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Detaching whilst staying
January 22, 2014 6:23 AM   Subscribe

How does one practice detachment in a codependent, anxiety-rich relationship? How can I be the husband my wife needs me to be whilst also getting what I need?

I've been trying to avoid writing this post for the last few weeks, because it's the third or fourth time that I've posted about my marriage on AskMeFi, and I rather feel like I've failed somewhere if I keep having to come back.

Let me say up front, because I want it to be clear: I love my wife. She's one of the sweetest, funniest, most loveable people I've ever met. We get along very well for a lot of the time, and we're seen as inseparable by our close friends (even those who knew that we separated have said that things didn't seem right without us together). I don't want to leave her again, but I also don't think I can carry on with the status quo indefinitely.

"Put on your own oxygen mask" is oft-given advice here on the green, and I want to find a way to do that whilst also supporting my wife through some difficult issues. It's fair to say that we've fallen into a codependent relationship (at least as far as I understand the term).

The brief summary (you can see some of my posting history for more details):
  • My wife and I have been together for 15 years, married for nearly 13. We're both in our late thirties. There's never been any infidelity.
  • At the end of 2012 we separated; I chose to leave because my wife refused to get counselling about her anxieties and anxienty-driven behaviours that were hurting both of us.
  • She eventually got a therapist, and we saw a couples therapist; her personal therapist said it would be better if she didn't see both a personal therapist at the same time, so she stopped personal therapy.
  • We worked through a lot of stuff in couples' therapy, though we didn't have as many sessions as I'd expected (8 weeks with the option of coming back if we needed to). Eventually, around the start of April '13, I moved back in.
  • Things started to get steadily worse again; my wife's anxieties around abandonment became a very powerful force in her life (understandably, since in her eyes I'd abandoned her).
  • She refused to get therapy again, saying that it was her job to work through things. (The subject of my first question about all this, in fact).
  • Eventually, she did start to see a therapist of her own again. This lasted for about six weeks before her therapist said that there was nothing more to be done in sessions, and that my wife had all the tools she needed to continue on her own. (Needless to say my own therapist and I were very surprised about this).
Whilst the second batch of therapy did seem to help my wife, and helped her handle her anxieties, they're now coming back again with a vengeance.

Some recent examples:
  • Some nights she won't phone me to say she's coming home because she's scared that I'll have left her without telling her. This means that if I run errands around the time she's arriving home from work (quite often only the time that I've got available in my day to do so) I need to tell her first... Except that I can only do that by SMS (her job has a strict no cell phones policy for various reasons) and she doesn't accept that as evidence that I won't have left; "You could," she once said, "tell me that you were just going to the bank but instead you'd be packing up to leave."
  • If she thinks she's done something to upset me she'll often try to make things worse rather than better, in order to show me that I really shouldn't be with her. A recent example of this was angrily talking about cancelling an activity we were both looking forward to (because she thought I didn't care enough), then telling me she actually had cancelled it (because she thought she'd upset me and she wanted to prove how terrible she was) and then, when I found out that she was lying about having cancelled, telling me that she knew I was going to leave her and she was just trying to show me how it would be the right thing for me.
  • In the mornings she often sends me an SMS to say she's arrived at work; she's taken to questioning me in these SMSes ("Swear on my life that you've never taken illegal drugs," "How can I be sure that you won't leave me again?" "How can I be sure that you're not having an affair?". I always answer the questions, and without letting how much it hurt come across in the message, because I know that if I don't she'll be fretting about it all day, and then we'll fight about it in the evening. When she gets home she always apologises for the questions — she can't help them bubbling up during the commute, and she needs to ask them rather than stew on them. Sometimes they stop for a while, but they always come back.
  • I need to go to bed early because I get up for work at 5:30am. My wife hates being the last one to bed, and will refuse to come to bed if I go to bed without her, even if I'm exhausted. Often I'll end up staying up until 1am so that she doesn't have to be the one to check that the doors are locked and so on. This leaves me drained, but it's better than waking up in the morning to find that she's slept on the sofa and had very little sleep.
  • On a similar note, if I'm too tired for sex (which happens often when I've had only 4 or 5 hours sleep several nights in a row) my wife will either toss and turn in bed, muttering to herself (and so keeping me awake) or take this as evidence that I'm having an affair and use it as fuel to start a fight. I'm always too tired for this, so we often end up having sex even when I'm too tired to really enjoy it.
  • Finally, on the subject of sex, my wife has a specific kink that I don't share (or rather, it doesn't turn me on in and of itself, but her reaction when we indulge it does, so I'm happy to bring it in to our sex life). However, whenever we indulge that kink, my wife will, after sex, spend a lot of time telling me what a slut she is for having that kink, and saying that I should be ashamed of her and that she knows that eventually I'll leave her for someone normal.
Once again, my wife won't go and see a therapist. She didn't like the second one she saw, and although she asked me to ask my therapist for a recommendation, she said that all the recommended therapists were too expensive (they weren't, given our combined take-home pay) and that she just had to "deal with it all herself." When I told her that I needed her to get whatever help she needed to deal with these issues, she told me that I was bullying her, and made me promise (after pointing out that all this was my fault for leaving in the first place) never to bring it up again.

My wife has suggested returning couples therapy (Relate in the UK) a couple of times, but when I agree with her she takes that as a symptom of our failure and evidence of my desire to leave, and it becomes a massive stress point, so in the end we don't go.

I've come to the conclusion that she simply doesn't "get" therapy — she says herself that the majority of her sessions are just spent with her or the therapist trying to make small talk instead of actually talking about what's going on. She doesn't see that it helped her at all. As I've said before, she says that in couples therapy she puts on her "best face" for the therapist, because she hates to be judged, which means that issues stay hidden because she won't talk about them.

My therapist, whom I've been seeing for nigh on two years now, has said that sometimes my wife sounds like she's exhibiting symptoms of BPD, but that it's not consistent enough to actually be BPD (and anyway, she can't diagnose that kind of thing from a distance).

What do I do to get through this period, MeFites? Yoga, meditation, mindfulness...? I have no intention of leaving again; it was hell the first time around and I can't face doing it again. The good times are really, really good, and I need to support my wife as she goes through all this without feeding her anxieties and whilst looking after myself too, and I don't know what that looks like.
posted by yasp to Human Relations (47 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
She sounds like she's suffering from some severe anxiety, at the very least. If she's not working on helping herself, there's honestly nothing you can do to change her. You have to be good with your marriage as it is today, because this might be the best it's going to get.
posted by xingcat at 6:29 AM on January 22 [3 favorites]


What do I do to get through this period, MeFites?

Can you clarify why you think this is temporary?
posted by jon1270 at 6:39 AM on January 22 [49 favorites]


I'm so sorry - this sounds like a really tough way to live.

Your wife's anxiety sounds very serious to me -- beyond what one could probably address in couples therapy. I'm a little skeptical about the fact her therapist said she "had all the tools she needed" -- either she wasn't being honest with the therapist about what was going on, or maybe she's not telling you precisely what the therapist said to her.

Has she seen an MD about possibly trying some anti-anxiety medications? Those can make a tremendous difference, especially if you're a little fatigued from rounds and rounds of therapy. (I say this as a woman who's been treated for anxiety.)

If she's not willing to work on her anxiety, this may be the best your relationship can be. Keeping up with your own therapy, meditation, etc., are all good things and I'm sure you'll get other recommendations. But do you really want to spend that much effort coping with an intimate relationship that is supposed to be a comfort to you?
posted by pantarei70 at 6:41 AM on January 22 [5 favorites]


I am not a therapist but I've been in therapy, and it sounds to me like you've crossed the line from supporting to enabling (perhaps your own therapist has point this out). You cannot fix these problems for her, because they're not yours to fix. Go to bed when you need to go to bed. Let her know that you have to stop at the shops on the way home from work and then do that.

