Fixing general marital communication issues
July 21, 2012 9:00 AM   Subscribe

I feel like my marriage is falling apart. It's not because we don't love each other, but I don't know what to do.

My wife and I are each in our thirties, and we've been married for close to ten years. We met in high school and got married immediately after graduating college. For the past couple of years, there have been communications issues, and they've recently (within the last couple of months) interfered with pretty much everything we do. Primarily I think that she feels that I don't contribute enough to the relationship (planning things to do, helping around the house). On the other hand, I feel that I do my fair share of all of it, but that all she can remember is the one time in the last two weeks that I went out with friends instead of making dinner or the one weekend in the past five that I forgot to vacuum or something like that.

Every discussion we have about anything typically devolves into anger, and my wife has never been able to talk about a disagreement until it's resolved. Her instinct has always been to disconnect when she gets to a certain point, which means we go to bed angry, and then we're upset the next day, and it takes a few days until things sort of return to normal. Even asking her how her day was somehow involves me making some assumption or other about something that insults her and it all spirals out of control. I haven't actually been able to relax, either at work or at home, at all for the past two weeks, because I know that an argument is waiting for me as soon as I walk in the door. Something as simple as trying to find my wallet this morning somehow meant I needed to be yelled at (no, I didn't ask her to help me look for it, and no, she wasn't waiting for me to find it to go to work). When I'm upset with her for treating me unfairly, she laughs when I try to express my feelings, derisively, as if I were seriously proposing the existence of fairies.

I've tried to talk to her about going to therapy, but she doesn't see this as a communications issue. She sees it as me being immature, or an asshole, or lazy. (We started dating when we were in our teens, and I was then a very lazy very immature teenager. I think a part of her thinks I still am, despite much evidence to the contrary.) She doesn't think WE need therapy, she thinks *I* need therapy. I've tried that, too, but it doesn't really go anywhere; I can't fairly speak for her at those sessions.

I need help here. We both desperately need things to improve. I love her deeply, but that doesn't seem to be enough to improve the current dynamic of our relationship.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (37 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I need help here. We both desperately need things to improve.

Does she want them to improve? Because it sort of sounds like she is beginning to check out of this relationship.

I think you should try to find a time when she is not angry with you, and say that you think your marriage is at risk of ending, and that you love her and would like to prevent that from happening. Don't accuse er of anything while you're doing this, just tell her you love her and will do the work to keep her. Maybe she will take it as a wake-up call. If she 'laughs derisively' at you again, then I'm really sorry but there may be no salvaging this.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:07 AM on July 21, 2012 [14 favorites]

This isn't about you or what you are or aren't doing. This is about her anger. Or, possibly, depression.

You need to tell her-not ask her, tell her-that you both need to talk to someone together. Nonnegotiable. This is abusive to you, and I would believe that even if you were a bit of an immature asshole.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:07 AM on July 21, 2012

(Is there anything else in her life spiralling out of control? One thought is that she is taking stuff out on you because she believes you are "safe" to take it out on.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:09 AM on July 21, 2012 [6 favorites]

Well, the way you've framed it here, she sounds like a complete harpy. What answer can anyone give other than "end it"? Consider how the situation feels from her standpoint. What's happening that's making her so angry? What role, if any, are you playing in it? Which of your actions could you change?

I'm not trying to blame you for your situation. It's very possible that she is just angry for no good reason and taking it out on you. But maybe instead of focusing on what you want her to do (being less angry at you all the time), focus on small actions you can take to change things for the better. Maybe do more than your fair share of housework for a week and see what happens.

All of this in addition to having a heart-to-heart with her, of course.
posted by baby beluga at 9:11 AM on July 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I agree that therapy is probably the answer here.

But short of that, I wonder if part of her frustration or anger isn't what you're doing or not doing, but HOW you're doing it. Like, if you're looking for your wallet - which you lost - are you doing it with a lot of noise and banging and heavy sighing? That might make her feel like you are expecting/wanting her help but not asking for it, or make her feel like you're actually angry, maybe at her, even though she doesn't understand why.

