered and disconnect from those other distractions. Can you understand what I’m saying? Do you believe me?”
Linda: (long pause, then quietly) Yes. I believe you.
Charlie (Becoming emotional) Thank you. (Long pause). I hate it when we fight. I hate being out of touch with my love for you and I hate knowing that it’s not just you. I play a big part in these breakdowns that are so painful. I get angry at myself whenever you are disappointed in me because I feel like I’ve failed you and let you down and then I get mad at you for “making me feel bad”. Crazy isn’t it?
Linda: “Thanks for clarifying things. I’m glad that I’m not the only one who hates our fighting and that you don’t see me as the problem because I get so distraught when there’s a disconnect between us. Maybe I’m kind of crazy myself, but I can’t help it. Our relationship is the most important thing in my life and when we’re not in sync, it’s hell. And when we’re connected, it’s heaven.”
It’s not only possible to love someone and not always feel that love to the same extent, but it’s inevitable that we will. A myriad of factors influence the degree to which we are in contact with loving feelings. Being understanding of that fact can enable us to find the understanding, patience, trust, and acceptance to forgive ourselves and/or our partner when those feelings aren’t present in our current experience.
Paradoxically, accepting an absence of loving feelings in this moment can often have the effect of reawakening those feelings in our partner or ourselves. Feelings like hurt, fear, anger, loneliness, or jealousy can override our softer, more vulnerable emotions, often causing us to doubt our partner or ourselves. There’s a big difference between the experience of love and the experience of loving feelings. The former can come and go; the latter doesn’t. The more true to ourselves and each other and the accepting of each other’s experience we can be, the more present those loving feelings will be between us. When we trust the truth of our own love, the truth of our partner’s love, and that we are worthy and deserving of that love, the doubts and fears dissolve and disappear. And it just doesn’t get much better than that.