How can I help my wife be happier?
July 10, 2018 9:56 AM   Subscribe

Everyday (or at least it seems that way) my wife is unhappy. It is rare that we can have a conversation that isn’t about how unhappy she is; it seems to permeate everything we do.

What I don’t understand is that whenever she achieves something that she said would make her happier she seems to become unhappier? She used to say she needed a job that paid X per year. Once she achieved that she said she needed a job that had Y amount of vacation time per year. Once she achieved that she said she needed to work for a company that valued her enough to invest in her education and training. Now that she has that she is, well, still unhappy, maybe even unhappier than when she didn’t have that.

I hate to say, “Well, this is what you wanted,” but, well, it is what she wanted!

I know it pains her that her mom doesn’t approve of anything she does, but as far as I am concerned, her mom is a toxic person that she shouldn’t associate with. Her mom is a wealthy, anorexic, bigot that fears anything post-1950. She’s so disturbed that when my wife didn’t call her for a few weeks she threatened to go to the police and tell them we were terrorists planning to bomb some important events. She is the kind of woman that belongs on the Dr. Phil show!

It pains me that she is so unhappy. I work really long, really hard hours so that we can afford things she wants, I tell her she is beautiful everyday, I’ve had flowers and chocolates delivered to her work, etc. I try to be as loving and as supportive as I can but it never seems to be enough.
posted by 8LeggedFriend to Human Relations (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
what are you doing around the house? When she is home, is everything done, tidied up, put away? Does she have to clean the kitchen of last night's dishes before making tonight's dinner? Does she have leisure time? Does she ever have to pick up your balled up socks from the floor? Do you do your own laundry? Do you ever make dinner? Have you encouraged her to have her girl besties over for drinks and then help her get the house ready? What kind of a partner are you?

Do you tell her "well this is what you wanted" or do you ask her "What can I do to help? This is what I wanted to hear in my life when I was unhappy, from my partner/support.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 10:04 AM on July 10, 2018 [20 favorites]

Have you asked her what the issue is? This degree of unhappiness is seldom related to external attainments (jobs etc) and more to internal states that have arisen from things that may or may not have nothing to do with you. If so her unhappiness likely won’t be ‘fixed’ easily, and she may need support to identify what the issue may be and determine what (if anything) you could do to help. Have either of you thought about talking with a therapist?
posted by freya_lamb at 10:08 AM on July 10, 2018 [7 favorites]

You can't fix her. Is she in therapy or on medication for depression?

People who believe a certain specific aspect of their life is the reason they aren't happy are naturally going to be even unhappier when they address that specific problem and discover it didn't fix their unhappiness. Your wife's unhappiness almost certainly isn't caused by any of these external factors she thinks are causing her problems. She needs to address what's going on inside her. That's something that often requires professional help.

I'm married to a person with major depression. I tried for years to carefully craft his life to keep his stress low and his spirits high, and it never, ever worked. He needed professional help, and when he got it, he got better.
posted by something something at 10:11 AM on July 10, 2018 [50 favorites]

I work really long, really hard hours so that we can afford things she wants, I tell her she is beautiful everyday, I’ve had flowers and chocolates delivered to her work

this is so clearly irrelevant to her unhappiness and mental health. you say she's fundamentally existentially unhappy and has a terrible mother whom she loves but can't please, and telling her she's beautiful and giving her chocolates doesn't fix anything? yeah, no, it wouldn't.

it's very sweet of you to do that, don't stop doing it or anything unless she doesn't actually like it. you aren't describing anything wrong in your own actions, at all, but your focus is just in another world from hers. whether she's unhappy because of her childhood and current relationships, because she's clinically depressed, because she wants something out of life she can't yet articulate, or some other reason, it's nothing to do with your generic performance as Good Husband and nothing you can fix, probably. that means it isn't your fault, but it also means you shouldn't blame her for not being emotionally fixed by her nice husband's nice gestures.

you can't force her to therapy but you could definitely suggest it. she is trying to think of things that could make her happy and each time she achieves one and it doesn't work, she probably feels worse. "you got what you wanted, why aren't you happy" is not useful. she doesn't know why she's not happy, most likely. she is looking in the wrong place because she doesn't know the right place.

she needs to be able to talk about her unhappiness & her mother to someone with enough detachment not to want to just shut it down by asking her to stop having both of them. this isn't your fault and you don't have to endure someone else's misery indefinitely. untreated miserableism ends many marriages. but the idea that it should be affected by the pleasant, superficial things you cite is a little concerning. she's not miserable because she doesn't know you think she's pretty.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:12 AM on July 10, 2018 [43 favorites]

Gosh I want to give you a hug. It sounds like you're doing a lot, and that's so admirable, but I want to gently tell you that you may not be able to fix this for her.