Everything you're doing now that accommodates her anxieties is only going to prolong them - I mean, it's not helping, right? The way you're managing her now isn't actually lessening her fears, and it's not encouraging her to go back to therapy, and it doesn't sound like this is just temporary. She's "going through" this in a way that's not just situational - it isn't just because there's a huge project at work and once that's done she'll be better. This is how she is now, without treatment, and it's not going to get better just by you texting or not texting or reassuring her. Are you willing or able to keep doing this for the rest of your life? Because to me, that sounds like the road you're on.

Mindfulness exercises and the like can help somewhat, so sure, give them a shot. But when are you going to do them? It doesn't sound like you can take a class, if that's going to make her think that you think she's terrible. It doesn't sound like you can practice at home - and it is practice, it takes time and attention - for the same reason. I used both, sort of, when I was caring for my dying mother. That was a temporary situation, and they were helpful. But there was a light at the end of my tunnel - it was awful, but it was there. Is there a light at the end of yours? It doesn't sound like it to me.
posted by rtha at 6:44 AM on January 22 [36 favorites]


It sounds like you are enabling this by trying to reassure her in her delusions (you won't leave, you're not a drug addict, etc). I think you need to (gently) point out each time that it's her anxiety fueling this, not anything you've done or are doing. Example:

Her: You didn't text me on your way home from the bank! You're planning to leave me!
You: That's your anxiety talking again. Have you done your breathing exercises (or whatever her therapist has recommended)?

Don't engage in whatever she says. Keep gently bringing it around to the fact that she's going to have to deal with this. This will probably require a superhuman amount of patience on your part.

Don't spend more time with her than you really want to. Go get a hobby that gets you out of the house. You'll feel better and she will learn to cope (or not). She has to be given an opportunity to really face her fear of abandonment.

I say this as someone with anxiety who had a terrible fear of abandonment that's gotten much, much better as my (saintly) husband patiently refused to cater to my delusions. I was only able to come to trust him because he would go away (for work or for a hobby) and come back. Reassurance is a bottomless pit; I could never, ever get enough. I had to be weaned from it, and so does your wife. Best wishes to you and her; you're clearly both suffering quite a bit.
posted by desjardins at 6:54 AM on January 22 [72 favorites]


You can't deal with this at all without sleep. Her sleeping on the couch and getting poor sleep is NOT better than you getting poor sleep. Stop subjugating your needs to her anxieties.

And if this ever moves forward, enough with the Relate therapy. Your wife needs CBT and meds.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:08 AM on January 22 [12 favorites]


I am troubled by this question and others in your posting history. I'm sorry, but I have doubts about whether you should continue this relationship. I know you have fifteen years together, but it takes more than one person willing to work on it when the marriage is facing so many large obstacles. If you are having suicidal thoughts and she isn't supportive, you can always call a hotline or talk to your therapist.

The top five coping mechanisms are: cognitive, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical. I've always relied mostly on physical and social, so my recommendation would be building up an exercise routine while talking things over with 2-3 trusted friends (even in a general way -- "My marriage is in trouble" or "We are fighting all the time" -- nearly everyone can relate to those statements).
posted by 99percentfake at 7:10 AM on January 22 [8 favorites]


I just read through your previous questions, and I saw a comment that I think was super important but wasn't addressed:

Was she abandoned as a child?
posted by Dansaman at 10:09 AM on July 24, 2013 [+] [!]


Not to get overly Freudian, but the kind of anxiety you're talking about likely has a deep, deep origin in her childhood or adolescence. Did one of her parents leave her--fail to "come home" in some sense? Did someone important to her die? Did an early partner cheat on her? Did one of her parents withhold affection when she was in pain? If so, her behaviors need to be understood through the lens of being coping mechanisms for that early trauma. She couldn't rely on people to come back to her, so she grills you about your whereabouts. She couldn't get physical affection through normal interactions, so she craves negative attention--fighting--because it's better than being invisible. As for the kink stuff, and the feeling that she's performing in therapy, did she have someone saying cruel things about her in her youth? She's internalized those messages that she's bad and wrong, and so feels like she has to repress who she really is, to bear the burden of her life alone.

She sounds like she's in so much pain. And your history of leaving her and withdrawing is triggering to her.

She needs a new counselor, probably one that is CBT oriented rather than talk-therapy oriented, and one with whom she has a really great connection. That's what it took for me to abandon a lot of my dead dad issues, personally, though I still--and will always--struggle at times. As for what you can do, I'd avoid diagnosing her (and really, your therapist shouldn't be diagnosing her either). If you're really committed to staying, it's a matter of working on your communication skills together. Returning to couples' therapy isn't a bad idea. And just being patient. These crazy things she's doing she does because she's learned--in her life before you, and subsequently--that they're the only way to get her needs met. Together, you'll have to figure out healthier ways to address those needs. It's not something you can do alone.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:16 AM on January 22 [8 favorites]


"And your history of leaving her and withdrawing is triggering to her"

That seems a pretty uncharitable characterization, don't you think? He asked for a separation because of her untreated anxiety issues. I am not sure how that translates to "a history".
posted by The Blue Olly at 7:35 AM on January 22 [15 favorites]


This is bizarre to me:

her personal therapist said it would be better if she didn't see both a personal therapist at the same time, so she stopped personal therapy.

She needs a different personal therapist. And by "needs" I mean NEEDS needs.

When I told her that I needed her to get whatever help she needed to deal with these issues, she told me that I was bullying her, and made me promise (after pointing out that all this was my fault for leaving in the first place) never to bring it up again.

Obviously, the "bullying" thing is bullshit. There is no way this will get better without getting her in treatment. Are you seriously saying that's not and will never be an option? That's the only way this is a temporary situation-- if she eventually relents and goes into treatment.

No serious ideas about the coping, just that thinking this is temporary is probably inaccurate. Hopefully that will motivate some sort of change.
posted by supercres at 7:36 AM on January 22 [9 favorites]


The good times are really, really good, and I need to support my wife as she goes through all this without feeding her anxieties and whilst looking after myself too, and I don't know what that looks like.

There's a big difference between supporting your wife and giving in to her anxious mind. In theory you should be supporting her to manage and control her anxieties, not assisting her in having them as if the things that her anxious brain comes up with are acceptable and normal. I am taking as given that you really want to stay in this relationship (even though it might not be my main suggestion) and talk about anxieties.

There are types of anxieties (sometimes that come along with OCD, sometimes not) that require constant reassurances as part of the process. I am sorry your wife has out of control beliefs about you and your life and life together, but the onus should be on her to manage these things. So, specifically, the flip-out texts?

