Talks too much, but is never heard...
December 26, 2010 1:16 PM   Subscribe

How do I improve communication with my wife given a history of anger issues, bad assumption, and best of intentions on both sides?

Okay, here is the situation. Back in September, I had a mini-meltdown at work and decided to quit. I had twitching issues, an inability to sleep the night, and massive resentment issues that were leaking into all parts of my life. Previously, my wife had said that my quitting and us living on her income was not a problem. So I depended on that statement. Due to debt loads and badly defined roles (who is the homemaker? Does the other party have a right to be judgemental? How important are savings? etc.) After almost 6 weeks of detoxing and living with the single income, I had a mid-life crisis. Not instigated by age, but by my satisfaction with my life to that point. I decided that I was not happy with what I had, why I had it, and what I did both around and to myself. So I focused more on asking the questions of why is this upsetting me? What do I want? What am I willing to do to get it? Is this reasonable? If not, what is? for almost everything I have done or plan to do.

The situation is that the stress of loading the breadwinning on my wife fractured our relationship just as I am trying to fix over 12 years of my bad behavior. I want to be a better man. I want her to feel confident in trusting me and in telling me what she wants. I want her to listen to my needs and deliver what I need because I clearly stated what I needed. I am not saying she had to say yes, but that she is working from what I actually said. The roadblock here is she is extremely hostile to talking with me. We have at times seen therapists, both together and apart, mainly due to stress from work that oozed its way back into the rest of our lives. What I am dealing with is a need to find a new way now.

When I request time to sit down and discuss (meaning equal time and equal focus) with her, she will not commit to the time nor give me a time/date she will plan on. The reason driving my desire for this discussion is that when we communicate, I ususally end up feeling like she does not hear what I am saying but instead gains a different message (i.e. "We need 5 hours to make this recipe." gets heard as "Why haven't you stared on this?"). More often than not, I am not asking what she hears, but she operates from that point on what she "heard". This then leads to a response that does not match my needs. Whether it be the wrong item purchased at the store, to someone not being called ("I thought you said you were..."), this frustrates me. I feel I should be able to ask for help or information and depend on the response. She then often supplies additional information to me verbally to justify what she did (because this will defend her from my "inevitable" attack).

The important thing here is that she is right. Before I had my revelation, I would have instantly leapt into the fray with an attack. I have to admit I still have that impulse. But now, I want to do something different, something that benefits both the situation and us long term. I want to understand what she heard, why she heard what she did, and what I can do to be more correctly heard in the future. She just wants less to have to do, especially in her home life. Her job is stressful enough that she wants less drama in her life. As do I. What should I be doing, saying, (or not doing or saying) here to both help myself live with the frustration of the bad communication and encourage her to want to work on this? No alpha demanding and no "well, you should really divorce" garbage. I intend to stay married but I need to have help on new behaviors. Suggestions? Books I should be reading for more in depth advice? Thanks.
posted by Koffeeman to Human Relations (50 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
If you want to "understand what she heard, why she heard what she did," then you need to think long and hard and with a very open mind about what you would have meant, in the past, when you said things like "We need 5 hours to make this recipe."

Therapy should help and I hope your wife also intends to stay married.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 1:21 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

If she's not committed to sitting down and talking and listening, there is literally nothing you can do to make this better.

If you''re not working together you're either not working at all or working against each other.
posted by inturnaround at 1:23 PM on December 26, 2010

Books I should be reading for more in depth advice?

How To Be An Adult in Relationships

Getting the Love You Want
posted by jon1270 at 1:28 PM on December 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Is she open to having a mediator/therapist in on those conversations? It seems like you two have tried to communicate with each other on your own and haven't done it so well. Maybe it's time to call in a professional.
posted by xingcat at 1:55 PM on December 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

I want her to listen to my needs and deliver what I need because I clearly stated what I needed.

From what I'm reading, now is not a a good time for this, nor is it a good time to schedule a meeting with her for a bilateral airing of issues. Now is a good time for just finding her, sometime when she's not right in the middle of an immediate crisis, and telling her how desperately sorry you are that you two are in this mess and how you want to work it out. Perhaps therapy is in your future, but now may not even be the right time to end this speech with "I want us to go to therapy," unless she wants that.

You're trying to deal with emotional issues unemotionally, and you're trying to hold her very literally to a very tough bargain she made with you. Spouses freak out when one of them suddenly quits or has a meltdown at work. It sounds like you're asking her not to be freaked out about that. Don't know the income ratios at your house, but Mrs. RKS makes less than 25% of what I do and I'd still be freaked out if she decided she couldn't make it at work and quit without something else lined up.

As a practical suggestion toward rebuilding trust, I'd be worried less about the big dialogues and be spending more energy toward bringing the A game in your new job as:
a) the homemaker of the house and, if there are children, Dad to your kids.
b) finding another job.

I'd also be finding and taking any damn job I could get while looking for something in your career field - pizza delivery, you name it.
posted by randomkeystrike at 1:55 PM on December 26, 2010 [14 favorites]

Although marriage therapists are expensive, they are less expensive than divorce attorneys. I agree with xingcat that you guys seem to need a bit of professional guidance/coaching in how to interact better.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:56 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

"I ususally end up feeling like she does not hear what I am saying but instead gains a different message (i.e. "We need 5 hours to make this recipe." gets heard as "Why haven't you stared on this?")."

If you're asking this five hours before you want to serve the recipe, isn't "why haven't you started on this" EXACTLY what you're saying? You may just be "reminding" her but if it's something you've done a lot in the past, it's nagging.

There's a technique called "feedback" where you repeat back to her what she said, in as close to her words as you can, and verify that that's what she said and meant. "So what you're saying is, when I say 'we need five hours to make this recipe,' you feel like I'm nagging you." And she says "yes," or "no" and repeats again what she wants to say if you got it wrong. (It is TRULY AMAZING how badly we repeat back to those close to us what they just said, because we DO all filter it through experience, personal views, etc.) Ideally you both do feedback to each other while having difficult conversations, but you can also use this technique unidirectionally when you feel like communication is stalling.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:06 PM on December 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

Koffeeman, this is just a guess based on very little information, but I have the feeling that your wife feels she's carrying most of the load in the marriage—and I'm not just talking about income, although that's got to be a big part of it. But emotionally, too, I'll bet you're draining her. Your post is all about your problems and needs, and you have very little to say about hers. I'm guessing that you justify contributing less to the marriage because you're the more troubled person, but that doesn't do her a lot of good. I'm thinking that you need to shift more of your attention away from yourself and onto her. If you want to start a dialog with her, show her this comment and ask her if she agrees with what I'm saying. I'll bet that'll get a dialog going.
posted by markcmyers at 2:20 PM on December 26, 2010 [25 favorites]

The hugest thing that jumped out at me from your entire post is your avoidance of responsibility in your wording. You word everything passively so that the true subject is obfuscated (eg, "someone not being called" vs "I/she didn't call someone"), or verbs that would normally take a subject are turned into nouns (eg, "the loading of breadwinning on my wife" vs "I loaded the breadwinning on my wife").

How do I improve [my] communication with my wife given [my] history of anger issues?

Due to [someone's] debt loads and badly defined [by someone] roles...

The situation is that [someone's] stress of loading the breadwinning on my wife fractured our relationship...

Whether it be the wrong item [someone] purchased at the store, to someone not being called [by whom?]