This isn't to say that she's right to be angry, or that it isn't a communication issue. But I was in a relationship once where that happened - everything the guy did he did with a loudness and affect that made it seem like he was pissed, even though eventually when we talked about it he swore up and down he wasn't. So if you're looking for something you can do, short of getting therapy worked out, maybe try looking at that, and then just being more pleasant (without seeming condescending) might help for a while?
posted by dpx.mfx at 9:14 AM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

The behavior you have described is emotional abuse. How you approached therapy could have a lot to do with why it went no where. When you were in therapy were you seeking help for being in an abusive toxic relationship? Or were you asking someone to help you alter your actions to prevent your wife from verbally attacking you?

It's important to acknowledge you can't do anything to change a persons behavior for them. She has to want to change, and so far hasn't acknowledged she has a problem.

Start taking care of yourself, you deserve happiness.
posted by Dynex at 9:17 AM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

If she truly will not go to therapy with you, you need to take the fight to the next level. It sounds like she is picking fights, but will not fight after that. Next time there is an issue, take it to the next level. If she says you are an asshole for losing your wallet, ask her why she thinks that. Just keep pursuing the issue until she gives you the real reason. Be persistent and relentless. She is expressing anger without telling you why. The only way to why is to make her angrier until she comes clean. Obviously, this is choice two after calmly discussing it in therapy or with a neutral third party.
posted by AugustWest at 9:20 AM on July 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

I agree with Dynex. This is emotional abuse.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:26 AM on July 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

I don't see any evidence here that you "love each other." Her behavior toward you is contemptuous, not loving. She has told you that it's not a communication issue and that she essentially doesn't like you. Believe her, and proceed accordingly. (Sorry you are going through this.)
posted by Wordwoman at 9:32 AM on July 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

It does sound like she might have some serious depression issues---not believing that things can improve is pretty much the definition of depression, even if it expresses itself as aggression. As you seem well aware, couples therapy is a requirement here---not only because of her abusive behavior, but also because you seem to have no idea why things have gone so wrong (I am NOT saying you deserve any of this, just that when you say "I can't speak fairly for her at those sessions", you display a truly admirable awareness that you just don't know the whole story).

I agree with showbiz_lit: You need to find a time when you're not mid-fight, sit down, and say "We can't go on like this. We have to go to therapy together, or this marriage is over." And you have to mean it, you have to be truly ready to leave if this can't be fixed.

A good marriage can be wonderful, but one deadly thing about the institution is that sometimes people assume that being married means you don't have to treat the other person tenderly, and that's toxic. You both have to re-learn how to treat each other in a way that makes your lives better, and it sounds like that's not going to happen unless the whole marriage is regarded as the fragile thing it is.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:40 AM on July 21, 2012 [12 favorites]

In my experience, "WE don't need therapy, YOU need therapy" means "I want to end things but I'm going to passive-aggressively force you to initiate the breakup."

I hope I'm wrong. Good luck.
posted by roger ackroyd at 9:44 AM on July 21, 2012 [6 favorites]

Because you note that things have gotten a lot worse over the last 2 months, I worry that she may need help. Profound depression can result in lashing out at other people.

Nth-ing the idea of counseling, visit to the MD, some kind of professional help asap.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:45 AM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Unless there's something you're not telling us, it sounds like your wife is verbally abusing you. This would explain why therapy goes nowhere and why it all feels like one huge communication issue that you can't resolve. I suggest reading some of Patricia Evans' books.
posted by tel3path at 9:48 AM on July 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I once witnessed an argument between a married couple when one night they got into a heated argument about how to cook potatoes. I asked the wife about it later, and she said that had nothing to do with potatoes. They, however, were able to quickly identify that it wasn't about potatoes but other underlying issues.

It sounds here that your wife doesn't know what what's really going on for her, so it does become about the wallet or vacuuming or dinner. The "potatoes" consume her, and she doesn't see anything else.

What is your communication like when things aren't heated? Are you able to discern anything else going on? Can she talk about it? And also, can you identify if there was a certain point when things changed? Was there an event or set of circumstances that pushed her over the edge?
posted by frizz at 10:26 AM on July 21, 2012

The behavior you have described is emotional abuse.

