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Help me help my marriage.
February 24, 2012 9:24 AM   Subscribe

Hitting a brick wall in my marriage and I would appreciate some different perspectives to help me figure out how to move forward.

My wife has a lot of resentment towards me that recently has started to manifest itself as a very powerful anger. We started marital counseling in the fall and we were making some real progress. Around the holidays, we were having some trouble with the way our son's preschool was handling him (mildly) biting classmates. During one of our sessions, the counselor said something that my wife found to be patronizing. We agreed to pull our son out of school and she has resisted going back to counseling since the new year because she doesn't have anyone to watch our son and she is no longer comfortable with the counselor.

As a result of my own individual counseling and the marital counseling, I have come to realize that I have been emotionally unavailable to my wife for years and that I haven't been pulling my weight around the house. I have been working on my issues over the last six or seven months and she has acknowledged that I am doing my part to make things better. I've also gotten an understanding of the scope and significance of my family-of-origin issues and I have been working to deal with these as well.

My wife also has some real anger towards my parents--especially my mother. They live about an hour away and anytime I mention them visiting to see their grandson, it causes significant tension. She admits that she dislikes their visits because seeing them reminds her of all the things she doesn't like about me. She has essentially asked me to minimize/prevent their visits until we are in a better place.

She is understandably tired of being hurt by me and can't seem to find the will to be vulnerable and allow herself the chance to love me again because she's scared that she won't be able to handle it if I haven't really changed and she gets hurt again.

It feels like as long as I keep my parents at bay and don't push her to care for me, we can maintain our partnership (very depressing as I re-read this). If I bring up the possibility of my parents visiting or if I really try to connect with her (emotionally or physically), she starts to push me away.

For what it's worth (and I may be misinterpreting/misapplying this), during the marital counseling it was suggested that her inner emotional child is stuck at two and mine is around nine or ten. Accordingly, she has lots of tantrums and gets unreasonably angry at small things. Just as an example, we were walking down the street the other day with our son and a couple turned in front of us. One of them lit a cigarette and I immediately fell back to see if the smoke was going to linger. My wife asked to cross the street, but I said that we didn't need to because it was windy. She got really angry and accused me of not caring about her. We crossed the street and she continued to work herself up because I was being inconsiderate. Our emotions got really heated, but we were able to resolve it and move on because I apologized for being dismissive of her feelings and promised to be more attentive. I resent having to do this and, if I hadn't, the situation could have easily escalated into screaming. This type of thing happens probably about once a month, on average, but there are times when it will happen several times in a short period of time. The screaming has happened three times this week, though.

As far as my own work goes, I have recognized that my parents' relationship and personalities have a lot to do with me being an emotional ten-year old. I think it would be helpful to my wife if I would acknowledge this to her, but I don't want to because I feel like she's just going to throw it in their face (by telling them that I think they harmed my emotional development).

I'm struggling with how to handle this. Part of me knows that it shouldn't matter if she tells my parents this because my relationship with her is the primary one. Accordingly, my inclination is to suck it up and share this with my wife--with the hope that my vulnerability will help her find her own strength to be vulnerable again.

I've got a lot of anger about this and I sometimes feel like I am the only one who is really trying to improve our relationship. We have both seen the marriage counselor individually and he assures me that she wants our marriage to be fulfilling. She has the power in our relationship and me being vulnerable like this seems like I'm just giving into her again.

And this is where I also need some differing perspectives. I am having trouble finding a reasonable way to establish better boundaries about her unreasonable temper tantrums. I've read The Emotionally Unavailable Man and it suggests leaving for a period of time whenever the wife "hurricanes." The idea is that there will be some consequence to the behavior. More often than not, though, my wife's initial instinct is to tell me to leave when she starts to get angry. If I leave, nothing gets addressed.

I'm slowly getting to a place where I am finding my own power and I am better able to engage her tantrums and to control my own emotions when she is triggered. I care about her very much and I don't want leave her. I also dearly love my son and I want to be a daily part of his life. I want to continue my efforts to improve my marriage, but I don't want to make things worse by doing so. My biggest concern is figuring out how to establish better boundaries (I have discussed this with the counselor, but would like different perspectives). If I can establish boundaries, I hope that I can continue to do my work and that eventually she will open up again.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (49 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
If she has "all the power in the relationship," why does she have to ask your permission to cross the street? In this kind of situation, I would pat my partner on the shoulder gently and say "hey, let's cross the street." There wouldn't be any negotiation. Why does your wife feel she needs to ask your permission to make a decision? Why would you resist doing a simple thing to help her be comfortable?

A relationship counseler can help you both figure out how to communicate with each other better, but it sounds like you both have a lot of anger, and inividual counseling (maybe even with different therapists altogether) could be helpful.

Good luck.
posted by trunk muffins at 9:36 AM on February 24, 2012 [17 favorites]


I don't have time to write very long, but my first thought when reading through this is "Is the wife going to counseling herself?" It sounds like to me (and my background in counseling) that your wife is really holding on to some anger or something. Maybe it's about you, maybe it's about the marriage, maybe it's about something unfulfilled in her life that you know nothing about.

You sound like you are doing a lot of work in this marriage. There's nothing wrong with that, but if she's not doing ANY work then there IS something wrong with that. I would suggest that she go to her own individual counseling (and you watch your son at home or whatever) to give her a chance to work through whatever she has going on. I don't know what's up with the anger towards your parents or where that comes from, but I see that as a real barrier to working things out. She doesn't have to love them like her own parents, but getting angry at you whenever you bring them up is somewhat of an odd reaction.

For what it's worth, I wouldn't tell her your thoughts about your parents. I think right now she'd use that against you in anger, which won't help you heal and mature in that area at all. Don't open yourself up to that attack.

