Help! I’m Married to a Pleaser

You can’t change or reform another person. If that’s why you’re here, I’m sorry. You will be disappointed. However, if you want to know better how to love and connect with your spouse, then read on.

Is My Spouse A Pleaser?

If your spouse could say many of the following, he/she probably has the pleaser love style:

  • I tend to anticipate and meet the needs of those I love.
  • I usually give more than I receive.
  • I don’t often get mad, but if I do, I don’t show it.
  • I try to avoid making others upset or angry.
  • When others seem to detach from me, I work harder to rebuild the relationship.
  • I rarely confront others, and if I do, it is very stressful for me.
  • I have trouble saying no.
  • I have a stressful core.
  • I’m often over-committed and overwhelmed.
  • I am fairly cautious.
  • I go above and beyond to help others be happy.
  • I am afraid of upsetting other people.
  • I am a peacemaker.
  • You can read more about it here to get a bigger picture:The Pleaser Love Style

Your Spouse Needs Compassion

If your spouse is a pleaser, he or she will need your compassion and understanding. Conflict and strong emotions are scary for them, and they have a lot of underlying anxiety that often doesn’t appear on the surface. The surface looks like a smiling, caring face ever ready to help you. This focus on your needs and your good is often their way to mitigate anxiety by protecting closeness with you. When you become detached or angry, your spouse will likely redouble their efforts to soothe and make you happy (sometimes at great cost to themselves). Their anxiety has just taken over.

Find Out How They Got Here

Try to picture your spouse as a child. What do you know about their childhood? Do you know their stories about distressing moments in their childhood? If not, talk through these memories kindly with your spouse, sincerely seeking to understand the root of their anxiety. What experiences contributed to their need to please?

You have to first recognize that your spouse got here through pain.

These coping mechanisms were caused by injury. Your spouse was likely in one of the following situations:

  • Fearful and overprotective parent
  • Angry and critical parent
  • Separation from parent due to illness, divorce, or death
  • Emotional separation and abandonment experienced from a parent struggling with an addiction, mental illness, violent abusive nature, or desperate situation.
  • Having another close relative with the above concerns
  • Struggling with an undiagnosed learning disability

Your spouse had the natural desire for connection and tried to get it with his/her parents or caregivers. However, it is so painful to:

  • want something you need and not get it.
  • want someone to know you yet feel rejected.
  • want someone to trust you yet feel they don’t.
  • need someone to acknowledge and help you feel and deal with your emotions, but to have your emotions dismissed or overshadowed by a parent’s bigger or controlling emotions.

At some point, it seemed easier to your spouse to take care of others needs. If they did that, at least their world could be more calm. If they did that, perhaps they could earn the love, approval, and closeness they yearned for. They had legitimate, unmet needs and decided that if they meet others needs, perhaps somehow the other person will meet theirs.

How Can You Love and Comfort an Pleaser?

Unless your spouse has been working toward becoming a secure connector, he or she likely doesn’t know how their anxiety drives them. A focus on their own feelings or needs can possibly even make them feel uncomfortable at first. Milan and Kay Yerkovich in their book How We Love Workbook: Making Deeper Connections in Marriage explain that you will need to seek God for guidance and apply these suggestions slowly, over time, one at a time. The following suggestions are gleaned from their book:

Remain Patient and Calm

Keep your voice low and calm. If you come across angry or impatient, that will feel unsafe to your spouse and will drive them to try to find a way to sooth or comfort you. Try to avoid intense agitated emotions with them, and if you are angry, communicate the hurt behind the anger.

Talk About the Elephant in the Room

Sometimes you will be angry. Your anger is one of the most anxiety-producing situations for  your spouse. So, talk about it. Help your spouse know when you are just angry in general (it is a relief to know that you are angry in general as opposed to angry at them). Talking about it will help your spouse recognize the difference. If you are angry at them, help them see that it is okay for you to be angry at them (without them fixing it). Make it clear through words and actions that your anger does not equal rejection (because that is how it likely feels to them). Be kind and clear that you love them- that doesn’t change- and sometimes you do get angry and need to work through it. Show them you can do this in an emotionally mature way:

  • without being verbally/emotionally/physically abusive
  • without shutting your spouse out
  • without being unkind, dismissive, or cold

Even when you need space to do this well, you can verbally acknowledge to them what is happening in a kind, soft tone. If you tend to speak loudly, be especially careful about your tone. You may even need to remind yourself to “whisper” or “speak softly.” Let your spouse know your love for them hasn’t changed. You want to have a good relationship with them and they matter to you. Let them know you are upset right now and need time and space to work through your anger. If there is something specific your spouse can do to help that process, let them know in a gentle way.