- respond along the lines of what desjardins says. Do not engage with the delusion, be concerned, be detached
- if she tries to fight when you get home, refuse to engage, repeat that you are not responsible for her irrational anxieties. Differentiate what is irrational ("Did you take drugs?" "are you having an affair?") from what may be grounded in fact but is still being blown out of proportion ("You will leave me") and don't gaslight her about the latter but still maintain that she needs to manage this stuff and you can help her manage but will not indulge it
- above all, what other people said, do not subsume your own happiness entirely because your wife is refusing to work on her own issues

I deal with anxiety and it's a pain. That said, it's not my partner's problem. I can say "I'm feeling anxious and I need to go for a walk right now" but I can't say "I'm feeling anxious and so I need to interrogate you about where you were last night" Not okay. Normal boundaries include

- not putting your own self-care beneath someone else who is not using self-care themselves. This means you need to get sleep, stay fed and not do things you don't want to do (sex, reassurances, giving in to bizarre conversations) because you are trying to avoid fights or arguments. You avoid fights and arguments by not participating in them if someone tries to pick a fight with you or be awful to you. Practice disengagement when your wife is argumentative. Physically leave the house if you have to.
- not having yet another discussion about whether you will leave her. At the end of the day, you leave or you don't leave. You may not be able to correctly predict this. In a normal relationship this is not a constant topic of conversation. Do not continue to have this conversation with her. Agree to have it with a counselor ONLY.
- require reasonable interaction with her that isn't based on her irrational concerns. If you want her to text you when she is on her way home, tell her so and enforce that polite request. You are allowed to have concerns and things you want/need in a relationship that don't get buried in her pile of anxieties.

Above all, keep track of the things you are doing that are because you want to avoid a fight. I have an SO whose last SO was BPD-seeming, had given up on therapy and basically harassed and emotionally abused him repeatedly for a long time. Listening to the number of things he would just sort of roll over on just to avoid a fight, it was poignant. He lost track of how to advocate for his own needs and how to even be in touch with them because she had sort of convinced him that only her needs were important because she "needed" the things she needed more than he did. It sucked and he never really got closure from the whole messy ordeal. Make sure you're keeping up with the rest of your life--friends, family, hobbies--and not just turning into a support machine for your wife. Small setbacks are normal. Looking at a future where this is all there is and it's not that great and there's no path out of it are much less normal.
posted by jessamyn at 7:41 AM on January 22 [39 favorites]


Step one: Presume that this is what is, and how it will be. If she's unwilling/unable to make SIGNIFICANT changes, then things won't change.

So, status quo is dialed in and that's that.

Given that, I see three options.

A) Suck it up, accept that this is what is, and plod on till death do you part like you said in your marriage vows. You sat down at the table, and the cards you were dealt came up "Crippling Anxiety". So play the cards you've been dealt, faithfully.

Maybe this involves you just letting her flip out. "No I didn't call. I went to the store. Like normal people do. And now I'm back. And I'm going to the store and coming back multiple times in the future." Let her wig out and then reset. Until the next time she wigs out.

Because if she's going to get bent no matter what you do, maybe you need to put less energy into worrying about her getting bent, given that you've got a whole life to get through. Stop coddling her neuroses, given that all it does is use up your energy.

B) Leave her and get a divorce. Part of the status-quo-TDDYP is that it's not gonna magically flip into happy-functional land. What you have is it. You know the lay of the land, you've made the map, and there is no magical happy-smiley valley over some hidden hillside you haven't explored.

If you can't dig deep into the "I said for better or for worse on the altar" bag, call it quits already.

If she's pushing you to recognize how much you should leave her, maybe eventually she's gonna succeed. And maybe she's the kind of drowning person who can't be saved, and can only take you down with her.

C) Stay married, but become a really good liar and actually start fucking around on the side. Start perusing "How To Have An Affair And Not Get Caught" books in the self-help aisle. Advice like "Always take separate cars, pay cash, etc". Mebbe "married dating" sites, find a married woman in a similar situation and be each other's secret release valve before going back to the home.

Maybe the odd uncomplicated blowjob on the down-low from an uninvolved party will be enough to go home and deal. Hell, she presumes you're getting blown on the side already. In for a penny, in for a pound.

If you go the "Cad" route, you gotta get secret-agent-in-Moscow level with your tradecraft. Is she gonna go thru your browser history? Does she have "Find My Friends" app on her iPhone so she can track your whereabouts?

If you go the "Cad" route, be scrupulous about safer-sex. She may be crazy, but bringing home cooties from an affair is WAY out of line.

I don't think I'd phrase this so starkly if this was1st question on the subject, but you've been struggling with this for 15 years now, and it's already caused you to walk once.

Time for analysis is over; you know what's on the plate. Tuck in, leave the table, or fake it and sneak some candy on the side after dinner.

NOTE: Just checked your prev Qs, and she has a demonstrated history of going through your e-mails, SMS, and stuff to check for cheating. Option "C" suddenly seems less of a long-term option. If she's a snoop, then you gotta get KGB double-agent good in covering your tracks. And now there will actually be something for her to find.

A: "For better or worse, in sickness and in health, Till Death Do We Part"
B: Divorce
C: Stay married, fuck around on the side, probably get caught.

Best of luck
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:42 AM on January 22 [3 favorites]


What exactly do you need/want, OP? You've written quite a textbook on your wife's feelings and behaviors, but you need to define what it is that YOU need. Sleep, obviously. What else?
posted by sm1tten at 7:45 AM on January 22 [17 favorites]


It sounds like you've fallen into a consistent pattern of placating her anxieties in the short term, which is only fueling them in the long term: she's learned she can persist in making these wild, bizarre accusations against you and that you'll react by trying to comfort her, therefore she's going to continue to make wild bizarre accusations because it's a way to find comfort.

This is what people mean when they say "enabling". You're buying a few minutes peace at the expense of furthering the long term problem.

When I told her that I needed her to get whatever help she needed to deal with these issues, she told me that I was bullying her, and made me promise (after pointing out that all this was my fault for leaving in the first place) never to bring it up again.

Why oh why would you promise that. Really. You should have pointed out that the reason you left in the first place was because of the same issues you're having now; instead you let her make it your fault. None of this is your fault.

Therapy: you've led this horse to water several times, it's not your fault it's still thirsty. The whole "my therapist thinks I'm fine" thing is either her lying to you about what the therapist said, or lying to the therapist and hiding that there is a problem at all ("we just make small talk" after all.) Probably a combination of both. Even if you managed to drag her to a therapist once again I doubt it would change anything at this point.

And you've said you're not going to leave.

That leaves pretty much just one option (assuming that "continue as you are" is off the table, which it very much should be.) You've got to stop enabling the anxiety. When she insists on something unreasonable or for irrational reasons, do not engage. Go to bed when you're sleepy. Don't answer the accusations in her texts. Don't accommodate her rituals of who has to call who at what specific time. Run your errands when you need to; if you're not going to be home when she gets home, leave a note on the kitchen table like a normal person would. When she freaks out, each time -- which she will -- just point out, gently, that this is her anxiety talking, that you're not going to fuel it anymore, and then do what you need to do. Start setting boundaries. Make it clear to her that when she's ready to get honest help for her problems you'll be there to support her, but that you're not going to keep bending over backwards to accommodate her (very, very, very) irrational fears.

This is going to be a lot harder in the short term, because the rituals she's developed to soothe her fears (which all boil down to "you work very hard to soothe her fears") won't be working for her anymore. I honestly don't know what the result will be -- it could be anything from her finally accepting that she has a real problem in the face of all the evidence, to leaving you and finding someone else who will enable her once you've stopped, to having a real true breakdown.

But it's obvious that continuing to do what you're doing isn't working, is, if anything, making it worse.
posted by ook at 8:12 AM on January 22 [21 favorites]


This is no way to live.

Your wife needs to address her anxiety with a Psychiatrist, because part of this is mental, and it sounds like most of it is physical. She may need anti-anxiety meds.

As for you, stop feeding the beast.

If she has a problem being the last to bed, that's HER problem. If she wants to sleep on the sofa, let her sleep on the sofa.

Since when did you become a second-class citizen in your own relationship? Be kind and loving, not just to your wife, but to yourself.

If your wife won't take care of herself, by going to an MD for approrpiate assessment, and by going to a therapist to help her deal with her UNFOUNDED anxieties, then you have every right to leave.