Get her to go to her own counselor so that she can work on her own vulnerability in her own safe space.
posted by MultiFaceted at 9:41 AM on February 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think you need a different couples' counselor. Using metaphorical models (inner child, emotional age, "hurricanes," etc.) only gets you so far. What you need is practice treating each other kindly, not abstract understanding. As it is, you seem overeager to blame yourself for your wife's reactions. My guess is that blaming yourself gives you a sense of hope, because you can change your own behavior. If she's screaming at you, that's all on her. She may have legitimate reasons to be upset, but you're not making her be nasty.
posted by jon1270 at 9:43 AM on February 24, 2012 [21 favorites]


It is great and says a lot about you that you have done so much work in counseliing. From a much more remote perspective and relying only on what you have written here, I guess what jumps out at me is how much the negative view of your wife seems to outweigh the positive. And in fact you and the counselor seem to be infantilizing her -- I'm really troubled by the comment that her "inner emotional child is stuck around two" and the references to her complaints as "tantrums." This is a pretty poisonous way to think of your partner.

Sometimes when you have recognized your anger, you need to let it go. And often, the best way to deal with someone else's anger is to let that go too.

Speaking as someone who has gotten plenty angry with my husband (and vice versa), I'd recommend at this point that you focus on all the things you love and appreciate about your wife, and articulate them regularly. Really try for that 5-1 ratio, in terms of ratio of positive to negative things said/done in the relationship.

Essentially, what I see here is a lot of history and a lot of accumulated resentment around it. As you cannot literally take out that trash, and it has sucked a lot of trust from your relationship, try mentally leaving it behind. Aim for a kind and loving and respectful relationship as you move forward. This is a slow process, akin to taming a feral animal, when a lot of damage needs to be repaired.
posted by bearwife at 9:44 AM on February 24, 2012 [12 favorites]


If she has "all the power in the relationship," why does she have to ask your permission to cross the street? In this kind of situation, I would pat my partner on the shoulder gently and say "hey, let's cross the street."

Power is nothing without it being demonstrated.

Is she apologizing for any of this? Frankly, it seems one-sided.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:47 AM on February 24, 2012


If you took your child on regular outings to visit your parents, your wife would have some free time to see a counselor.
posted by xo at 9:56 AM on February 24, 2012 [16 favorites]


It doesn't sound like you two have much fun together. No amount of counseling or self improvement will help a marriage where there isn't fun or laughter.

Do you have things that you both enjoy? If not, that is okay, but you must give each other time to enjoy things separately. Ask your wife if there is one night a week (or weekend morning) that she would like just for herself. Make it a weekly occurrence where she does something alone and you have daddy time (don't call it babysitting, it's not babysitting when it's your kid). Do everything you can to make this time for her stress free. Here are some tips:
1) Have the car ready with a full tank of gas.
2) Make certain that she has enough cash.
3) Do not whine or ask her where she is going.
4) Greet her with a smile, a happy baby and a tidier house when she gets home.

Do this a few times and her stress level should go down enough to where you two can go on a date.

Do not fall into counseling habits on the date, it is not a time to work out problems but to remember why you liked each other in the first place.

Leave your parents out of the equation for a while longer. Your child needs both parents in his daily life more than he needs a relationship with his grandparents.

One more thing- don't take score. Don't spend time noticing how much you are doing and how little she is doing. That is an action that works against your goal. It will only make you both more resentful.

Good luck.
posted by myselfasme at 9:59 AM on February 24, 2012 [17 favorites]


she doesn't have anyone to watch our son


Finding, organizing, and paying childcare is one of those household duties that you're responsible for too.

during the marital counseling it was suggested that her inner emotional child is stuck at two and mine is around nine or ten.

No wonder she doesn't like the counselor.

I also question why you couldn't just cross the damn street. If she needs to have a giant temper tantrum in order to have you respect her and treat her like a competent adult who can make basic risk/reward calculations about things like crossing the street, then she will do so.

Frankly it sounds like she doesn't like you and doesn't want to be with you. That can't be fixed if you continue to treat her like a child.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:03 AM on February 24, 2012 [42 favorites]


I'm trying to be fair here and see that yes, you both have issues to work on. But her saying "I don't like your parents, because they remind me of all the things I don't like about you" sounds like she really doesn't like you all that much, and is looking for an excuse to leave the marriage. Very passive-aggressive.
posted by Melismata at 10:06 AM on February 24, 2012


Nthing getting her into individual counseling, as well as finding a new marriage counselor.

Also came to say that if she doesn't want your parents visiting, maybe you can bring your son to them, while giving her time and space to do something just for herself - go to the spa and get a massage and mani-pedi, or something equally relaxing for her.

Finally, you should take the initiative to find proper childcare and a good babysitter, then use those resources to arrange for a few date nights with her. Frame it in terms of "I want to go out, just the two of us, and forget about all the baggage. We can go on a date just like we used to when..." and then take her somewhere or do something that reminds you of the early and happy parts of your relationship.
posted by trivia genius at 10:09 AM on February 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


If you've been around AskMe for a while, you'll know that it's one of the most oft-repeated pieces of relationship advice for a very good reason:

Choose your spouse over your parents.

Seriously, I don't need to read the specifics of your situation. Yes, you're hurt that she's rejecting your parents because it feels like she's rejecting you, or whatever. Yes, you want your parents to be happy. Doesn't matter. In general, 9 times out of 10, in any situation, no matter who is right and who's wrong:

Choose your spouse over your parents.

That's all. Follow this advice and your life will improve, I promise.
posted by stockpuppet at 10:10 AM on February 24, 2012 [14 favorites]


It doesn't sound like you two have much fun together.

Seriously. I imagine you were having a kinda dark moment when you wrote this... but Jesus, the misery here is at full volume.

There can come a moment... when everyone is deep in his or her process, and everyone's thought about her "inner child," and the resentment has piled up, and the child is biting other students, and everyone's immediately snippy... that people have to declare bygones, just to get through their lives.

It seems to me like it's time for everyone to get out of the digging and wallowing stage, and get out of each other's business, and actually DISengage from being so on top of each other. I know that sounds counterintuitive--you're trying to be "emotionally available" and all--but, honestly? It sounds like from your report that you've lost all semblance of a life. Why don't you guys keep your side of the street clean, agree to let go of these resentments, walk away when someone blows up, and go out separately and see some friends!