I'm not sure why you're doing this. Do you find it helps you distance yourself from the problem emotionally? Maybe you think it's helpful, but to me it makes you sound hostile, like you're bottling the real issues up and are about to snap.

Maybe your wife is hearing the same thing: instead of just saying "I feel annoyed that you didn't start this recipe earlier," which could open up a dialog about how she doesn't feel comfortable asking you for help, she feels too busy, etc, you phrase it "objectively" and remove yourself and herself from the sentence: "This recipe needs 5 hours." Unfortunately the recipe can't really take the blame or change its behavior.
posted by thebazilist at 2:23 PM on December 26, 2010 [24 favorites]

If you two go to a therapist specifically to learn "listening skills," also known as "active listening," it would be a great start. It's not the solution to years of dysfunction, but it's absolutely necessary nonetheless. You learn what to say so you get to what the other person is really saying, and you learn what to say that will show you've heard it.
posted by wryly at 2:23 PM on December 26, 2010

After I have seen this book mentioned here several times, I listened to it on audio. My relationship with my husband is good but I'm always looking for ways to improve and gain more intimacy. I highly recommend it. You can "communicat"e all you want. You can express your needs, desires, plans, yada yada. Unless you truly want to improve your relationship (a lot of people claim they want better relationships with the people they love but refuse to implement strategies to improve their relationships because of pride or fear of being wrong or feeling inferior) and make serious effort to find some truth in what she is saying, then it's hopeless.

Feeling Good Together by David Burns

This interview with David Burns about the book on Shrink Rap Radio is worth listening to.

Just as you want to be heard and understood, your wife does, too. You need to hear what she is saying to you, find the truth in her message, and acknowledge that truth in a non-judgmental, non-condescending, and non-threatening way.

It might be a good idea to act and not speak so much. Behave in a way to regain her trust. It might take a while.

On preview, Eyebrows McGee mentions feedback. Feedback is part of the technique of communicating effectively in the book.


Wife: "Dammit, John! I'm working my ass off to keep us afloat. I work all day while you do who knows what. After a long stressful day I come home to clean and cook. What thanks do I get?"

Husband: "Jane, what I'm hearing you say is that you feel stressed and unappreciated. Do I have that right?"

With practice you will get better at communicating effectively. Even my example might not be the most optimal reply but it's in the ballpark. You are acknowledging her in a non-threatening way.
posted by Fairchild at 2:30 PM on December 26, 2010

What should I be doing, saying, (or not doing or saying) here to both help myself live with the frustration of the bad communication and encourage her to want to work on this?

Actions speak louder than words. Expect to be patient and prove it over time and then do it.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:31 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Stop communicating and start doing things to take the load off. There is zero reason why she should be so stressed because you quit your job. She shouldn't be cooking at all. Shouldn't have anything to do around the house.

You are the one with the anger issues. You changing and your life getting better does not require that she change. I fall into this trap too--I want my behavior to change so I start trying to make my partner change. It's bullshit. It's just once more way for me to distract myself from the fact that the responsibility for my life and my happiness is mine, alone, period, the end, and I need to spend more time thinking about what I contribute than about what I "need".
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:33 PM on December 26, 2010 [22 favorites]

I've come back to this thread a couple of times, struggling with whether I wanted to respond at all, because there was something very off-putting and stressful about your question. Thankfully, a couple more rational folks have identified some of what struck a nerve with me.

Fifteen years ago, my husband walked away from a job he hated. And while there was a part of me - the loving, nurturing wife - that was proud of the courage it took to do that, and was excited by the possibility of him "finding his joy" (which, thankfully, he did), there was another part of me that was scared fucking shitless at the prospect of being the sole breadwinner for our family.

I understand that you are having some kind of existential crisis, but let me assure you that it is *at least* comparable to the stress of having to carry a family on one (your own) income. (Honestly, I don't know how men did it for so long.) It can completely change the way a person views their work, especially in this economy, because so many people feel like thiey are hanging out there by a thread. She could be spending every day thinking, "And if I lose my job, then what?" It's not a fun headspace to be in.

I guess my point is, the last thing she probably needs right now is you trying to schedule an appointment (just like work, great!) where you talk about everything YOU need right now. You need to understand that she is already giving you a gift - the time and space to get your shit together. You, in turn, need to give her what she needs to get through the day as the sole breadwinner. Whatever that is, let her define it. Lighten her load.

If she wants less drama in her life, it might help for you to be less dramatic.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 2:48 PM on December 26, 2010 [27 favorites]

I am trying to fix over 12 years of my bad behavior.

koffeeman -- I'm not going to say everything in the relationship is Your Fault and your wife is perfect, because we have no way of knowing that. But given this line, and given that you're the one who's here and we can talk to you, I'm going to focus on your behavior.

I think a bunch of people upthread see the same thing I'm seeing - that you seem VERY focused on your wants, your needs, your emotions, your desires, your satisfaction, your revelations, your midlife crisis, and so forth.

I think, also, that maybe in a misguided idea of what it means to communicate nicely, you might have shifted your communicating style from angry and aggressive, to passive-aggressive. Passive aggressive is almost worse (at least it is in my opinion) because not only are you still conveying the same irritating sentiment, on top of it, it's almost like you're denying that that's what you're trying to convey, and the other person isn't allowed to be irritated by it and has to pretend it's not there. It's like a step back in terms of honest

I think your wife is refusing to set a time and date to sit down and discuss communication with you, is because she is sick of focusing on your wants and needs and hearing about why she is wrong and what she could do better for you. Even if your plan is equal time and equal focus.

Honestly, I think if you want your wife to give you a chance, after what you have said was 12 years of your bad behavior -- I think you have to set aside at LEAST a month where you forget about your own wants and needs. Just forget about them, and focus on making your wife's life easier.

Tell her: I love you. I would like to help make your life easier. Please tell me what I can do. Try telling her that every day.

Also: have you apologized for your 12 years of bad behavior? Like a direct, unvarnished, total-responsibility-taking apology, like "I was a major league asshole to you for 12 long years, and took out my anger issues on you and made bad assumptions towards you, and I deeply regret it and am sorry. I know that apologizing doesn't wave a wand and make things better, but I owe it to you anyway. I am sorry."
posted by Ashley801 at 3:10 PM on December 26, 2010 [8 favorites]

Oh, and as to this:

"Previously, my wife had said that my quitting and us living on her income was not a problem. So I depended on that statement."

"The situation is that the stress of loading the breadwinning on my wife fractured our relationship"

Something sounds disingenuous about this first statement. Did you actually sit down and have a serious talk with your wife about the fact that you were seriously considering quitting your job and living on her income (the kind of in-depth talk an issue of this magnitude would merit) and she said it was not a problem?

Or was that an offhand remark she made years ago an another context and then you just sprang this on everyone and quit, and then shoved that remark in her face as justification for why she couldn't be upset about it (and would be a liar/hypocrite if she were in fact upset about it.)

I'm not going to assume which scenario went down because we don't have that information, but the second scenario would be an incredibly jarring and unfair thing to do. To just spring a massive life change onto your partner without a major discussion and their input and concerns/needs being addressed. And then, on top of that, imply if they had a problem with it, they were a liar/hypocritical. That is actually an awful thing to do to someone.

Even if it was scenario 1, and you did have the long talk with your wife and she knew what you were going to do and said it was okay ... well, now you know that the stress of the situation is such that is has fractured your relationship. Neither of you knew before that it was going to be that stressful, right?

Are you seriously saying, "Well, the stress in this situation is so bad that it has fractured our relationship, but YOU SAID it would be okay with you, so you're a hypocritical liar if you have a problem with it now."

