How to get unstuck.
April 15, 2017 6:04 PM   Subscribe

My wife "shuts down" when she has strong feelings and then she says mean things. We are trapped in a bad cycle.

When I ask my wife to modify behavior in small ways, she becomes defensive and angry. I am fairly careful about not being blaming or accusatory when I make these requests, and I really try to be gentle in my approach. I.e. Today: "I'm struggling with feeling like I'm not physically attractive to you lately. It would mean a lot to me if you could initiate sex sometimes." I try to be neutral and relaxed and not intense when I bring things up, but she reacts with anger, which tends to make me cry, and then she gets mad that I'm crying again and "there's always something." Unfortunately this is a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy: there IS always something because we never get to have a grown up conversation about any issue, so I try to bring it back up in a week or do, because in my mind it's not resolved.

When I cry, her face goes flat and her voice goes monotone. She can say some brutally unkind attacky things in that state. She says she is "shut down" when that happens and cannot control what she does or says when she's shut down. She gets shut down any time I cry, even if it is unrelated (grandma dying, etc.) This state can last for hours or days.

Instead of responding in a way that's reassuring or responsive to my concerns, she tends to attack the timing of what I have brought up. If I have my period or it is the week before my period she will say that it is predictable that I would bring up a concern because of where I am in my cycle. If it is not during those weeks, she will say it is "out of the blue" and I'm ruining a perfectly good day by bringing up something unpleasant.

The conversation I would like to have with her is one where she validates and empathizes with whatever concern I have and then we both agree to some commitments we can make to improve the situation. I have tried to model the behavior I would like to see by modeling these types of commitments and stating "I commit to doing xyz to work on this problem."

We have been to therapy together and separately. I know lots about the Gottmans.

In my heart I know her behavior isn't if part of the problem is me.

My question is what to do, or if there is anything to be done about it besides the old cut and run.
posted by unstrungharp to Human Relations (46 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

The two things that seem at issue here are the "I can't control this" aspects of your personalities. For you the crying and for her the shutting down/blackout rage stuff. These conflict. If it's true that both of you can't control these things at all, then yes, cut and run.

My sister is a cryer. I am someone who basically can't deal with crying. (admittedly, we are not married, but I say this just to explain that I have some empathy for your wife also). When this sort of conflict happens, it's on both of us not to escalate things since we know we conflict in this way. That is, we care about our relationship and we both do the work.

I don't see your wife doing any work here. I see statements like "She says she... cannot control what she does or says when she's shut down." as expressing an unwillingness to work on this issue and worrisome. Because, flat out, if she gets into a situation where she can't control herself (whether because of addiction, mental health challenges, past trauma) that is its own issue that she should be working on.

And, in my opinion only, she's probably more in control then she's willing to admit. Does she yell at babies crying in supermarkets? If someone was crying at her job would she yell at them? At the same time, can you remove yourself from the situation and see what you can do about not-crying just to see if you could then move the conversation along? I do not think this is your job, but if you want to look for unexplored avenues, see what you can do about your own emotional responses. In your reporting of your relationship your wife sounds like someone who is not handling things. Did couples therapy get you anywhere good?
posted by jessamyn at 6:25 PM on April 15, 2017 [11 favorites]

Cognitive behavioural therapy, her alone, then together just listening.
posted by parmanparman at 6:25 PM on April 15, 2017

When I cry, her face goes flat and her voice goes monotone. She can say some brutally unkind attacky things in that state. She says she is "shut down" when that happens and cannot control what she does or says when she's shut down. She gets shut down any time I cry, even if it is unrelated (grandma dying, etc.) This state can last for hours or days.

Without knowing more, I call bullshit on her. Someone can have poor impulse control and blurt out something hurtful or thoughtless - we've all done it - or lash out in the moment, sure. But she claims she experiences some sort of mean-spirited fugue state that specifically involves being cruel to you and it lasts for hours or days and she can't control it?

Questions that you can ask yourself: Are you otherwise basically happy together? Does she otherwise exhibit kindness and emotional reflectiveness? Does she have a trauma history or other issue so that she reacts this way when you exhibit what she may perceive as emotional weakness or neediness, and, if so, will she work on this in therapy?
posted by Ink-stained wretch at 6:29 PM on April 15, 2017 [66 favorites]

She says she is "shut down" when that happens and cannot control what she does or says when she's shut down.

This is worrisome. I'm not saying she's an abuser, but refusing to take responsibility for one's words and actions like this is a classic abuser tactic. It's also patently absurd: to lose emotional self-control in the heat of the moment of a fight is one thing, but to be deliberately, icily cruel for hours or days is quite another. That is a choice and a tactic. She is doing it because she can--she probably enjoys the feeling of power it gives her--and because it allows her to avoid working on the difficult issues that come up in any marriage.