I would say, "I love you and I can't live like this anymore. Intellectually you know that your fears are unfounded, yet you persist in making me, and yourself miserable with these behaviors. As much as I love you, I love myself as well, and I deserve better than this. I insist that you see an MD for assessment and that you return to therapy. If you won't address your anxieties, I think that in the interest of my mental and physical health, that it's best that we divorce. You can stop fixating on me and you can get the help you need."

If your wife won't get help, this is a no-win situation for you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:19 AM on January 22 [12 favorites]


There's a big difference between supporting your wife and giving in to her anxious mind.

What Jessamyn said.

When I stopped enabling my ex's behavior, everything fell apart. If you get healthy and she doesn't, be ready for anything.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 8:24 AM on January 22 [2 favorites]


I think desjardins and others are spot on about not catering to her anxiety.

I'd suggest you come up with a strategy with your personal therapist about how to set loving boundaries with her. Maybe it starts with you telling her, "I love you and I'm committed to this marriage, AND I am going to stop doing some things that cater to your anxiety. For instance, I need to go to sleep by X time, so that's what I'm going to do from now on. I am doing this so that I can get enough sleep." And if she objects that she can't be the last one to bed, you can respond along the lines of, "Your anxiety tells you that you can't be the last one to bed. I know that it's very painful for you. You can come to bed at the same time as me, or you can find another way to address the anxiety: if you choose to see a therapist or try medication, I will support you 100%; if you don't feel ready for those things, I have to accept that while at the same time doing what is healthy for me, which means going to bed at a regular time."

Again, I suggest designing this plan with your therapist, who knows you and is familiar with your situation. There may be a good way to have such a conversation with your wife, or not. There may be a good way to implement this type of strategy with your wife, or not. I hope there is, because I think it's the only way to stay with her and maintain your own emotional and physical well-being. You can't make her get treatment, you can choose to support her without adopting her skewed reality.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:38 AM on January 22 [16 favorites]


My kids' therapist expressed the concept people are talking about here as "not doing their rituals for them." Your wife has certain behaviors she engages in to sooth her anxiety, such as asking you over and over again for reassurance that you won't leave her. I can relate because years ago I had an SO who would wake me up in the middle of the night to reassure her because she had a dream that I left her.

With our very anxious kid, we've learned that sometimes you just have to say, "We're not talking about this any more." It's really OK to tell your wife, "I don't have any plans to leave you, but I can't actually predict the future so I can't promise it will never happen. And that is my last word on the subject; it's not productive to keep talking about it, and I'm not going to."

If you decide to take the advice in this thread, and stop letting your life be run by her anxiety, be prepared for what's called an "extinction burst." If you take away the reward she gets from her anxious behavior, she will likely escalate the behavior for awhile in an attempt to draw you back into that pattern. It can be really hard to stand firm during an extinction burst. My ex went so far as to threaten suicide if I didn't re-engage, and I said, "If you really think you're going to harm yourself, I'm calling 911." But that was the last time that particular behavior happened. And I've actually used something similar on my 9-year-old when he ramps up for hours and hours, telling him that he is beyond my ability to help him and that I will take him to the ER if he can't calm down. (I have actually taken him to the Urgent Care in one instance, and had emergency therapy appointments in other instances.)

Anyway, my points are two: 1) everyone in the thread telling you not to feed this behavior are absolutely right. 2) If you do this, your wife is likely to have an extinction burst and that can be very hard to deal with, but will probably be easier if you know that that's what's going on.
posted by not that girl at 8:42 AM on January 22 [12 favorites]


Since all of this comes down to her trusting you, it seems like you guys should have a talk where you tell her what you've said here, that you love her and think she's the funniest, sweetest, most lovable person, and that the only reason you ever feel driven away is specifically because you feel that she does not trust you and that is hard to live with. You are not going to leave because she's not good enough or you don't like her anymore, and you really want to make things work. But that means working on trust.

And then when she calls and asks you to prove something or swear to something or give you constant updates, you have to remind her that a relationship is built on trust. You can tell her that if she really does not trust you, maybe she needs to examine if she loves you - that is the sort of thing she could see a therapist about. Let her know you want to be in a relationship where she does love you, but she has to choose it & you support her figuring that out because you want a real, trust-based marriage. You can't prove that it's logical for her to trust you. It's never completely logical. She has to do it out of love.
posted by mdn at 8:44 AM on January 22


When dealing with codependent behavior in the past, I found that it helped me to figure out my boundaries/what I was and was not willing to do, and then say them out loud to the other person. Saying them helped me feel like I wasn't blindsiding him, which was always the reason why I backed down.

A very stark and basic and seemingly obvious example: I had bailed him out of jail even though I didn't necessarily want to, because I felt like he was counting on me to, and why wouldn't he be, and I would be letting him down, so I did it. But when I very clearly said "do not call me from jail ever again to bail you out because I will not be doing it" I no longer felt as though he had the right to have an expectation of me.

So if you say to your wife "going forward, I will not be answering any more irrational questions via text", you should give yourself permission to stop doing it.

Also, if you can and want to, be clear and upfront about your own actions, and be as consistent as possible. If you go to bed every night at 11:00, it's up to her to be ready to go to bed then too. This is not advice I would normally give - normally I would say it's your own business what time you go to bed.

Finally, say what you mean and mean what you say.
posted by lyssabee at 8:53 AM on January 22 [3 favorites]


So.... this is you, six months ago, asking essentially the same question and getting essentially the same answers, on setting boundaries:

I tried exactly this approach tonight, even using the words "I need you to go [to therapy]" and then I failed to enforce that boundary. My wife said that I was being unfair and "not giving [her] enough of a chance to manage her anxieties by herself." She also said it was unfair of me to make it all about what I need and ignore what she needs in all of this.

I admit, the way she fell apart got to me, and so I backed down. I love her and I don't want to cause her more pain.


You need to understand that you are not the source of her pain here. Setting boundaries is the opposite of "ignoring what she needs".

Ultimatums about her behavior ("I need you to go to therapy") are clearly not going to work, but you can and should make clear statements about your own behavior ("I need to go to bed") and then follow through on those statements, every time. Don't give in just this once to make it easier just this one time. Not to go all behavioral-psych on you, but intermittent rewards reinforce behavior.

Back then you were asked "how much of a chance is enough?" Whatever your answer was then, it's now that minus half a year.
posted by ook at 8:59 AM on January 22 [10 favorites]


NOTE: Just checked your prev Qs, and she has a demonstrated history of going through your e-mails, SMS, and stuff to check for cheating. Option "C" suddenly seems less of a long-term option. If she's a snoop, then you gotta get KGB double-agent good in covering your tracks. And now there will actually be something for her to find.

A: "For better or worse, in sickness and in health, Till Death Do We Part"
B: Divorce
C: Stay married, fuck around on the side, probably get caught.


Regarding this, this may not be an unpopular view on metafilter, but when I entered my relationship with my now-husband I was a terrible snoop, thanks to my anxiety and abandonment issues and poor/scant experiences in relationships generally. For years, my husband buckled down and became more and more elaborate at guarding himself, to the point of creating secret computer dossiers of chat logs that were hidden under code words and all sorts of crap. The effect was that I knew he was hiding stuff, got more anxious, and ramped up my efforts to snoop.

And then we moved in together, our relationship improved, he said fuck it and decided to stop trying to hide things. It helped that there were a couple times when I stumbled across things he'd tried to hide totally inadvertently and did not freak out about it.