If and when you feel comfortable, have a conversation with her about this, and suggest that she sees a professional to help her get to the bottom of her unhappiness. Don't do it at the same time as she is talking to you about it, or just after. Pick a neutral time if you can, and approach it in a calm, thoughtful way. If it helps, have some questions ready to help prompt her to think about how things might get better, around how she wants her future to feel.

There may be lots of little things you can do to help, but none of them will have an impact if she is depressed, anxious, or both. When I was at my most depressed, my partner at the time gently asked me when I would be unhappy enough to seek help, and I realised I was already there. The best you can do at that point, is support her through getting help.

Good luck to you both.
posted by greenish at 10:13 AM on July 10, 2018 [9 favorites]

My partner could probably have written this question about me. To be honest, there's not much specifically he can do to make me happy -- the sources of my unhappiness are structural, political, and biochemical. They're huge fucking issues and they aren't his fault, and since he isn't literally king of the world, he can't actually fix them.

Your spouse sounds like she similarly is dealing with HUGE issues. She is being held emotionally hostage by a psychopath, who happens to be her MOM. It's all well and good for you to be like, "she shouldn't associate with her," but look what happens when she doesn't! ACTUAL THREATS TO HER AND YOUR FREEDOM AND WELL BEING.

This is a big fucking deal and would make anyone unhappy. To say nothing of anything else she may be dealing with in her professional or internal life. Gently, much like my partner, you are also not actually literally king of the world, and this is beyond your sole power to resolve.

It is sweet of you to send her reminders that she is loved and considered; however, I like others am concerned that you think money and reassurance of her beauty should go a long way in solving her unhappiness. She may well appreciate the gestures but they aren't going to address the fundamental problem.

I get that it pains you to see her unhappy; unfortunately, that is kind of part of marriage. Remember the "or for worse" part of the vows? This falls under that umbrella.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:16 AM on July 10, 2018 [26 favorites]

It sounds like you both think that some kind of external thing can make her happy - either a new job on her part or buying things for her on yours. But this kind of deep unhappiness isn't based on external things - not even less tangible things like the kind things you say or her mother's presence in her life. If you guys won the lottery tomorrow, it wouldn't make her happy.

It really sound like she needs to talk to a therapist. Is she willing to do that? She needs to do some internal work to figure out what is going on in her life that makes her feel this way.
posted by FencingGal at 10:20 AM on July 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

Two things here. First, some people are ambitious and they always want what they can't have. In my experience, this is an immutable personality trait. They want X, they get X, they now want Y. It has upsides (they don't stagnate) and downsides (they are restless). This doesn't necessarily go along with unhappiness, but it does explain some of her shifting goals.

Second, the toxic mother. You can't undo that or deal with it. If it's affecting your life negatively (sounds like it is) you can maybe make it clear that it's really affecting YOUR happiness and that you don't like to live with the threat of someone calling the cops on you or whatever.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 10:33 AM on July 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

I could easily be your wife. I also have felt enormously unfulfilled and unhappy no matter how many work advancements I made. That was my only way of gauging happiness because my (now dead) mother hammered in me that I would be nothing if I didn't achieve "the best" in my career.

Let me give you an example - one time when I was a kid I came home with a report card with all As and she grounded me because I should have done such an exemplary job at school that they would create a new grade higher than an A just for me. Yes, really. So you can see how I have had a hard time as an adult thinking anything I've accomplished is Good Enough.

Anyway, what helped the most for me was three things:

1. Therapy. I started in my early 20s by going to a therapist to learn how to erase the damage my mom had done and find self-worth. One of the many activities my therapist had me do was write a letter to my mom just letting it all out - how much her disappointment had held me back, how much her anger hurt me. Because she was dead I never actually gave her the letter but it was cathartic to just get it all out, read it to my therapist and talk through it. Over the years I still see a therapist from time to time when I feel myself slipping back.