Regardless of how reasonable or unreasonable your concerns may be, I'm picturing you crying and her staring at you coldly and saying unkind things. That is not what a marriage should be like. That is not what your life should be like. She is supposed to be the one person you can trust, who you can be emotionally vulnerable around, who is committed to working through conflict with you. If therapy really hasn't helped, I'd leave.
posted by praemunire at 6:39 PM on April 15, 2017 [60 favorites]

Instead of responding in a way that's reassuring or responsive to my concerns, she tends to attack the timing of what I have brought up. If I have my period or it is the week before my period she will say that it is predictable that I would bring up a concern because of where I am in my cycle. If it is not during those weeks, she will say it is "out of the blue" and I'm ruining a perfectly good day by bringing up something unpleasant.

She doesn't want to deal with anything you have to say and is controlling how/when you express yourself. As far as she's concerned, as long as things feel fine to her, they are actually fine. (Doesn't matter how you feel. If she can't even tolerate hearing about it, validation is a long way off. Like a *long* way off.)

She doesn't want demands made of her, is angered by your expression of vulnerability... Sorry to be that person, but yeah, cutting and running appears to be the way to go here.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:47 PM on April 15, 2017 [35 favorites]

If she cannot control what she says, can you put it back on her and ask, "Okay, how can we have this conversation in a way that won't make me cry and make you 'shut down'?"

Maybe that means you get to voice your concerns and doesn't have to respond until a certain time after/later. Instead, she can say, "Thank you for letting me know about this," in a calm, supportive way, and then process it on her own terms later before coming back to you with a response? Would that work?

I can empathise with both of you in some respects, in that my natural instinct is to "lock down" and always try to take the heat out of conflict discussions. This can at times infuriate family and others, I suspect because they feel I'm not responding to/validating their emotions - which in the moment is what they really would like. I can see parrallels where you feel partner is not acknowledding your feelings/hurt, and the feel you're not acknowledging their discomfort. Find a method, however unorthodox that resolves both of these issues may be successful for you. Of course, this too may involve some conflict.

Best of luck, buddy.
posted by smoke at 7:25 PM on April 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yall have been to therapy together, how did that work? Did she talk about any ways she would improve her100% of the relationship? Did she actively try to put any of that into action? And dear god, why aren't yall in therapy now? Couples counseling is a fantastic time to talk about sex, intimacy, and her bad behaviors.

This is far from your problem alone... There are no magic words to make her treat you like a human being. Unless she's got some sort of major PTSD, medical or other neurological disorder, I think shes being abusive. And even with something major wrong... Well, 'not her fault' abuse is still abuse.

Actions speak louder than(hurtful, horrible, oft repeated words!) and its time for her to get help, and put serious momentum behind that help and make concrete, visible changes to yalls marriage.

If not, well, shes telling you and showing you how much she values you. And thats way past love language or communication issues, straight to major red flag, dump them ASAP territory.

Im sorry you are in this situation, but you do deserve better.
posted by Jacen at 7:33 PM on April 15, 2017 [7 favorites]

I try to be neutral and relaxed and not intense when I bring things up, but she reacts with anger, which tends to make me cry...

When I cry, her face goes flat and her voice goes monotone. She can say some brutally unkind attacky things in that state. She says she is "shut down" when that happens and cannot control what she does or says when she's shut down. She gets shut down any time I cry, even if it is unrelated (grandma dying, etc.) This state can last for hours or days.

She is intentionally provoking your tears so that she can abuse you and then blame you for the abuse.

This will not get better, it may very well get worse, the cycle you are trapped in in this cycle of abuse, and I think you should leave.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 8:13 PM on April 15, 2017 [41 favorites]

"I'm struggling with feeling like I'm not physically attractive to you lately. It would mean a lot to me if you could initiate sex sometimes."

Your request feels problematic to me.

It sounds like you have a specific model of how you'd like to talk, and you get upset when she gets upset because she doesn't want to talk that way.

If you notice closely, you haven't stated any of your own actual emotions. Are you sad, or upset? It's not clear, because 'struggling' is not an emotion. Instead, you assume how she feels about you, then you've already come up with a 'solution' without collaborating with your wife.

As a result, your wife hears: "this is what you did wrong, and this is what I want you to do." Your request wants to remove all agency from her. No wonder she shuts down.


A few suggestions:

One thing I've learned is to separate emotions from logic, and that if you can manage to communicate emotions without the logic, then you can have a closer, more stronger conversation. In other words, if you can communicate "how you feel" rather than "why you feel it", you can empathize with each other. This isn't easy by any means, but it's very worthwhile.

So - instead of saying "I'm struggling because you don't initiate sex", you could say, "I feel sad and unwanted." I-feel-statements focus the problem on you, not on her, and position your partner in a place where they can HELP you.

And mind you - I-feel-statements need to use actual emotions. "I feel that you're not doing X lately" is not a feeling statement.


Another thing I've learned is the idea of "over the net" communication, as in volleyball; 'over the net' is when you ascribe intention to the other person's action.

For example, "I felt sad when you stepped on my foot" is one thing, but "I felt sad when you stepped on my foot and didn't really think about how I felt" is "over-the-net" because it dumps your assumption onto the other person, and puts them immediately in a defensive mode. ("I did think about how you felt!")

So - a modification of your statement could be: "I feel a bit lonely and sad and unsexy lately. I think this is because I feel like I'm initiating sex a lot more. I'm not sure how to change things but wanted to share that with you. What do you think?"