Try Not to Take it Personally

Your spouse learned very young that relationships do not bring comfort. They were not given the chance to communicate their inner feelings in a safe environment where they would be met with love, support, comfort, and understanding. Try not to get defensive and repeat an unsafe environment for their emotions. Their response with you is their response with everyone. Rather than taking it personally, try to view them with compassion.

Communicate That You’d Like to Understand Their Past

Remember that this anxiety is rooted in pain. Milan and Kay suggest,

“Take time to ask about family memories and about the times the pleaser was scared, traumatized, teased or overprotected. You may also need to explore the possibility of an overly critical or angry parent and the impact of that relationship in creating fear an anxiety..” (Yerkovich, 54)

If you know your spouse was emotionally neglected or abandoned in some way (see above), probe more deeply about experiences and memories of their parent’s addiction/mental illness/abuse/death, etc. Find out how your spouse felt through those difficult experiences.

Kay indicates that once she understood Milan’s childhood experiences, she was no longer so annoyed when he asked her often, “How are you,” seeming to always be assessing her mood. Once she understood why, it helped her be more compassionate. (Note: write down what you learn so when you do get annoyed at certain behaviors, you can remind yourself why and perhaps have more compassion and patience.)

Your spouse likely feels very vulnerable, guilty, and embarrassed sharing. Reflect back what they are saying to show you are hearing them (without interrupting),

  • “It sounds like you felt ___________”
  • “It seems like that memory was a really bad one, and it makes you very sad to think about it”
  • “That must have been so hard. I hear a lot of hurt and grief when you talk about…”

Draw Out Hidden Emotions

The memories that led to their anxiety are burying other emotions. Pleasers often allow anxiety to override feelings of sadness and anger. I honestly can say I very, very rarely felt anger until the last couple years. I focused on pleasing and caretaking, which soothed my anxiety and didn’t know how badly I’d buried my sadness and anger so early under the trail of life. Help to draw these out of your spouse.

Hold and comfort your spouse as they work through these emotions. Milan and Kay recommend cradling your spouse or holding their head in your lap and maintaining eye contact while they share with you. They also recommend regularly asking,

“How is your anxiety level today?” (How we love workbook, p.54).

When your spouse shares a memory or their feelings with you, tell your spouse regularly,

That matters to me.

When their feelings matter to you, they feel more secure and can begin to let their feelings matter to themselves as well. Other options may include:

  • “It means a lot to me that you shared that with me.”
  • “Thank you for the honor of telling me that memory.”
  • “I feel really close to you when you tell me memories like this. Thank you for letting me in.”
  • “Thank you for sharing that with me. I know it’s hard to talk about. It helps me know and understand you better, and I want to know you well, because I love you.”

Give Them Feedback

Likely, your spouse isn’t even aware when they are anxiously trying to please. They do it so naturally that it is just second-nature. Try different gentle approaches and keep track of what is healing and helpful for your spouse and what is not. For example, if your spouse is especially trying to please, ask

“Could you tell me what things may have happened recently that have caused you to feel threatened, rejected, criticized, scared, or further away from someone than you’d like to be?

If they seem to be trying to please you, think back through what you may have said and done and what tone you may have set in the process. Become more aware of what behavior you do that serves as a trigger for your spouse. Talk about these things with your spouse, working to reduce the triggers as well as to help your spouse cope.

Help your spouse think through their motivations. Are they being a cheerful giver to you or others, or are they giving to manage anxiety? Help them think through feelings of sadness or anger that may be related to a situation. Coach them when, rather than caregiving, they need to be practicing self-care. Encourage your spouse to develop self-care strategies.

Care For Your Spouse

Not all spouses of pleasers will need this. Yet, considering how people often marry in patterns related to their childhood experiences, this is important in many situations. Find out what communicates love best to your spouse. Your spouse has likely done that very well for you and has often driven themselves to the end of themselves to do so for you. Make sure you know how to communicate love to your spouse, and do something that communicates love each day. You may ask daily,

What could I do today that would help you feel loved?

Jump in to help with dishes, put the kids to bed, get dinner ready, ask questions and listen, etc. Caregivers often struggle with receiving comfort and help, but they desperately need to learn how. They desperately need to be cared for, too.