How is that displaying care for your wife and her needs??????
posted by Ashley801 at 3:24 PM on December 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

Hello, and I too have come back to this thread a couple of times. I must say, although I agree which most of the posters who are pushing you to see harder, I for one am impressed and convinced that you really truly want to make it better. And while it's a long -- lifelong, really -- road, you are ahead of the game in wanting it, and I hope your wife sees that. Because when marriage is vulnerable it is MUCH EASIER to walk away than walk through. So I commend you for that, and I hope you two hang in there right now. You are at the tipping point, and please, keep trying to communicate and in fact overcommunicate. And as someone else said, tell her your intent is to do so, tell her you will not be perfect but you are dead sincere, and ask her point blank if she feels the same commitment -- no matter what -- to setting it straight. It took years to get to where you are, and it will take time to find your way back to each other. And yes, get a job, any job, as a concrete demonstration of your commitment to sharing the load. Good luck.
posted by thinkpiece at 3:35 PM on December 26, 2010

Response by poster: Okay, folks. I won't be defending what I did but I have left a major chunk of details out. I have found a new job (started a week ago), I began cooking/cleaning/laundry duty the same week I quit my old job, and I have basically told her to stop censoring herself and tell me what is wrong when I do something she finds irritating/scary/etc. What I am having a hard time with is a function of her ways of dealing with stress. I can only present what I want, what I am thinking, and deal only with changing my behavior. Thus, how do I accept better and have an encouraging environment for her to talk to me was really my question.

My wife tends to bottle up issues and slap a smile on. I don't know I did something to offend her for weeks, months or years (even when I deliberately pay attention to her reception of ideas, discuss what her issues are with a topic, and wait for her to respond at the time of the offense). I strongly believe that she does not know how to identify when she is being repressive vs petty so she represses everything. It makes her a decent person to work over but comes out as complaints about how someone doesn't do their job, how somebody else needs to step up, etc. In the end, she has stopped even thinking about what she wants, only what she doesn't want. Believe me, this even affects the question: "What do you want for dinner?" from me.

What fractured the current state of the marriage was when I was the homemaker, I was also interviewing and networking actively in my field to find leads for jobs very actively. As a result, I might not get a load of laundry done by when she expected, or vacuum on Tuesday vs. Wednesday. I felt a lot of pressure personally as well as from her to find the next job so I thought I was working on the more important task. When she would express her dissatisfaction with my housework, it was usually because she had not told me things like "I wanted those slacks for this morning." when she put the in the laundry or that she was feeling the house was "closing in" from the piles of mail, etc. I won't pretend my response was appropriate, just instinctive and wrong. I told her that if my attempts to keep to her unstated standards were unsatisfactory, she should take care of the housework herself. Now hold on. Please remember that we both were stressed, for different reason. I work in labor management and have a belief about work delegation.

1. If you want something done a certain way by someone else, you must communicate that with sufficient time for THEM to do the job that way.
2. If you don't like the result, you can either accept it, do it yourself, OR restate the outcome you really needed so that the other party can do it over. Even if it is only for the next time.

I still feel that I had an invisible yardstick held to me with no time when it was used to go back and do anything correctly. My wife, a manager of ~6 people, believes that the worker should know what she expects and do it, no matter how much time is available (verbally communicated to me). I believe that to be harsh and ultimately hurts her but that is another topic for another day. On top of that, my wife would then criticize my use of time during the day (cold calling companies, meeting online with trade groups (to gain some visibility to others in my field), talking with head hunters, and aggressively marketing myself to openings I found).

I try to remember what she says, so that I can deliver not only what she wanted me to do, but also the real outcome she wanted. The slacks need to be clean so they will be when she needs them OR I will tell her before she leaves the night before at work so she can tell me what else would work. I feel that while I getting frustrated with her inattention, mis-interpretation, and defensiveness, she can still ask me to do something and I will deliver on time. I try to be reliable and trustworthy. I just don't feel that reciprocated. Too many times I have asked her to remember a date (via email) then have her react a few weeks later with "Where are we going on that day?". She doesn't make us a priority, mainly her job, at least to my eye. Lets just say more than 50% of meals would end up cold on the table if I made them to meet the ETA she gave me a 4 p.m.

Woo, just read this. I AM NOT BITCHING ABOUT THIS. This is what it is. I am asking for advice on how to live with this AND then how to encourage her to open up to me over time. The books recommended to me all seem very appropo. This will ONLY change when I am not doing the wrong stuff, I am doing the right stuff, and she wants the relationship to improve. Right now, I need ways to wait out our "winter" without seeming cold and heartless as well as prep the field for when she is ready to talk/share/open to me.
posted by Koffeeman at 3:58 PM on December 26, 2010

Ok. What happened to the intimacy in your relationship??

It sounds more and more like a business arrangement. That must be tiring for both of you. I can see how the little things (like what to make for dinner) have become Big Things with the deeper affection necessary for long-term marital success on the wane between you.

From the beginning, it seemed to me like she's simply over the relationship. I still get that from your update.

Sorry. I know this is not the answer you were hoping for.
posted by jbenben at 4:13 PM on December 26, 2010

I work in labor management and have a belief about work delegation

With all due respect, you're welcome to have whatever beliefs you like, but it is a MAJOR jerk move to insist that one's spouse follow this rubric. It is also pretty textbook passive-aggressive.

Now, yeah, your wife is also being passive-aggressive by not telling you her specific priorities. So she needs to work on that. And you guys need to work on negotiating this kind of thing with each other.

Please read the Richio book How to Be an Adult in Relationships ASAP and see a therapist when possible. You really need help. Y'all should not be flinging management theories at each other; that's not how marital communication is supposed to work.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:13 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Koffeeman, your response makes me feel like I'm talking to a wall. I can imagine that's the way your wife feels, too. Might that be the reason she doesn't want to talk to you?
posted by markcmyers at 4:18 PM on December 26, 2010

Response by poster: Oh, and one more thing. At the time it was only to get closer to her job (but now closer to mine as well), I moved us interstate to a new house in the last 6 weeks.
posted by Koffeeman at 4:21 PM on December 26, 2010

So you're dealing with some of the biggest marital stressors around--job loss, job change, and major relocation--and of course, the holidays. That's a lot. No wonder you guys are on edge!
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:27 PM on December 26, 2010

She is who she is, and if she's not great at remembering a date you emailed her weeks ago then stop expecting her to do so. Stop expecting a correct ETA. You seem to be setting up mental requirements for her that you have to know she cannot or will not fulfill.

It seems like you want to lecture her or tell her what she's doing/has done wrong more than you actually want to communicate...if I were her I would avoid talking to you as well because it seems like it would be a litany of criticism about things that I literally could not change about myself (my memory, my work situation, etc.)

How do you live with this? You gain some perspective because the things she says/does seem totally normal and not anything to be upset about.

You get busy doing other things that make you happy, besides picking at your wife or thinking about her flaws/failures.

You try to look at the positive things that she does.

You try your best to be as pleasant as humanly possible NO MATTER WHAT she does or says.

You don't punish her for communicating with you (telling her to "do things herself" is punishing her for communicating with you)

That brings me to positive/negative reinforcement. You want to reward her for doing what you want, and avoid punishing her. If you want her to communicate when she's unhappy, you must reward her for doing so.