Collaborate with her in HELPING you. Don't pre-decide what you think what's best for you as a couple.
posted by suedehead at 8:26 PM on April 15, 2017 [19 favorites]

The couple's therapist formula for requests is generally something like:

I feel X
when you do Y.
I would like for you to do Z.
I'm willing to do A for that to happen.

I don't think your request is in any way problematic. I think your wife's response is hugely problematic. I think you need to think about whether you'd be happy living the rest of your life this way, since she's apparently indicated she's unwilling to change.
posted by lazuli at 8:30 PM on April 15, 2017 [40 favorites]

I will get unreasonably angry if someone is trying to manipulate me or I think they are. I find people who go from crying to kind of a "thanks you for listening to me" to "let's cuddle/ have sex" during and after arguments to be manipulative, even if they don't think they are being so. To me it is really distasteful and kind of weirds me out that someone I'm in a sexual relationship with is acting like a dependant or a child? Or trying to reward me with sex? Something. I'm NOT saying that you are acting like a child but I have a real visceral reaction to that kind of behavior. I don't shut down and I do take responsibility for my actions but my actions are inevitably to gtfo until they have a grip on themselves again. And those relationships don't last for me: either as lovers or friends.

Your wife sounds like she's being really dismissive of your concerns and the cycle thing is way out of line. She needs to take your concerns seriously. But one thing that is in your control is to really start to address your conflicts as being between to equals and not you crying and asking her to do things and generally acting like a petitioner to her. That's a weird dynamic that couples can fall into by accident when one is more stoic and the other more demonstrative and your description reminds me of it a lot.

Like, I'd like to have all arguments while fully dressed in nice clothes in a neutral space, like a conference room, ideally. With notes and a written agreement at the end. That's an ideal way to resolve conflict in my mind, although obviously it's not feasible.
posted by fshgrl at 9:05 PM on April 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

"I'm struggling with feeling like I'm not physically attractive to you lately. It would mean a lot to me if you could initiate sex sometimes."

I don't know if this is a good example or not, but I would not react well to this kind of statement because (as noted above) it would assume my motives and feel as though I was being trapped into a no-win situation. I recognise it does follow the standard therapy formula from the outside-- but I feel as though it still puts too much of your assumptions on the adressee. Note that "I would like you to initiate sex with me more often; it would help me feel more secure about your attraction to me." would not bother me in the least. Some people are like likely more responsive to this kind of detail than others, but the sentence you describe would have put my back right up from the beginning, fwiw.

This said, there seems to me a kind of essential meanness in the way you describe her response to your tears. (And I say this as someone who is uncomfortable when people cry in conversation). It doesn't sound nice-- and the "shut down" thing frankly sounds like some kind of an excuse.

The conversation I would like to have with her is one where she validates and empathizes with whatever concern I have and then we both agree to some commitments we can make to improve the situation.

I get this, but I'm not hearing much from you about what your partner wants in conversation. What happens in the case where she doesn't want that? Are you sure that crying isn't your anger response and she reads that too and responds in kind? (I'm not accusing you of anything, but something feels off kilter about what you describe.)

Have you worked, specifically, on this communication dynamic in therapy?
posted by frumiousb at 9:19 PM on April 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

I don't cry when I ask her to do things. I'm careful to do that calmly. I cry when she criticizes my character or otherwise gets mean.
posted by unstrungharp at 9:21 PM on April 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

It really sounds like you guys need a lot more couple's therapy.

My personal opinion is screw the Gottman pseudoscience and (to a lesser extent) the formulaic requests. suedehead makes a really good point, that only by getting to the deeper emotions can you guys move forward together. It's hard to know exactly what's going on, and I tend to "side with" you and think that your partner is being entirely unreasonable, but it's also possible that the situation is you saying you want something and then crying when they respond in a grouchy fashion rather than by giving you what you asked for, which would be kind of manipulative. (On preview, this seems even less likely.) It would be ideal if you were sharing your feelings while being open to theirs and trying to find a solution together. Like, "I've been feeling kinda lonely and unsexy lately" and / or "how are you feeling about our sex life lately" or even maybe working your way toward "maybe this is just my impression, but it seems to me like you don't initiate sex with me the way you used to? which, I'm not saying you have to be or should be doing, but I guess I've been reading a lot into that and feeling vulnerable about that. Again, I'm not saying you should be doing sexy things you don't want to, I don't want to pressure you or anything, but I'm wondering if we could talk about this and our sex life in general so I could better understand."

That said, it sounds like you're working on your communication as a couple and they aren't, and so I don't want to imply that if only you communicated perfectly, then things would go well. It sounds like you're already too far down that pathway.

It sounds like your partner has some kind of issue that leads them to shut down, and I don't think you're going to solve that without a third party to help. So in my opinion, you need a better therapist.

If not, I think rather than you trying harder and harder and harder to communicate in a way that makes your partner react in a kind way, or alongside that, I'd start setting boundaries on what you'll tolerate. When they get vacant and mean, let them know you won't put up with being talked to that way or given the silent treatment, and if it persists, go to a movie or something. Put the onus on them to figure out how to not get mean.