Anyway, now he leaves stuff pretty much open. He's told me that he just assumes that I read his stuff, which hurts, but I can't blame him, given our history. The irony is that it's been years since I've snooped. He projects this air of easygoing openness, and it's the first time I've been in a relationship where I really trust my partner to tell me the important things, where I know I won't have to go looking for it.

Maybe it's not an option in your relationship right now, but it's something to consider--because it's likely that your secretive behavior is feeding into and exacerbating her anxiety.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:12 AM on January 22 [1 favorite]


I remember you from your previous questions...

She needs to keep at therapy. Does she want to get better? She'd go to to the doctor if she had a cough that kept getting worse, and worse, and worse, right? If a doctor went to her, "it's just a cough, it'll just go away," she'd know that wasn't the case and go get a second opinion, wouldn't she? And she'd definitely NOT say, "I'll just have to cure myself, thanks!"

Mental health issues are the exact same thing. It really isn't doable on her own. Not for something like this.

She may benefit from a therapist which specializes in CBT, possibly. She seems to have control issues, and I think this is part of it. CBT may make her stop the negative thought patterns.

You shouldn't give in to her anxiousness, because the reprieve is temporary and it makes it worse. In my opinion, anyway. If you're sitting there placating her every time, then the time you don't-- will be 100x worse anxiety because you always hop to it. Personally, I think you shouldn't justify answering ridiculous questions. (Does it matter if at one point in your life you took illegal drugs, as long as you're not now?) I also don't think you should always reassure her in that way. Let it play out. Desjardins advice is especially good.

But a therapist will be able to tell you whether you should be giving in to her anxieties or not. There are ways to be reassuring without giving in to her unhealthy mental patterns.

If you want this to work, she needs help. It's non-negotiable. If she doesn't want to drive you away, she absolutely needs to keep working on herself. Nobody should live like this.
posted by Dimes at 9:25 AM on January 22 [1 favorite]


I tried exactly this approach tonight, even using the words "I need you to go [to therapy]" and then I failed to enforce that boundary. My wife said that I was being unfair and "not giving [her] enough of a chance to manage her anxieties by herself." She also said it was unfair of me to make it all about what I need and ignore what she needs in all of this.

I admit, the way she fell apart got to me, and so I backed down. I love her and I don't want to cause her more pain.


As for this, you need to dismantle this. This is excuses. She's being manipulative, actually. How is NOT going to therapy ignoring her needs? Her needs are to not go to therapy? Why is that? What exactly about it is so burdensome for her, apart from it being a bit of a hassle and it costs money (which you can afford)?

She can manage her anxiety by herself AND go to therapy. The two aren't mutually exclusive. It will make the former easier, actually. She has absolutely nothing to lose and a lot more to gain.

And she is worried about losing you, right? Her motivation for her behavior is partly fueled by that, isn't it? So her needs are related to yours. If she doesn't want this prophecy to be self-fullfilling, she needs to get to therapy-- if she doesn't, her worst fears will come true. She needs to really comprehend this.

Good luck.
posted by Dimes at 9:38 AM on January 22 [1 favorite]


Yasp, you cannot fix her problems for her. You have been trying to deal with this for over a year now by reassuring and accommodating her anxieties, and things have only improved temporarily while she was focused on getting you to come back. There is no amount of reassuring, answering irrational texts, staying up late, etc, that will result in her anxiety being relieved, because the anxiety is not being caused by a concrete thing--it's free-floating, and just landing on random triggers.

Have you considered that not setting appropriate boundaries may in fact be exacerbating her anxieties? Right now, you're not setting any limits and backing down when she presses you. But on some level she knows she's not being rational and so she knows that at some point you will reach your limit. What will happen then? She doesn't know, and she's terrified you will leave her. I suspect that it might actually be reassuring to her for you to set and enforce reasonable limits (like going to bed when you need to) so that she can see that it doesn't necessarily end with you abandoning her. It will probably result in aggravating her anxious behavior in the short run, however.

You don't have kids (and I am not comparing your wife to a child) but one of the important things you learn as a parent is that setting limits on kid behavior in the short run results in tantrums and anger. Those are deeply unpleasant in the moment and the temptation is always there to just give in. In the long run, though, it's vital for kids to learn how to recognize and manage their feelings and learn to deal with the external constraints of the world. When I give my kid a time-out for throwing a toy at me when he's frustrated with it, it's not because I'm mean or even angry, it's because he needs to learn how to deal with frustration in ways that don't hurt other people. Once he's gotten his feelings under control, I can help him with the toy. As an adult, I occasionally still have the urge to throw things when I'm frustrated, but I am able to manage those feelings and find less destructive ways of dealing with them. Obviously your wife, who is an adult, does not need time-outs, but she has not learned how to manage her anxiety well enough for the two of you to engage productively in improving your relationship dynamics.

In addition, right now she is depending on you to soothe her anxiety. If she is going to have any success getting it under control, she absolutely must learn some of those tools for herself. And as much as you are committed to standing by her, the amount you've posted about this over the last year suggests that you recognize that this is not a situation you can endure long-term. I'm not going to second-guess your decision to reconcile, but I do think you need to recognize that this is not something you are "getting through". Her symptoms may wax and wane, but unless she gets real help, they are not going to go away or even likely improve that much.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 9:38 AM on January 22 [9 favorites]


I've tried to articulate what it took for me to stop participating in codependent patterns before: here and here. It basically comes down to figuring out how to name what you want or don't want, set a boundary, and then enforce it. Your therapist should be able to help with this. You need a strategy for taking that first stand, and then you need a strategy for withstanding whatever she does in response.

The fastest way to solve this is to focus on yourself. A person can waste a lifetime diagnosing the other person and asking them to change. But maybe they can't. Maybe they don't want to. There are a lot of people in this world who chose not to. The real question is how you relate to those people.
posted by salvia at 9:42 AM on January 22 [3 favorites]


ook makes a good point here that I think is worth remembering:

Ultimatums about her behavior ("I need you to go to therapy") are clearly not going to work, but you can and should make clear statements about your own behavior ("I need to go to bed") and then follow through on those statements, every time.

Set & follow through on boundaries, don't make ultimatums. Boundaries are about your behavior. Ultimatums are about her behavior.
posted by lyssabee at 9:47 AM on January 22 [14 favorites]


Most likely she doesn't want to go to therapy because focusing her anxieties about you let her avoid whatever's really going on inside. Therapy pulls back the curtain and forces her to deal with The Thing. She is avoiding The Thing by putting the responsibility on you for her anxiety.

The longer you accept any responsibility for her anxiety, the longer she will avoid The Thing, and the longer you will both be in pain. I hear that heroin withdrawal is absolutely horrible, but it's necessary if you want to get off of heroin. Neither of you want to go through this withdrawal, so you keep taking the metaphorical heroin.

It's very possible that another separation is what's actually needed. Think of it like detox. This will probably be excruciating in the short term, but if she can develop some tools to cope with you being away, that will save your marriage. Or you will decide you're better off without each other, but at least she's able to deal with it.

I'd talk to your therapist(s) first, of course.
posted by desjardins at 9:49 AM on January 22 [4 favorites]


Wow, okay, so I'm just going to be really blunt and go ahead and disagree with a lot of people in this thread. Possibly I'm totally off base, but just in case this perspective helps I'll share it.

I got really squicked out reading this, and I think it's because your wife doesn't actually sound crazy, but you're really invested in her being crazy. That you're trying to diagnose her with BPD really makes me uncomfortable. Odds are very good she does not have it. I also think you're a little or a lot just kind blowing things out of perspective here- I get it, she's anxious and this annoys you. But does she gamble away your life savings? Go on drug benders? Display actual, serious psychosis? Um, not really no. She's angry that you're too tired for sex? She has certain ticks about falling asleep together? She's still mad that you left her and forced her to get therapy she didn't like? Pretty mundane stuff.