Also it sounds like you're working, she's not, the kid is not in school, and there are literally no potential babysitters on call? That's an amazing set-up for unhappiness.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 10:12 AM on February 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


I would suggest asking your parents to be supportive of your family's stressful time and not visiting your family and adding stress to your wife for a while. You can take your son to visit your parents. This will give your wife the much needed rest and showing your consideration to her. Small things matter. Just small kindness here and there, they will warm her heart. Believe me, she wants to be a better and mature person for your son, you and the whole family. So use more positive feedback on her. When she has anger outburst, still just cool down yourself and not feel resentment. Use email to communicate to be more logical. Good luck
posted by akomom at 10:14 AM on February 24, 2012


Anger can take a long time to work through. It's not as though you can simply name the source of deep-seated anger and then - presto! - it's gone. It's good that your wife is naming her anger and it's good that you're taking responsibility. But you've probably still got a long road ahead.

Also, when you take responsibility for how you've contributed to the situation, be aware of your own tendency to approval-seek...to "prove" that you are getting it right and doing the right thing and totally different now. This is an understandable way to feel because obviously you feel hurt and sad and threatened by the discovery that you have been making mistakes. But it can be crippling - your approval-seeking can get in the way of centering your partner and your relationship (rather than yourself). You can fall into the trap of "acting" rather than feeling...you "act" the correct person but you don't feel or internalize the changes you need.

(Although you've got to 'act' for a while to have the changes become internal - a catch-22!!)

Be nice to your wife; spend time thinking about how you can cement the changes that you'd like to make in your character.

Don't let yourself feel put-upon or scorned or unjustly rebuked or whatever. You can easily fall into this trap of creating an identity for yourself as The Patient Husband Who Is Trying To Do Right But Who Will Never Really Be Forgiven....and once you have that identity in your head, it will be very hard to act authentically in the moment, responding to each situation rather than seeing each situation as part of your role.

If you can't handle something - your wife snaps at you or whatever - treat it as in the moment, only about itself. Not about your role. Just act with patience and kindness and honesty.

Oh, that stuff is so hard. How do I know? In other situations I have struggled with the same thing.
posted by Frowner at 10:17 AM on February 24, 2012 [12 favorites]


As a driver, I'm glad you didn't just cross the street. Pedestrians are not supposed to jaywalk. Crossing the street I the middle of the block is actually a bigger deal than it seems.

During one of our sessions, the counselor said something that my wife found to be patronizing. We agreed to pull our son out of school and she has resisted going back to counseling since the new year because she doesn't have anyone to watch our son and she is no longer comfortable with the counselor.

So this is two cases where it looks like your wife's response was I don't like a specific individual so I'm shutting the whole thing down. (Mild or not, biting other children is something that needs to addressed. If he was being bullied, he hasn't been taught another way to address that. If he was being aggressive, he'll likely be that way with other children. Just taking him out hasn't addressed anything - except now your wife doesn't have to hear about it.) If you live in a populated area with people smoking on the street, you should be able to find another counselor and childcare.

Are the two of you discussing this?

When did the problems begin? Is it possible that the extra stress of raising a child meant that your wife needed more from you?

You do sound committed to trying, but you can't do this alone. I hope you can get your wife into counseling, both for herself and couples therapy.

Does your wife scream in front of the child? Did the counselor address the problems with screaming in front of the child?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:20 AM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


If the crossing the street incident is a good example of your usual behavior, I don't think your wife is wrong to be angry. Sometimes what seems like a small incident can be an example of a pattern of behavior -- the proverbial straw the breaks the camel's back. In this case, I think you were inconsiderate. Why is it such a big deal to you whether you cross the road or not? Sometimes my boyfriend wants to cross the road because there's a scary dog or something -- I poke fun of his strange aversion to dogs, but I'm not going to stand around and argue the point. Just learn to let go of the small things and don't make everything something that needs to be proven or completely logical. Enough little incidents like that and I would probably throw a tantrum occasionally as well. It gets to be really exhausting to feel that you're always being tested for the watertightness of your requests.

Don't frame the whole thing as her being stuck at an emotional two-year old level or whatever. It's not helpful. In fact, just ditch all the psychobabble and focus on relating to each other as people, not abstractions. Please try to see things from her point of view. I'm not sure why the Emotionally Unavailable Man suggests leaving for a period of time whenever she "hurricanes". John Gottman's relationship advice, which is based on empirical labwork, unlike a lot of this stuff, says that one of the Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse is stonewalling (which statistically men do a lot more often than women) -- where you basically ignore your partner when they get angry -- it is indicative of a lot of contempt for your partner and their feelings. So please don't do that. Try to figure out the root of why she's feeling so bad all the time.
posted by peacheater at 10:23 AM on February 24, 2012 [14 favorites]


A few things:

I'm guesing your wife "hurricanes" because of your emotional unavailability. So a major thing to work on is not just your availaibilty to her, but what specifically triggers her and why. It's not just how you handle her being triggered, but her not getting there in the first place. That's for individual therapy.

Another thing is that you two, together, and with your marital counselor, need to establish how to fight healthily. The "leaving when it escalates" thing isn't bad, it's the failure to re-addres the conflict calmly later. You may need a new MC. I got the emotional "two year old" thing but have no idea what an emotional "ten year old" even means. Prior to this, did your wife think the counselor was helpful?

Finally, regarding your parents. At some point there will need to be some resolution here so as to not negatively impact the relationship your child will sense/see between your wife and your parents. But for now, the two of you need space - both together and separately. I don't think you need to necessarily acknowledge anything to your wife at this point regarding how you were brought up, in fact I don't think it'd be particularly helpful.
posted by sm1tten at 10:24 AM on February 24, 2012


she has resisted going back to counseling since the new year because she doesn't have anyone to watch our son and she is no longer comfortable with the counselor.

Dude, no. This is a joint problem. You come up with a solution to the babysitter issue together - childcare is not an unsolved problem - and then you go to a new therapist.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:42 AM on February 24, 2012 [10 favorites]


I agree that it sounds like you should just take your son for a visit to his grandparents, once in a while, without her coming.

