Role-Bound Emotional Starvation Syndrome

Emotional starvation is probably the most common malady to afflict couples today. It seems to be a scourge of the new millenium. There are a number of economic and sociological factors contributing to this but we’ll save that discussion for another time. “Emotional starvation” is really a metaphor for not getting your dependency needs met. In this context, we are not referring to relying on others to make your decisions. Instead, we are referring to the basic need that we have to perceive that we are important to others. We all need emotional support (except perhaps a few psychopaths). Emotional support from others helps us to feel that our life has meaning beyond our jobs and tangible accomplishments. On a subtle but profound psychological level, we are hungry for love and are emotionally dependent in that way.

When we form a couple with another partner, we want to feel loved by them. Unfortunately, this is not as simple as it sounds. For example, if you would like to believe that you are loved by your partner, about what part of you are you talking? What defines “you”? Are you talking about your appearance? How about your achievements? Do you mean the favors you do for the other person? Maybe it’s the fact that you’re their spouse and reflect on their good taste. The point is that there are many ways to be considered important by another person and some of them are not emotionally satisfying.

The part of you that is most satisfying to have loved is your experience. Your experiential self involves your hopes, dreams, feelings, and desires. When you feel that these qualities are loved, you will feel loved at your core. The way that you can tell that your partner loves your experiential self is that they are curious and fascinated to know more about how you feel. What are your dreams? How do you view the world? What do you want? Your partner wants to know more, listens intently, and obviously enjoys it. Does this sound familiar or is this all too rare because of the ongoing chaos management of your everyday life? Do other “important” responsibilities eclipse intimate communication: responsibilities such as child-care or work brought home via laptop and other electronic tethers. Many couples spend time together but are are in managerial roles. Therefore, they are not emotionally receptive. Intimate receptive communication takes place at a slower pace than than other forms of communication. It is also not outcome driven. There is no final goal to achieve . The sole purpose derives from the process itself. For both people, it’s enough to feel symbolically connected via the sharing of their experience. This is also the attitude of adult mutual play (and of good sex as well).

Emotional starvation occurs when a couple has allowed circumstances to bind them so tightly into responsibility roles that no time is available for intimate communication. There may be play time as in family vacations but the couple are always in parent mode. In these circumstances, intimate communication is still not taking place. An excellent diagnostic tool is to ask yourselves whether or not your relationship averages at least 2 hours per week of focused intimate conversation. By focused, we mean really mean without distraction and where the primary objective is to talk and listen with 100 % attention. This eliminates situations involving children, theater, or other stimulating entertainment. Focused intimate conversation would look more like taking a walk together while the two of you privately talk. It may be a special time together after the children have gone to sleep. It might be getting out for a cup of coffee and exploring each other’s worlds in a quiet setting.

When there is almost no time spent in intimate communication, a bonded relationship will start to dysfunction because their dependency needs are not being met. It may come as a surprise to learn that most couples are unaware of when this is taking place. The reason for this is that most people like to view themselves as more autonomous than they really are. As a consequence, they underestimate or even completely eclipse their own dependency needs from their awareness. It’s as if a person is starving but has no hunger! When this is happening, most couples will usually show their distress indirectly. Instead of allowing themselves to feel hurt, many people will turn the hurt into feelings of resentment and anger. For a couple with this kind of hidden suffering, the displaced feelings of resentment will condense onto convenient conflicts over control and respect. The couple becomes hypersensitive and anger is provoked by even small issues. The couple are often not even aware that hurt feelings of rejection underlie their conflicts. It’s as if their resentment is seeking convenient vehicles for its expression. Marriage counselors often see the aforementioned dynamic in reverse. As a couple devotes more time to focused intimate communication, their conflicts often “magically” become less numerous and less toxic. This author’s interpretation is that when dependency needs are starting to be met, the covert suffering is subsides and less anger is displaced. It has been our experience that 2 hours of focused intimate conversation per week is usually enough to emotionally sustain the dependency needs of most couples. When there has been a lot of previous deprivation, then 4 hours per week is often needed. While there are certainly other causes for suffering and conflict among couples, it still makes sense to try simple interventions first especially when they hold a good possibility for improving the situation. You might want to try the following interventions for a period of about 6 weeks. Other couples who have done so have experienced greatly improved relations as a result.


