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Compliant Partners - 1/15/2007

You know them.  They’re the ones who always defer to their spouses.  The ones who voice few opinions, laugh half-heartedly, agree consistently and deny feelings of anger or resentment over being controlled by a spouse who runs the show, calls the shots, sets the pace and often seems totally insensitive to the feelings harbored by their other halves.  

It isn’t necessarily their fault, however.  This type of individual capitulates, compromises his own opinions and positions and rarely voices his thoughts or feelings.  His orientation is governed by an  attitude characterized by statements such as  “It isn’t worth the effort.  These are little things that truly don’t matter.  I do it for the sake of peace”, or “It’s not worth starting WW IIII over inconsequential matters.”  He justifies his position with “Truly, I don’t care.  It doesn’t matter to me.  I’ve got bigger issues to deal with.”  However, one rarely hears what they are.  Despite his outward appearance of intelligence, his level of education, even the amount of money he contributes to the relationship, he assumes a secondary position, content, on the surface, to be the dutiful, compliant, passive spouse who is looked upon as “A gem”, “A good person”, who is often referred to as “Poor Bill or Jane. He or she takes an awful lot, but they do it well.  You can’t help but like and admire them for their tolerance.”  In most instances, however, their tolerance is a facade.  Underneath, there is passive resentment which, on occasion, may escalate into an angry tirade, an outburst of frustration, tears, or hostility which is short-lived on the surface, but omnipresent in their underlying feelings and emotions.  

In many ways, the picture isn’t radically different from the position women assumed across the board only a couple of decades ago.  Looking back over many years, I cannot begin to count the number of wives I’ve known professionally and personally,  who felt insignificant, inadequate and dependent on men who ran the show.  Similar to the present day compliant male, they, too, gave up any sense of personal rights.  They felt they contributed little because they earned little.  They saw themselves as dependent on husbands, without whom they couldn’t survive or raise their children.  They were the quintessential “Stepford Wives”.  

In today’s world, the stereotypical roles previously held by men and women seem to be reversed, but the dynamics are the same.  As a result,  you now see an increased number of men who complain about their unsatisfied need for love, who desperately strive for care, nurturance and acceptance from their wives.  These individuals see themselves as subservient and emotionally dependent.  They feel threatened by potential loss of their spouse’s approval or acceptance and try harder because they see themselves in second place.  All the while, underlying resentment makes itself apparent in passive-aggressive behaviors, withholding of affection or sex, and occasional vitriolic outbursts.  The result is that  marital relationships suffer enormously.  In past years, it was wives who redirected their attention to their children in lieu of their spouses.  Their husbands may have felt jealous, but were reluctant to express it.  After all, how does one say “You’re too good to your children.  I resent it.”?  It wasn’t politically correct then and it isn’t today.  Now, on an increasing basis, I see women complaining about men who aren’t interested sexually,  are more emotionally expressive toward their children than they are to their wives and display little real affection or care for their spouses.   Ironically, these attitudes aren’t always apparent by their outward behavior. Presents are still given at Christmas, on anniversaries and birthdays.  Vacations are taken together, and friends, children and social acquaintances often view them as “golden couples”.  But in the bedroom, behind closed doors, the story is different.  Honest conversation rarely takes place.  Intimacy is absent and emotional interactions, outside of occasional angry outbursts, are not to be seen.  Their time and attention are primarily directed toward maintaining the outward facade of their relationships without any  effort being directed toward emotional growth, acquiring greater sensitivity to one another or to changing their behaviors.  

Unfortunately, I suspect that a majority of married partners aren’t aware of how their spouses feel. Instead, they’re primarily engaged in emotionally protecting themselves   But that’s not something new.  Today’s marital problems are no different from the ones I saw in therapy ten or twenty years ago, except the shoe is on the other foot.  Now, it’s wives instead of husbands who come in stating “I can’t understand it.  I had no idea how angry or sad he felt.  Then out of the blue, without telling me, he filed for divorce.”  My response is typically  “No wonder he filed.  You were so unaware of his feelings that you never saw how discontent, hurt and angry he was.”  “But, if he was so unhappy, why didn’t he tell me?” they ask.  The answer they usually hear from their spouse is the same that I heard decades ago from angry women.  “I did, time and time again.  But you never listened.”  For the most part, both statements are true.  It’s as though countless individuals remain in a relationship while filling up a 100-pound sack with hurts and irritations that they never openly,  honestly or clearly discuss.  Then, when they have 120 pounds of hurt and frustration crammed into that 100-pound sack, the seams split and like Humpty-Dumpty, all the King’s horses and all the King’s men can’t put their relationship back together again.

In the end, compliant partners wind up being depressed, passive-aggressive “good guys/gals” who never win.   Why?  Because they tend to deny their emotions, to themselves as well as others.  They keep their own counsel and, as a result,  rarely share their true feelings with anyone. Thus, they never get to hear another viewpoint.  Although they often boil inside, they disallow their emotions to govern their behavior, except for infrequent angry outbursts.  Overall, they don’t view their lives as necessarily bad, but they rarely perceive them as joyous.  For them, life is mainly tolerated, rather than desired.  To alter this condition, they must learn to open themselves up emotionally, to share whatever they discover inside them and be willing to be flexible and amenable to change.  None of which is easily achieved, but all of which is possible if they are genuinely committed to solving their problem.

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