My partner and I went to couples therapy last year and in lots of ways it helped, but his nervousness about the relationship ending has made him excessively attentive. Before sex, he wants to light candles, put music on, and run me a bath. I know this is nice, but he’s trying so hard that it feels unnatural and off-putting.
It is difficult to identify the precise point at which attentiveness stops feeling loving and starts feeling creepy, but you clearly believe that your husband has passed that point. If you were happy with him, you would interpret his demonstrations of affection and attentiveness as thoughtful and romantic, but you are not entirely happy, are you?
The psychological term to describe this relationship dynamic is demand/withdraw. His constant demands for reassurance that the relationship is not about to end are off-putting and generate your response to withdraw. He interprets your withdrawal as indifference, which makes him feel more insecure and so he tries even harder. It is exhausting and unsustainable and it suggests that, despite the therapy, things have not changed significantly for you both.
Although you believe that it has helped, a therapeutic process that leaves one partner feeling insecure and the other irritated has not been a complete success.
Therapy should have been an opportunity to articulate all the things you never felt you could say to your partner, and it was his opportunity to get his questions answered and his doubts assuaged, or confirmed. Unfortunately, therapy only succeeds if both partners are 100% honest and that doesn’t always happen.
People don’t tell the truth for all sorts of reasons: because they are worried about the consequences of splitting, because they are scared of being alone, because they don’t want to hurt their partner, split their family, or reveal things that they have been hiding. In couples therapy, honesty is much more important than being nice. If one person is turning up and holding back, or going through the motions to make it look as if they tried, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. and money.
You don’t say what the underlying issue was, but research shows that therapy tends to work better when couples agree on the most significant problems that need to be addressed from the outset. The psychologist Judith Biesen at the University of Miami asked 147 couples seeking marital therapy to list their three biggest relationship concerns before starting their therapy sessions. The couples were followed through therapy and, at the end of the sessions, those who had agreed at the outset on the specific issues they were trying to resolve were more likely to experience significant changes during treatment. They were also more likely to attend all the sessions.
Only you know what happened in those sessions, but as a rule, if you complete a course of couples counselling and your partner is still giving you the creeps, all the candlelit baths in the world are not going to make things better. If you are still uncertain about your commitment to the relationship, you might want to talk to someone on your own. You might find it easier to be honest if your partner is not there; individual therapy can give you the space to work out how you really feel.
If you decide that you actually do want the relationship to end, your therapist can support you through the process. Alternatively, if therapy helps you to realise that you genuinely do want to be with your partner, you will be able to provide him with the reassurance he craves. You might even take some tips from his playbook. Run him a candle-lit bubble bath and tell him you are looking forward to sharing it.
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