No it isn't. I mean, it may be emotional abuse, but you haven't described emotional abuse here, you've described a couple of people who really don't see eye to eye, with one person blaming the other (as described, the description could be self-serving since it comes from the person being blamed). Emotional abuse is not a blanket term that covers all bad behavior. Calling it emotional abuse removes the OPs responsibility, and may well do so very prematurely. (Is it really only one night out with friends? How was it talked about, decided upon, follow-up about? Is the wife doing all the housework except for the vacuuming, which the husband doesn't ever do without reminding, and even then manages to "forget" half the time?)

The standard way to handle mandated clients (that is, clients who do not feel they need the treatment they are receiving) is to ask them to help you show the mandator that they are wrong for thinking that treatment is warranted. In this case I would suggest to your wife (sincerely) that she may be right, that this all might be an issue of your immaturity, but you just don't see it, and need her help to recognize it in couples counseling. I would also have a discussion with her about what it might look like if the therapist finds that the problem is more evenly distributed. But I would start by pointing out that when you go to therapy you tell the therapist your story and he or she pretty much agrees with you.
posted by OmieWise at 10:33 AM on July 21, 2012 [10 favorites]

Actually, I want to apologize. Somehow I largely missed the second paragraph of your more inside. There do seem to be, as described, some serious issues with the way your wife is treating you, and with what she thinks is acceptable behavior in your relationship. I'm still not sure I'd describe it as abuse, but I can see why others would.

I think my advice still stands. If you want to get your wife to therapy you should stress that you cannot see the issues she sees, and you need to be in joint session with her in order to understand her position.
posted by OmieWise at 10:37 AM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Your wife sounds profoundly unhappy about something very very important, and this anger and contempt she exudes is the result.

It's not fixable if she does not want to participate in fixing it.

I believe you should talk to a lawyer, and then speak to her.

I think the choices right now are lawyer or therapist.

I suppose the third choice might be "doctor" if you think there might be something organic going on (hormone imbalance? side effects of hormonal birth control? vitamin deficiency? chronic pain? etc., etc..)

Lawyer, therapist, or doctor. Maybe all three?

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 10:46 AM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

She's either not well, or passively aggressively trying to get you to leave. I think you need to go alone to the marriage therapist and talk about your options.
posted by moammargaret at 10:56 AM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry you're both going through this. This probably was some time in the making, and there isn't any one thing you can do to turn it around, and certainly not on your own. It sounds like you've lost an emotional connection, and you both need to re-build your love and trust. This is a process, it can be done, but it needs coaching through it and a lot of people would rather give up than do the work. I'll admit - it's what happened in my first marriage, and we gave up. I have been very careful to use what I learned since in my current marriage, and it's much better for it.

Communicating in unhealthy ways sends messages beyond the verbal conversation. Then, resentment builds because you don't feel loved. Then more and various needs go unmet. Then more resentment builds. It's a terrible cycle. It is a communication issue, because you have to learn to express yourselves without accusing, and to diffuse anger, and re-learn how to be vulnerable with each other and a host of other things that either used to come naturally, or were superseded by happier emotions and good times. I'm sorry - it just sucks when you're uneasy with each other, and nothing feels good any more.

When my first marriage was breaking up, our therapist tried a few things along with helping us to make sure we heard each other in the sessions. For example, beyond helping us frame our conversations at home and giving us better terms to use, she helped by finding safe inroads toward sensitive subjects. And also suggested were things that sounded silly, but had a purpose - mostly they were about simply spending time together doing activities that were fun, and which reminded us of our love for each other. In the end though, a fresh start sounded more attractive to me, and his new girlfriend was still more attractive to him. But I learned all sorts of ways to have a much better marriage, and use them with mrgood. So, it's worth going not just to therapy, but to a marriage counselor even if it doesn't fix your current marriage, in my opinion. Think of it as a coach for your team, or as a personal trainer if you get traded.
posted by peagood at 11:03 AM on July 21, 2012 [7 favorites]

I recently read a book called The Five Love Languages ( or actually listened to the audiobook), after seeing it mentioned here before. It really cleared up some communication issues for me, and I highly recommend it.