2. Medication for depression and anxiety. When you grow up with a toxic parent from an early age, your brain fundamentally changes. This is NOT situational depression in which therapy alone can work, this is a permanent scar left behind and medication will make the difference.

3. Finding non-work hobbies and giving myself permission to be proud of my achievements in them. For example, I am proud of some of the more challenging hikes I've done. I'm proud of being a good cat mom. I'm proud of knowing how to cook delicious food without recipes. These things have brought me joy and purpose.
posted by joan_holloway at 10:44 AM on July 10, 2018 [25 favorites]

You can start in any number of places, but I think that the real issue is that she was raised by someone who is narcissistic, cruel, abusive, and manipulative. That's enough to poison the other things in your life pretty thoroughly. And, it's a problem that can't be solved with money or career success or most any other thing except for working on healing those early, formative wounds and also creating healthy boundaries with her mother now (those threats of calling in terrorist attacks are so beyond the pale.) She would do well to be in therapy with someone who understands what childhood abuse and narcissistic parents can do to a person. This isn't something that you can do for her by behaving in different ways or giving her things. Encourage her to address the root of the issue with a professional.
posted by quince at 10:53 AM on July 10, 2018 [7 favorites]

Ask her. Dear one, Are you unhappy? I want you to be happy. What can I do to help you be happy? When I was married, I would come home from work and kvetch. Partner would be all How can I fix this or that? You are unhappy! and, really I needed to kvetch, be heard, and then move on. My Mom had some similarities and therapy helped me move to a better place of not expecting warm fuzziness from her. You cannot make another person happy. You can listen, listen some more, and then listen, because everybody wants to be heard. You can encourage and enable therapy. There are some things that make me happy and the ones that others can provide are music, art, going for walks, nature, good nutrition. You can get her a copy of Stop Walking On Eggshells, a very useful book about disengaging from narcissistic or borderline stuff. Once we get to the higher levels of Maslow's Hiercharchy, we are responsible for our own happiness.
posted by theora55 at 11:02 AM on July 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

This is beyond the bounds of what you can make a significant dent in, it sounds like. She should really be working with a professional, based on how you describe her issues with her mother. What you can do is talk to her about a) whether she would be willing to do that and b) if so, what does she need from you to facilitate that? Does she need you to help free up her time and/or emotional energy so she can do some therapy work, by taking some chores off her hands or agreeing to outsource some of them? Does she need you to clearly state that you think it would be a great thing to do and you support her?

Beyond that specific question of how you can support her trying therapy, it might be worth discussing whether the other things you're doing are helpful to her. For me personally, my partner sending me flowers and chocolates and telling me I'm beautiful would not do nearly as much for my happiness as it would if he took over a chore I dislike or joined a book club to get himself out of the house on a regular basis so I could bask in glorious alone time. But that's just me, it may not be your wife, and I'm not saying you should change what you're doing. Only that it might be one area to check in with her and make sure what you're doing is having the effect you want, rather than being what you think she wants.

It's also worth taking a step back yourself and assessing, either on your own or with the help of a professional, your own role here and how much of your wife's happiness is appropriate for you to take onto yourself as your responsibility to fix. Maybe you are That Person who causes a significant chunk of your partner's unhappiness by leaving a lot of the burden of your shared life on her shoulders. Or maybe you're doing your share of the work but have codependency issues and need to set some new boundaries about your wife's happiness being her own responsibility and you should be trying less hard, for your own sake. I don't know. We can't tell from here. A therapist could probably help you figure out if one of those is the right story, or something else altogether.
posted by Stacey at 11:11 AM on July 10, 2018 [7 favorites]

Hi. You did a great job of identifying that the voice in your wife's mind that undermines all happiness is her mother's. The second part is that your wife currently lacks the tools to take back her own perspective and enjoy her life and accomplishments. The third part is that your MIL is terrorizing both of you, but especially your wife, whom your MIL programmed to fall for her control tactics likely since birth.

So, that's a lot.

There are MANY paths forward, but your wife needs to understand she needs to want to gain her emotional and practical health and independence. You can't do this for her. Going forward without professional guidance will fail. Threats along the lines your MIL has already successfully used are serious and crippling for your wife.