And I agree with everyone else who says:
- If the crossing-the-street incident is typical, I can understand why she would become very frustrated. She suggests a trivial action with no major downside, but you say no. Why? Do you have a default setting of "no" for things like this? I mean, screaming is not the best way to handle this, but it's super frustrating if she feels like every trivial suggestion she makes gets shot down. Do the two of you have a constant struggle over control of joint decisions? Does she end up trying to take back control by issuing ultimatums in other areas? Maybe you should think about how you can say "ok" more often to her smaller suggestions/requests so she doesn't get to a point of issuing ultimatums. Especially if she is not working, and you're her main adult contact, that can create weird dynamics like this where she feels powerless and doesn't get to exert control over decisions in other areas (work areas) so the control over family decisions becomes hugely emotionally important.

(On the other hand, maybe this incident was not typical, in that you don't constantly say no to small things. And maybe she blows up whenever her suggestions are not followed? That would be something for individual therapy. But be honest with yourself about this - you say "she has the power" but I wonder if you are overlooking your own power and the part that is playing. Obviously all we have to go on is your description, so can't tell.)

- Your therapist gave you different "ages" and said your wife is like a two-year-old? That sucks. First of all it sets up a contest (who's the "older" kid? who's more right?) which is counterproductive, and second of all, telling someone they are acting like a two year old is not the slickest way to promote respectful adult relationships. Yeesh. Of course that would put her on the defensive and make her feel patronized.

- It is not good for her to be screaming. Has she always done that when frustrated, or has it increased over the years? (I know a woman who does this, who has always had a short fuse for certain kinds of frustrating situations, but for her it is not about lingering resentment, it's a more basic physiological thing - she just needs to let out the excess emotion and have a brief cooling-off and then she is okay again.)

- What do you do when you are frustrated with her?
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:45 AM on February 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


If the crossing the street incident is a good example of your usual behavior, I don't think your wife is wrong to be angry. Sometimes what seems like a small incident can be an example of a pattern of behavior -- the proverbial straw the breaks the camel's back. In this case, I think you were inconsiderate. Why is it such a big deal to you whether you cross the road or not? Sometimes my boyfriend wants to cross the road because there's a scary dog or something -- I poke fun of his strange aversion to dogs, but I'm not going to stand around and argue the point. Just learn to let go of the small things and don't make everything something that needs to be proven or completely logical.

Accommodating irrational behavior would drive me insane and would increase my own anger. Really, we have to cross the street and perhaps later, cross back again because someone in front of us is smoking on a windy day? I understand hanging back. Certainly, everyone has their foibles. Inconsiderate here sounds a lot like 'you would if you loved me' and that's not a good place for a couple be in.

There's a lot of anger here that both people need to acknowledge and address. And find another preschool.
posted by shoesietart at 10:49 AM on February 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


The crossing-the-street story is interesting because it can read in different ways.

People whose partners are abusive or have very serious problems with anger often talk about feeling as if they are "walking on eggshells", monitoring every tiny move they make to avoid triggering their partner's anger. I don't know if you are in that situation or not.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:53 AM on February 24, 2012


For what it's worth (and I may be misinterpreting/misapplying this), during the marital counseling it was suggested that her inner emotional child is stuck at two and mine is around nine or ten. Accordingly, she has lots of tantrums and gets unreasonably angry at small things

Yes, that is a patronising statement. I would not see a counselor ever again if they said something like that about my husband and me. If I were your wife, and you kept thinking like this, I would be more and more upset with you, as well. While you may be working on issues, I think this counselor put your wife into a much worse place. Please cut your wife some slack on that front.
posted by kellyblah at 10:57 AM on February 24, 2012 [15 favorites]


For the record, I think you have every right to feel upset, insulted, and defensive in reaction to your wife's anger. Anger is always detrimental to the process of resolving conflict. That said, you ask for other perspectives...

Anger is not caused by the relative age of one's 'inner child'. It is caused by frustration.

For whatever reason, your wife is unable to articulate her issues with your behaviour (or she is, but you do not understand them fully). She cannot resolve issues that she does not understand.

Does she really 'scream' in anger? She may raise her voice, perhaps she even shouts, but screams? As in shrill hysterics? If she is genuinely and frequently hysterical, then there are bigger emotional issues at work. However, it sounds more likely that she is having issues with communication that are exacerbated by your judgement.

Either way, I hope she seeks counselling. It is not for you to psychoanalyse her.
posted by dumdidumdum at 10:59 AM on February 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


She is understandably tired of being hurt by me and can't seem to find the will to be vulnerable and allow herself the chance to love me again because she's scared that she won't be able to handle it if I haven't really changed and she gets hurt again.

If this is true, and you really believe it, then you need to get out of the past (really, toddler-aged emotional inner children?!) and deal with your wife as the living, breathing, adult human being she is. If you want an adult relationship with a wife who trusts you, then take that sentence to a new counselor and ask for help learning to be a reliable and steadfast adult. But you should do that regardless of the outcome. It's not fair to resent your wife for not letting her guard down with you when you have shown her that it is not safe for her to let her guard down around you!

Anger is always detrimental to the process of resolving conflict.

Not true at all.
posted by headnsouth at 11:21 AM on February 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


my wife's initial instinct is to tell me to leave when she starts to get angry. If I leave, nothing gets addressed.

So she can feel herself getting triggered/frustrated/angry and asks for a cooling down period to regain control of herself but "powerless" you decides that you know better and refuse to leave so both of you are escalating the argument until she tantrums? Then you blame her for her tantrum?

we were able to resolve it and move on because I apologized for being dismissive of her feelings and promised to be more attentive. I resent having to do this

She asks to cross the street (again deferring to your power), you say no (to another adult?) and she tantrums. You give an apology you don't mean (and believe me, she is well aware you weren't being sincere) and accept no blame in the situation.

I think you are a really unhealthy part of the dynamic and you are showing little respect for her adulthood or a willingliness to work collaboratively and honestly. If you have had a break-though in recognising how your family of origin contributed to your problems you need to share that with her, to show you trust her, to validate her feelings and demonstrate to her real progress in your personal therapy. You are protecting your parent's feelings over the feelings of your spouse. You frame this questions as though more than 50% of the problems are her fault, I don't think I would agree with your assessment.