I actually hug my partner and thank him for criticizing me instead of "slapping a smile on". I also tell him how much I appreciate it when he tells me "no". It can be hard to suck it up and not be defensive, but which is better:

--Having a partner who feels comfortable being open with me
--Being right

Something to think about for you as well.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:41 PM on December 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Koffeeman -

Ok. Seasoned couples therapist here.

If you read only *one* book on conflict in relationships, read After the Honeymoon, by Dan Wile, PhD. - a hugely witty, profound, incisive, and illuminating examination of why and how couples fight. And of how to ... stop the fruitless type of fighting you describe. (Fighting can be *fruitful* if you are both aware of what's going on and can look at it afterwards). This book can be a game-changer. Wile is something of a genius - well recognized in the field - who deserves to be far better known.

If you read *two* books, I recommend Hold me Tight, by Sue Johnson, PhD.

The sort of conflict you describe is a co-created thing - a cycle - that has both partners by the throat. You're triggering one another - we all have triggers, deep and historic, that get flipped by the people we feel we should be able to rely on. Understanding your triggers (both of you) is step one. Understanding the feelings to which they're wired - often very deep ones - is step two.
posted by ferkit at 4:41 PM on December 26, 2010 [7 favorites]

Is this how you explain things to your wife?
Because...this is what it sounds like:

"I have made up my mind to restructure our relationship to make it more efficient and you are being incredibly obstructivist despite the obvious benefits of this reorganisation. My way of communicating is more efficient than your way and I can explain why, while you can't. Your way is therefore invalid. Your feelings are irrelevant. Your facts suck. If you can't explain your position in a way that would make sense to someone in a business setting, don't even bother because I will not accept any reasonings that are less rational sounding than mine. "

There is a lot that is problematic about the impression you are giving, but a main problem is that you are depriving yourself of important information that would help you (her feelings, her frustrations), because you are not creating an accepting environment for them.

My suspicion: Not only can your wife probably not give rational reasons for why she acts like she does (because her behaviour has its roots in things like emotions and frustrations as well as simply being different from you in character - for instance unable or unwilling to commit to a specific time). But also, if she voices those things you will use them to prove that she is not being rational, and that her way of acting is therefore wrong.

So why on earth should she tell you what is bothering her, and why should she be open and trusting towards you? She's understanding your behaviour as a battle of who is righter than the other one, and is acting that way.

I think you need to rethink your goals and set up a new business plan. Part of it should be creating an environment where you seek to see your mutual behaviour through a non-normative lens. Try to get to the point where you see yourself through her eyes and in her point of view, and where her view is equally valid as yours. This is the long way, but it is also more lastingly efficient, if your goal is to create an environment where both people are working towards one goal rather than obstructing each other.
posted by Omnomnom at 4:56 PM on December 26, 2010 [5 favorites]

Dude, I have been there, and it sucks.

The only way out is to make yourself happy, and that unfortunately takes a considerable amount of time and resources. In the end, no one is going to be happy with someone who's unhappy with themselves.

In the meantime, while you're searching for that happiness as best you can, do something, anything, to remind yourself to be nice. Draw an X on your hand with a marker. Just do something to remind yourself constantly that, no matter what, you are going to be nice to her. No matter how put upon you feel, no matter how you might think any reasonable person would objectively take your side, just let it go and be nice, whatever that means in the context of the situation.

This is a temporary survival tactic. At a certain point, situations are not "survivable" any longer, but it sounds to me like you want to try. This may take a year or more, but it works.
posted by digitalprimate at 5:05 PM on December 26, 2010

One thing jumped out at me…

"Back in September, I had a mini-meltdown at work … After almost 6 weeks … I had a mid-life crisis. […] I decided that I was not happy …"

You almost seem to be treating these as separate (albeit linked) events. They're not. They're all episodes of the same thing, related to the same underlying problem. Been there, done that, got a fucked-up chunk of life* and selection of crappy t-shirts to show for it, and I know 1 thing : that nobody gets over the 12 years or more of stress and issues that lead up to a "mini-meltdown" and "mid-life crisis" in that short a timeframe. You need time to untangle the events from the underlying cause, and work on tidying up both.

How? I'm truly sorry, but I can't help you there. I'm a firm believer that everybody has to figure it out for themselves - though I'm not dissing therapy, counselling, self-help books, or informal advice; just that they didn't really do it for me. In a way, [for some people at least] it's like the stereotypical AA / alcoholism saying - the person has to hit rock-bottom and face the real underlying problem before they can really fix the current issues.

(Aside: I'm currently semi-stuck-in-the-middle with a similar case in my immediate family. Can't give details, but let's just say that 10+ years after a similar case to yours, they're still not really facing it, and have in fact built a stubborn shell around themselves where they're right and everybody else is wrong, so everybody else needs to change.

This is not going well…)

I did get a small wry smile out of your follow-up, particularly "My wife tends to bottle up issues and slap a smile on. […] I strongly believe that she does not know how to identify when she is being repressive vs petty so she represses everything". My partner is very similar, although different in that she doesn't do it with "big" issues, but with the hundreds of little everyday hurts that everybody else shrugs off every day. As a somewhat disconnected cynic myself, I love her for her Pollyanna outlook - but it hurts to see her doing it, and it hurts more when everything she's pushed down bursts forth every couple of months. I feel your pain, and understand your confusion ;-)

(* Largely sorted now and things are good, though occasionally bits come back to bite me in a minor way…)
posted by Pinback at 6:35 PM on December 26, 2010

I'm still reading in your statements a tendency to expect her to not be stressed about things are stressful. I think if you want to save the relationship you're going to have to be very patient about some things that sound like stress reactions to me. I think you're both flinging a certain amount of poo at each other, and to stop you're either going to have to get a referee (couples therapy), one of you is just going to have to decide to be loving no matter what the other is doing, and give it a chance to get better, or both.
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:02 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

What should I be doing, saying, (or not doing or saying) here to both help myself live with the frustration of the bad communication and encourage her to want to work on this?

This seems to be your two main questions. From your original post and your follow-up you accept no responsibility for the communication problems. To help live with the frustration of the bad communication, accept that it is you that cannot communicate effectively with your wife and it is your skills that need to be improved. But first, accept responsibility. As to encouraging her to work on the this, you seem to want to demand that she change without actually coming out and saying that or taking responsibility for making that unreasonable demand. But if you accept that it is your responsibility to improve your communication skills then there is no need for her to "work on this". Your dynamic will improve when you learn to act like an adult interacting with another adult.

I have basically told her to...tell me what is wrong when I do something she finds irritating/scary/etc.

How about you stop doing things to scare your wife instead of making her confront someone she is scared of? You are not going to be able to solve your problems from reading (judging from how you responded to above advice) and you should be seeing a challenging therapist for several months before broaching the idea of a couples therapist.

Oh, and figure out what makes her feel loved and secure (five love languages) and do that, a lot. Even when you don't feel very loving in the moment. Just love.
posted by saucysault at 7:06 PM on December 26, 2010

Busybody here again. Your follow-up was interesting and enlightening and brought to mind another parallel to what Mr. Darling and I went through:

You notice that I'm able to sort-of blithely synopsize - "my husband quit his job, it was kind of stressful, but he found his bliss and it's all cool now." That's with 15 years of hindsight. The reality was three months of sitting on the couch, six months in therapy and two years back in school, during which his bliss was found but also during which there were days when I thought I just could not take it any more.

Just a few years ago - we're talking ten+ years later - I said to a friend something offhand like, "It's not like *I* could just quit my job and go back to school to find myself," and she said, "You know, you really need to let go of that." It was a real wake-up call to see that I still carried around some resentment. It was quite humbling.

