Dear Dr. Respler:
I love my wife, who is by nature a difficult person. As a result, our seven children gravitate more to me than to her. She thinks she is always right, her favorite line being “I told you so.” This is annoying and drives all of us crazy.
I have begged her to go with me for marital counseling (divorce is not a possibility), as I think we can have a great marriage – instead of an average or poor one. She tells me that since I think we need help, I should go myself. At this point I am thinking of going for therapy alone, but I’m wondering if this would really help. Don’t both people have to go for marital therapy for it to be effective? Should I go alone?
Baruch Hashem, money is not a problem and I can afford private therapy. Please advise me as to what to do. I really respect your opinion and can see from your column that you really care about people.
A Frustrated Husband
Dear Frustrated Husband:
I empathize with your problem, which is unfortunately experienced by others. I always say that those who really need therapy often do not go for it. It is those who have to live with the difficult spouse, parent, in-law, sibling, or child who sometimes end up bearing the brunt of the problem, and they are the ones who seek therapy in order to effectively deal with their dilemma.
That being said, I have on many occasions had only one spouse come to me for marital counseling – usually the healthy one – and helped that spouse learn how to deal with his or her mate. You can change your marital situation by changing your countermoves. Here are some examples that may help you:
Example 1: A husband with a very angry, difficult wife who is always right comes in for therapy alone, as she refuses to join him. He learns effective ways to deal with his wife. Whereas prior to therapy he would respond to her anger by screaming back, he now knows to control his anger and respond calmly and politely to her. At first she would try to instigate more tension by becoming even angrier. The key in this situation would be for him to continue answering calmly but not become passive-aggressive or aggressive. For example, if she would start screaming at him for not doing a certain task that he said he would do, previously he would either make fun of her (passive-aggressive) or scream back at her for being an annoyance.
In this new approach he would simply say, “I am sorry that I forgot.” He would then promptly do the task. The first time he tried it, she was so shocked by his new behavior that she continued to scream, “You should have done it earlier.” He continued to say calmly that she was right and that in the future he would be more careful in remembering to do what she requested. As he continued to answer in a calm tone without sarcasm or mean humor, his wife began to feel uncomfortable with her rage. She stopped screaming and began to cry. He then worked with her to cry and deal with her pain.
In essence he became her therapist. She had come from a home where her father was angry and abusive and her mother was a doormat. She was so afraid that she would become like her mother, that she identified with the aggressor (her father) and chose subconsciously to behave like him. Conversely, the husband came from a home where his parents had an excellent marriage and was able to cope with his wife’s issues. Eventually, after behaving in a positive and loving manner, the wife admitted to her husband that she indeed had a problem with her anger due to her childhood. Only after a few months of the husband acting in such a positive way did the wife acquiesce to attend therapy and work on her anger. It was as if he was the ambassador who got her to go for the therapy she desperately needed. She learned anger management techniques in our therapy sessions and their marriage became a loving, respectful, and excellent one.
What impressed me was the husband’s willingness to swallow his pride and work to improve their tumultuous marriage – which ultimately led her to believe that she needed to change. This was a real therapy success story.
Example 2: The wife comes in for therapy alone, as her husband was adamantly opposed to the idea of joining her. He was extremely insensitive to her feelings when they were in public. In private their marriage was good, but his public behavior upset his wife very much. He would often say painful and embarrassing things to her in front of others. She would usually not respond, act very coldly, and would either not speak to him for the rest of the evening or cry incessantly. In reality the husband was not an evil person; he was just very impulsive and insecure, often making jokes publicly at his wife’s expense.
In therapy she learned to stop her silent treatment and incessant crying. It took a lot of courage, but she would sometimes laugh at the joke publicly and then tell him privately that she laughed so as not to embarrass him, but that his joke had hurt her. She would tell him calmly that she knew he did not mean to hurt her, and would ask him to think before speaking. She continued to treat him respectfully, and spoke to him calmly.
At first the husband was totally unprepared for her reaction and did not know how to respond. However, she kept on firmly telling him how he had hurt her, but insinuated that perhaps he did not do it on purpose. This continued until the husband finally admitted that he hated himself for hurting her. He decided to attempt to change his behavior.
He reached the conclusion that he needed help in bolstering his self-esteem, since he acted this way publicly due to his own insecurity. Since his wife created a loving and warm atmosphere whereby she accepted him and changed her countermove when he embarrassed her, he eventually attended therapy to learn how to behave differently in social situations. In therapy he realized that his mother had always embarrassed him publicly. What he had been doing was considered a “repetition compulsion,” where he repeated his mother’s behavior, but focusing it on his wife. He was finally able to control his behavior and their marriage became loving and respectful.
These examples show that it is possible to change a marriage by initiating therapy on your own. In both cases the reluctant spouse entered treatment after seeing the marriage partner change his or her countermoves.
Hatzlachah in your quest to improve your marriage. I hope the aforementioned examples help you make the right choice and assist you in getting the help that you need!
About the Author: Letters may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. To schedule an appointment, please call 917-751-4887. Dr. Respler will be on 102.1 FM at 10:00 pm Sunday evenings after Country Yossi.
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