Yeah, you know what? I kind of think none of that means she's crazy or needs therapy. I kind of think she sounds pretty normal and maybe she had pretty good reasons not to trust you. Her therapist probably did actually tell her there was nothing left to work through because what you're asking for is basically for your wife to stop being annoyingly untrusting of you and accept your version of reality 100% because it would make you feel better. I mean, that's really how this came across to me. Possibly your wife has done other actual crazy things in the past, but not getting that here.

Another separation as detox, I'm sorry but this strikes me as terrible advice. If you separate again, I hope to the gods she breaks it off for good, because it will be the right thing to do and you deserve it. Getting into the habit of just leaving whenever makes no sense.

I just...I'm honestly just shocked that I'm literally the only person in this thread who even THOUGHT "hey maybe this is not entirely one-sided and some of what she says could sometimes be rational."

Assume for a moment your wife really isn't crazy. Assume all therapists and outside parties agree that she is not. Wouldn't it be incredibly annoying and hurtful for you to constantly be pressuring her to go back to therapy? Like, honey, next time come home with a diagnosis for me?

I don't know.
posted by quincunx at 10:02 AM on January 22 [8 favorites]


One other thought. As I said above, there are two pieces: what you will or won't do (the original issue), and then how she reacts when you don't do things her way. One of the most useful things you might be able to do is to figure out how to not let her reaction bother you.

Right now it might be like:
1. Her: "I want A." [e.g., I want you to text me]. You: "I don't want to." Her: *does X* [yells, cries, calls your mom to tell her what a bad person you are...] You: "okay, I'll give you A."
2. Her: "I don't want B." You: "But I do." Her: "if you do B, I will X again." You: "okay, no B."
3. Her: "I want C. If I don't get it, I will X." You: "okay, here is C."

Rather than focusing on A, B, C, D, E, and so on (text messages, bedtime, etc.), it might be better for you and your therapist to focus on X. All roads lead there. Once you can withstand it, she loses that power over you.

You need a defense tailored to X (and Y and Z, if necessary). Shouting? "If you are going to keep shouting, I'm ending this conversation by leaving the house if necessary." Crying? "I can see how upset this makes you, but I still need to [go to bed / do errands at that time]."

And I forgot to say this above, but this sounds really really hard and I'm sorry you're going through it.
posted by salvia at 10:18 AM on January 22 [2 favorites]


I don't see any evidence that the OP is doing anything secretive or evasive. I think that's beside the point, anyway, because he should not feel the need to go out of his way, after 15 years of fidelity and loving support, to enable his wife's irrational fears.

She may have been abandoned as a child, yes, and felt like she had no control over that. Now, though, she is an adult, as is the OP, and she does have control--over her own actions and the consequences of those actions.

OP, you are getting excellent advice here, and most of it boils down to doing what you need to do to stay healthy and encouraging your spouse in her healthy behaviors, while NOT enabling her unhealthy ones.

Get help for the stuff neither of you can handle
This is the big one! You are already getting your own therapy (seriously, good for you! So Important.) I know your wife is the tough sell. I know you 'promised'. It's important to remember that promises made under duress are never a good idea, and they should not be considered binding by anyone with your best interests at heart. They amount to extortion.

So, OP, really have a heart-to-heart with your wife about her going to the doc or a psychiatrist about anti-anxiety meds. You might phrase it as YOU worrying about HER trying to handle too much on her own and wanting to help her.

Stress to her that she is NOT inadequate as a wife, and it is ONLY her irrational fears that pose any threat to this marriage. So the best way you know to show her you don't plan to abandon her is to help her conquer those fears so you can be happy together. If she starts to bring the separation up, remind her those fears were there before the separation, too, not because of it, and even then, it was her constant irrational anxiety and fears that pushed you away from her. If she can get those fears under control, she is already everything you want, so you will not feel the need to escape. In return, you will support her by helping her get past those fears and NOT enabling them.

Set healthy boundaries for yourself:
For example: "I have to get up early for work tomorrow, so I'm going to bed at (10, 11, whatever time)." Time rolls around, "I'm heading to bed--you coming, too?" If she says yes, great. If not, "Okay, goodnight." She is an adult, capable of making a choice. If she chooses to sleep on the sofa, that's on her.

Wife tossing and turning and muttering, waking you up, "Honey, you know I have to get up early. Please keep it down." If she demands sex, "Sorry, but you know I am too tired for sex unless I can get to sleep by (whatever time). Whenever you want to go to bed early with me, though, I'd love for us to have sex."

In other words, let her know your boundaries and remind her that you have done so, and the consequences are not arbitrary things she has no control over, but results of choices your are both making.

My spouse gets up early and hates to go to bed alone, while now that the kids are grown I have reverted back to my natural Night Owl ways and can actually sleep in most mornings. So We compromise--I go into bed with him, but stay up for a while once he is asleep, reading Mefi or surfing on my iPad. He has to travel a lot and is used to falling asleep with the TV on in the hotel room, so my iPad doesn't keep him up, and we are both happy (plus the TV is OFF, because no way I could sleep with it on!).

Set up a system for communicating the everyday stuff:
"The only free time I can (get groceries, pick up the dry cleaning, whatever) is in the evenings after work. Please let me know when you will be home by X time every day if you want me here to greet you. If I don't hear from you, assume I may be home late, like around Y. That way, you do not have to worry."

If your wife doesn't let you know by X, do your errands on the nights you need to. If you start getting frantic tests or interrogations, just reply once with, "Hey, running errands, I will be home by Y."

If she complains she didn't know you would be gone, remind her that this is not you letting her down or abandoning her, but a direct consequence of her own actions, "Next time, remember, let me know by X and you won't have to worry! I will be home when you are."

The exception would be if you get hung up and will be even later than Y. Then you text her that info, and, in that case, apologize--not for doing anything wrong, but because you will be later than the agreed upon time. This is a two-way street. Your wife should do the same if she has let you know she will be home by a certain time and cannot make it.

This is how most couples I know handle this stuff. You may want your wife to let you know at lunchtime when she will be home, or just send you a short SMS because of her work policies. What we do is, my spouse texts me before 5 to ask about dinner--do we want to go out, do I have a dinner plan, should he grab something on the way home, does he have time to stop off for a beer with the guys from work, etc.

if I don't hear from him by, say, 5:30, I may call him, plan for a late dinner or just go ahead and eat and let him know he's on his own. It's really not a big deal for us (married nearly 25 years now, together for going on 32!); I get that he has meetings that carry over and he gets that I since I don't eat much my blood sugar gets too low and sometimes I just need Food NOW.

If your wife absolutely refuses any outside help
If she won't see a doctor. Or psychiatrist, and your wife is not into therapy like you say, OP, then get her some self-help books about anxiety and fears of abandonment at the very least--she says she feels she has to do it all herself? Then she needs the tools to do that with, right?

Accept that you have the right to move on, even if she cannot
You seem like a very caring person doing you best in a terribly difficult situation. Your wife has her own struggles, and it may be that you can help her face them. If you cannot get her to even attempt to change this ugly cycle, though, and you have tried all the excellent suggestions in this thread, I--someone who believes in commitment and working hard in a marriage to make it work!--encourage you not to judge yourself too harshly, and consider divorcing your wife.

yes, it WILL be incredibly difficult, but at least you will know there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Sorry this is so long, OP, but this is not an easy situation, and I didn't want to hand you glib advice. Whichever route you choose, best wishes to you. Your road ahead will not be easy.
posted by misha at 10:46 AM on January 22 [5 favorites]


her personal therapist said it would be better if she didn't see both a personal therapist at the same time, so she stopped personal therapy.

