On the verge of divorce, they tripped over the snaky root of their discontent. "One morning, when we were most troubled," Helen says, "we were in our bedroom and I asked Harville, 'Do you believe that I love you?' Harville thought about that for a couple of seconds and said, 'No, I don't think you do.' I was distraught. I could only respond, 'Given all that I do for you and our life together, how could you not know how much I love you?'"
Harville understood that his feelings were irrational, he says, but alienation was stubbornly entrenched. No matter what Helen gave him emotionally, it had little impact because he suspected there were strings attached. "Only with time and reflection did I realize that I was not able to recognize genuine love when it was offered," he says.
As they began to contemplate the problem, in much the same way that the minute you think about having a baby, you see pregnant women everywhere, Helen and Harville noticed that a sizable number of couples they'd worked with were stuck in the same cold place. For instance, there was the wife who told her husband she needed him to express more affection—then resisted his kisses and kind words because, she said, they didn't feel genuine. Another husband admitted that when his wife offered verbal support, he shut down and didn't respond. And when a new father took time off from work to help his exhausted wife with their twins, she refused to let him do his share. "As far as I could see, she was undermining my gift of love," he complained in therapy.
The struggle to understand and ease this kind of self-inflicted isolation grew into Harville and Helen's book. "The common wisdom," they write, "is that romantic relationships would stay happy if people did a better job of giving to each other. But that's not what we've discovered. We've found that many people need to do a better job of receiving the gifts their partners are already offering. It's suprising how often the compliments, appreciation and encouragement of a well-intentioned partner make no dent in the armor of an unhappy partner.
Harville ticks off the ways we deflect what we secretly crave: by devaluing praise; by assuming the other person is insincere; by criticizing the sender of a positive message for not getting it right, not doing it on time, or not doing it often enough; by not listening; or by feeling embarrassed. We also block loving words by hardening our chest and stomach muscles.
Next: "To end self-rejection, you have to learn to love in another what you hate in yourself"