As fully as I loved Kathy even after six years of marriage, it deeply hurt me to hear her sometimes complain that she didn't feel heard by me. After all, as a psychologist in private practice in New York City, I prided myself on my ability to listen to others. I well understood the concept of the therapist who was paid to listen all day long to patients and then doesn't want to listen to his or her spouse at the end of the day. But I felt I really wanted to hear what Kathy was feeling and thinking...at least most of the time.
One evening, after a particularly grueling day with patients, I came home more depleted than usual. Walking into the living room, I saw Kathy sitting on the couch, her eyes obviously red from crying. I remember feeling the strong urge to turn around and walk out of the room. I just didn't want to deal with yet more emotional upheaval.
Instead, I walked over and sat next to Kathy. I tried to summon the strength to comfort her, but I felt hollow inside as I asked, "What's the matter, Kathy?"
She looked up at me through puffy eyes and said, "I feel so lonely."
I knew she was talking about our relationship. I immediately felt defensive, but muttered, "I'm here with you."
The words were nice, but it was a lie.
She looked away and quietly said, "No, you're not. Please go away."
Inside, I felt like exploding. The feeling of rejection combined with the emotional exhaustion of my day was too intense for me to contain. I quickly got up and left the apartment. Walking in the twilight along the Manhattan sidewalk, I felt so many conflicting feelings: anger, sadness, fear of losing Kathy, helplessness.
At a street corner, while I was waiting for the light to change, a man called out to me from the steps of a building, "Hey, buddy, come over here."
I looked over and saw an older man in tattered clothes smiling at me. If it weren't for his smile, I would have ignored him and walked on, thinking he was wanting a handout. But the smile was strangely compelling, so I approached him.
"Yes?" I hesitantly asked.
The smile disappeared and a serious expression came over his face, "You look like a man who is having trouble with his wife."
How did this stranger, this probably homeless vagrant, know what was going on inside of me?
"I been around," he started to say. "Some things are obvious if you take the time to notice. For example, I can see you give a lot of yourself to a lot of people. Ain't that right?"
Again I was dumbfounded, "Yes, that's right."
His eyes seemed to pierce right through me as he next pronounced, "Stop pretending to be strong all the time. You need her love, man."
These were the kind of words I had so often spoken to my patients, reminding them of their own needs, reminding them that it was okay to need and ask for comfort from those they loved. Yet I didn't take my own advice. This evening especially I was needing Kathy's comforting more than usual, yet I buried my need under the rug and pretended to want to comfort her. Was it male pride? Was it that I didn't feel worthy of her love? What was it?
The old man laughed out loud as if he was reading my mind and said, "Don't try to figure it all out. Just go back home and let her know the truth--you need her love."
I wanted to ask the man his name, find out who he was, spend more time with his extraordinary wisdom, but he simply smiled and pointed his finger back in the direction from which I had come. I understood that he was skillfully ending our "psychotherapy session," so I took his hands, thanked him, and left.
At that moment all I wanted was to see Kathy's beautiful face. I hurried back to the apartment, raced up the stairs, unlocked the door, and rushed into the living room. She wasn't there. I peeked into the bedroom and saw her lying on the bed, still crying. I lay on the bed next to her and whispered into her ear, "Kathy, I'm so sorry I've kept you away from me all this time."
She stopped crying and looked at me, "What do you mean?"
I felt calm and yet just like a little boy as I explained, "So many times I've needed your love and comforting, but have been afraid to ask. I get so caught up in the role of provider, of the strong helper in charge of every situation, that I forget how much I need your caring. Like now, when I see your pain and sadness, I tend to ignore my own pain and sadness. But that's not being honest with you. I really need your love."
Now I was crying.
Kathy smiled and her tears sparkled with a new light. "Morgan," she said softly as she reached her arms around me, "I have so much to give to you. It hurts to have so much love to give and not have it needed."
As I basked in the warmth of Kathy's love, I silently gave thanks to the old man on the street. I decided to find him and repay him in some way for saving my marriage. But I never saw him again.