Ask Andrew – My wife is angry all the time and shouts me down
I stumbled across ILYB.. and have just finished reading it. It adds to the list of many many self help books I’ve read over the years. Brief background – we’ve been married for a long time (met at university when Vietnam and flower power were the themes of the day), one grown up son with a successful career of his own.
Our relationship has been pretty poor for ages and dreadful for the last decade (no sexual relationship whatever in that period – barely a peck on the cheek; but no infidelities on either part).
My wife’s issue is that (a) back at university I dated other girls in parallel with her and (b) that 20 years ago I had an inappropriate friendship with a work colleague – both of these I admit, agree were damaging and wish had never happened. The latter came about during a time of serious fear of redundancy – my wife, in fairness, always tries to be supportive, but her reaction to all forms of stress or anguish, no matter how large or small, is extreme anger and aggression – which she cannot see, and is pretty unpleasant to be around – hence seeking rather less strident support and a listening ear elsewhere.
My wife sees the world, compared to me, in negative terms – it may seem trivial, but she uses adjectives that are 3-4 times stronger and more negative than I would to describe just about anything from the weather up to major disaster. NOTHING is ever right or good enough, too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry and the energy that goes into “countering” these unchangeable things is sapping to think about, let alone be around. It is like running uphill with somebody hanging onto one leg shouting out reasons why you should not be doing this. Think “dementors” in Harry Potter and you have some idea of the ability to suck joy and pleasure out of the environment!
My issue is that I cannot feel warm or attracted to a person who is as negative, aggressive and controlling as my wife has become. I admit, and have told her, that in the past I did not see her anger as the anguish she has now explained it was (constant, unstated, fear that I would leave her with a small child – I had no idea she thought this). To me it was petulant lack of self control and almost deliberate removal of joy from our joint environment. I didn’t handle it well, but am not sure I could have done even had I seen it differently.
I am battling to accept her for what she is, with a right to be different, but cannot accept her “Mother like” behaviour in which she insists on forcing her advice and direction on people (particularly her mother, now dead, her father, me and, increasingly our son) and that anyone who does not take her advice is “opposing her” and, by implication, does not love her. I’ve tried to explain the mother/lover/friend roles and possible conflicts for a woman, but she simply does not listen. I would like to swap the first for the other two!
We’ve been to counselling individually, but she absolutely refuses to go together “because they would hear me (ie her) shouting at the other end of the building” and because she wants to “protect” me from the exposure that would happen. I’ve explained my willingness to go and that, given our lack of progress alone, it seems a sensible course to me, despite any pain it might cause – what could be worse than what we have now?
We have massive rows several times a week. They always start from something incredibly petty and, in her mind, are due to my deliberate provocation (in my view I have simply stated a justified difference of view or quietly asserted my competence, or made very normal human error). They consist of her screaming at me for 4-5 hours or more, repeating all her pain from the past. No attempt to console makes any difference, she claims that the “tone” is not right and rejects any approach of any kind until the storm is spent. On the occasions I get a word in she does not listen and shouts over me from 2-3 words into any sentence. I am not inarticulate, far from it, but in the end become furious at the basic lack of courtesy and respect that her behaviours, in my view, indicate. (She has often behaved the same way to her father, once deliberately waking him in the night to do so.)
My wife is not a bad person, she is deeply caring for her family and friends, but seems to struggle to respect their right to be different and equally to recognise that fixes don’t come from the outside, but the inside. She is continually tired, wants there to be an illness and a curative pill, or for everyone else to change how they are in the way she thinks they should, so that she will feel better.
Having read ILYB, I’m trying really hard to do some of the simple things that might induce “limerence” (a dreadful word, please find an alternative!) or at least generate some warmth and prevent the rows.
But now I just feel a cold, hard lump inside me and find myself (a) unable to get this out of my head and (b) rehearsing internally how I am going to tell her I’m leaving if, in a couple of months, things have not improved. I’m sure this shows, for all that I have said, my wife is as perceptive as any woman in many ways.
My problem is this – how do I make one last desperate attempt to TALK about this with somebody who perceives themselves as SO wronged that they simply will not accept the 6 of one, half a dozen of the other view of a relationship; who will not even countenance discussion of the impact their behaviours have on others and will shout down any approach they dislike? I need that, I need her to at the very least acknowledge that I have a right to feelings about and a response to her behaviours. Without that I can only move in one direction – out.
I can feel a thick blanket of depression and resignation coming through your letter and I type with heavy fingers. It sounds like you’ve tried long, hard and been repeatedly beaten back. So what should you do?
When we’re in a hole, it is really easy to concentrate on WHAT someone has been doing rather than WHY. I know I’m stating the obvious but your wife sounds incredibly angry. I know it’s really hard to step into her shoes but that’s the only way forward. WHY is she so angry? My guess is that she got a message from her parent’s that she was not good enough in some way and this script means that she is hearing everything through this negative noise. It would certainly explain why she shouts you down – because to her – even the mildest of comments ‘There’s two sides to every argument’ is heard as ‘you’re ruining my life’. Perhaps for her, everything is four times worse than you. If you’ve been repeatedly told you’re worthless – everything will seem extremely bleak. No wonder, she thought you’d leave. She can’t believe that she’s good enough to be loved but wants it with all her heart.
My guess is that you try to contain your wife’s anger, help her see the positive side, distract her or come across as a reasonable guy. Normally, I would applaud that approach but it’s simply not working. Instead I would listen, acknowledge it (‘That’s making you furious) and repeat back the key comments. I know this will sound like you’ll be fanning the flames but nobody can be angry for hours on end – it burns itself out – unless you are trying to justify your actions, find solutions or make, what she sees as, excuses. It’s pointless trying to reason with someone full of rage – a bit like debating with a drunk – let her get it all out and when she’s spent, then you can begin to talk about your feelings.
I would add to your library of self help, with Resolve your Differences where I look at different types of anger and how to combat them. I would also look at Help your partner say yes where I explain TA as it sounds that you are stuck in the critical parent and adapted child mode and need to move into adult. I’ve also got a new book coming out called ‘My wife doesn’t love me any more’ which will explain more about keeping focused in difficult circumstances (especially when you have to make all the moves).
So in a nutshell, embrace her anger! Until you can understand it and she can fully express it, you will not get to the warm and tender woman who lives underneath.