Katharine Hill shares how a poster on an underground train warned her of the danger of unmet emotional needs in marriage.
The heaving platform began to empty as the train doors opened to let passengers on. I squeezed into the first available carriage.
As I stood shoulder to shoulder with London commuters, I noticed a young couple opposite smiling as they gazed into each other’s eyes. To their left was a poster that read in big bold letters, ‘Mind the gap’.
Wise words, not only for users of the London Underground, but also for those of us who are married. Because it’s when a couple fails to ‘mind the gap’ in their relationship that an affair is so easily entered into.
Sarah and Robert were one of the first in our group of college friends to get married. There were lots of comments at the time that it was a match made in heaven. Robert came to see us a few months ago. He sat at the table with his head in his hands and told us the painful news – their marriage now lay in tatters.
Over the next hour, he told us his story. When they were first married, he and Sarah had so much in common, a good social life and jobs they enjoyed. After their first child was born, Sarah continued to work part-time, the pressure of Robert’s work increased and he was often away on business. Without them realising it, a gap began to open up between them. The ‘life’ seemed to have gone out of their relationship.
It was against this backdrop that Robert’s employers sent him on a business course. On the first evening he was introduced to Lisa, a manager in the same line of business. As they chatted he found that they had lots in common and it kindled a spark in him. He remembered thinking that this was how it used to be with Sarah when they first met. At the end of the course he and Lisa exchanged mobile numbers and agreed to keep in touch. She phoned him the following week and they arranged to meet up to discuss a business plan. The encouragement and support that she gave Robert was a powerful magnet. Their meetings became a regular event. One day she suggested that it would be easier to meet at her flat …
Unmet emotional needs
The truth was that a gap had opened up in Robert and Sarah’s marriage – and Lisa had filled it. Their story is not uncommon and, of course, it could just as easily have been Sarah having the affair.
The beginning of an affair generally has little to do with physical attraction but much to do with friendship and having someone to satisfy unmet emotional needs. We can protect our marriages by ‘minding the gap’ – learning how to show love to each other in a way we each understand, as well as seeking to meet each other’s needs.
In my experience of speaking to couples, the failure to meet one another’s needs is more often simply due to ignorance, rather than selfishness or a willful refusal to put their partner first. The fact is that most men and women have very different needs, but most of us assume that our spouse’s needs are the same as ours. We then get frustrated when our misdirected efforts to meet what we think are their needs do not have the desired effect.
Despite our best intentions, we can fail to connect simply because we do not understand each other’s needs. A husband’s need for sexual fulfillment, for example, is not met by his wife’s offer of intimate conversation. In the same way, her need for affection is unlikely to be met by his suggestion of an evening together at the gym.
Love needs nurture and care if it is to grow – and nurturing the love in our marriage will mean taking time to tell one another what our needs are, and then learning how to meet them. And this is not about an iron-willed determination to meet each other’s needs at all costs. Whilst it may begin with a choice, the feelings often follow, as it’s when we feel loved that we feel like loving.
Another important part of minding the gap in marriage involves putting boundaries in place to protect our relationship. Most affairs start with intimate conversation, so putting boundaries in place may mean our choosing to saying no to lunch invitations, and proactively taking steps to avoid being alone with someone of the opposite sex to whom we’re attracted.
The conversation with Robert was several months ago, and he subsequently had the courage to choose to end his affair. For him and Sarah the slow and painful process of rebuilding trust and learning to meet each other’s needs has begun.
As the train pulled into the station, the young couple who had attracted my attention on the train pushed their way to the door and stepped down. And as I watched them walk away down the platform, hand in hand, the familiar tannoy announced its wise reminder: ‘Mind the gap’.
About the author
Katharine Hill is UK Director Care for the Family. She is a well-known speaker, broadcaster and author of a number of books. She is married to Richard, and they have four grown-up children and seven grandchildren.
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