Sooner or later, married people will acquire and manifest The Strange Idea. The word “strange” here can mean anything from ideas not useful to ideas absurd, untrue, unfair, or dishonest. I call this phenomenon The Strange Idea because, when I hear it in marital counseling sessions, I tend to narrow my eyebrows, look puzzled, and say, “What a … interesting idea,” because if you flat out call it a strange idea people might get their feelings hurt.
But, don’t be fooled. When I say “interesting,” I mean STRANGE.
The wonder is that husbands and wives can articulate The Strange Idea with a straight face. With clarity and conviction. Like they are saying something important and meaningful. But, sooner or later, all husbands and all wives take a shot at it. And, often get away with it. Meaning, their mates don’t notice that it was a Strange Idea. So the mate engages it. And then they fight about it.
Here are two common examples of The Strange Idea:
“I shouldn’t have to ask [for what I need!]”
It’s important to say this with just the right combination of indignation and incredulity. Who cares that the utterance makes no sense whatsoever. That, effectively, it presupposes the wedding vows included “love, honor, cherish and be psychic.” Never mind that, if anyone has a rightful claim on indignation and incredulity, it’s the hearer of this particular Strange Idea.
Then, what you chronically don’t get what you need, tell yourself another Strange Idea, like:
“My mate is deliberately withholding what I need because he/she doesn’t care about me.”
From here we can build a strong case of entitlement for resentment. With sufficient resentment, you can build a case for the fire fighter, bar maid, or neighbor who “really understands you.”
Or … you could ask for what you need. Which isn’t to say that you’ll get everything you ask for. It’s just that asking will start a dialogue. And, in that faithful and loving dialogue, the two of you can agree together whether 1) what you’re asking for is unreasonable, 2) the very legitimate reason why your mate cannot, right now, give what you’re asking, 3) the simple fact that what your asking is not your mate’s to give, ever, or 4) “Yes indeed my love – here’s what you need and thanks for asking!”
When your spouse says to you, “I shouldn’t have to ask for what I need,” the learned, loving and wise response should be, “Huh?” Apart from the fact that your mate isn’t psychic, here’s an even more important reason to say, “Huh?” Human beings have built-in, non-negotiable limits, one of which is attention span. Sooner or later, with no exceptions, even the most doting, loving spouse will Stop Paying Attention. Not because they’ve stopped loving. But because they are tired. Sometimes just because they are human. So, all great marriages require semi-regular inoculations of “Hey, I need some attention!”
If my mate asks me for something in the relationship, I should look martyred, oppressed, exasperated, burdened, or maybe even get defensive and combative.
Now that’s a Strange Idea. Wow. You’re kidding, right? Here’s how it’s done: When your wife or your husband lay hearts open before you, eat a bucket of pride and reveal their deepest, most naked desires, longings and needs … it is not an invitation to kick ass and deliver the Oy Vey Manifesto. Nope; the right response is to lean back and kiss the sky in gratitude for giving you a mate this faithful, this courageous, this honest. Be grateful, because you’ve just received a high compliment. That is, you’ve been entrusted. Your mate has entrusted something precious to you.
Be grateful, if for no other reason than your mate is talking to you, … and not to the fire fighter across town, or the bar maid, or the neighbor.
Or, perhaps you’d prefer it if they took their needs elsewhere and quit bothering you? Then, when you discover the betrayal, you’ll be in a counselor’s office, saying, “Can you believe it!? Can you believe what he/she did to me?”
And the counselor might narrow the eyebrows, look puzzled and say, “What a … interesting idea.”
If, in whatever combination of words, inertia, eye rolls, head shakes, exasperated sighs and begrudging tone, you spend months and years effectively saying to your mate, “Please go away and stop bothering me with your needs,” … well, your mate will eventually believe you.
(Steven Kalas is an author, a therapist and an Episcopal priest. You can can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)