You seem like a fixer. Seems like you observe a situation, identify the problem, think of a solution and expect fairly quick results. That's a pretty effective style in the workforce but harder to pull off in life and relationships. It also sounds like you are trying to gauge your home life by comparing it to work - you even mention your wife's supervisory role as if it has anything to do with the way she should conduct herself at home.

Your determination to drastically change your communication style is great, but - like others have said - it's going to take some time to resonate for the person who has become accustomed to your old style and has all of the defense mechanisms to prove it.

There's no deadline here, so don't rush your own transformation - and don't rush her. There really isn't a right or wrong way to do this, for you or for her. Do your best to have a good day tomorrow, to be kind and to acknowledge kindness in return if you're lucky enough to get it. Then try again for the day after that. Best of luck to both of you.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 7:43 PM on December 26, 2010

Okay, I am hearing that you want your wife to communicate her thoughts and feelings and wants and wishes more openly and freely with you.


Is it so that you can make her happy? By knowing her feelings, you can better support her; by knowing her wants and wishes, you can better fulfill them? Is your ultimate goal her happiness after years of your admittedly being an asshole?

Or is it so that, in having a clearer picture of what she wants, you can behave in such a way as to get her to stop criticizing you? If you know her wishes about the laundry, she won't have to/be able to criticize you? If you know when she's really coming home from work, you won't feel like you wasted time cooking dinner for a specified time?

I am a big-time represser. I was raised to understand that no one was interested in my feelings/thoughts/wishes/desires for their own or my own sake. That anything I did voice could and would probably be used against me in an argument, would be picked apart, would be criticized.

Your wife was probably conditioned in the same way over the past 12 years -- sorry, there's that passive wording again -- I mean that you probably conditioned your wife in that way.

Believe me when I tell you that there is no quick-fix. But if you can start to convince her that you want to hear what she thinks, feels, wants -- even if you won't like it, even if it will hurt you, even if you'll view it as a criticism, even if you'll think it's unfair -- just because you love her, you love everything about her, and value every speck of her and her mind, then maybe she'll start to trust you again.
posted by thebazilist at 9:14 AM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have basically told her to...tell me what is wrong when I do something she finds irritating/scary/etc.

It doesn't work that way. You deciding that Things Have Changed doesn't mean that they have. Commanding her to tell you when you are scary (!) is ... do you honestly not see how scary that prospect is? If she feels you're bullying, she should get in your face about it? Because you told her to? I wouldn't do it either. Why should she trust you? Especially when you're being scary?

Look, you've put this whole situation into a System in your Head, and this is not a business matrix. This is a relationship with lots of history and intimacy and hurt and emotion and you're not going to business that away, and you shouldn't. You can't TELL her to trust you. You have to earn her trust. She is HURT, she is WARY, she is STRESSED, and that is the woman you need to learn to care for. Not a 'reasonable' version of her.

And what about you? How do you feel? We hear a lot about what you think and how you're going to magically fix everything and how great you are (and oh these faults but let's move past that lickety split, which is such a cop-out), but how do you feel? Does it hurt you when she puts you off? You don't want to consider divorce, but aren't you scared she is? Honestly, my fights with my partner turn exactly on that emotion. The moment one of us says "Oh my god, this scares me because I love you so much and we're fighting and I don't want to lose you," and our fight turns into teamwork to get US back. But we have to show that vulnerability to get there, and we have to let ourselves lose the fight.
posted by heatherann at 12:25 PM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I moved us interstate to a new house in the last 6 weeks.

BTW this is an odd way to put this, as if she didn't have a choice.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:01 PM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Your wife was probably conditioned in the same way over the past 12 years -- sorry, there's that passive wording again -- I mean that you probably conditioned your wife in that way.

thebazilist is probably right, here.

I'm not sure why so many answerers here are being hard on you, since you are clearly trying to do the right thing--so, congratulations on that!

However, if you've had anger problems in the past, it could take a while to repair the damage. Your wife may have withdrawn because walking on eggshells is no fun--you're getting a taste of this now.

As you recognize, you need to rebuild trust between the two of you. Maybe you could try going through one week in which you offer unconditional support. Let her be wary; don't worry if she misunderstands what you say. It doesn't matter (compared to what you are trying to achieve). Support her, ask her what she needs or wants (in a non-demanding way; don't tell her she HAS to act in a certain way for you to be able to meet her needs). DON'T respond with anger, irritability, or judgment to anything she says; this will just reinforce the patterns you're trying to undo. If you have sex, make it all about her. There is truth to the fable (Aesop's?) that the sun works better than the wind in persuading a person to change behavior.

At the end of a week, take stock of your relationship. If things are working well, try another week. The main thing right now, I think, is to prove to her that you want to change, that you have changed. This will take time, and consistency and patience on your part. It's really tough being married to an angry or stressed person; it's going to take a bit for her to adjust.

If your wife is unresponsive after you do this for a week or two, then the problems may run deeper than you recognize.

Best wishes to you.
posted by torticat at 6:26 PM on December 27, 2010

Response by poster: Well, as this continues, I think I should respond to some of the things said here.

1. WE moved because she told me we had to. As I did not have a job at the time, she decided it was my "job" to move us.

2. I have spent 12 years trying to fit into a role/job life that scared me as I watched myself lose my identity. The reaction I had was the same as anyone feeling more and more lost. I tried to dominate the rest of my space/life to maintain control and somehow slow the loss. I responded to feelings with out of scale and inappropriate reactions, demands, and positions. My goal now is to disconnect my emotions from my reactions so that I can rationally question the why, why now, and what is the outcome of my actions even when I feel lost, scared, or under assault. I am not trying to be passive aggressive, just not the type A wrestle the world into submission person I was.

3. My wife is now a small bottle of nitroglycerin. I believe that while I am a source of frustration and anger, I am more importantly the only source she can attack at this point. The others are persons at work and her family. The work sources are out of reach due to politics (neither of us feel any good at workplace politics) and her family sources are distant and brittle right now. Therefore, I am dealing with her stress with me as a flashpoint.

4. To illustrate the situation of out of whack action-reaction communication we have, here is what happened this afternoon. My wife and I had to travel out of state to clean our old place. In the car, to fill the dead air AND to try and have a civil conversation, I proposed sharing something about the other person each of us liked, back and forth. Proposed, not demanded, just floated the idea. I really like being married to her and want to share why in a positive, calm manner. My second item was the look she has when she completes a craft project that she likes the product of (vs. feeling like it could be better). The look of success and satisfaction. Over the past few years, both from my pressures, the location we lived at, and her increased stress/time at work, her crafting time has dwindled. The new place has a more inviting environment and I am looking forward to seeing what she does. Not expecting, just positive feelings here. Her response was to question when I last saw that look and to tell me quite acidly that she hasn't had that look in years. I was trying to share a point of joy that I treasure and she is attacking me for reminding her that she has not had that in a long time. We went back to silence. I am not trying to fix her. I am trying to figure out how to have a conversation, not get angry at figurative banging my head on a wall during it, and not stepping on land mines. How to live with it and be receptive to if/when she ever gets out of the stress load that she has. Right now, she seems to look for reasons and opportunities to take offense and fight.