Maybe you could go with "when you attack my character, I'm going to detach myself from the conversation." Rather than crying, or while crying, head off to go do something that makes you happy. It sounds like you're not getting a lot of sympathy on your first request, and then you're doubling your show of pain and vulnerability, maybe in hopes that they'll be kinder, but they've already demonstrated that they don't want to be sympathetic. So, maybe more quickly stop trying to get sympathy from a rock (at least a rock in the present moment), give yourself the sympathy you need, in part by protecting yourself from further hurtful statements. Sorry this is such a long and kinda rambling comment.
posted by salvia at 9:46 PM on April 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

It sounds from your ask like your wife doesn't like or respect you very much. I am not hearing a single positive thing here, and usually when people ask these questions they make a big point to say things that are good and this is just *one little thing*, so they don't get immediate DTMFA responses. I'm not hearing that from you.

If she really doesn't like or respect you, there's not much you can do at this point. Is it possible for you to move out and / or stay with a friend for a few months so you both can have some space to figure out if this relationship is really working for the two of you?

I'm really sorry. There is no right time, right tone, or right wording to get what you want. You can't make people change, and it doesn't sound like she's all that willing to work on things. Mean to you for days? And she 'can't help it'? No. You deserve better than that.
posted by ananci at 9:57 PM on April 15, 2017 [12 favorites]

Yeah if she's saying mean things to make you cry (as opposed to make you stop crying because it freaks her out) then it sounds like she lacks respect for you. You might try just doing what you want and see how that shakes out because if she does not start to respect you again that is not a good sign.
posted by fshgrl at 10:09 PM on April 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

There are legitimate reasons someone might shut down and lash out when triggered by certain behaviors. But after it happens, when she is calmer and telling you how she shuts down and can't control her behavior? She's making a choice not to do anything about it. It should bother her more that she's hurting you in those moments she has been triggered. The fact that your pain doesn't seem to be a problem worth fixing for her suggests a big red flag to me.
posted by lieber hair at 10:20 PM on April 15, 2017 [7 favorites]

I think it's unfair to make a parallel between crying and saying cruel things -- crying is a physical reaction like vomiting or fainting, and some people can work themselves up into all three or suppress them when we feel them coming, but for most of us it just happens when we are miserable. I don't enjoy tears even when I produce them myself, but it is not cool to equate the two behaviors as coping mechanisms. She gets mad reflexively, the same way you cry, but what she does out of the anger is voluntary and not excusable in the same way.

Modelling is a tricky tactic to use on anyone not a child. she is probably also modelling for you the kind of emotional exchange she likes to have, but it isn't going to make you suddenly start liking her way of doing things, and it shouldn't. She sounds like someone who does not care for or respond to authority-approved therapy language in the home, and if there is any way to make this a happy relationship it may require a different way of talking from you along with different behavior from her. that is for her to articulate, though, if true.

what I do not see is what happens (in your ideal scenario) when she doesn't want to comply with your wishes. What if she didn't get angry, didn't get abusive, didn't insult you, but said a flat no, I don't want to? I personally would be upset (though not abusive) in response to the example you gave, because it is a particular kind of thing to be asked to perform sex to reassure someone. I would hear the whole thing as an elaborate version of you-would-if-you-loved-me. that is my own issue and perhaps not hers, but it is the kind of thing that can make a person too angry to behave well.

still, that is only an excuse in that very particular case. and blaming your assertiveness on your period is so bad as to make the other thing almost irrelevant. I would not forgive that without sincere groveling and/or serious atonement.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:23 PM on April 15, 2017 [8 favorites]

She is being abusive and I think if the post had non-gendered language the responses would be uniformly recommending you leave for your safety.

Saying she "shuts down" and can't control her abuse towards you is minimising behaviour and not the words and actions of someone who is willing to acknowledge and stop their abuse.

She's effectively saying "look what you made me do" which is so common as to almost be a cliche.
posted by fullerine at 10:33 PM on April 15, 2017 [41 favorites]

If it is not during those weeks, she will say it is "out of the blue" and I'm ruining a perfectly good day by bringing up something unpleasant.

These are not the words of someone who respects you as a human being with your own needs, values and preferences, and is willing to work with you as an equal. They are the words of someone who wants you to shut up. Being mean to you until you cry, and then punishing you for crying, is a tactic to make you do that.

Blaming you for all this is an abusive tactic as old as the hills - "See, now I've been mean to you again! Look at what you made me do!"
posted by Catseye at 10:40 PM on April 15, 2017 [29 favorites]

But she claims she experiences some sort of mean-spirited fugue state that specifically involves being cruel to you and it lasts for hours or days and she can't control it?

Jessamyn mentioned flooding above, just wanted to highlight it. I've seen it happen to a couple of people. When they feel frustrated or attacked, some switch gets flipped, and they do seem to be past their ability to inhibit their anger. You can actually see this switch happen - their eyes change, their faces contort, a darkness comes over them, they lean forward and start to edge in on your space, in attack mode. They start talking faster than they can think, puke out insult after insult. (Those insults are so readily available because those thoughts have been had in calmer moments.)