Support Their Attempts to Overcome Anxiety

Offer your spouse acceptance and reassurance. As they work to overcome fear, let them know that you are by their side. You will patiently support their efforts.

You provide stability and security to them as they begin to realize their emotions don’t overwhelm you the way they do them.

Take Steps Together To Overcome Anxiety

Help your spouse list the situations that make them the most anxious. Work through together stretching them beyond their current level of comfort. Do it in a safe, step by step manner, helping them conquer rather than give in to fear. For example, if your spouse feels threatened or scared when you need time alone, talk together about how you each need times with friends or alone separate from one another. Plan an evening in which you both do something with your own friends or you both do something alone that you enjoy. Talk about it ahead of time, and then carry it out. Debrief later about what you each did and how you each felt.

How Can You Parent With a Pleaser?

Pleasers can be overly soft on children. You may refer to your spouse as a pushover (at least in your head). You may be frustrated that you end up playing bad cop more than you would like. If you are the one having to make all the hard decisions in general, then you may feel a loss of respect and admiration for your spouse.

If this is you:

  • Talk with your spouse about how you feel.
  • Encourage your spouse by recognizing the benefits their style brings to the home.
  • Notice when your spouse seems to be defensive or stressed. Compassionately help your spouse take their emotional temperature (how they are feeling/their degree of anxiety and fatigue).
  • Support your spouses attempts to exercise their no muscle and set boundaries with the kids.
  • Coach them if they are rescuing, but not in front of the children.

Talk with your spouse about the need to take the long view in parenting, allowing your child to become stressed and uncomfortable at times so they can grow up to be an adult who can handle stress well. Recognize when your spouse is trying to avoid conflict, and coach them back towards facing and wading into the problem with your child.

Be sure you are taking an authoritative not authoritarian approach with your children. Pleaser parents will inevitably redouble their efforts to offer the children a soft edge if you are taking an authoritarian approach. And, there is a lot of research to back them up that authoritarian is better. If you aren’t sure the difference, find out. The Great Courses class Scientific Secrets for Raising Kids Who Thrive has a great lesson on parenting styles that covers that well.

Comfort For You

As you seek to extend love and comfort to your spouse, be sure that you are taking care of yourself.  You need to be practicing good self-care in all areas.

  • Get good sleep
  • Eat well
  • Exercise regularly
  • Be part of supportive and enjoyable groups (Bible studies, support groups, hobby groups, book clubs- whatever you enjoy that is fun to you)
  • Get counseling (as needed)
  • Relax and regularly participate in hobbies or other activities that are fun for you
  • Develop friendships

One aspect of this is ensuring you have safe, healthy relationships with friends and family in which you are both giving and receiving comfort and love. This means communicating your needs in a gentle, respectful, clear way to friends and family that love you. You can invite your spouse to love you in ways that communicate love to you.

Parenting with a pleaser can be frustrating at times. Ask your spouse to consider taking a parenting class with you or working with a mentor couple with you through a parenting book. This could help facilitate discussion and a team-mindset. Set out boundaries together for your children and develop an authoritative plan together. Talk often about how you are applying the plan and encourage your spouse as they hold firm to boundaries you’ve set together and flex their no muscle. Consider the struggles they have with parenting in Transformational Parenting for a Pleaser

Want To Know More?

Milan and Kay Yerkovich wrote a great book called How We Love: Discover Your Love Style, Enhance Your Marriage. The workbook quoted in this post is very helpful and practical for taking steps toward growth. They have a whole series for singles, couples, counselors, etc at How We Love. (note, I’m not an affiliate or anything. I just have benefited from these resources and want to share).

I’ll be going through the other love styles in the upcoming posts. Subscribe so you don’t miss valuable information about the vascillator, controller, and victim love styles.

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More Posts In the Series:

If you’d like to know more about love styles, check out the Entire Love Style Series. Here are other posts related to Pleasers:

Photo Credit: Photo adapted from Photo by Caju Gomes on Unsplash

Sources:

  • Milan & Kay Yerkovich. How We Love: Discover Your Love Style Enhance Your Marriage. Christian Audio.
  • Milan & Kay Yerkovich. How We Love Workbook: Making Deeper Connections in Marriage. Waterbrook: 2017.
  • Milan & Kay Yerkovich. How We Love Our Kids: The Five Love Styles of Parenting. How to End the Struggles and Tension. The Crown Publishing Group: 2011.

Copyright ©  2019 Angela Edmonds. All rights reserved.

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