Dear Dr. Yael:
I have an issue and it is causing problems in my marriage.
The home I grew up was not a warm one and I never received much love. For that reason, showing love to others is difficult for me – and for my husband. He is a warm and caring person and does not deserve my lack of affection. While I am working hard to change, I was wondering if you could offer some suggestions that might be helpful to both him and me.
Research shows that adults who do not receive a lot of love and physical closeness during their early years have a hard time showing love to their future spouses. Oxytocin is a hormone important in the development of children and adults, and is transmitted initially by the young baby being closely held to his mother when being fed. With this knowledge, parents whose children are in the NICU (neonatal ICU) will be encouraged to touch and hold the infants no matter how small they are. In fact, mothers are encouraged to do the “kangaroo,” whereby the mother holds the child skin to skin. Research shows that babies who are fed with bottles that were propped up (i.e., not held) have a harder time showing and giving affection to others as adults.
Children who are not taught to talk about their feelings and are not shown how to be warm and caring often have difficulty showing love to others when they are adults. Thus, if you grew up in a home where talking about one’s feelings and showing warmth were not taught, that may be why it is hard for you to act lovingly toward your husband. Other factors like self-esteem and trauma can also play a part in hindering one’s ability to demonstrate love and affection.
While it is helpful to understand why you have an unloving nature, it is more important to try to make a change – a difficult task for an individual to accomplish. Most people find it easier to initially change their behavior, even if it does not feel natural, as over time this can lead to a more substantial change in feelings and personality.
You can begin with your husband by showing him love. If expressing it verbally is too challenging, perhaps writing him notes will be easier. So this even if it is not something you have ever done and as I said, feels a little strange. If you are going to try saying the word, then practice what you want to say in advance, so that it will be easier for you in the moment. Try using loving speech often, as this will help it become a part of your nature. Metoch shelo lishma, ba lishma – behaving in the right manner, even if not for the sake of Hashem, can become for the sake of Hashem. The same is true with a person’s nature. From behaving lovingly, even if you are not doing it from of a loving feeling, will become a feeling of love. Furthermore, just by giving more to your husband, you will begin to feel closer to him.
It also may be helpful to figure out what your husband’s “love language” is. Individuals are programmed to feel loved in different ways, and often, we may think we are acting in a loving manner, but are not really giving our spouse what he/she needs.
Here are some examples of love languages (based on the work of Dr. Gary Chapman):
Meir and Shani come into my office feeling very frustrated with each other. Everyone thinks that they are a perfect couple. They are financially well off, they are an absolutely stunning looking couple, they have five beautiful children, and two homes. They are viewed as the “perfect couple” and both are active in many chesed projects. However they are miserable.
Shani says that Meir is a workaholic and has no time for her. Meir says that he feels Shani has no appreciation for all of his hard work and the lifestyle he provides for her and their family.
What is missing? When I ask each of them to list the other spouse’s positive qualities Meir lists all the things that Shani – cooking, taking care of their home and the children etc. He says he appreciates all that she does and that he tells her so very often. Shani says that Meir is a hard worker and that she does appreciate his work, but she needs him to spend time with her. Meir wishes Shani would verbalize more appreciation for him.