Eventually, she did start to see a therapist of her own again. This lasted for about six weeks before her therapist said that there was nothing more to be done in sessions, and that my wife had all the tools she needed to continue on her own.


I hate to be the person who asks this, but, who says? Are you 100% sure these therapists broke off on their own for those reasons, or is it possible your wife is inventing these reasons so that she doesn't have to stay in therapy?
posted by corb at 10:58 AM on January 22 [8 favorites]


It is not your job to fix her or make sure she get's fixed.

You need to take care of yourself, this situation is not temporary.

It is very possible that being with you is enabling her anxiety and dysfunction not abating it.
posted by French Fry at 11:10 AM on January 22


If you separate again, I hope to the gods she breaks it off for good, because it will be the right thing to do and you deserve it. Getting into the habit of just leaving whenever makes no sense.

This is not only cruel and petty but pretty outrageous given the specific situation the OP has shared.

Separating once, or even, if necessary, twice, in 15 years together is not "a habit" and saying the OP "deserves" to be punished based on that kind of logic is way out there.

The OP is going through therapy and couples therapy and done any number of things to keep this marriage going. He does not need to prove his commitment--or wouldn't, if his wife did not have baggage of her own she refuses to handle. Keeping score and petty grudges are no more conducive to a loving, committed relationship than enabling your spouse (or trampling all over your spouse's boundaries).

OP, please ignore this advice for the sake of your own mental health! You are clearly already agonizing over your marital problems. The last thing you need is judgmental claptrap like this on top of that.
posted by misha at 11:37 AM on January 22 [22 favorites]


There's already so much good advice here already. But I thought I'd repeat something my therapist at Relate said to me with regards to my current partner.

"What if this is all they are capable of? What if they are not capable of change? What if this is the best that they can do? Would you be happy spending the rest of your life exactly as it is now? What would you do if this really is the best they can ever do?"

What are your answers to those questions?

I found that due to my partners issues I started to feel like I was going insane. I can't even begin to imagine how you must feel now after all those years. I found I trusted myself less due to my partner telling me that I wasn't listening when I was and all the times he told me that I didn't say what I was claiming to have. Every time he told me what I'd said it changed. Her telling you you're going to leave her or asking if you're cheating on her or going to leave must be having such a detrimental effect on your perception of yourself.

I discovered that the only way I could clear my head was to focus on doing things for myself. I started doing my hobbies again. So then I was thinking less about the relationship so it then didn't seem as big or as major. After all this relationship is not your life, just a part of it. It's also hard to see clearly if you try to weigh up the pros and cons. I got a fantastic book that helps to see the relationship more clearly. It's called Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay. It asks lots of diagnostic questions to try to help you make a choice.
posted by Ranting Prophet of DOOM! at 11:39 AM on January 22 [2 favorites]


I don't see any evidence that the OP is doing anything secretive or evasive. I think that's beside the point, anyway, because he should not feel the need to go out of his way, after 15 years of fidelity and loving support, to enable his wife's irrational fears.

If you read through the OP's previous questions you can see a pattern of evasiveness and stonewalling. This is particularly evident in this question, but this question also suggests a habit of labileness and perhaps manipulation on the OP's part. That's not to say that he's doing this intentionally, but that there seems to be a history of poor communication in general in this relationship, and one that's a lot more complex than just one party being irrational and anxious and the other being unilaterally loving and supporting.

Even now, OP is searching for ways to "detach whilst staying," as he puts it in his subject line. And the truth is, you can't. It's cruel to keep one foot out the door in this way while in a relationship (and the previous questions suggest that, though he didn't "intend" to separate from her, it was the natural result of his withdrawal from the relationship previously). I really, really think you need to decide whether you're in this, or out, for your wife's sake and your own.

It's okay if you're out, incidentally. No one would fault you for that.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:10 PM on January 22


Just glancing at this now; there's lots of advice to digest here, but I just wanted to respond to the last comment I see right now, and ask a follow-up:
@PhoBWanKenobi: If you read through the OP's previous questions you can see a pattern of evasiveness and stonewalling. This is particularly evident in this question, but this question also suggests a habit of labileness and perhaps manipulation on the OP's part.
Can you point out the pattern of evasiveness and stonewalling? I don't mind being told I'm in the wrong, but please explain it to me; right now I don't understand.

I presume that by "labileness" you mean "unstable"; I don't think I'm manipulating my wife, but I don't know what the context is for your statement.
Even now, OP is searching for ways to "detach whilst staying," as he puts it in his subject line.
I'm using the term "detach" in the context of codependence (c.f. Melodie Beattie's codependent no more; see here for a rough definition). I'm not trying to leave. To be clear: I'm in this for the long haul. What I don't know is how to be a good husband and good to myself whilst supporting my wife through what is a difficult time (her words, not mine; she admits to struggling with anxiety, and she hates that it controls her).
And the truth is, you can't. It's cruel to keep one foot out the door in this way while in a relationship (and the previous questions suggest that, though he didn't "intend" to separate from her, it was the natural result of his withdrawal from the relationship previously). I really, really think you need to decide whether you're in this, or out, for your wife's sake and your own.
You're right, I did not "intend" to separate from my wife before. I set a boundary, and when that boundary was repeatedly crossed, I removed myself from a situation that I found untenable. It wasn't about withdrawing from the relationship; on the contrary I was trying extremely hard to be present. I failed.

I haven't been clear enough. I do not want to leave. I have no plans to leave. I'm not thinking of leaving. If this is how it is forever, then so be it, and I need to find a way to stay healthy through that. I was told before "Put on your own oxygen mask first." And I'm trying to. And once it's on, I want to help my wife with hers — but I'm not intending to force it on her.
posted by yasp at 12:35 PM on January 22


Sure. This is classic stonewalling, as described by John Gottman:
On top of this, I had my own issues to contend with, mostly a stubborn refusal to let anyone help me do anything (which stems from deciding, early in my teens, not to be a burden to my dad after my mom died). This meant that I could get drawn into a deep pit of despair, especially when trying to pursue my work as an artist. That work was also at the time feeling uninspired, and I ended up almost a cliché of a struggling artist (not monetarily; creatively), wanting to destroy every piece of work I created almost immediately.

By the time I left, we were both a mess. I was uncommunicative and found interacting with anyone really hard, and my wife was convinced that this was because I was planning to leave her (it wasn't, but it ended up being that way, because I couldn't figure out how to talk to her). As my therapist puts it, my wife's reaction to pain is to reach out for comfort whilst mine is to pull down the shutters and withdraw into my shell.
And this is what sounds like a very labile and possibly manipulative (though again, I think it was unintentional) communication:
She asked, still angry, "what the hell is wrong with you?" and I replied "I'm having those thoughts again, about killing myself, and I can't get them to stop."

At that point I just wanted to be comforted, so I was rather shocked when she yelled "come on then, let's go to a bridge and jump off it together! Let's get it over with!" In fact it shocked me so much that the thoughts stopped completely, and I suddenly felt calm.
(emphasis added) I cite these things not to make you feel bad or to assign blame. In fact, I think withdrawal from conflict while another partner grows increasingly needy is a really common pattern of behavior in relationships (and it's often the men stonewalling while the women pursue). And I also think that it sounds like you were contending with serious depression and having a lot of trouble communicating your needs in a way that was straightforward and not alarming--especially alarming to someone with abandonment issues. Casual mentions of suicide are pretty much dropping massive relationship grenades, even in healthy relationships. What you actually wanted in this moment was to be comforted--whether over that suicidal ideation or the fight itself, it's unclear. But instead of asking for comfort, you brought up something far, far more upsetting (and difficult for someone who is not a mental health professional to deal with, understand, process).

