Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Withholding Husband

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 16, 2012

Abey, fifty, always felt inadequate in her family of four brothers. She is the youngest, and although she is an attorney, happy in her career, financially successful, she feels that compared to her investment banker brothers, she is the “poor relation.” Not surprisingly, she marries a man who never tells her she is pretty, smart or successful. Also, not surprisingly she feels she is “missing something” from her relationships. Abey suffers from underappreciating herself and thereby cultivating relationships in which ultimately she feels taken for granted. When Abey came to realize this dynamic, she was married for thirty years and taken aback by her tolerance for such little appreciation. This understanding led to some relief and some despair. “Do you know what it is like to be married to a man who has never told me I am pretty?” She asks, not wanting an answer, but wanting an appreciation for her deprivation. “I guess you recreated a relationship which was all too familiar for you,” I say, expressing compassion, understanding and sorrow. “Yes, but now what am I supposed to do?” She asks, this time expecting an answer. “Maybe you should begin by appreciating yourself?” I say, pointing to the fundamental problem that Abey has no sense of her own achievements and her own beauty. “I don’t know how to do that,” she says with tears. “I know. That is a big first step.” I say, helping her begin to tackle this larger issue of self-admiration, thereby changing the focus away from her husband and on to herself.

4 Responses to “The Withholding Husband”

  1. Shelly said

    I recently read an article that said that we tend to marry spouses similar to parents with whom we ultimately wish to repair relationships with. In this case, did Abey have a good relationship with her father, or a tumultuous one? Can this marriage be symbolic od her need to relive and repair her relationships with her brothers? She wishes and craves– no needs some positive support from her husband, so reminiscent of her need for kindness at the hands of her brothers. How do you going about teaching Abey to appreciate herself when nobody ever taught her, as a child, that she had any worth, except what she pride she could bring her parents? I say that because obviously, with her choice of law amongst brothers as investment bankers, what others think of this family surely seems important.

    • Yes, relationships are often a way in which we re-create previous traumatic relationships with the hope for a happier ending. Yes, Abey was enacting her need for appreciation in the midst of an emotional desert, once again with her husband. Teaching Abey to appreciate herself is a monumental task, which, of course, begins with small steps of reflection. Having Abey begin a new script where she no longer compares herself to her brothers is our task. Thanks.

  2. Jon said

    The entire “self-esteem “movement pervasive of the last two decades plus sadly missed the point that to have self-esteem, one must do something for which to have it. It does not just exist, but needs to be earned.

    From your description, Abey has done much to earn both self-esteem and the esteem of others. Sadly, family dynamics – both the family she grew up with and the family she created – are inhibiting esteem and happiness. The best of luck in holding a mirror to her and showing you that she has indeed attributes worthy of appreciation.

    • Jon, I agree and disagree. I agree that self-esteem can come from actions which are “esteem building” but it can also come from a basic self-confidence in the type of person one is. Both external and internal sources of self-esteem are critical to self-confidence. I agree that the “self-esteem” movement has swung too far in the direction of just “love yourself” and too far from “do some good for society”. Yet, balance, as with most things, is the key. Both sides are valid and essential.
      Attributes worthy of appreciation, is a judgment, so for Abey to appreciate herself, she must develop a new set of criteria for “good”. Developing this new criteria is our task. Thanks.

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