You're going to get a lot of great advice here. I wanted to give you the succinct breakdown. It's not easy walking away, healing, and eventually thriving after this extreme level of abuse from a parent. It IS worth it.

I wish you both strength and grace. This endeavor is worth pursuing. The great news is that your wife is an accomplished adult, she needs to feel it for herself now that she's already done so much, including marrying you.
posted by jbenben at 11:41 AM on July 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Does she like what she does for a living? Is it possible that the markers you mentioned (annual salary, vacation time, employer invested in her growth) were supposed to make the job itself tolerable? (So when that didn't happen, her unhappiness only compounded. She'd worked so hard, and been patient, but those achievements couldn't fix a shaky foundation.)

I agree with everyone else about therapy. Her relationship with her mom is a real drain.
posted by Iris Gambol at 11:46 AM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

There isn't an end state that is "happy". How we think we get happy is usually pretty incorrect. From that knowledge, you can see how your wife is setting herself up for failure over and over by making a marker be the point where she will be "happy". It can't possibly exist.

I read this article a few weeks ago and it's really stuck with me.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 12:05 PM on July 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Sometimes people are pessimistic and also sometimes unhappy. I have everything I wanted the last few years... specifically, after having two lovely children with a fantastic husband... however, i got so overwhelmed and overweight and I often have anxiety. After 2016 (which major sucked, our second baby cried alllll the time, just wow, I was huge and really depressed) I really started to do everything that I wanted... each month I lost weight, each month I had facials and bought clothes to suit me, the nicest double buggy, recently I got a personal trainer because I was sure that being in shape would help and I had sooooo little motivation, well? I’m now fairly fit, a nice figure, two lovely children and a great husband- I invest in doing relaxing things to prevent and manage anxiety...but at the end of the day I think I’m wired to feel anxious and that anxiety always makes me search for something to fix... so I’ve finally started to think: well everything is going fine, maybe this is just me, I don’t have to find the next thing to fix- life has its challenges at the end of the day and they aren’t going away, so I try to just accept the feelings... and that’s helped a lot.
posted by catspajammies at 12:36 PM on July 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

I think you buried the lede here. Your MIL is terrifying and your wife is suffering. That is an abusive relationship and she feels trapped in it. She needs professional help, and flowers are an insufficient solution, though nice.

Therapy is an oft-quoted solution on but it really is the current best solution here, and to start with, probably the only one. Please do everything you can to make that possible for her and support her through it. I really think that's what will change her life for the better.
posted by hapaxes.legomenon at 5:19 PM on July 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

It also probably feels supportive in some way to call her mother "toxic," like she's not even a person, just a noxious substance. but it isn't. it isn't ever, unless your wife is the one who thinks so and says so and you're agreeing with her.

it is easy to hate other people's mothers but for most people, hard to hate your own. for many people learning to do it is the project of a lifetime, even when their mothers are very bad people. if, instead, she is going to detach herself from this harmful woman without ceasing to love her, hearing how simple and easy it is for you to despise this woman she has to give up but can't stop loving will be painful and maybe enraging.

it's also the same as any other abusive relationship. look at advice for friends of women in abusive marriages, look at what they tell you not to say, and why. talking about how worthless the abuser is feels like support but usually translates in the victim's mind to "you're stupid." because wouldn't you have to be stupid to value what's worthless? have to have something wrong with you to love garbage, have to be self-hating and weak to put up with it? but she's not. she is just attached to her mother like most people are, even the ones who don't want to be.

you can refuse to see her mother, as your own independent decision. you can be a great support to your wife when she decides to cut the connection. but you can't be the one telling her to do it because all it will tell her is that her attachment to her mother is foolish, you can't understand it, and you don't respect it. you probably feel love and protectiveness when you express these feelings but it will sound like frustration and incomprehension.
posted by queenofbithynia at 5:57 PM on July 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

I have been in your shoes. I agree with the consensus above. But one thing you can do is to stay centered and supportive. Never, ever say anything remotely like 'this is what you wanted, why aren't you happy?'. Instead, validate her feelings, even (maybe even especially) if you don't feel they are warranted. Be her rock, be the strong good thing she can unquestioningly count on. It might not make her happy but it could end up reducing the emotional load she's having to carry.
posted by forforf at 7:57 PM on July 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

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