Again, this isn't to say that your wife doesn't have considerable problems. It sounds like she's a wreck of anxiety, and I wish, for her sake, she'd get herself treatment for that--things like being afraid of intruders in the middle of the night is super duper crippling. Again, she probably developed these things as coping mechanisms during a difficult period of her life (even if it was when you left her, if this anxiety is new) because it was the only way she felt she could protect and sustain herself. But now these behaviors are actively toxic for her.

And it sounds like you're in a very similar position. You developed coping mechanisms after your mother died which involved withdrawing and avoiding conflict and asking your needs to be addressed in roundabout ways. Maybe you learned to placate someone whose grief was scary or alarming to you. I get that. These instincts kept you safe for a very long time. But just as your wife needs to find new ways to cope with conflicts (and again, this is something that she needs to do--and something she really needs to do for herself, and not necessarily for you or the relationship), you do, too. It sounds like you're doing good work in therapy but I do wonder about your instinct not to remain emotionally present. Yes, you have to protect yourself; you have to put on your oxygen mask first. But the specific behaviors of drawing away are making the situation worse and feeding a vicious cycle. You trigger her, she triggers you, you both are miserable. It doesn't sound like any way to live, and it doesn't sound like it's working.

So you might try something different.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:55 PM on January 22 [2 favorites]


I don't know. I think the OP is risking an awful lot of mental health by not setting boundaries (which can be read as withdrawing). It's a fine line, and I'm not sure either of them would be capable of setting, or acknowledging, healthy boundaries without the assistance of a trained therapist. And if the OP's wife won't go, then what? OP needs sleep. OP needs to be able to run errands without being accused of things he's not doing. OP cannot manage his wife's anxieties, and it sounds like she's unwilling or unable to do it herself. Try something different, sure, but what, exactly? When your partner doesn't want you to get a car because you might use it to leave her, what do you try?
posted by rtha at 1:09 PM on January 22 [7 favorites]


(I don't mean to be fighty, by the way, and I do think you make some good points, PhoB and others who are asking the OP to look to his own behaviors as well.)
posted by rtha at 1:15 PM on January 22


I need to go to bed early because I get up for work at 5:30am. My wife hates being the last one to bed, and will refuse to come to bed if I go to bed without her

You need a bedtime.

Figure out what a good bedtime for you is, tell your wife about it, and start announcing a hour or so before that it's time to get yourself ready for bed, and that she's welcome to join you in the bed but that you will be in bed at that time.

Often I'll end up staying up until 1am so that she doesn't have to be the one to check that the doors are locked and so on.

I don't see why you can't do this before you go to bed. If your wife unlocks a door after your bedtime she should be capable of locking it again herself.

At half an hour, say it again. 15 minutes, again. Then bedtime.

Be consistent about this routine. Do not give into protests. When it's time for bedtime, it's time for bedtime, and you are going. Expect some resistance when you are establishing the routine.
posted by yohko at 2:44 PM on January 22 [4 favorites]


[Folks if you need to follow up with the OP privately it's fine but this thread needs to be question asked and answered not a longish back and forth. Please be mindful of that.]
posted by jessamyn at 3:05 PM on January 22


From an anonymous commenter:
Hi op, some of your wife's actions remind me of myself. Specifically, the severe anxiety about your relationship and the fact that nothing is sufficient to reassure her. I was recently diagnosed with OCD, a specific kind known as pure O. Lots of people think of OCD as a handwashing or cleanliness issue, but in fact it's rooted in the inability to tolerate uncertainty. Just as one who compulsively handwashes is never absolutely certain that their hands are germ-free, I was never certain that my significant other truly loved me and was never going to abandon me. All people who suffer from OCD have compulsions to try to reassure themselves - for some it's constant handwashing. The "pure o", or pure obsessive OCD compulsively checks in thought, not outward action. For me, that would involve needing to constantly ask my boyfriend if he loved me, if he was sure he loves me, how he knows he loves me, won't he leave me for someone who exhibits xyz traits, where he was at any time, who he was with. The reason that it's a compulsion is because I never was 100% certain - nothing he did was ever enough to reassure me. This is a hallmark of those with OCD - the compulsions, the little rituals, are not enough to ever reassure them.

I am in therapy and on meds now, and doing a lot better. I can recognize when I start feeling uncertain, but it's an ongoing struggle to stop myself from my compulsions. Both therapy and meds are crucial for me, and I'm a lot more able to live my life now. My boyfriend, luckily, is understanding and supportive, and has been a great cheerleader and source of strength.

I am not trying to armchair diagnose your wife, just relating some similarities between what you describe and what I have felt. The thing I've realized about therapy and meds is that you have to WANT to make a change in your life. You have to work at it, treat it as a class, do your homework. You need good doctors who can guide you and listen to your concerns, and you may need to shop around before you find someone you're comfortable with. A good resource my therapist recommended was the book "loving someone with ocd" by k landsman.

I hope this helps. I wish you and your wife stability and joy.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:16 PM on January 22 [6 favorites]


You can't make your wife do anything. You can change your behavior. Read Stop Walking on Eggshells and apply the concept of being kind, caring, honest, and not participating in her illness. She's the only one who can deal with her anxiety. Allow her to experience the consequences of her behavior and support her positive actions. Lock the doors and go to bed. Run errands when you need to. Really, don't get manipulated into sex. Reduce the focus on your wife's anxiety and put some focus on your need to get sleep and have a manageable life.

Ask your wife to keep to a regular schedule; it's very good for anxiety, and essential for you. "Sweetheart, I'm going to bed, and it's so much nicer when you're next to me." Invite her to go with you to get exercise - really helpful for her anxiety and something pleasant you can do together. Then go get exercise, with or without her, even just a short walk.
posted by theora55 at 10:11 PM on January 22 [3 favorites]


This is like the relationship version of The Story of Job.

Your wife is sick, profoundly so.
If she will not go to the "doctor" (therapy, perhaps medication as well)...

if she will not do her part to fix the problems,
if she continues to stab you in the back with conspiracy theories, wild accusations, loyalty tests and self-sabotage-to-get-you-to-leave-so-that-she-can-"win"-by-finally-wearing-your-own-sanity-down-so-that-you-throw-up-your-hands-and-finally-leave...

while you seem to be single-handedly trying to save the relationship, against her strong, ever-present torrent of abusive craziness...

You should leave.
No one deserves this.
And if she doesn't get professional help, it will only get worse.
posted by blueberry at 11:01 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]


It sounds like your wife has tried therapy multiple times and she doesn't feel it has helped her, plus her last therapist terminated their relationship. Expecting someone to continue therapy after that is asking an awful lot, don't you think? It's like you and previous commenters are expecting her to continue therapy just as an expression of good faith--to prove she's "trying." Why, exactly, do you feel therapy would be beneficial if she were to try it again? How would it work this time, when it hasn't before?

The most generous statistics for talk therapy show it is effective about 80% of the time. That means it does not work for about one in five people. This is not a matter of will; it's no different than a medication or surgery being ineffective 20% of the time. At any rate, I understand that being on the other end of someone's anxiety is exhausting, but blaming someone because medicine fails to cure them of their illness is both horribly offensive and misguided.

One thing I don't see mentioned in your post is medication. Has her doctor tried that?
posted by Violet Hour at 4:06 PM on January 23


[One comment deleted. Let's avoid armchair diagnoses, please.]
posted by taz at 11:10 PM on January 23


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