It's defense (if they feel attacked) or contempt (if frustrated). (Also abuse.) By someone who's probably had a hard time, and doesn't know what to do about it - probably isn't motivated to figure it out, because it works, it protects them. (Maybe can't figure it out, because they're stuck.)

These people don't want to feel bad, they don't want to feel like bad people. The sight of someone visibly upset as a result of their actions this tells them they are. Or would, if that other person's tears could be taken as sincere. But they won't be, because to really see that person's pain means admitting they did something wrong. And they can't do that, because on some level they're hugely fragile, damaged by their own pain. So they decide that the upset person has to be manipulating them. And they feel right (and righteous), so yeah they can sit with it for days, great way to punish that "manipulator", too.

It's a very crude defense. It's not easily gotten past without a lot of effort and will. And probably not in the context of a relationship where there's already a story built up in their minds about how their partner is manipulative, and the action/reaction pattern has set in so deep those buttons can be pushed in seconds.

So they're probably not going to change (at that time with that person). And the other person is stunned and hurt, not only from the constant insult, but because their reality is being denied. It's disorienting. It's easy to get lost in that feeling. And painful, because there's the hope of being met and understood. That hope is misplaced if the angry person can't get past that defense (if they're also too hurt [by someone else, probably]).

If it's like that, OP, this is a ship that's almost impossible to turn around (in my opinion). It's not worth the effort.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:56 PM on April 15, 2017 [50 favorites]

cotton dress sock, your descriptions of abusive relationships are (generally) so spot-on and instructive, and this comment in particular is such an amazingly accurate summary of a certain dynamic.

But/and I have experienced both the ship that's impossible to turn around, and then the ship that wants to turn around. The ship that wants to turn around seems to also carry on board (to extend the metaphor) a significant amount of altruism and desire for kindness, and to cultivate self-awareness where it's lacking. They care that they're hurting their partner, and they want to stop hurting their partner. The main sign of hope to look for is a stated desire to change. Without that, I don't see how the relationship can proceed. But if your spouse is even a little bit aware of their culpability in this dynamic, and they express their care and concern for you, I think there's hope.

Please take care of yourself, OP, and know that there are many people out here rooting for you. A lot of us have had experience with similar situations, and with mixed outcomes. But your feelings are valid and deserve to be worked through in good faith.
posted by witchen at 11:23 PM on April 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

My partner sometimes shuts down (though his manifests a bit differently). Here's some things that have worked for us:
- when he's shut down, my conversational goal changes. I can see he's really upset and uncomfortable and my goal is to help him come back to a place of comfort where we can continue our conversation
- we share a kind of code to say to the other person "hey I think this is getting out of control and let's take a breath. Ours is "understanding each other, not winning." As in "let's try to understand one another & not be trying to 'win.'"

I wanted to give you some things you could try that have worked for us but I also want to say that cruelty has no place in relationships. I also think it's unacceptable to refuse to work on parts of yourself that are hurting your partner. Even if that work is just acknowledging and apologizing for the old patterns. That would be a start.
posted by CMcG at 12:04 AM on April 16, 2017 [5 favorites]

So she's emotionally abusive, invalidating, and refuses to take accountability for her actions, preferring to blame it on a mean-spirited fugue (not a thing btw). In addition to the above, you never resolve your issues, are unable to have a serious conversation and it seems like you're constantly walking on eggshells around her. I feel like you're asking the wrong question here, in that your emotional well-being should be your first priority and somewhere along the way you've forgotten that.

There is nothing to do but the getting to the going.
posted by wilywabbit at 1:16 AM on April 16, 2017 [8 favorites]

If I have my period or it is the week before my period she will say that it is predictable that I would bring up a concern because of where I am in my cycle.

Are you someone who's unusually affected by hormonal variation, and is this something you've talked about and owned? Is she? Is either of you a researcher specializing in the effects of hormones on the brain?

Because if a guy said that to me, I'd see that as extremely misogynistic: minimizing, condescending, and basically an indication that I was seen more as a body than as an intellect. Having it come from a woman doesn't seem any better, and frankly is kind of amazing to me. If any friend, partner, associate, or authority, of any sex, ever said that to me seriously, I would find myself strongly scrutinizing the relationship between us, because such a conception of who and what I am feels both completely alien to my own understanding of myself, and entirely devoid of respect.

So unless there's a lot of missing context from this description, I would find this really disturbing. And I'm not sure that any context would make it less indicative of lack of respect and empathy.

Does your wife ever try to follow up, in any way? Does she ever say "I've been thinking about what you brought up a while ago," or take steps toward making the changes you've asked for even if she doesn't explicitly bring it up?

What is her approach when she has some issue she wants to bring up with you?
posted by trig at 2:08 AM on April 16, 2017 [17 favorites]

Agreeing with others who have focused on the lack of any "willingness to change" aspect of your wife's response pattern. From your descriptions of her behavior here (and some of your previous questions) it feels like the two of you are fundamentally different in terms of how you handle emotions and feelings. You are often in the position of asking her to recognize you, or validate you, and she does not recognize your position as valid. In fact, she invalidates you to an extreme, with (per your words) no acknowledgement whatsoever of any obligation on her part to do anything to support your when these instances occur.

