The "Needy Woman"/Detached Guy Couple: It's Not What It Seems

One of the things I've learned in my many years as a family therapist involve new ways of thinking about the male emotional landscape. As we know, men have been typically acculturated not to show much emotional pain or need. The couples who come to see me have taught me not to be fooled by these "cool" guys: Men are as hungry for love as women. They just wear it differently

Here's an example of a couple that I see frequently in my office, only more so. It has something to say about how people are not necessarily as they appear:

It was hard to gauge the state of Nora and Charles' relationship when they first sat down on the couch. ( An initial glimpse into a couple's energy often says a lot about where things are at). I hadn't seen them for several months due to traveling and other scheduling issues. They had been to see me five or six times, with gradual improvement. "Improvement" in this case means less fighting, and that Charles was no longer threatening to leave the relationship.

At this session, Charles acknowledged that things are "better". Asked what he meant, he said, "Less nagging, less fighting.". Nora agreed, said she felt happier, they were enjoying each other more, but still worried that this lack of fighting signaled a fragile peace, rather than meaningful change.

Charles, an Australian-born film editor and Nora, owner of a graphic design company, first came to see me when they were on the verge of separation. They'd lived together for 7 years, never married, and had a 3-year old son, Benjamin. The initial, superficial impression was that these two people were polar opposites; he-uptight, unavailable, with clenched jaw, she-emotional, open, vulnerable.

At our initial session, Charles said he'd "give therapy a chance", but he "couldn't take the nagging" and seemed to be headed for the door. Nora, a sweet-faced strawberry blonde, looked really weepy and upset, while Charles sat stone-faced on the couch next to her. Charles was one of the most understated characters I've seen in my office; a handsome, expressionless face, monotone voice, and his body seemed weighted with exhaustion. His wife appeared to have much more life in her; even her pain was more alive.

In our sessions I ended up working like an archaeologist, unearthing the emotions which Charles had long denied, both to himself and to Nora. Slowly, one layer of rubble at a time, Charles began emerging, slightly more vulnerable, slightly more revealing. It required some heavy lifting on my part. I knew how Nora felt.

Charles , whose parents divorced when he was an infant, had been kicked into an early adulthood at age thirteen, when , in the midst of his mother's re-marriage, he was sent to a European boarding school As he said, he "never returned home" except for brief periods. He maintained a cool, cordial relationship with both parents, nothing cozy or messy--mostly polite and distant-ish.

Nora, by contrast, had more overt upheaval in her family, including a parental divorce when she was 12, and a sister with apparent bi-polar disorder. The family pressures had calmed down over the years and now Nora, the oldest, enjoyed a warm relationship with both parents-her Mom especially-and felt emotionally protective toward her sister and brother .

Over the course of several visits, Charles and Nora's relationship seemed easier, lighter. However, I could clearly understand Nora's "nagging", since this guy's stony silence made me want to light a fire under him. But I also understood how bad it must have felt for Charles to be under the gun all the time. Indeed, Nora, though a lively and intuitive woman, DID seem to be overly tuned-in to Charles' deficits. For example, Charles came alive when talked about how much he loved his daily ritual of making breakfast for their son. Nora, however, felt that this ritual could be improved upon, and she had suggestions to go with it.

At this last session, the couple did seem to be in a better place. Charles was slightly looser, less uptight, and Nora looked and sounded lighter and brighter. Though she said she indeed felt "happier", Nora harbored a worry that if she raised something "unpleasant" Charles would bolt. She became convinced that "he would be just fine" without her.

This was the theme of every session-to lift the mask of disengagement from Charles face so that Nora could really, truly, see her partner. I asked Nora if she was serious in believing that Charles, this pseudo- Iron Man, didn't need her? I told her (and him) that I was quite sure Charles' hunger for love was as deep as hers- he just had more practice hiding it. I knew that he had been "practicing" since he left at home at 13. He hadn't asked for much since that time.

Charles didn't deny it. He turned to Nora, and with as much feeling as I'd seen from him, said, "Of course I don't want to break up this relationship. Of course I would hate to see it end!" That's probably as much an expression of need that she's ever gotten from him. But it was heartfelt, and she recognized that. The tension seemed to go out of her body.

As we finished the session, I realize that the process of "unmasking" Charles has been critical to this couple's increased sense of well-being. I always assumed, despite evidence to the contrary, that this relationship was more emotionally equal than it looked.

In fact, that's a concept which I often include, overtly or covertly, with couples. In general, our unconscious emotional antennae is reliable, in that we partner with people with the same degree of emotional need. Family therapy theorist Murray Bowen, called it the same level of "differentiation of self". Others important family therapists like Carl Whitaker or Sal Minuchin described it differently, but all imply that we, for the most part, marry our emotional equal.

This is an important understanding in working with and understanding couples, including ourselves. It may help us to begin to look at the picture a bit differently. If the wife seems "needy", you can assume that the cool-seeming husband is just as hungry for love, on the inside. No matter how it looks!