The Legitimate Needs that Fuel Negative Cycles

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Men’s and women’s most pressing relationship needs are often different, and that can really wreak havoc as they interact about the hot-button issue of pornography. For instance, husbands often have a very pressing need for acceptance from their wives. They so deeply want to get along, to feel like there’s peace in the relationship and that things are smooth between them as a couple. A man feels loved and confident when he knows that his wife is pleased and contented.

The wife, by contrast, typically has an equally pressing need to maintain a sense of closeness with her husband. She so deeply wants to know what’s happening inside for him, to talk about how things are going. She wants to make sure that their hearts and minds are on the same page and that they’re working together on issues and problems.

It may not seem like a big difficulty, this gap or variance between what each of them yearns for most out of the relationship. However, each partner’s need is, to him or her, like emotional oxygen. If they’re not getting it, they can become panicky and fixated. Neither can give what the other needs because they’re both now scrambling so desperately for what they need. Feeling so unacceptable in Cheryl’s eyes, Craig can’t draw close to her. So distraught that she may never have the closeness she needs, Cheryl literally cannot convey approval and acceptance. Each partner becomes even more distraught and fixated as the cycle escalates. Watch how it can affect their interaction:

A couple of weeks after the problem in the mall, Cheryl wants to talk as they finally collapse into bed one night. “How did things go for you today?” she says.

“Fine.”

“I mean with temptation.”

“It was fine,” Craig said. “I’ve told you I have no desire for that stuff since it’s all come out in the open. Today was the same as yesterday, and the same as the time before that when you asked. It will probably be going fine if you ask tomorrow. I realize that because of my behavior you have every right to ask, but it seems like you’re not convinced even if I tell you things are going well.”

Craig desperately craves a restored sense that there is peace between them again, a feeling of acceptance from her. But remember, she needs to feel the closeness that comes from intimate involvement in the intricacies of his life. She wants to keep her finger on his emotional pulse.

“I’ve been reading about pornography addiction,” Cheryl says, “and they say that almost all men relapse several times along the way in their recovery. You’re telling me you’re unique, and that it’s just suddenly over for you?”

“I don’t know how many times I have to tell you: It was a relief to get it out in the open,” Craig counters. “I hated keeping the secret and living a double life. I’m happy you know. It makes it easier. It’s easy now. I’m just trying to tell you the truth. Should I lie and say that I’m struggling just to make you feel better? Even when I was having the problem, sometimes I’d go weeks or even months without giving in. It wasn’t ever as big of a deal as you seem to think it is. I think that all your reading is actually making this worse in your mind.”

Again we see it: He wants there to be peace between them again; she’s looking for connection by way of opennness and involvement.

“So now I’m exaggerating your problem and making things worse by learning about it. Amazing! I guess I was mistaken to think that you might be grateful for the help. I know, I know, I should just stop bugging you and everything would be fine. Well, things aren’t fine! I’ve been devastated! I think about it all the time now, Craig! You think I like thinking about this stuff?! I hate it! And I’m starting to hate you for ruining what I thought we had together!”

“Cheryl, if you only knew how common this is. Most men aren’t even trying to stop! It’s not like I’m some pervert. I’m still the same guy you thought I was, I just had this struggle you didn’t know about. It doesn’t make me some terrible person!”

“You’re the same guy I thought I was married to, with only one small difference: You’re a guy who looks at pictures of other women and fantasizes about having sex with them. Oh yeah, and you’re a guy who could keep a habit like this a secret from the woman he’s married to for seven years. That’s all. Just those two little differences.”

“I’m not going to talk to you if you’re going to be sarcastic.” Craig throws back the covers and gets up out of bed.

“Go ahead and leave,” Cheryl shouts through sobs. “That’s what you always do! You won’t even stay here and work through it with me! Once again I have to deal with the tough stuff on my own!”

“You’re going to wake up the kids!” Craig retorts through gritted teeth.

“The kids?” Cheryl shouts after him as he leaves the room. “You’re concerned about the kids? Well, I wish you’d been thinking more about the kids that night when you were looking at porn on your phone when you were supposed to be tending them! I wish you’d thought more about the kids all those years when you were thinking about having sex with women besides their mother!”