There is an online quiz here.
posted by katinka-katinka at 11:12 AM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Everyone has covered it not being your fault so I will try for the other possibility - the general way you act might be what is bothering her. Is she expected to drop everything for you? If anything happens with you (like losing keys) must everyone help right now? Does she clean up after you and always take plates to the kitchen? Does she do all the annoying errands? Is it all centered around you? Is she just a supporter of the grand person that is you? People start to think a lot as they get older and some things become more clear then. Once they realize something major is wrong then every little thing upsets and angers them. Then they have to think about whether you can change or not and whether they want change so badly they are willing to lose you. Think about this. Maybe you aren't self-centered, maybe its something else, that was just an example. Maybe you can figure it out and try to change.

Note that it is also possible that its not you at all.
posted by meepmeow at 11:43 AM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

I want to second ThatFuzzyBastard: it sounds like your wife is seriously depressed.

I also agree with the other posters who say that she is emotionally/verbally abusive, and it's time to insist on couples' therapy.
posted by Specklet at 11:43 AM on July 21, 2012

1) Sit her down.

Did you two ever have a shared Favorite Song? If so, now's the time to play that sucker.

2) Insistently, repetitively, start talking about the *very beginning* of your relationship. "Remember when we were at Place X, and we did Cute Thing Y?" Spell out every little detail-- everything seen, heard, tasted, smelled, touched; attempt to get her to vividly remember the experiences you're talking about.

Talk about all the Cute Fun Steps at the beginning of your relationship, walking through them, one by one.

Keep doing this, in a relaxed, calm way, and eventually, she'll probably begin to actively re-imagine these experiences. Ultimately, her face will shift-- her pupils will dilate, her features will soften, and her vocal tonality will change-- and she'll seem much more open.

3) Once this happens, remind her that those feelings are what your relationship together is about.

4) Propose couples therapy, as a kind of date or a Fun and Exploratory Thing You Learn About Together.
posted by darth_tedious at 11:56 AM on July 21, 2012

This is not a "communication issue" so much as it is emotional abuse. As far as she is concerned, she's totally fine, and you're just an immature lazy asshole. So she uh, hates you? Sounds like it. It sounds like there is nothing you can do to make her not scream at you daily, and she doesn't respect you if she laughs meanly at you when you try to talk about your feelings. Even the slightest "how was your day, dear?" pisses her off? Really? It sounds like she is using her anger to manipulate you into constantly dancing to her tune and trying to appease her all the time, except it never works because she doesn't WANT it to work. She doesn't want to be okay or happy, she wants to be miserable because making you miserable deep down makes her happy. And of course she won't go to therapy, she's perfect!

Can you tell I know someone like this IRL? I've heard the exact same kinds of arguments go on. The person I know like that has been married for 20+ years and it's still not getting any better for their spouse.

This is not going to get better unless she wants it to. Which she doesn't. Honestly, this is a DTMFA situation because it won't get better and always gets worse. I know you've been with her for your entire dating life, but relationships do NOT have to be like this. Hell, most of them aren't! You shouldn't have to put up with being screamed at every day in order to be married. If she really dislikes you and everything you do THAT MUCH, then the nicest thing you can do for the both of you is to leave.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:00 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think it might help to change the way you engage with your wife in the short term.

Do you find yourself constantly jumping on the defensive? Do you hear yourself saying, "But, but...I just didn't take out the garbage YET. I was about to do it but I decided to answer e-mails first....." or "But I DID THE LAUNDRY AND PICKED UP THE CAR FROM THE MECHANIC!" or any other sort of explanation or excuse or plea? Try not doing any of that.