You say you have made great strides in six months personally. That is great! Keep it up! But recognise that six months of you perhaving perfectly (which you can't realistically do) wouldn't erase the resentment of ~years~ of hurtful behaviour from you. Expecting her to forgive and forget so soon, especially when you are clearly still continuing the same patterns, is co-opting her feelings in order to get her validation and turn the focus onto you instead of the relationship.
posted by saucysault at 11:28 AM on February 24, 2012 [17 favorites]


I've been thinking a lot about this lately...

Do you have credit with your wife?

I think that in relationships that work there are constant credit transactions. This is how all the little things add up, for better or for worse... and you don't get to decide how much credit you should have for actions either... You probably get credit for going to counselling, but perhaps less than you would expect... you've got to keep working at building the credit.

Does your wife have control? A voice? Do you validate her as a person?
posted by misspony at 11:35 AM on February 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


My wife asked to cross the street, but I said that we didn't need to because it was windy. She got really angry and accused me of not caring about her.

I'm not saying that your whole relationship hinges on this, but what's interesting to me about this exchange is that your wife asked for something ("Can we cross the street?") and instead of either saying "That's fine by me," or "I'd prefer not to," you said, "We don't need to because..." I believe that you care about your wife and your marriage, but it is easy to feel not cared for--at least, not cared for in a respectful, adult way--if your preferences are dismissed as unnecessary or nonsensical. You didn't answer the question she asked: you told her why her question was wrong.

I'm not saying her handling of the situation was great, or that you should feel awful about how you handled it, I just think you should examine whether there's a pattern of this type of communication in your relationship. If this is a common occurrence--explaining why she shouldn't want or prefer something instead of stating that you want or prefer something else--then I wonder if that might be part of what makes her disinclined to connect with you emotionally: it's not safe or comfortable to open up to someone who's judging you.
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:38 AM on February 24, 2012 [22 favorites]


Here's a boundary for you:

- Don't allow yourself or anyone else to call your wife and mother of your child an "emotional two year old."

That's a very disrespectful characterization. What the hell? There are so many other positive and productive ways to frame that. Just - no. I mean, hold on to that framing if you want things to get worse, yes! Change the framing if you want change in your marriage.

Other than that...

- I'm wondering about your parents.

My mom had troubles, and her behavior would ALWAYS deteriorate when her parents visited. You are likely "back-sliding" after visits with your folks. If so, imagine how hard that must be for your wife. How can you expect her to trust you without consistency?

Which brings me to the street crossing example...

Yeah. If that's a common example, you'd get yelled at by me, too, in similarly emotionally challenging times. Everything is magnified for her because you've been emotionally distant and withholding for so long.

- It troubles me that you wrote you resent having to apologize when she gets angry. Also, that you discuss power imbalances, when really, she sounds like someone who is at the end of their rope after feeling powerless in your marriage for a long long time. I don't think your current perspective on your wife is in support of your stated goals about wanting to make things better. Actually, I see a lot of contradiction there.

Maybe stop keeping score and just be super lovely towards your wife?

It sounds like just because you're working to be "normal" on the partnership scale, you're blowing past many years of powerful hurt and neglect your wife is still processing.

Be kind. Develop the skill of True Kindness towards your wife and child, both in thought AND in your actions. I know of no other antidote to the damage you've done to your marriage partnership by being emotionally unavailable for many years. Just go "all in" on the kindness front and stop worrying about the results. Worst case? You end up divorcing despite the effort, and you've become a nicer person in the meantime. Really. That's the worst thing cultivating genuine kindness will net you - a genuinely nicer you.

Don't blame your wife if she gives up. From her perspective, it might not be fixable. I'm sure she currently senses you are keeping score or resent apologizing to her, so whatever improvements you've made seem unlikely to "stick" from her perspective, and the overall issues might not be fixable in her estimation.

I guess I'm saying you should really try to see it from her side. Everybody wants to feel safe and loved. You describe someone who feels profoundly unsafe, if nothing else. If I were you, I'd probaby start there.
posted by jbenben at 11:50 AM on February 24, 2012 [8 favorites]


...lit a cigarette and I immediately fell back to see if the smoke was going to linger. My wife asked to cross the street, but I said that we didn't need to because it was windy. She got really angry and accused me of not caring about her. We crossed the street and she continued to work herself up

As soon as he saw the cigarette, he reacted to her needs. That sounds like walking on eggshells to me.

They safely crossed the street (with a small child) and she continud to escalate. It's possible that this anger is built up over time, but she still making two people respond to her being inconvenienced by one cigarette. That sounds like she feels pretty comfortable exercising power.

I'm hopeful that wanting you to leave when she's angry is about waiting until she's calm and can discuss the problem. If that's the case, then that's a good start and should respected.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 11:54 AM on February 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


does she acknowledge that screaming over these kinds of situations- or really screaming at people in general- is disrespectful? Extra-special bad if it's in front of your kid. Yelling and screaming is NOT an appropriate way to resolve conflict- it's a weapon.

It sort of sounds like you are doing all the work here- you're all about your mistakes and working on them- and you are trying to suss out her weak spots so that you can work around them.

I also think it is pretty unreasonable to totally block your parents from seeing their grandchild. It's...cruel. I'm totally behind bringing Kid to their house and leaving mom to relax for a while, but a blanket ban on them- unless there is reasonable concern about the possibility of abuse, is a douche move.

Where is she at with all this stuff? Does she want to make the marriage better- or is she just waiting for you to prove that you're a better guy so it will get better on it's own? You can't fix this without her wanting it to get fixed, and you can't keep getting knocked around for every time she thinks you're not being "considerate enough" when she can't ask you to reconsider without flipping her shit.

maybe you need to ask her from another direction. "I want us to be the best parents we can be, so that our kid grows up to be a healthy person. I think the way we have arguments isn't good for Kid. I want Kid to see us talking through things. I want Kid to see that we respect each other. I think that if we work together we can be the kind of parents kid deserves."

...I don't recommend calling her a two year old in the future. Just a good, general rule. Even if it helps you to figure it out that way.
posted by Blisterlips at 12:22 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Validate validate validate. Your wife is in pain, and she probably feels guilty for feeling the bad things she feels, which makes it worse. Tell her and show her that it's okay to have these feelings. It will take time and practice to be good at this.