5. She threatens divorce and ending our marriage almost any time we don't agree. Even when I think we are merely discussing options A vs B vs C and our personal inclincations, she ends up comparing me to family members whom she has major issues with. When she asks me if I think we should..., I take that as a request to voice an opinion on ... Sometimes she means that, sometimes she really just wants me to say it doesn't matter to me so that she can do what she wants. I have yet to figure out which conversation I am having at any time. If I choose wrong, then I am in trouble with her for dominating her. I am very used to her just doing what she wants, regardless of my input or even a request for my input. I keep my mouth shut unless I am asked. So in the end, I sometimes (on a weekly basis) get blindsided with purchases, household decisions, or conversations with others where I apparently agreed to something I never remember discussing. If I am asked for my input, I can't tell if answering the verbal question will get me the outcome I want or tick her off for controlling her. But if I do something without letting her know (i.e. the time spent in the job hunt mentioned earlier), I am being underhanded and manipulative, or at least uncommuinicative.

I keep going back to this, folks. I can only work on me. She can only work on her. I don't know if/when she will want to work on her stress sources, her reactions, and the fallout from both. I do know that I am accused of wearing her down, badgering her, etc. and I don't want to have that. I want to be heard, not be threatened/threatening, and not argue merely by opening my mouth or saying what I think. I do know that my past has scarred both her and I. I also know that I need to find different ways to deal with my personal issues, my issues with her, and my expectations of what I "deserve" and what I will "pay". There is no such thing as a free lunch but the slop I get for yelling that I don't like the food is no longer worth it. How do I live so that I can accept, change, and permanently move on with her, not around her? I need options, like what Sweetie Darling, Pinback, and digitalprimate have thrown up or the books everyone keeps mentioning.

Having said all that, thanks for the input. Even the hostile ones give me something to chew on and consider.
posted by Koffeeman at 6:49 PM on December 27, 2010

You seem to have a lot of difficulty seeing things from your wife's point of view and it sounds like you don't validate her feelings - instead you become defensive. I think your "game" in the car sounded very aggressive, with a subtext of you looking for "right" answers. I agree with your wife that giving an example that is years old clearly says there is nothing about her NOW that you like and you have some idealised version of her in mind.

From the conversation we are having here I feel a lot of pressure and defensiveness from you. Your stress literally leaps off the screen. Again, I do not think books wil help, you need to work one on one with a strong therapist that will not allow you to dominate or steamrole over them and will model and teach you appropriate conversation skills. You need to practise this will in real life and receive feedback as you go.
posted by saucysault at 8:49 PM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

She threatens divorce and ending our marriage almost any time we don't agree.

Hm, maybe you need to call her bluff on this? If you are really looking to make her happy, ask if she would be happier on her own? If she says no, she doesn't seriously want to split up, then you can use that commitment as a basis for further conversation.

Honestly, though, your situation sounds miserable. It's clear that divorce is off the table from your perspective; but that doesn't mean the same is true for your wife. You should clear this up. And yeah, I agree with saucysault that a therapist should be involved. It doesn't sound like the two of you are communicating effectively AT ALL. I'm sure there's fault on both sides (as you acknowledge); you need an outsider to help adjudicate these differences.

So sorry you're going through this.
posted by torticat at 9:21 PM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I said it above and I will say it again - I think your wife is just plain over her relationship with you.

Your point #5 confirmed this for me. I found it interesting to see how long it took you to mention (admit?) that your wife has been talking about divorce, because I was absolutely sure from your original question that she's been thinking about divorce strongly, if not saying it out loud to you. Now I know she has been saying "divorce" out loud. You are simply trying very very hard not to hear her.

In light of revelation #5, your current desire to "work on yourself" sounds more and more like a different variation on what must be a familiar theme for your wife - yet another new strategy to further shut out her wants and needs. Ouch.

Especially in marriage, once someone is done, they're done.

She's done and you are still not hearing her. We can't help you with that because we can't magically change her mind for her. I reckon you can't either at this stage in the situation.

I see that you are casting about, looking for some way to change your wife's mind about you and the marriage. People don't work like that. There is no switch you can flip inside of someone to make them soften towards a particular outcome once their mind is made up in a different direction. Your wife sounds very much like someone whose mind is made up in the direction of ending her marriage. She pretty much refuses to discuss anything with you and that is one big big clue.


PS - Just because I'm not saying what you want to hear, it doesn't mean I am "hostile." I just can't lie about what I am reading from you. What I see is in every sentiment that you express, everything you seek to deflect us from via direct omission, and it is in everything you demand we ignore or not mention in our responses.
posted by jbenben at 9:59 PM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'll repeat a suggestion I made earlier: How about sharing this thread with your wife and asking her what she thinks about the things people are saying? If not, why not?
posted by markcmyers at 8:17 AM on December 28, 2010

PS - Just because I'm not saying what you want to hear, it doesn't mean I am "hostile."
Yeah, this. I haven't read any of the responses to your question as hostile. I've definitely seen some "you're the asshole" AskMe pileons, and this isn't one of them. What people are doing is offering you and outside perspective - commenting on the way you're phrasing things, things we notice because we aren't involved in the situation that you might miss, because you're too close. For example, in one update, you said:
I moved us interstate to a new house in the last 6 weeks.
This turn of phrase "I moved us" sounds like you saying that you made the decision without input - "I moved us" as in "I made us move" - A Terrible Llama responded to that phrasing. Then you clarified, saying that it was your wife's decision, and that "I moved us" means (I think) that you were responsible for the physical moving. Which, fair enough, that's not as bad as unilaterally uprooting your home, which is what it sounded like initially. But here's why A Terrible Llama and others (probably) read that initial comment the way they did: if you weren't taking responsibility for the decision to move, why say "I moved us" instead of "we moved"?

The answer, I think, is that you want credit for the physical and mental labor of the move. Again, fair enough. But that's part of a larger pattern in your post and updates where you acknowledge that you may have been responsible for initially creating this situation, but then insist that you are now the victim. This goes down to your sentence constructions: your initial post doesn't ask how you can communicate better, it asks how you can make your wife hear you better. Do you see the difference? They both mean basically the same thing, but one makes the situation a problem with you, and the other kinda pretends to say that you're the problem, while really putting the blame on her.

So why call you out on all this? Because this way of looking at things, where everything is happening to you and you're the victim, is not very useful even if it happens to be true. One of your biggest problems here is the frame that you're using to interpret these events - it's preventing you from doing anything constructive. For example - your argument in the car. Here's what you said:

Her response was to question when I last saw that look and to tell me quite acidly that she hasn't had that look in years. I was trying to share a point of joy that I treasure and she is attacking me for reminding her that she has not had that in a long time.

You can choose to look at this as her attacking you, and maybe she was. But what's more important, and what may only be obvious from the outside, is that your wife is trying to tell you that she's miserable. Do you love her? If you do, it's probably a good idea to put getting your needs met on hold for a while, try to find out why she's miserable, and if there's anything that can be done about that. You need to enter into that conversation prepared for the possibility that it's her marriage that's making her miserable - not saying it is, but it can't be ruled out. But even if that's the case, do you really want to stay with someone who isn't happy with you.

Just to reiterate, however this response sounds in your head when you read it, it's not coming from a hostile place. It is a little blunt, because it sounds like you're trying to avoid thinking/hearing some things, and I know what that looks like because I've done it. For me, bluntness by others was what was required, so that's what you're getting here. But very few people answer questions on AskMe just to be a dick - most of us are trying to help.
posted by Ragged Richard at 8:34 AM on December 28, 2010 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: Folks, I am reading the responses and taking time over night to really think about what you are saying. LIke I said before, an emotional knee jerk reaction from me usually is bad.