INTERVENTION #1: Set up a routine for intimate communication

The keyword here is “routine”. Set up a time and place on a weekly basis when you and your partner will have 2 hours for really focussing on each other’s experiences. If this has not been going on and the relationship has been deprived of intimacy, then set up 2 periods of 2 hours each for a total of 4 hours each week. Make sure that children are not around since dependency needs are not usually met when a person is in “parent mode”. Both of you will need to feel unencumbered. The reason for setting up a routine is that it greatly reduces the chances of unconscious sabotage. Make sure that the location is well planned. Usually, outside of the home works better because there are fewer cues and distractions for other responsibilities. Mark off the dates, locations, and times on your schedule book or calendar. Do not underestimate the power of externally representing your commitment this way. It can have a subtle but powerful emotional effect on your felt priorities.


INTERVENTION #2: A “Talking/Listening” exercise

Assuming that you can create a setting that encourages you to focus on each other, you may or may not need help to communicate intimately. If you do, you could start off with an exercise that many couples have found helpful. It’s an exercise that actually structures you into intimate communication by slowing down your pace and promoting emotional sharing.

First, flip a coin with your partner. Whoever “wins” is the one who talks first. The partner who talks will talk (or think about what to say) for a full half hour. There are two important rules for the person who is talking. The first rule is that they talk only about themselves and not about the other. They can talk about memories, hopes, wants, dreams, etc. but they need to stay away from analyzing the other person. The second rule is that they use the full half hour even if they run out of things about which to talk. Actually, that last statement is an inaccuracy. There is always an infinite amount of experience that could be shared but a person’s anxiety or shame may limit them. When the talking partner stops talking for awhile, they can use the time to think or just meditate. In other words, hang loose. Eventually, given enough time, other thoughts will come to mind to be shared. It is an important principle that time spent in silence is not wasted. It is actually time spent trying to communicate with yourself. With a passive attitude and enough time, your creativity (technically called “primary process”) can source up important material for sharing. The irony is that you may be completely unaware that what you eventually have to say is important. But it is with these small sharings that, when received by our partners, we develop a sense of being loved. So, when the awkward silences do inevitably come during this exercise, tell yourself that you’re practicing something important.

The person who listens during the first half hour needs to follow one absolute rule. No matter what is said, they don’t say anything. There are no refutations, disagreements, agreements, clarifications, etc. Say absolutely nothing. Even if the person talking gets off track and starts talking about you, don’t correct them. Let them discover that fact for themselves. Let them bring themselves back to the topic of themselves. Eye contact is important so spend a reasonable effort to look at your partner while you listen.

When the first half hour is through, then reverse roles. The person who originally talked now does the listing. The original listener now does the talking. It is important to note that there should be no comments about what the first person said. Remember that the new person talking should only be referencing themselves.

When the full exercise is through and both people have talked, do not say anything about what has been disclosed. In fact, make a point of not talking about the disclosures for at least three days following the exercise.

The previously described exercise is simple but powerful. It actually structures your interactions to meet subtle dependency needs. You may want to use this exercise for half a dozen times before moving on to less structure. If you still think you need more helpful structure, consider the following intervention.


INTERVENTION #3: Other intimacy exercises

Harville Hendrix has written a book titled Getting The Love You Want: A Guide for Couples. While the practical utility of most of the book is debatable, the exercises at the end of the book are superb. We recommend that you get the book even if for the exercises alone. You can use one or two of these exercises to help stimulate intimate communication during each of your scheduled meetings described in intervention #1.


INTERVENTION #4: Seek professional help

There are a number of possible factors that may seriously interfere with intimate communication. The previously described interventions will often help relationships where both partners have the personal capacity for intimacy but have merely mismanaged it. Where one or more partners have a covert personal block against intimacy, a more intensive intervention will be needed. There are a range of alternative interventions that can help when unconscious shame or other psychological factors get in the way of intimacy. However, in this last scenario you will probably need a professional marriage counselor to help you interpret what is going on.