As a wife who is sometimes caught in this cycle of bad feelings and guilt, and who sometimes gets angry at her husband because he doesn't seem to understand how frustrated I am, it is so helpful for me to have my husband attempt to put my mood into words and to show me that he is aware I feel bad, even when there is not a clear "logical" reason to be in a bad mood.

Do not call her "unreasonably angry". She knows she's being unreasonable, and knowing that makes it even worse for her. She cannot be shamed into getting better control of her emotions. Validation link again.
posted by thirteenkiller at 12:29 PM on February 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


I have come to realize that I have been emotionally unavailable to my wife for years and that I haven't been pulling my weight around the house.

She is understandably tired of being hurt by me and can't seem to find the will to be vulnerable and allow herself the chance to love me again because she's scared that she won't be able to handle it if I haven't really changed and she gets hurt again.

My wife has a lot of resentment towards me that recently has started to manifest itself as a very powerful anger.

For what it's worth (and I may be misinterpreting/misapplying this), during the marital counseling it was suggested that her inner emotional child is stuck at two and mine is around nine or ten....We agreed to pull our son out of school and she has resisted going back to counseling since the new year because she doesn't have anyone to watch our son and she is no longer comfortable with the counselor.


Your post sounds a little different when put in this order.

The therapist not only was patronizing to her, but gave you both the impression that you are a better adult, emotionally, than she is, and your reactions are far more rational, while she has "tantrums". No wonder she doesn't want to go back.

Everyone said it above me, but it's not that SHE doesn't have someone to watch your child while you go to counseling...it's that you both don't. Does that mean that 100% of the childcare is her resonsibility and she never has time to herself when you are not around to go to the doctor, library, take a nap, get a haircut, play video games, or whatever else she likes to do that is not working or childcare? Do you two manage to spend any time together, without kids, enjoying each other's company?

I think your wife's instict to tell you to leave when she gets angry is maybe a good one, that could be her trying to establish boundaries of not trying to resolve issues when she is feeling angry and irrational.
posted by inertia at 12:31 PM on February 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


Also, what inertia (and others) said. Calling your wife's angry times "tantrums" and describing her as an emotional two-year-old is disrespectful and unhelpful and it's extremely invalidating and probably makes her feel worse when she does get irritated.
posted by thirteenkiller at 12:36 PM on February 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


If you are dismissing your wife's outburst as tantrums because her 'inner child' is stuck at two years old you aren't really going to hear what she's saying. If your counseller isn't working out for your wife you need to look around and find someone else who you are both comfortable with.

Don't dismiss yourself as an emotional 10 year old either. You're an adult who would like to react in a different way to certain triggers. That can be achieved.
posted by Laura_J at 12:46 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also: you're a good guy for reaching out for help, and for wanting to make things better, and I know it must be so frustrating to be raged on like that. Your wife doesn't want to be an unpleasant person, just like I'm sure you don't want to be invalidating or inconsiderate or emotionally distant. Keep trying to work on respectful communication with her and things really could improve.
posted by thirteenkiller at 12:48 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


It sounds to me like you don't know how to nurture the other.

She's acting hurt and starved, and desperately trying to get something from you.

You don't know how to give her that thing, and you are feeling so depleted and worn out yourself by your failure. Her hunger is so all-consuming at this point she can't see beyond herself to help you.

So you are both starving, and fighting over what scraps exist. I don't know that any person is to blame for this, as it is more a case of you and her speaking different languages. When you have time and patience, you can decipher each other. When emotions run high, it becomes harder and harder to communicate in your pidgin understanding of the other.

I don't know how you can fix this, but it sounds like you need to teach each other how best to nurture the other. And I think the first step is to abandon some of your pride and ask for that nurturing. Be strong enough to take the hurt if it goes wrong. Then, and only then, can you evaluate the situation for what it is (one asking for a specific kind of support, and the other choosing to deliver or not).

Right now you are only guessing, and paralyzed by the answer you fear.

Your pride is what is getting in the way of learning that answer.
posted by griselda at 1:30 PM on February 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


The lengths folks are going to to justify the wife's behavior in this story are unreal. I mean, look: this is a woman who hates anon's parents and tells him so in a way that makes it clear that she hates him, too. She pitches fits over crossing the street to avoid a little secondhand smoke. She has screamed at him three times this week. She seems to have no interest in being a nurturing, caring partner to anon. And his response to all of this has been intense self-criticism, reinterpreting all of her fucked-up behaviors as things that are his (assuming) fault.

Dude, you've done your job. You're miserable, and 90% of it is her fault. You've tried to fix it and have failed. Do right by the kid, then cut her loose before she ruins any more of your life.
posted by downing street memo at 1:49 PM on February 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


I call quackery on the part of the therapist. It is extremely insulting for the therapist to characterize her clients as a toddler and a pre-teen. I would not go to a therapist who told me my "inner child" was 2. Seriously, it's shocking therapists still use that sort of thing. It shows the therapist has little respect for either of you and especially for your wife.

I think you need to stop listening to that therapist and stop using so much imagery when it comes to your wife. Try to be more factual. It's very dismissive to say she has "tantrums" and you have to leave because of her "hurricane." I dated someone who would try say my emotional expressions were "tantrums," because he didn't want to hear me. It ruined our relationship and literally made me hate him.

In the cigarette incident, you were extremely dismissive to your wife. She was bothered by the smoke. It doesn't matter if you didn't think the smoke was an issue. You aren't the arbiter of whether the smoke bothers your wife. You fell back to see if the smoke would bother you and when it didn't bother you, but still bothered your wife, your response was to say that it doesn't bother you so, it shouldn't bother her. If I was your wife, I would have been upset too.
posted by parakeetdog at 1:50 PM on February 24, 2012 [8 favorites]


the more i think about this, the more I feel like if the genders were reversed- we wouldn't be urging you to "not dismiss her outbursts as tantrums" and calling them "emotional bludgeoning". "as long as you don't ask for her to care for you"? after SEVEN MONTHS of working on things? so she just tolerates you and makes sure you know you are just being tolerated?

