Emotional styles cause heavy problems

CAN THIS MARRIAGE BE SAVED?

June 26, 1994|By From Ladies' Home Journal Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Michelle is certain that Eric, her husband of 10 years, is going to leave her. "He says he loves me," says the 35-year-old civil engineer, "but I know he doesn't mean it. And it's all because I'm too fat."

Michelle never dreamed anyone would ever fall in love with her. "My mother would hit me or scream at me whenever I didn't do something right." Miserable at home, Michelle buried herself in books. She met Eric in a college physics lab and fell instantly in love.

But in all the time they've been married, she says, he has never stopped criticizing her weight. "He's always suggesting some new book or diet. He makes me nuts."

What hurts the most is that Eric doesn't want to spend time with her anymore: "After work, he heads straight to the gym to play basketball, and he doesn't get home before 10 p.m." On the rare nights that they're home together, she reports, he sits on the couch and watches TV. If she goes over to cuddle, he gets up and walks into the other room. "Pretty soon," Michelle adds, "he'll fall in love with some waif-like 19-year-old who worships him and leave me for good."

Eric, 37, can't believe the way his wife misinterprets everything. "I can't get this woman to believe that I love her," he sighs. "Yes, I want her to lose weight, but the reason I talk to her about her diet and tell her what to eat and urge her to exercise is not because I think she's ugly. It's unhealthy to be as heavy as she is."

Eric admits, though, that he finds Michelle's neediness hard to handle. "She smothers me," he says. "I can't go to the bathroom for five minutes to take out my contact lenses without her saying, 'Eric, Eric, where are you?' " Nor does he much appreciate the way she exaggerates: "She makes it sound like I'm out all the HTC time. That's not true. I play basketball twice a week for two hours tops," he says.

"Look," he adds, "I'm not the lovey-dovey type -- my family was much more reserved than hers. We certainly never screamed at each other in the way she screams at me." Eric wants to stay married, but the more Michelle tries to pull him closer, the faster he runs the other way.

Hot buttons

"Though on the surface this couple is fighting about Michelle's weight, we believed that issue was a red herring," say Evelyn Moschetta and Paul Moschetta, a counseling team in New York. Many times, the ostensible reason a couple will come to counseling masks another, underlying issue. True, Michelle needs to consult a weight-loss specialist about her obesity, but that's not a marital problem. In their marriage therapy, Michelle and Eric need to concentrate on reconciling their very different emotional styles.

Michelle is outgoing, demonstrative and desperate for affection. When she senses any distance from Eric, she grows anxious. She eats, and she clings to him.

Raised in an orderly, undemonstrative household, where independence was valued, Eric recoils from his wife's dependency. When his wife speaks angrily, his emotional hot button is pushed, and he withdraws.

Our relationship with our mate often triggers emotions that hark back to childhood. How can you determine each other's hot buttons? Think about what each of you needs most in a relationship -- and what frightens you the most. What other times can you remember feeling that way? Share your thoughts with your spouse; then look for ways to meet your own and each other's needs.

For instance, Michelle can see friends or go to a movie on the nights Eric plays ball, instead of sitting home alone. Eric can offer small, consistent signs of affection -- a quick call from work, a hug on the way out the door -- to let her know how much he does love her.

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