In my experience, if someone addresses you disrespectfully and yet you still address their complaint, you're reinforcing that it's fine for them to disrespectfully approach you. Long-term couples can give each other too many passes for this kind of shitty, dismissive, ultimately very destructive sort of talk. It dismantles intimacy and erects huge walls between people over time, all this harshness and yelling and belittling and general lack of good will. Step out of that pattern altogether. The next time she yells or sneers or laughs derisively, say something like, "Ellen, I'm not going to be spoken to like that any longer. I will not be yelled at or cursed at or laughed at when I voice my feelings. If you refuse to speak to me civilly and respectfully, I am not going to be able to help find a solution to this problem." And then clam up and just look at her. She'll probably have a seriously befuddled/pissed off look on her face, because you're changing the rules in the middle of the game. That's to be expected. Just resist the urge to engage. If she does anything other than change her tone and restate her complaint, wait for her to finish and then reiterate your position. "Ellen. I am not going to be yelled at, laughed off or disrespected any longer. I'm happy to try to find a solution to this problem if and when you choose to approach me with respect." And then leave the room and go occupy yourself with something other than her indefinitely. Leave the house. Go the gym. Read War and Peace. Be civil and courteous, not fuming and impenetrable when in the same room with her. But under no circumstances engage the issue she's attempting to bring up if she refuses to engage with you calmly, in an adult manner, with respect.

I know this likely seems impossible or silly, maybe even cruel. It will probably be nigh on impossible to follow through the first few times you do it. But your wife is bullying you to avoid facing her overwhelming anger, sadness, unhappiness with your relationship, you name it. If you're to blame for everything, she has no responsibility to act and face consequences for those actions. It is not fair for her to control the discourse in your relationship in this way. But until you start changing the way you allow her to voice her dissatisfaction to you, you're going to feel trapped and on the defensive, and she is going to feel entitled and empowered to treat you with contempt. This is no way to live.

Be warned it may take a while for her to come around or attempt to do something differently. She will likely try to use guilt against you by invoking how you used to be. Don't rise to the bait; you're not the person you were ten years ago. None of us is. You deserve and can demand respectful treatment. She may try all manner and mean to provoke you; don't bite. You have to only respond to an approach that is respectful of you and your relationship. You may spend a lot of time at the gym or immersed in your stamp-collecting or comic reading or basketball playing. But short-term silence or minimal engagement will be better for you both than constant conflict. And if, at some point, you feel a break in the cycle of silence and arguments, a break wherein you might feel there is an opening for broaching the subject of therapy, then take it. Ask her if she'd like to go out for a walk, coffee, meet you somewhere quiet for lunch. Be nice. Tell her you miss her and you want things to get better between the two of you. Be very clear and attempt to be open, not aggressive or hostile. "Ellen, I'm scared our marriage is in serious trouble. I need your help to fix it. I want to save our marriage. Will you go to marriage counseling with me?" Then let her respond. Listen, stay calm, hear her out. If she still won't go, then I'm afraid you may have to have a real conversation about ending your marriage. Were I you, I would ask her to leave rather than offering to go.

Lastly, I think you might need to consider that your wife is either involved with someone else or interested in becoming involved with someone else. It's possible her behavior is brought on by depression, yes, but it's also possible she's feeling very, very guilty and running you ragged emotionally to avoid having to accept responsibility for why.

Good luck. This is really hard.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 2:10 PM on July 21, 2012 [20 favorites]

Something as simple as trying to find my wallet this morning somehow meant I needed to be yelled at

Is that exactly how it went down? I remember being in a relationship where the guy I was with would say things like "I can't believe you're this angry over LAUNDRY." And tell people, "My girlfriend is mad at me right now over LAUNDRY." After a string of 3 episodes where he knocked my clean laundry all over a dirty floor and left it there; on top of another clean load threw a blanket that had been used all night by his friend with a contagious stomach flu; directed a different drunk friend to look for something in my closet when I wasn't home, and the drunk friend knocked my clean basket all over the closet floor and left it there!

Assuming though that this is in fact exactly how it went down, then it sounds like your wife is deeply resentful to you over something, or is angry about something else and taking it out on you as the easy target.

Neither of those behaviors is okay, and I don't think you will solve anything by just continuing to push on.