Here is what I keep hearing from everyone. I am not being responsible for my actions. I am not listening to what my wife is saying. I am trying to manipulate her and the situation to get what I want.

I want to take those each separately here.

At this point, I feel like any action or statement I make is a little like throwing darts in a dark room. I don't know what will happen nor if the reaction will be good, bad or indifferent to my relationship with my wife. I only know I am responsible for only my actions. I cannot be responsible for hers. If I was, every time she does something that causes her or someone else discomfort or pain, I would be on the spot. Whether to apologize directly or advise her later about the situation, I would have to do something. Over time, I have let her do what she thinks is best, kept my mouth shut, and tried to focus on just being to avoid feeling responsible for her actions. My issue here is that there is no neutral ground at this point so there is no safe way to act or speak that does not have a chance of turning bad. I am not looking for a perfect way, just a different way. What I am hearing is that I need to just take it without reacting, no matter what is said back to me or is done to me. I am working on that, just very hard not to respond when I feel attacked (and the non-reaction seems to irritate her as well).

My wife can't seem to tell me what she wants to say. Saying things too aggressively, or too passively, making assumptions about next steps, or asking her preference for what to do have all irritated her in the past few weeks. I really think she needs a vacation, if not from me, at least from work. We have mostly moved in to our new place and I told her that if she wanted to go away for this week or do nothing or work in the office or anything, that was OK with me. I would work around that for meals, etc. (as I do have to work this week). I just wanted her to feel that she was free to make her own choices without obligations. We ended up fighting about that because she made dinner and that I "judged" her for not doing anything. I did not think that, had not said anything, and had even left the room she was in to avoid irritating her. I agree with Radded Richard that my wife is miserable. THe rub is that she can not tell me why, or when, or what would feel good then (a hug, a drive to visit her mom, a glass of wine, an ear to yell at, etc.). I end up leaving her alone, to at least avoid making things worse, and that feels like I am abandoning her. I was in the same boat several years ago and really fear that she is following me down a dark road, UNINTENTIONALLY. So not only is communication hard, I don't even know if she really has a message other than "I am miserable". And I fear the damage this can do to her personally. Prolonged depression, stress, and apathy towards the future have gotten me here. I don't want that for her or any person, for that matter.

As for manipulating her, yes I am. You manipulate your surroundings all the time to get what you want. I want a happy, sharing marriage of equals. I am NOT trying to change who my wife is, what she wants, or even why she wants it. I am trying to figure out how to get her to tell me what she wants and why so that I can make honest attempts at trying to provide what I can for her. She makes choices to take statements at their worst in order to be angry, the same way I have done (and am actively muzzling). This is one of the things I am working on for me. I am trying to manipulate the situation so that she can express her anger to me and I can understand what she is angry about, all outside of dealing with the dinner menu, the trash , and who will call the propane company. My wife is angry, I have a history of conflict with her, and she has a history of looking at her past with rose colored glasses and wanting "it" back that way without defining "it". I want my wife to be angry with others, not me, because she trusts I am not out to hurt her, I want to have a clear way to listen to my wife so that her message to me is clean and straight about needs and timing, and I want her to be free in her own mind to live her life as it is. I can not get those things. I can be open to when/if she wants to do any of them. I can try to set up the environment that supports all that and I can try and be patient. But I can't make her change, I can only change how I react and think.

What I hear from a lot of people here is that if someone states a point of self knowledge, like I need to change myself, that opens the door to being told what to change. When I asked for ideas, it was about 2 specific ways: be patient with the conditions the way they are, and how to communicate with her sincerely. It kind of grew into my need to hear my wife and deal with her perspective and issues as well as the 2 things I was concerned with. I also added the desire to have an environment that she feels she can be free in, whether to change or yell or experiment. I know I am not hearing what she wants me to hear but at this point, folks, she has stopped telling me. She wants to be keyed up to fight and she wants something, making her feel antsy and dissatisfied. She does not want to think about why or what could be done physically or emotionally. I do not want to be a doormat but I realize that I need to bend and flex as she needs. I totally agree that we need to see a therapist. I have asked her how/if her work has access to benefits we could use or merely a directory or recommendation from someone to find a good reference. I am not looking for the books to fix the problem, but, like this forum, to help me to think about the situation differently so that I can maybe see what she is dealing with better, or at least with more sympathy if I can't do anything.

It comes down to this. My wife and I need help. But until we can get that help, I need to find a middle way between laying down and letting the stampede pummel me (which depresses me as I lose even more of my identity in this role) and the aggressive bull wrestling that worked so badly in the past. While I am doing this, I need to do no wrong and maybe, reduce the tension to the point that my wife will honestly talk with me. People and relationships are messy. They are not perfect nor do they come completely assembled out of the box. They require work, and patience, and time, and love. I believe that. I also believe that my wife is lashing out and somewhere in that is message I have to respond to. I thank you for the advice and recommendations you gave me. I would suggest that you consider that what you read will always be only the writer's side of the story here and that while it sounds like I don't see her side, I am trying to understand what I see and react in a supportive way while not becoming someone I don't like.
posted by Koffeeman at 4:22 AM on December 29, 2010

I end up leaving her alone, to at least avoid making things worse, and that feels like I am abandoning her.

It really sounds like she needs a break from you and your pressure; you are prioritising your need to not feel like an abandoner over her need for space and time apart from you. I know this is scary in a relationship in crisis, because ultimately you fear she will abandon you.

I hear so much about control in what you write, you want to control her through manipulation and you want her to stop being angry over the way you have treated her for twelve years. Now she is treating you the way you have trained her you are complaining about not wanting to be a doormat. Again, I just don't see much insight from you about how she feels or empathy about you feeling over the past few months how she has felt for years. You fear losing your identity but the idenity you have is wrapped up in domination and control and has left you with a wife threatening divorce.

You asked her to get information about a therapist. She has already told you she is overwhelmed and doesn't want more things delegated from you. But you did not listen and prioritised your need to feel you were doing something by giving her another chore. I do not think you should expect her to go to couples counselling as she will probably interpert it as another scheme of your to avoid responsibility. Go to individual couselling yourself - a lot. Show a willingness to actually change and not just promise you will change. Listen to her, don't become defensive, work on being humble. I do think your marriage can be saved, but give her space to have an identity outside of reacting to your needs.
posted by saucysault at 5:35 AM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I want to reiterate that it would be very useful for you to go to individual therapy before couples therapy to deal with your issue of changing without becoming a doormat. You've mentioned being a doormat several times, and I think that in your case, it might be worth risking temporarily becoming a doormat in order to save your marriage. From your descriptions, you can't do anything nice for your wife without it coming with conditions, or a negative drawback for her.

For example, the "game" where you traded compliments. It doesn't make you a doormat to freely give her compliments without expecting any in return. Your ego doesn't need to be fed every second. Another example is your offer to let your wife go on vacation from you, and that you would make the great sacrifice (not how you worded it, but how I read it and how she probably heard it) of getting your own meals. This suggests that cooking you meals is not a nice thing she does for you, but an obligation, and a bad thing if she slacks on her duties. There's no reason why you can't be in charge of meals 50+% of the time, and doing so would make you an equal partner, not a saint.

