I need you to start the asparagus now (or, give me love)
My therapist has asked me to say my feelings to my husband. "Talk poetry," she says.
I stare at her blankly.
She tries prompting me with examples: "I need you. I love it when you hold me. My heart feels full of sunlight when you're around."
She raises an eyebrow. "Why don't you practice?" she says. "Think of an expression of feeling and say it to me."
I shrink further into the sofa cushions. "I literally cannot think of a single phrase," I say.
We still have 45 minutes left in our session and I have no idea what else there can possibly be to talk about. I know she's right, I absolutely know she is—but I also don't know how to change 32 years of cerebral conditioning.
"All right, let's just practice the one," she says, taking out her appointment book. "Just go home this week and try out, 'I need you.'"
When I get home later that evening, I share this with my aunt, who's in town visiting for a couple of days. She thinks it's very funny, because of course she knows my professorial parents and how much pressure I felt to tally up Accomplishments (and swallow back Feelings) as a child. She sees my therapist's challenge as a wonderful opportunity for my marriage with Sean.
Sean also thinks this is hilarious. He has a running classification of my myriad of eye-rolls (double-flutter-upper-left-two-head-swivels), but he still is trying to learn to speak "Kyra-opposite-language." As in: Turn left (means turn right); Go away (means hold me); I'm so frustrated right now (means I'm scared). Obviously.
"I neeeeeeeed you," I say to my husband, trying to practice. "I neeeeed you—to start the grill for the asparagus right now."
My aunt laughs even harder. I may actually be hopeless.
I really try to voice my feelings to Sean over the next week. The funny thing is that, while I'm a person who's very expressive with my emotions—readily laughing or crying or raising my voice—when it comes to saying or describing those feelings with my husband, I feel awkward and constrained. Words of affirmation (if you're familiar with the five love languages), not my thing.
Pretty quickly, I realize that the times I struggle the most to say how I'm feeling are when he's said or done something to hurt my feelings. How, when I'm hurt or I'm lonely, can I possibly croon to him with eyes of honey, "I need you."
I return to my therapist triumphant: not because I actually succeeded in what she asked, I didn't—but because I analyzed the data and have a new theory regarding a pattern. Oh, and I read a book about relationships and ordered another.
"How do I express my feelings when he's done something really hurtful?" I say.
"Like what?" she says.
"Like, when he doesn't listen to me."
"But that's not what you want," she says. "You want him to do more than just listen to you."
"Yeah maybe eventually," I say. "But can we at least start with that? Like I'm telling him something important, and suddenly he's picking up his phone to check TrainingPeaks. Or he seems to forget a lot of things I say—but I think it's actually that, while I'm talking, he's thinking about other things, like work or whatever."
"Well he shouldn't be picking up his phone."
"Do you tell him that?" she says. "Do you tell him you want him to listen?"
"Yes," I say. "I tell him I want him to bear witness to my life, to validate me."
"Validate?" she says and—to my surprise—guffaws loudly. "Your husband doesn't know what that means! Men don't know what the fuck [yes, she actually drops an F-bomb] 'validate me' means!!"
"Oh," I say. "Well then what do I say?"
"How about, 'I know I've told you some things and it's all kind of complicated, but what I really need right now is for your support. I need you to give me some love.'"
She's so right. Here I am so focused on building skills and competencies so we can have a "successful" marriage, when what I really want is to feel loved and reassured that my husband is and always will be there for me.
But on the scale of 0-to-completely-vulnerable, criticizing my husband is like a 1, whereas saying I need him and I need his love is like an oh heck no.
Fortunately, according to the Please Understand Me book I read this week:
'Wanting to be competent' is not a strong enough expression of the force behind the NT's quest. He must be competent . . . the NT has many should know's and should be-able-to's itemized in massive lists inside his head . . . He runs a kind of bureaucracy of excellence, and thus can be a perfectionist.
So I'm confident, having now decided Saying Feelings is a competency I should acquire, that I will become better at doing so.
And I'm more grateful than ever to be with a man who's in love with my perfectionist, pain-in-the-neck self—and devoted to investing the time and energy to get to know me over the course of my life.
And to grilling food for me when I really, really neeeeeeed him to.
(Photo: Mike Olliver)