One thing that I noticed while she was having an affair is that she was doing her hair and make-up and wearing nicer clothes to work. Well, we’ve been back together for about nine months, and, though she says she is in love with me again and I believe her, she won’t wear any make-up or do her hair (she just wears it in a ponytail) and never tries to be sexy for me. I haven’t said anything, but it kind of hurts my feelings that the man she wants to spend forever with is not the one she tried to impress most. Any thoughts? — The Forever Man
I understand why you feel hurt that your wife doesn’t seem as interested in impressing you as she did in impressing her fling. But, hurt feelings aside, surely you understand that wanting to make an impression on someone is different than loving that person. Wanting to make an impression on someone is even different than caring for that person. Think of the person who spends time and energy looking polished for a job interview — choosing an outfit, ironing it, finding shoes that go with, doing the hair, and adding all the finishing touches (makeup, jewelry, a tie and pocket square). The interviewee doesn’t care about the interviewer. Oh, sure, she or he cares what the interviewer thinks. But that’s because the interviewer in a position of granting the interviewee something he or she wants (a job).
For your wife, her fling represented something she felt she didn’t have in her marriage — something she very much wanted (like attention, affection, or excitement, for example). She wanted to impress this other man not necessarily because she cared about him, but because she cared about what he might give her that she felt she was lacking. Now you and she are back together, and she says she’s in love with you and you believe her, and that’s wonderful. Whatever was lacking before that prompted her to cheat seems to be filled. She is not wanting for the things she sought elsewhere because you are already fulfilling those needs. She doesn’t have to try to impress anyone — you included — because she has what she wants now.
And that brings us to your wants. Nowhere in your letter did you say you actually prefer your wife with makeup done and hair styled and looking sexy. You say that it (understandably) hurts your feelings that she put effort into appearance for someone else but not for you. You say you’ve asked her to be “a little more romantic” with you. Is wearing makeup what you consider being romantic? If so, tell her that. Tell her you like the way she looks when she wears makeup and does her hair and wears fancier clothes and that it would mean a lot if, for the occasional date night with you, she’d put extra effort into her appearance. Tell her that the effort is a romantic gesture to you; it shows you she cares. But do so with the understanding that impressing you is not the same as loving you. Meeting your needs, however, is.
Be clear about your needs. Telling your wife to “be a little romantic” obviously isn’t clear enough. Beyond wearing makeup — if that’s even the romantic gesture you’re looking for — what else can your wife do to illustrate she cares for you? Better yet, what is she already doing that you’re overlooking because it isn’t expressed in your own love language? You cook for her and surprise her with flowers (acts of service and gifts), but maybe her way of showing love is through spending quality time with you and using words of affirmation (i.e. telling you she’s in love with you).
This isn’t really about makeup. This is about wanting to know you matter and that you’re loved. Acknowledge and appreciate the love your wife expresses in her way (which may be very different than the way you express your love) and be clear about what needs of yours are still being unmet and what concrete things your wife can do to help meet them. Tell her you want to know you matter and that for you, at this time (which is still close to a period of infidelity and sadness in your marriage), you need more than words.
If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at firstname.lastname@example.org.