Have you ever stopped and told her, "I'm not going to live like this for the rest of my life. I'm not going to come home every day to anger and fighting. If you think this is just me doing problematic things, I think what I do is within the range of normal behavior and it's not going to change substantially. So if that means this way that we relate isn't going to change, then I'm not going to be up for living like this forever." Tell her you need her to come with you to therapy, because if the situation doesn't change, eventually you are going to leave.
posted by cairdeas at 2:14 PM on July 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

My last girlfriend did this. She had depression (though it's arguable whether that was the cause of our issues) and near the end, every little thing I did would cause her to lash out. Eventually I stopped talking about difficult issues except through email (hoping that way I could avoid any verbal slips to set her off)... and she even got angry about THAT.

Unfortunately, this is a no-win situation. She's already made her negative judgement of you and now it's very unlikely that you'll ever get her attitude to change to a more realistic view, because everything you do will be subject to confirmation bias, where she ignores the positive and focuses only on the negative. Seriously, if something as trivial as looking for your wallet provokes an argument (presumably not because of the wallet itself but because it is a "pattern of behavior"... am I right?) then she's already way past that point.

I hate to give DTMFA advice, but if you break up with her now there's a chance you can still be friends. If you wait too long, then eventually all the good memories will be replaced by the more recent memories of her as a harpy, and that would just be sad, because it would taint not just the present but also your past. I'm very sorry - I wish I had better advice.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 2:30 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

What was her family like? What kind of attitude do the women in her family have towards men (maybe all men or just the men they married)? It sort of sounds like your wife is running on some sort of autoscript, which is why I wonder what the background scripts for husbands and wives were in her childhood. Choosing to focus on your qualities from 10 years ago would be a flag for me that there must be something she hasn't resolved from that time of her life or earlier. In other words, her rage-injected attacks on you are a covering symptom for some other deeper problem which her conscious mind can neatly avoid having to focus on by constantly projecting the feelings generated by the underlying cause onto you.

My other thought is that she sees you as having something she doesn't have (e.g. successful job, good social network, supportive parents, etc.), and seeing that in you is consistently causing her more resentment/rage than she knows how to deal with (hence, dispelling those nasty feelings from herself onto you via picking fights). That still doesn't explain the nasty potency of her rage though, which IMO, has to be coming from somewhere fairly specific.

What do you know about her? Is she from a dysfunctional family? Was she ever abused or assaulted (as a child or older)? What's driving her behavior may not necessarily be super-dark, but if she is from a dysfunctional family, she may be stuck in a cage of repeating behaviors learned/observed from dysfunctional caregivers (e.g. "disconnecting after a certain point" may have been adaptable for her in childhood, but is now obsolete). She might also be emulating how she thinks a marriage is supposed to work, based on little more than crappy childhood role models that she never took the time to consciously question. That said, it's still her responsibility to understand where her feelings are coming from AND to own her behavior. At the end of all this, you may have to accept she may literally be happier being miserable than understanding herself better --something a person has to come to terms with on their own and for themselves. It's not something anyone can own (and fix) for anyone else.

Also, what TrytheTilapia said, especially asserting yourself (without guilt) that you are not the same person from 10 years ago. Know that you deserve to be treated like the person you are today.
posted by human ecologist at 2:44 PM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

This sounds a lot like my parents' marriage. For what it's worth, the thing my mom was angry about, I think, was that we moved away from our friends in San Francisco to a suburb where she was a bit out of place, and she was lonely. She was also most certainly severely depressed, and "stuck in a cage of repeating behaviors learned/observed from dysfunctional caregivers," as human ecologist's comment above says. Which, as it also says, is no excuse for such behavior. I understand and have sympathy for how it happens, but after a certain point you really are choosing the comfort of misery over a better life for yourself and (this is important) the people around you. The refusal to go to couples therapy screams this--personally, if I thought I was married to an immature lazy asshole I would want to change that, but for whatever reason she is comfortable the way things are now, even though it's destroying you. (The therapy thing played out exactly this way between my parents, by the way. Dad wanted to go; Mom said he was the only one fucked-up enough to need it; he went alone for a while out of desperation, but despite all his flaws it was pretty clear where the real problem lay.)

