Many marriage seminars teach that “effective communication” is the primary building block of a healthy marriage. There is no doubt that the words, tone, and non-verbals we use when communicating with our spouses convey volumes about how we think and feel about them. However, I would posit that there is an even greater over-arching principle that we must be aware of if we are to grow and sustain strong, vibrant emotional connections with our husbands and wives. It is a seemingly simple, yet often elusive concept, namely presence. By “presence” I mean that when our spouse is talking to us, asking us or showing us something, we need to give him or her our attention and focus. Because when we turn to our partner in response to their bid for our attention, we are showing them that they are important to us, that we value them. By giving them our attention, we are giving them a piece of ourselves. We are saying to them, “Here I am, sharing myself with you. Because you are that important to me.”
To get a sense of the power of having someone’s full attention versus not having their attention, imagine that you want to tell your spouse about a very difficult situation you have been having at work, which has been making you feel very inadequate and upset. In the first scenario, you approach your spouse and begin talking. As you are talking, he or she is looking at their phone, occasionally looking up and saying, “Uh huh…uh huh.” In the second scenario, as you begin talking, you spouse puts his or her phone down, maintains eye contact with you as you are speaking, and listens without interrupting you. How would you feel in each of these scenarios? Would you feel listened to? Heard? Understood? Cared about?
How do I know that presence is so vital in marriage? I know this because by far, one of the most common complaints I hear from partners in distressed relationships is that they feel their partners talk minimally to them, and when they do, they talk “only about the kids” or “the new tile for the kitchen” or “who’s going to pick up a quart of milk from the supermarket.” They can’t remember the last time they had a conversation with their spouse about their innermost thoughts or feelings. And they long and need—to share those parts of themselves that they hide from the rest of the world, with that person they chose above all others. And to know that that person will hear them, understand them, and be okay with what they share. In short, that they will be present with them as they speak. When they feel their partners are not “present” for them, most partners report experiencing great sadness, loneliness, and sometimes even abandonment.
As in previous columns, I would now like to discuss how this concept of “presence” can be applied by both newly married couples as well as those couples who have been married longer term. Newly married couples don’t usually need to be told to be “present” with their spouses. Typically, they are in their own world and have eyes only for each other. So, how can this concept possibly be relevant for them? I believe the answer lies in the fact that the “infatuation phase” comes to an end after a period of 18 to 36 months. At that time, differences of personality and style between the couple that once seemed “adorable” or “wonderful” may begin to seem “annoying” or “upsetting,” perhaps resulting in disappointment or disillusionment with one another. In addition, life’s demands of school or work begin to make it difficult for the couple to find sufficient time for one another. If not understood properly, both of these factors may result in the couple becoming less present with one another and perhaps distancing from one another. If, however, the young couple knows and understands that it is normal and inevitable that the “infatuation phase” will come to an end and that “reality” will take over, they will be less likely to become disappointed or disillusioned with their spouse when they inevitably witness each other’s human frailties. They will be able to build a deep, mature love for one another, based on who they really are, rather than on their fantasies of who they think they are.
What can longer-married couples do to incorporate more “presence” into their marriages? I would suggest that if you are comfortable, first have a conversation with your spouse about the concept. You can tell your partner that you “feel it would really benefit your relationship if both of you would start giving each other more attention.” Then you can each share with your spouse which acts or gestures he or she could do that would be meaningful to you, and explain the meaning they would have for you. Just having this talk might open up conversation in which you share your thoughts and feelings with each other, perhaps something you haven’t done in quite some time. You may be saying to yourself, “My spouse and I don’t talk like this to each other, so I can’t imagine doing this!” It may indeed be quite different from the way you have been relating to each other for a very long time. However, I assure you it is exactly this deep emotional bond that all of us are longing for with our husbands and wives. Remember—presence is the greatest present we can give our spouse and, therefore, ourselves.
Laura Turk, MS, LMFT, LPC, NCC is a licensed marriage and family therapist. She practices marital and pre-marital therapy in Teaneck, New Jersey. Contact her at [email protected] or by calling her at 201-823-7933. You can also visit her website at www.marriagecounselingbergencounty.com.
By Laura Turk, MS