You talk about your parents visiting, but don't mention going to see them. You talk about her not wanting to go to counseling because 'she' can't find anyone to watch your son. Do you feel like she wants you to have a larger hand in the parenting responsibilities? I suddenly feel like maybe she isn't too into the idea of you having more control.

maybe I'm reading this all wrong- but uh- If you were a girl, I feel like we would be telling you to get her to agree to going back to counseling or get the fuck out before your son learns it's ok to treat romantic partners like that.
posted by Blisterlips at 1:50 PM on February 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


YEAH- and her broadcasting that she hates your parents because they are so much like the worst parts of you? wtf is that about?

you can make this your fault until you are blue in the face, but if a dude said that to me- I would not be bending over backwards to try to beg my way back into a little kindness.
posted by Blisterlips at 1:53 PM on February 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


For anyone wondering about that True Kindness thing I was referring to in my comment...

I define it as that particular feeling of altruism, and especially good will, that you embody and act upon when you are in a great mood or interacting with someone you love.

Offered in the right spirit, there's no "sting" involved in being gracious or accommodating towards others, no score keeping, either.

---

I find it's easier to be this way when you put the breaks on assigning fault for every little thing. Also, if the person you share a home and parenting responsibilities with doesn't deserve supreme kindness from you, then who does??

It's common in dysfunctional dynamics to treat the other person(s) like crap, yet because we are nice to strangers, acquaintances, and friends, we fool ourselves into feeling that we're doing OK.

I notice healthy families give each other the highest respect and are supremely kind and accommodating towards each other. I notice cannibalizing your own is a recipe for discomfort and/or, outright failure.

------

The OP admits having been emotionally distant in his marriage. I imagine if you are the type that has a history of being emotionally distant, being truly kind just for the sake of it is a skill you've not practiced much. It seems the OP might benefit from cultivating this skill and applying it towards the troubles in his marriage.

Also, I've seen genuine kindness melt anger plenty of times in my life.

Hope that clarification helped.
posted by jbenben at 2:17 PM on February 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


I can give you a Buddhist perspective, it comes from what I practice, it may not provide you with the kind of answer you are looking for but maybe it will give you another way to look at your life

We believe that your environment is a result of your inner life condition and that you have created it on your own. Until you take full responsibility for it, it will not change and these obstacles in your life will appear again and again in different forms to challenge you. The people you meet, the challenges you face are a direct causation of your actions. Give up blaming others for what you have created in this life and you will empower yourself with the strength to create changes. Don't expect anything from others, when you change your inner life condition, you will find that your environment will change accordingly. What you are facing right now is your own fundamental darkness reflected in your surroundings

(please contact me if you like, and i can point to resources that will definitely help you change your life condition)
posted by pakora1 at 2:33 PM on February 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Dude, you are not responsible for her anger. She is.

If you do something that offends her, the right thing to do is apologize. She accepts apology. End of interaction.

But if she gets angry at something you've done, that's her reaction, and she's responsible for that.

Since her anger seems out of proportion to the proximate cause, I suspect she has a lot of pent-up anger from times past, likely extending back into her family-of-origin. It's helpful to remember that when facing her blow-ups at you.
posted by exphysicist345 at 4:19 PM on February 24, 2012


I'd also like to add (and for full disclosure)... I have a massive unbelievable anger problem... and I'm in a relatively new relationship where its become an issue...

BUT I also have had a great marriage and relationship (decade long) to someone really amazing (bloody animal whisperer sheesh) WHO NEVER MADE ME FEEL LIKE HE WAS DOING ME A FAVOR BY BEING WITH ME....

The crazy thing about this kind of anger is that its an out of control explosion that can be manipulated (if you can get someone to call you a cu%t at the TOP of your lungs, you no longer have to give credence to them in any way it seems)

My ex-husband NEVER manipulated it- ever... I ALWAYS knew that everything was okay, that he loved me and I was truly special. Even when I was angry I felt he was on my team... I don't have that now and I miss it.

While I need to work on this- I also know that there are other people out there who might take me differently- and that helps a lot.... i know from experience that I'm a person that can be loved deeply (not just a 2 year old inside who's lucky to get a caretaker)

If I hadn't had a REAL relationship that worked despite my anger- then I'd be afraid that so and so was all there was out there-

but I know that's not the case... and I can ask for what I want- the scariest place to be is one where the person, who should be your best friend, doesn't accept you.

My point: please don't think you're doing your wife a favor by being with her... she can get (i imagine) and deserve love. if you can't give it- that's a different problem.
posted by misspony at 4:20 PM on February 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


during the marital counseling it was suggested that her inner emotional child is stuck at two and mine is around nine or ten.

I'd never ever ever go back to a counsellor who said that about me, and I don't yell at people but if my partner ever referred to it with a straight face he'd be in trouble. I'm kind of curious as to what the counsellor said that you actually interpreted as condescending to her, if you see this bit as ok.
posted by jacalata at 6:51 PM on February 24, 2012


Hmm. The answer by missponey above really sparked something for me. I have an ex-husband from my twenties, and I'm very happily married now to a great man. We just had our first boy last year.

I remember when Mr. jbenben and I got married, I realized it was the first time in my whole life (my poor mom was nuts, my ex was a good person and yet not in my corner on some serious issues) that I was sharing a roof with someone who I was totally safe with.


Your wife, for whatever reason, doesn't feel safe with you. Maybe you are at fault. or not, or a combination. I do know her anger won't fade, and the resentments will not resolve, unless she feels safe in your marriage.


This supports my original premise in the thread that you might extending kindness towards your partner. Genuine kindness makes people feel safe. Take it to the bank!
posted by jbenben at 6:56 PM on February 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


look inward. get your own counselor. stop saying "we." parent yourself, not your wife. drop your protections. stop trying to win.
posted by macinchik at 11:11 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Seconding the wise words of inertia stated above.

Frankly, I think that counselor was full of shit. Your wife is 100% right not to want to go back to such a patronizing jerk. ...it was suggested that her inner emotional child is stuck at two and mine is around nine or ten. Accordingly, she has lots of tantrums and gets unreasonably angry at small things. Well, you certainly have figured her out then, haven't you? Your wife is emotionally childish, she has lots of tantrums, and is unreasonable. How does that little determination assist you in resolving problems in your marriage? If you have that little respect for the woman, then no wonder she wants nothing to do with you emotionally or physically.