I really hope you don't have any kids. It sounds like you don't. Literally the only thing my dad could have done was get out sooner. Sorry I don't have any better advice.
posted by sunset in snow country at 3:05 PM on July 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

You have to persist and get her to cut the bull shit and tell you what's wrong. If someone is to the point that they choose to laugh at you when you try to beg them to be serious and help you understand this may involve threatening to leave/actually leaving.

My heart goes to you.
posted by TheRedArmy at 3:35 PM on July 21, 2012

It may be neither here nor there, but you don't seem to believe you are being emotionally abused, just that you can't do anything right, which is a miserable place to be in but not one that absolutely gives you a mandate (to yourself) to leave. A marriage is a long thing and you've been in it a long time already--sometimes these things can come up. What you're going through sounds horrible, but I don't think threatening to leave (when clearly you don't want to) is going to help anything.

You don't mention a few facts that might influence the situation considerably: namely, what is your financial situation and do you have kids or are you planning to have kids? (I assume you don't have kids because you don't mention them, but maybe they were edited out). I'm going to go all stereotypical and suggest your mid-thirties wife may be angry because she wants kids and feels she can't have it all, to use the phrase du jour, maybe because in her mind you aren't reliable enough either financially or at home. Is there any possibility of that?

Or is there any possibility you are having an emotionally intimate relationship with someone else, or that she is? Because you describe this as coming on quite suddenly and I wonder what changed. Yes, she could be depressed, but so are a lot of people in bad relationships--if you fix the relationship you may fix the depression.

If you really want to save your marriage, try reading Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and The Five Love Languages. The former will describe how the scenario you have posed is quite common, unfortunately. Your wife may be noticing things you are not and at some level you may be reinforcing her fear that she can't count on you. She, in turn, is making it impossible for you to please her, which of course decreases your incentive to try anything. That's reading a lot into what you've written, but that is what it sounds like.

I'm also going to suggest here that you not see a marriage counselor right away. That may just ramp things up at a time when you're both already severely stressed and it may lead unnecessarily to a separation. And don't mention seeing a lawyer, divorce, or separation either. Read the two books, follow their advice, take time to yourself (even consider going away for a weekend alone), think about how you feel about things, and put a reminder in your calendar for a month or two from now to revisit the marriage counselor issue either with yourself or with your wife.

In the interim, try to avoid adding any unnecessary stress to your life together (few visitors, few joint social arrangements, no big trips together, no big plans, just go about your lives). What you describe sounds fixable to me with time and with a bit of work that you say you want to put into it.
posted by luckdragon at 3:39 PM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

When conversations with my partner devolve into arguments that aren't really about the thing that triggers it, it's mostly from feeling frustrated, hopeless or disrespected. I heard a segment on public radio about this very thing which in essence is that when a (presumably hetero) couple argues about a thing, for the male it about that thing and only that thing but for the woman, it's about the thing and every other thing that came before it.

For example, my partner wanted me to put his jeans in the next load of laundry I did. He handed them to me and in they went. His wallet was in the pocket and was ruined in the wash. He got upset and blamed me for not checking the pockets. I was naturally defensive because in my mind, I didn't do anything wrong. I take things out of pockets before the hamper so it isn't my habit to check clothes as I do the wash.

The argument about who was responsible for checking pockets and whether one should check before putting them in the hamper or before the washing machine became for me more about my partner not taking personal responsibility -- not only for checking his own damn pockets but also every struggle I've had about him not throwing dirty clothes on the floor, putting off doing laundry until it becomes a whole day chore, not folding the laundry and sitting on the couch watching tv or playing video games literally surrounded by piles of clothes that aren't going to fold themselves.

So yeah, you can see my frustration coming through here in my wording and the work has been in not letting my negative feelings guide my manner towards my partner and him understanding why I am upset.
We've improved a lot in this respect but it took huge effort on both parts.