For me, the kicker in relationship dysfunction is- when I have done all I can to express to a person, "when you do X, I feel Y" (and Y is bad/negative/damaging/invalidating etc.), and that awareness changes nothing, then it's over. Because at that point, it's not really even about the issue(s) that cause the blowups, anymore. It's about seeing a person- THE person- who I have chosen to trust with my deepest emotional truth, shit all over it, and utterly disregard me, not respect me even the tiniest bit, and demonstrate that for them, I do not matter.

An example- My ex was brilliant at fixing other people's widgets. He was the go-to widget guy on our street, in our family etc., and he bitched about it, but in truth, he liked the "status" it brought. He liked being praised and thanked and getting little gifts and perks in exchange. But when my widget broke, I practically had to beg him to take a look at it. It was like pulling teeth. I recall being kind of astonished at the time that I even had to ask. He never once offered ANY help at all. When I pointed out how frustrating it was, he told me I overreacted and all the standard dismissive crap. At that point, not only was my widget still unusable, he also knew that specifically, having to beg him to fix it made me feel like shit. At that point it was 100% not about fixing my widget- it was about how he chose to respond to me as a hurt spouse. When he continued to treat me like an annoyance and invalidate my feelings at every turn, that told me all I really needed to hear. So I actually took my widget to a repair place. THAT enraged him!! I calmly explained why. He shut down in much the manner you describe. I asked him to attend therapy. His response? "You can go if you want- I don't have a problem, you do." We lasted about another month.

I strongly recommend this Ask Polly article, for more clarity on what it means to validate your own communication needs and to help recognize the gaslighting that can occur when someone who seeks connection and validation through verbal communication is continually shut down.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 2:56 AM on April 16, 2017 [13 favorites]

Your description of your wife reminds me of an ex-boyfriend who was a narcissistic abusive gaslighting jerk. It begins to feel like you can't ever do anything right and that you are wrong just for existing. Once I finally broke up with him for good, because there were oh so many breakups on the way, he became a stalker. Restraining order eventually put a stop to that, but he had real estate in my head for a couple of years after. If you are thinking of cutting and running, I think you should trust yourself, and get out.
posted by poppunkcat at 6:14 AM on April 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Your wife sounds like she has some major PTSD - particularly the way it initiates when she feels attacked, how her face and tone changes, and how it seems like she can't control her response. It all feels really familiar to me.

That said, PTSD isn't an excuse for hurting your spouse. Individual therapy would probably help her a lot, but she has to want it and want it to work. I'm not sure this is something you can solve through your behavior alone.
posted by corb at 7:52 AM on April 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think many, if not most, abusers have suffered trauma and show the signs of it. That's an explanation, though, not an excuse. She hasn't expressed contrition, she hasn't acknowledged how incredibly fucked her behavior is, she doesn't appear to care about you at all. And that's not a moral judgment; trauma can and does mess with a person's ability to empathize with and attune to another person. It can make it difficult for them to really conceive of other people as people. All of that is tragic, and none of it is your responsibility.

The trouble with trying to understand an abusive person's behavior as a product of trauma / PTSD while you're still in the relationship is that you're still in an abusive relationship, and you're probably going to be taking responsibility for things that aren't your fault, because you've been (and are being) abused.

You need to get out and get some distance before you do the emotional work of extending this person this much empathy. Seriously, right now, from this description, you're the only person putting work into this, and she literally does not care how you feel. As Catseye said, she just wants you to shut up, even if that means you're sad or hurt, because that's what's easier for her.

You need to get out. There is nothing you can do to make your wife see the light, and in fact it appears you've already done all the things, and it's not changing. Stop setting yourself on fire to keep her warm. Get out.
posted by schadenfrau at 8:06 AM on April 16, 2017 [21 favorites]

If it is not during those weeks, she will say it is "out of the blue" and I'm ruining a perfectly good day by bringing up something unpleasant.

So has she ever said when would be a good time? Or an acceptable method for starting the conversation? Like other people have mentioned, it really sucks if her behavior is the result of a trauma, but that doesn't make it ok for you to be constantly told to put up and shut up. Nor should you have to use the exact right phrasing to get a successful dialogue going, especially not without some guidance from her (I.e. she should be able to say "X phrasing really irritates me. Please just be direct in the future. Now let's talk about the issue you brought up.")

The only other thing I can think to suggest is have you guys tried writing letters (if you guys haven't tried it already)? Maybe if she has some time to process without feeling like she has to respond right away she'd be able to not shut down. I'm honestly hesitant to suggest it, because it could be just turn into another medium for her to be cruel to you in, and I don't think you are obligated to take on that risk. It sounds like you've already put in a lot of work just to be repeatedly shut down.

You're not a bad person if you walk away now. You're a person taking steps to protect herself.
posted by ghost phoneme at 8:49 AM on April 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

If I have my period or it is the week before my period she will say that it is predictable that I would bring up a concern because of where I am in my cycle.

