Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Litmus Test

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on September 21, 2012

The unconscious litmus test of love is often,  like, an unconscious measurement of the quality of our relationships. For example, Samantha says “Oliver does not really love me. He never buys me gifts.” For Samantha, the litmus test of love is gift-giving. Yet, she is not aware how important gift-giving is to her feeling loved, so she cannot articulate this to Oliver. Laurel says to me, “you don’t really care about me because when I tell you I have a headache, you don’t seem very interested.” For Laurel, paying attention to her somatic symptoms is how she feels loved by another. This is her unconscious litmus test. When these “do or die” moments happen in relationships, I begin to wonder why this one aspect of interchange is so critical to a feeling of being loved. Does it stem from childhood deprivation? Or, does it stem from cultural expectations? In Samantha’s case, we discussed how her mom always pointed to her jewelry, which was mostly given to her by Samantha’s dad, as evidence that they had a “great relationship”. So, Samantha picked a man, Oliver, who disappoints her in this way, perhaps in order to continue to idealize her father. She has made her father into the “good husband” and Oliver into the “bad husband.” The problem is that Oliver does not know how important gifts are to Samantha so he is confused as to why Samantha is always mad at him. In Laurel’s case, she reports that as a little girl when she got sick, no one seemed to pay attention, and so she has carried over the feelings of neglect into our relationship, where she feels that I do not show enough concern for her headaches. This failure of the litmus test brought so much pain to Laurel that she considered abruptly terminating our five year connection. Fortunately, we were able to articulate just how important my attention is, in general, but also specifically about her somatic complaints. Once again, making the unconscious, conscious, changed the course of the relationship. In these cases, the unconscious litmus test was a helpful window into the deep pains of childhood mishaps.

4 Responses to “The Litmus Test”

  1. Jon said

    It is interesting to be able to see the genesis of emotional needs in both Laurel and Samantha’s situations. I assume that much introspection is necessary to come to these insights. However, such introspection can pay off well with a better understanding of one’s psyche and hence one’s relationships. It is a road well worth the travel, and it even allows some to resister the right pH on the appropriate strips of paper….

  2. Shelly said

    But if Samantha was trying to recreate her parents’ marriage, why would she have picked Oliver in the first place? He, who did not understand the value of gifts as proof of love? Couldn’t she have seen when they were dating that he didn’t “love” her enough? If someone insists that their mother (or father) doesn’t love them even though his mother tells him all the time that she does, what does that mean and why doesn’t he believe her? When you ask if those “do or die moments” in relationships stem from cultural expectations, what did you mean?

    • Shirah said

      It is not that Samantha was trying to recreate her parents’ marriage, but rather that unconsciously speaking, she felt love was associated with gift-giving, but she was not aware of this equation until she felt disappointed by Oliver. When they were dating, the importance of gift-giving did not hit her like it did after she got married. Love is a feeling which cannot be “convinced”. I mean that the “do or die moments” are often unconscious remnants of our past social and cultural experiences.

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