Cheryl cannot show Craig the acceptance he craves. Craig cannot draw close to Cheryl in the way she yearns for. And many of the couples who are being torn apart by pornography are just like Craig and Cheryl in this way.

A smoke detector is constantly monitoring, and yet it remains silent when the air is clean. However, once there exists in the air the problematic element that the detector has been designed to identify, the alarm is sounded. The alarm won’t be quieted until the problem is addressed, the smoke is cleared, and the air is clean once again.

Within every one of us is a psychological system that is designed to maintain the connection in our most important relationships. When things are fine between us, we can function as usual. When the connection is threatened, an inner alarm is sounded. It won’t be quieted until the problem is addressed, a sense of connection reestablished, and things are clear between us once again.

For most men, the inner detector is monitoring: “Am I acceptable to you? Am I the man you want me to be? Am I the good guy in your eyes? Do I measure up? Am I getting it right? Are you satisfied and content with me?” With this as priority number one, I’m never surprised when I hear men say, “If the wife ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” There’s a strong element of sincerity in their joking.

However, he has now disclosed or been discovered to have a pornography problem. The inner alarm has sounded: “I messed things up. She disapproves of me. Look at what I did to her. And the scab gets ripped off again for her when I’m around her and she talks about it to me. I’m the source of her pain. I don’t want to bring her down any more than I have already. Her sadness is bringing me down. It’s as though we’ve become enemies over this issue.

“Well, what can be done now to address the problem? Can the air ever be cleared of this smoke? Can the connection be reestablished? Is there anything that can be done to help things be good between us again? This is the person who matters most to me in the entire world. I have to try: I’ll give her time and space to calm down. I will stay away in hopes that things will cool off. As terrible as this seems to her now, maybe it can blend into the background as time goes on. She’ll see other things about me again and remember that I’m not so bad. If we can just focus on other things, the positive aspects of life we share and can continue building together . . .”

All the while, there is an inner detector in most women. Here’s what it’s monitoring: “Are we close? Is he there for me? Will he listen to my concerns? Do we share? Do we talk? Are we together? Working as one? Do I know what’s going on with him?”

Unfortunately, when he gives her time and space—the very method by which he is hoping to reestablish the good connection they once had—the inner alarm sounds for her: “He won’t let me in! He doesn’t care about what I’m going through! He downplays my feelings. I’m disconnected from him! He doesn’t want to talk! He won’t take my input! He shuts down when I approach him! He’s pulling away. He is more distant than ever!”

From this perspective (the only perspective, by the way, that she’s capable of at this point), what can be done to address the problem? She can feel the person who is most important to her slipping away. She has to do something: “I’ll keep talking, reaching for and calling out to him. Bringing up my concerns. I’ll express to him how much I’m hurting. I’ll amplify my calls of distress. I’ll do anything I can to get through to him in hopes that he’ll hear me and respond by coming toward me so that we can be close again . . .”

In and of itself, her behavior is not a problem. Texting him to see if he’s at risk of having a problem today or asking if he is attracted to a woman who just walked by are simply reflexive behaviors fueled by a very important instinct: to protect their connection and preserve their relationship. She’s trying to bring him closer in the best way she knows how in that distressing moment. Her attempts to rebuild the broken connection originate from a reflexive drive to resecure her bond to her husband, the most important person in her life. The only problem is that her actions trigger a different reaction in him.

Likewise, in and of itself, his reflexive behavior is not the problem. By not bringing up the issue and focusing on other things, he’s trying to reassure her and minimize the damage. But his reaction triggers an even stronger reaction in her than the one that provoked her initial reaching out in the first place!

Here are two people with legitimate needs and sound relationship instincts. The problem is that their reflexive behavior doesn’t clear the air. It actually creates more smoke, leading each of them to pursue more vigorously the tactic for connecting that is unintentionally further impeding the connection. They are two well-meaning people who are doing their very best. Over time they may come to see each other as enemies in this process, but it is really only the cycle between them that is the enemy.

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