OK, I tended to be pretty weepy the day before my period, at least in my twenties. (But we aren't the same person, so ymmv.)

If your wife has expressed unwilingness to have relationship talks with you right before your period, then you might suggest planning some relationship talks a week or so after your period. Put them on the calendar, even. Probe to see if she's actually ever willing to have this conversation. I am not promising that this 'one weird trick' will change anything, but there's a chance to maybe have a more effective conversation, maybe.

However, I suspect that you feel hurt enough to cry because you feel dismissed and rejected by her responses to your relationship suggestions. And that's worth crying over any day of the week.

I'm glad that a couple of people mentioned "flooding". I do sometimes get mad enough that I'm yelling and then am hugely embarrassed that I can't remember what I said. BUT, with some rewinding, I've figured out that I'm pretty fair even when I'm furious. I might say "I'm fucking mad", but the closest I would come to attacking my partner would be saying "That was a shitty thing to say. I hate that kind of sloppy generalization." I wouldn't use slurs, because I don't think them. And I don't tell my husband that he's a terrible person because I don't think that either. Yes, I remember being a kid and expressing feelings of hurt by saying "I hate you" to my parents. But it doesn't come out that way now. So if your wife is trying to wiggle out of hurting you by saying "I didn't mean those things", I would be skeptical. And if that is happening, I would try to get her to restate whatever feeling underlies the attacking stuff in a less attacking way (later on, when both of you feel calmer.) Because if she's saying hostile things, those things come from somewhere and are at least faintly connected to real issues.

(On re-read it sounds like I'm saying, if you hear a partner yell "I hate you" then you should shout back "Be more specific, dammit.")

(Fighting back might not be your style, but maybe your partner thinks of "fighting back" as being engaged in the relationship and crying as giving up??? I haven't been in an abusive relationship, so my perceptions might be too accomodating. The hive mind upthread is pretty good.)
posted by puddledork at 8:53 AM on April 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Howdy, OP. Best of luck in resolving your situation. I am a gal who used to get "flooded" but in my case it meant I simply couldn't deal with a stressful situation at that moment but was able to agree to discuss it later when things were calmer. This sometimes happened when my kid got angry and started yelling at me and my brain just went MIA. I couldn't respond in a coherent way because I felt so attacked. So I shut up because the alternate was to start screaming myself. Anyway, what you wrote reminded me a tiny bit of something I wrote about in the emotional labor thread way back when:

My husband and I once went to see a therapist, alone, who was treating our daughter. And the therapist listened to me and listened to him and then she looked at my husband and said, "If your wife says there is a problem, there is a problem." My entire marriage consisted of me presenting an issue to my husband who would respond in one of these ways:

1. That's not a problem, because it doesn't bother me.
2. That's not a problem, because it's universal and affects everyone.
3. That's a problem that's too big too solve so we shouldn't even try.

At one point I was so upset I told my husband, "Look, if I tell you there's a dragon on the balcony, that means I need your help. Even if you can't see a dragon, I can. So help me out."

We've been separated for 8 years now and he's a billion times more validating and helpful now that we live on separate continents. Only now can he hear me.

posted by Bella Donna at 4:15 PM on April 16, 2017 [7 favorites]

In my heart I know her behavior isn't if part of the problem is me.

My question is what to do, or if there is anything to be done about it besides the old cut and run.

There's a missing piece in that first sentence and I wonder what it is you meant to say. The most true statement I can think of, after reading your question, is "In my heart I know her behavior isn't ok, even if part of the problem is me."

You are describing an abusive relationship with a partner who doesn't respect you or care about your feelings. I am really shocked by all the misogynistic comments here about how maybe your crying when your partner is cruel to you is the REAL problem, or maybe you're crazy when you're on your period, or whatever. This is all abusive nonsense. There is no such thing as a "shut down" fugue state in which a person is uncontrollably compelled to be cold and hurtful to their spouse for hours to days; if this by some rare chance is really the case, your wife is unfit to be in a relationship until she puts in what is likely to be years of personal work, if ever. You can't live your life waiting for her to decide whether to attempt that work. You don't deserve to be this person's punching bag. I think, given the way you wrote this question, you already know that.

You know in your heart that her behavior is not OK, and this internet stranger gives you permission to cut and run. Hugs and safe journeys. You deserve so much more than this.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 5:09 PM on April 16, 2017 [15 favorites]

Is this relationship worth maintaining? Try Gottman for definition. Then take separate vacations for a month to see if you really need each other.
posted by ptm at 9:08 PM on April 16, 2017

I'm missing the part where the ugly scene happens -> ??? -> everything is fine until next time. There must be some point where you both pretend it's all ok. You're not saying no, my concern has not been addressed. When will you be open to talking about that?