Your comment about how your wife has all the power is interesting. How does that play out in real life? You have the job, you get acknowledged, get kudos and respect from your boss and coworker, you get a pay check that says what you do is worth x dollars. It's YOUR money. At the end of the day, you know people respect you.

What does your wife get? What she does at home doesn't have a tangible reward that you can bank. Do you respect her for what she does? I mean REALLY respect her. Housekeeping and raising a child isn't much fun. It's work. It's lonely work, and it involves tasks that are boring, repetitive, and generally don't get noticed. No matter how much you love your kid, at the end of the day, you really really want to talk to someone who's more than waist high. And you want to talk to someone who will actually listen. And you'd like to have some money of your own. Because he who controls the paycheck in the marriage, has the power.

The whole issue of the smoking thing is just weird. The smoke was bothering your wife, and she suggested a solution: cross the street. You countered with the statement that you didn't need to because it was windy. How does a weather analysis acknowledge your wife's discomfort? If you had said, "If it's bothering you, how about dropping back a bit further so we can't smell it." She probably would have felt like you had heard what she said and cared about her comfort level.
I apologized for being dismissive of her feelings and promised to be more attentive. I resent having to do this...
You resent which? Apologizing? Having to be attentive to her feelings? There's a big disconnect with your saying how much you care for her if you resent doing either one of those. Sounds to me that what would have made you happiest would have been if she'd just not said anything and remained uncomfortable, just so you wouldn't be bothered.

You stated that you're trying to work on issues stemming from your family of origin, so you know there are some problems that relate to your family and your marriage. Obviously your wife has some issues with your parents. It sounds as if whatever problems there are can be exacerbated by your parents visiting.
She has essentially asked me to minimize/prevent their visits until we are in a better place. ... If I bring up the possibility of my parents visiting...
So you know she would like to keep some distance, she has asked you to postpone visits, yet you still keep bringing it up? That certainly sounds disrespectful to me. She didn't say you couldn't go visit them yourself or with your son, she asked that they not come to the house temporarily, until things were better. No wonder she yells. I'm betting if she were asked she'd say you never listen.

I can tell you this, when I feel my husband doesn't listen to me, I get mad. Then I try to talk louder so he hears. But just because someone hears you yelling doesn't mean they are listening to what you have to say. So the default is to yell louder. It usually doesn't work. But DH has learned that if I raise my voice, it's because I'm frustrated. I can live with him disagreeing with what I have to say, but I can't live with being ignored. And it goes both ways with us. I know if I want him to listen to me, I have to listen to him. I don't have to agree with him, I don't have to do what he wants, but I do have to listen. It's a respect we accord each other.

Like every married couple, my husband isn't perfect, I'm not perfect, and we both have (major) issues that we have to work on to remain married. We've been through some pretty hellish times. We've been to marriage counselors when things were rough. But we have respect for each other, and we listen to each other, and that has allowed us to stay together for 30+ years.

I don't know your wife, but from the examples you give and the wording of your letter, I'm pretty sure I know why she's angry and distrustful. I would strongly suggest you see a marriage counselor that treats BOTH of you with respect and works on marriage issues, one that doesn't play at amateur psychoanalysis. It wouldn't hurt for both of you to see individual counselors. I wish you luck.
posted by BlueHorse at 12:50 AM on February 25, 2012 [9 favorites]


Wow, what an interesting question and discussion. I can tell you that the emotional tone and many of the dynamics you describe remind me a lot, a LOT, of when my marriage was at its absolute worst, about a year ago. My husband and I have come a long way in the last year, including a separation, but we have finally and I believe for good figured out how to work through these problems. So, forgive any unwarranted projection, but from my point of view, here are my suggestions.

Griselda is absolutely spot on that your wife's tantrums are because she is completely at the end of her rope. If you have historically been emotionally unavailable to her, good for you for just now realizing this and working on it--but please realize that a huge deficit has built up, she has almost certainly been asking or telling you what she needs for a long time but you have not honored that or responded in kind. This is exactly what happened when I became frantic, angry, shrill, yes tantrum prone with my husband-- it was the result of literally years of being shut out or blown off or disregarded, behind his generally pleasant and genial surface disposition. I was so out of control angry that our first marriage counselor gave up on us, believe it.

The Emotionally Unavailable Man was hugely illuminating for both of us. Also Terry Real's New Rules Of Marriage, for establishing mutually agreeable "ground rules" for when we were really unable to engage each other productively, as it sounds like you are now.

When my husband for to the point where he could really respect and be present for my strong negative emotions--whether anger or sadness or disappointment or hurt--and, VERY importantly, when he could recognize his limits, when he was getting overwhelmed and withdraw responsibly for a time, with the honored promise to re engage later---then things really started to change. Much of my anger was really redirected hurt and sadness. Having learned through long experience, from his lack of emotional engagement, that he wouldn't listen or deal with, indeed didn't care about, when I was hurt or sad, the only outlet left for those feelings was anger. Anger would scare him into acting, generally out of fear--so what I learned was that anger "worked" to effect change when those other emotions just left me frozen out.

This was a hard, hard dynamic to change, but change we have.

For a long time I was so hurt that it was excruciating to consider putting myself out there, making myself vulnerable again--I recognize that from your description of your wife too. You may feel like you are doing all the work now, but if your story is like ours, truly, you really do have a big deficit of emotional work to make up and your marriage will be very well served if you focus on being proactive and compassionate, lose your defensiveness, recognize how much your wife is hurting and reassure her in every way you can that you care, you want things to be good, you care about her, that you are dedicated to working alongside her to find your way out of this horrible morass and to get back to the loving place where you both began.

When things get a little more functional, check out the Five Love Languages too. Or maybe check it out now. Ther is a chapter on loving the unlovable that may resonate with you strongly right now...also putting your focus (yours alone, or both of yours together) on intentionally acting in loving ways can be so meaningful at this time, very healing if you can each let yourself receive it.

Good luck. Youre in such a hard place. I know it and I have been there. You can get out of it too, if both of yard willing. MeMail me if you need a sympathetic ear.
posted by Sublimity at 7:21 AM on February 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


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