It sounds like this is not new behavior and you have been treating your wife badly and not pulling your weight for a long time. You need to make up for this by doing more than your fair share, just as your wife has done more then her fair share for years.
posted by fermezporte at 5:51 AM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I really hope this doesn't sound like a jab. You really do seem to be making an effort to keep your marriage going; I can tell that you're putting a huge amount of energy into it. I think for right now, you've diagnosed it correctly with the title of your post. You are talking too much. You are not being heard because you are talking too much-- both to her and to yourself.

It sounds like there is no big emergency here. You don't have to decide anything. She may indeed be in her way out the door but you don't know that, and anyway treating that like it's an emergency isn't going to help. So I agree with the person above who suggested (more or less) stop talking and just act. Be helpful. Carry your part of the weight as much as possible. Show through your actions that you want to make the marriage work.

I really feel for you. I can tell you are stressed out as hell. That job really did a number on you and quitting just brought down another shitstorm of stress. Please be good to yourself.
posted by BibiRose at 8:11 AM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

You really have to find a way to be relatively happy and content and proud of your behavior no matter WHAT your wife thinks, says or does.

Also try to practice recovering from missteps--if you do something like the compliment game, your wife reacts negatively, do you know how to salvage it?

The Marriage Clinic might be a good book for you to try, if you like more scholarly/researched books (although it has its issues).

Do you come from a rough childhood or a difficult family background?
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:45 AM on December 29, 2010

Hm, so has your wife committed verbally to trying to save the relationship? Or is she all "eh, whatever" while threatening you with divorce every fortnight?
The thing is, you can't save it unilaterally. You need her to want to save it as well, and commit to not getting divorced for now. Otherwise all your efforts are just treading water.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:17 PM on December 29, 2010

Response by poster: When 2 dominating personalities meet, there is naturally conflict. As for the rough childhood, it is on her side. A very domineering, dictatorial father and an tolerant, then dismissive mother. I end up being compared to her father more often than not. Her statements to me are often related to her fighting me so that she doesn't end up the way her mom did with her dad. She does not trust him and to this day, still blames him for things like the relationship her brother has with her, the way her mom is almost always passive aggressive with her new husband, and even why sitting down to eat dinner at the dining table is stress inducing. I don't want to win, I just don't want to lose. My wife treats all conflicts as a win-loss equation (due to dad and his need to win) so I end up having to fight because I can't depend on her to fight only for what she wants, but what she can get. From where we spend money, to whether she feels she is allowed to voice opinions, to even whether we have cats for pets, she relates all of this back to when she was young. Either she believes I will "win" and she goes back to hiding from her "dad" or I lose and she does whatever she wants with me being her maid/nanny/butler. I have to deal with that. Can't make her change.

I don't think I have trained her to "slap on a smile" and be resentful until she oozes vitriol. Just talking with her mom shows me where that came from. I have demonstrated that yelling and swearing and being visibly angry works faster and just as badly myself and have repeatedly paid the consequences unhappily (see 12 years of unwanted results). I really believe that I am dealing with her ghosts and non-present stresses as much as with my actions today. The thing I really here her say to me is that "she wants me to be happy." Sometimes to slap a smile on and soldier on. Thus why I ask for your help here. Other times, she means for me to go my own way and be satisfied. That is my problem and one I don't want your guys input on. The doormat issue comes from not having confidence (even after we met and dated a while) that the elastic of our marriage was strong enough for me to go my own way truly. I strongly believe that I have to get tough when life gets tough (as in grow a thick hide). For her, my belief is that she would cut and run because nothing is worth any amount of effort. Unless you get paid for it. Then you can abuse her time, health, phyche, and mind as much as you want. In many ways, if you don't care like her mom says she does, you can't ever be really hurt. She makes equations in her head about things like meals or chores that she wants to do that somehow equate to what I want. I try to appreciate when she makes meals I enjoy. I thank her, but apparently not enough according to her. When she makes something she knows I will not like, she still asks me between 4-6 times if I want the dish (i.e. brussel sprouts, hate 'em). If I try to give any non-positive feedback ("I don't like sprouts. I hope you enjoy them."), more than an even chance she will be pissed off or saddened. I am already not getting what I want, only what she lets me have.

Control for me is about not losing. Not losing my values, my time (more important than money to me), my identity, or my place in the world. Unfortunately, I have watched the loss of intimacy, time for each other's interests, and care for each other's well being dwindle as life gets more stressful and my natural inclination is to tighten my control. If you listen to what I have been saying, I am trying to figure out how to loosen my fingers, hold the egg gently, and deal personally with my anxiety. Being more demanding and intolerant of others has not worked.

I have listened to her tell me how great life is for people who don't know me. As in I have caused all the ills in her life since we met. Then she ends up telling me stories (when things are going well) about how her father made her go to bed at 9 p.m. until she was 16. She would lay in the dark and be completely silent to avoid being yelled at or punished. So I caused all her pain today and when she is enjoying life even a little, she deliberately thinks about times in her past that she was in pain and the supposed sole cause. I fear that if I open myself up, it merely lets the wolf go for the throat with less work. When her father has opened up, it has actually pissed her off even more.

I am not a saint. I have a temper. I have too much avarice for things I can not have (price is too high, or it is not for sale). I talk too much and don't do enough. And I am inconsistent in what I want or ask for. But I want to be a better man, husband, and person. I still want to be married to her, even with the warts and history. I am changing myself for me, not for her. But I fear that what she says she wants from me will drive her away as she realizes that I don't need her to make dinner, prop up my ego, or even have the lights on when I get home.

So what is your advice?

1. See a therapist. She is OK, you are just a mess. After a while, maybe both see a therapist.
2. Listen and do. Stop asking for anything from her.
3. Don't read the books because you are looking for excuses.
4. Have no expectations of her and live with whatever you get, you jerk.
5. You made all this happen so live with it.

Let the next set of statements or potshots commence.
posted by Koffeeman at 3:09 PM on December 29, 2010

Yes, stop asking and do what you need to do around the house. Criticism from her doesn't relieve you of your responsibility for anything.

Yes, go to therapy.

Yes, have realistic expectations of her and accept her as she is.

Yes, accept that 12 years of unhealthy behavior has negatively. It isn't just her family of origin.

Yes, focus on being happy with yourself. If you get bad reactions no matter what, then behave in the right way and let her reaction be what it is.

If she is truly incapable of a healthy relationship or of interacting with you in a healthy way, be a good person anyway. If that necessitates leaving, then leave.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:35 PM on December 29, 2010

It sounds like you need couples therapy at least as much as individual therapy, but either is a good option because when a relationship is this complex, understanding it fully can help you accept it, or change it, or do whatever it is that you need to do. I am not suggesting therapy because I think either of you are "a mess." Rather, it seems like your current strategies are not working, and therapy is a process that can help you figure out why that is and how to change. It really seems to me that the dynamic you're describing is beyond the limited kinds of solutions that this forum can offer. You need another human being, trained to be a good listener, to help you sort through all of the years of accumulated experience and learned behaviors.

As for the near term, I suggest you take a few months (at the very least) and reset your expectations for that time. To zero. It takes a lot for change in relationships to sink in. So for the next few months (or more), commit to changing yourself and your behavior without expecting your wife to respond in any way whatsoever. She can't feel the change in you the way you do, so it's going to take time for her to really see that this is serious, that you're doing things differently for the long term, and that her past adaptive behavior is not going to work anymore. So start by changing for you, not her, and resign yourself to some discomfort while the adjustments... solidify.
posted by prefpara at 7:05 PM on December 29, 2010

« Older Speech Therapy enthousiasts, Help !   |   Setting Up A New Laptop For Your Mom? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.