I mean, I'm a pretty easy-going guy. When I'm mad at someone, I just decide to let it go more often than not. No sense living life angry all the time. But eventually after repeated go-arounds with the same person, I'm going to get tired of getting bullied out of standing up for myself and start insisting on resolution and not just resuming status quo ante.
posted by ctmf at 9:22 PM on April 16, 2017

Hey, your wife sounds like my ex husband. He never ever wanted me to express any kind of negative emotions, especially sadness, and if I tried to bring up problems in our marriage that were causing me sadness, he would do everything in his power to get me to shut up — whether that meant implying I was overreacting, or blaming his behavior on my actions, or saying that I was making HIM feel bad and that HE couldn't deal with it, or just straight up ignoring me and refusing to respond. Or, he would agree to change the behavior that was upsetting me, and it would last a few days or a week, and then it would go right back to the way it was before.

I put up with many months of this bullshit before I left him. Something has got to change. You do not deserve to have your feelings constantly invalidated. You deserve someone who will listen to you and want to make you happy.
posted by a strong female character at 10:25 AM on April 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is very resonant and something that my partner and I have struggled with in our sixteen years of marriage. Gottman practices were very useful for us. Over the years, we've also managed to realize that my partner has PTSD from family childhood trauma. The descriptions of a sudden change in behavior, and particularly cruelty are a perfect mirror of my wife's behavior - sometimes when we're fighting, and sometimes "out of the blue" - usually if she's woken up suddenly. It's not necessarily "if X happens then expect Y," but it is consistent enough that we're both pretty good at identifying when it shows up, and postpone the fight. She is to leave the room, find a quiet space to stomp or yell.

I've struggled over the years with whether it's worth it, but in some ways her anger has allowed me to access my own emotional center and needs, in a way that had been cut off to me when growing up in a very unemotional household. I hold my own in fights now, and stick up for what I want. It's a high price of admission, and a rich return.

But the key is that she returns to where we left it, very grateful to have minimized witnessing her own cruelty, and wanting to "repair" - to take responsibility for her actions and ready to offer constructive thoughts about issues I've raised. Our similar defense responses have allowed me to witness this process and also help model the behavior I want to see, when I'm the one that's angry and in the wrong. If they can't commit to that repair, you're going to have a tough time making it work.
posted by SoundInhabitant at 1:08 PM on April 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

My suggestion is to rewrite your question, except every time you wrote 'wife,' write 'husband' instead. Now imagine someone else asked this question. What would you tell her to do? Your wife doesn't get a pass for shitty behavior like blaming your feelings on your period just because she isn't a man.
posted by Ragged Richard at 6:08 PM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Update: last night my ex, who I share custody with, sent some texts where he was unilaterally restricting my access to my son (no court order etc., just him being controlling). My ex was physically abusive in the past and I have a trauma response to this stuff. I started working towards taking care of the situation by contacting my lawyer, etc.

I showed her the texts and she reacted by getting mad and saying "why do you always just let him win?" I curled up in bed and cried and my wife had a bath. She got out of the bath. I waited until I had calmed myself down and came to see her on the couch. I told her I really needed her support with this situation. She asked me what I needed. I said "a hug, some gentleness." She told me to stop being such a victim. I told her I needed space from her while she was feeling shut down, and I slept in the guest room.

She is still cold, shut down, and talking in a monotone voice this morning (her "fugue state").

What do I do now?
posted by unstrungharp at 6:55 AM on April 21, 2017

I'm sorry, but I think you should start looking for divorce lawyers.
posted by corb at 6:59 AM on April 21, 2017 [8 favorites]

This is another abusive relationship. I'm sorry. Corb is right. You can't care for yourself while you're still in this situation. It's time to get out, and get into therapy.
posted by schadenfrau at 7:03 AM on April 21, 2017 [7 favorites]

What do I do now?

You leave.
posted by headnsouth at 7:09 AM on April 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

With kindness, I think you may have buried the lede where you were in another controlling abusive relationship before this one, and that there is a child involved.

It can be hard to break the cycle of being with people who are wrong for you but it's absolutely a cycle that should be broken. This relationship is no good for you. Your partner is showing no signs of being willing to work on things. Consider calling a domestic abuse hotline for tips on an exit strategy. I'm sorry this is happening.
posted by jessamyn at 10:56 AM on April 21, 2017 [12 favorites]

She asked me what I needed. I said "a hug, some gentleness." She told me to stop being such a victim.

Well, that's pretty damned invalidating. Also, rude. And really quite mean.
posted by rmd1023 at 5:42 AM on April 22, 2017

1, put up with this till you can't any more

2, talk to your lawyer/abuse councillor about an exit plan.

3, i think those are basically your only options, realistically. I'm in favor of#2, you deserve better treatment. As I'm sure you know, get legal advice before leaving the house.

I'm sorry you'er going through this. It's painful and miserable, but you have to take care of you!
posted by Jacen at 9:34 AM on April 22, 2017

Whatever you do, don't believe the things she tells you about strength and weakness. She doesn't seem to understand either very fully.

I'm sorry this is all happening. Good for you for turning straight to your lawyers after hearing from your ex, and not getting stuck despite the trauma. Good for you for taking steps about your wife. If you leave, that's not "cutting and running." It's being too healthy for such broken treatment. I hope next year finds you in a place where no one mocks you for wanting humanity.

Best wishes to you.
posted by trig at 1:11 PM on April 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

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