I can relate to your wife, I think there's a lot more going on than just her getting upset about your wallet hunt or going out with friends. But there's a lot of anger and contempt coming through which I suspect is a result of her feeling misunderstood and neglected. You are oblivious to why, as are we. How to get her to talk about it openly and honestly is the hard part. The best advice I could give you is that you be open to the idea that it's not just her being a harpy or emotionally abusive or depressed.
posted by loquat at 4:19 PM on July 21, 2012 [8 favorites]

I agree with Loquat. Everytime I've had that kind of tension with my partner it's been because of larger issues, particularly ones related to how labor in the house is distributed. I, for example, would be pissed/hurt if it was my husband's day to make dinner, and he went to hang out with friends instead, without telling me well in advance. It's not just about dinner. It's about investing time in your partner, actually spending time with them, and building them into your schedule in a way that suggests they're a priority. The same with cleaning -- my husband feels really discouraged/forgotten about if I'm working a lot and the house goes to shit. He does clean, of course, but you can really tell when someone's checked out of that kind of homemaking, and it makes him sad.

We're at a point now where being sad doesn't make us lash out at each other, but it took a long time.

Some things that worked for us included reading tons and tons of AskMes about marriage/relationships (there's a lot of wisdom on this site, imo) and weekly check-ins about schedules, goals, etc., so that if there's something going on, we can talk about it without it having to come up in a bad way.

Good Example:
Spunweb: Oh, by the way, I am wicked stressed about this book chapter I'm writing. It's late to the editor by about 2 weeks. I think I suck.
Husband: Oh, okay, when I see you working in the living room, I'll just leave you alone for a bit.

Bad Example:
Spunweb: :working by laptop light in a dark room:
Husband: Hey, wife! What's for dinner?
Spunweb: :hisses.:

(This is a checklist for emotional abuse -- while your situation doesn't sound like emotional abuse to me, it'd probably be good for you to go over this with your therapist as a conversation starter (or to ID if it IS emotional abuse -- it can be hard to identify!))
posted by spunweb at 5:40 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Why not go to therapy yourself? You only have control over your half of the interaction -- if you change how you come at things, the relationship WILL change somehow. A family is balanced like a mobile - when one piece moves, the other pieces will move.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:36 PM on July 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Primarily I think that she feels that I don't contribute enough to the relationship (planning things to do, helping around the house). On the other hand, I feel that I do my fair share of all of it

When it comes to housework, men frequently assume they've done more than they have. They usually consider doing housework as "helping", instead of simply doing what needs to be done. Also, they tend to do a crappy job - Sainsbury's did a study and found in addition to doing their own chores, women spent three hours a week redoing their spouse's work (it's also a pretty well-known "joke" to screw up housework so your wife doesn't ask you to do it again).

I bring this up because everything specific that you mention seems to involve household chores.

....Before you go to therapy, or suggest she go to therapy, I suggest a simple chore chart. Don't go into those chore-wars kind of thing - just assess what needs to be done around the house and split it as equally as possible. A friend of mine's family had something like this (which he got added to once he was old enough), for example if you cook dinner all week, she does the dishes all week, and then she cooks dinner the next week and you do the dishes.

This isn't a cure-all, of course, after all there will still be disagreements if you bring home Burger King every night for your week (but you wouldn't do that, would you?), but it will be pretty difficult for her to get mad at you for never vacuuming if it's your week to vacuum and there are vacuum lines on the carpet. But, with the Sainsbury study in mind, tell her that if you do something wrong she has to let you know right away so you don't continue making the same mistake (and she needs to be open-minded about that, too).

As silly as it seems, simply trying to maintain a house together can wreck a lot of people's relationships - romantic or other.

And again - your post simply states a number of simple household tasks....these things don't seem like they should need therapy to resolve if all participants are willing. If therapy is absolutely needed, I agree with self-medicating, go yourself. I haven't read anything about your wife's behavior (you haven't provided specifics) that indicates she would need therapy.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 1:03 AM on July 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

helping around the house

...I totally did not even notice that you had used the exact language of men/people who aren't taking full responsibility for household chores.

You are not there to "help" around the house. You are there to do what needs to be done.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 1:05 AM on July 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm in the pro-therapy camp, but Lt. B.W.'s idea of a chore chart is also a pretty good one---it'll at least help ground arguments, and make it easier to determine whether this is a serious emotional-life issue, or simply a matter of better allocating chores.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:13 AM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

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