Ask Charles: "My wife is abusive... but I'm trying to make it work."

Dear Charles:

I've been reading your articles for the past several months because my marriage has been rocky for the majority of our 11 years. We're currently separated because I engaged in an online emotional affair. One of your recent articles "Why you're not finding satisfaction in your marriage" struck a chord with me. Specifically, a portion near the end which said:

"The solution to staying together can be boiled down to something simple: gratitude. Want to make your marriage work? Stay grateful and show them that you appreciate them—not for what they do, but for who they are. The bottom line: No matter how much someone loves you, everyone has a point where they get tired of waiting to be appreciated… and that is when you will find them in the arms of someone else, with you watching from the sidelines."

Sadly, this is something that has been a frustration with me throughout our marriage. I've always tried to express gratitude for the things she does. Cooking, cleaning, working (when she worked outside the home), etc. Even little things like bringing me a glass of water. I just think it's common courtesy and good manners to say please and thank you and I've tried to set a good example of that with our kids. 

My wife, if she is grateful, does not openly express it very often. Generally, she is critical of most things people do for her, even the kids. Most of the people that get to know her begin to see her as generally an ungrateful person, expecting perfection from herself and others and always find the dark cloud to any silver lining. It's that sense of constant ingratitude that led me to accept the appreciation and positive feedback of another woman. The affair is over, but the core issues are still there even though we're seeking individual therapy and religious counseling through our church. 

My question is this: Is there anything I can do to help her see how her years of ingratitude and disrespect has had a severely negative impact on me and our marriage? In the past, when I've tried to express how I feel about her behavior's affect on me and the kids she throws it in my face and accuses me of being ungrateful and making statements like "When will I ever be good enough for you?" (It's her personal favorite to get me to stop pointing out her contribution to our problems).

It might also be worth nothing that she has been emotionally abusive toward me and our kids for as long as I've known her. It started small, but as I gave in to "keep the peace" it just continued to get worse to the point that I just don't know if she'll ever be able to see me as an equal in our marriage ever again.

I don't know what to do about finding equal ground. It's taken years, but she's finally started to recognized that she hasn't shown me any respect as her husband for the entirety of our marriage. I feel little hope that we'll ever be a happy couple again like we were in the first few years. But to hear her tell it, she's had fewer happy years than I have. What can I do to change me to make this work?



Dear A:

Thank you for reaching out. From what you have described, you are doing your part. You sound open-minded, introspective, and willing to not only accept your part in things, but also to do the work to make things different. There are, however, a few things you've written that I'd like to bring to your attention:

You wrote: "It might also be worth nothing that she has been emotionally abusive toward me and our kids for as long as I've known her."  This is a big deal... and it says more about you than her. If she hasn't hidden/isn't hiding her true persona, then you got involved with someone who doesn't treat you right. There are a number of reasons why this could have happened: 

  • Watching your parent's relationship dynamics — which you are now mirroring.
  • Seeking your own sense of self-worth by "convincing" someone who doesn't treat you right to change their ways.
  • You were in a completely different stage of your own life/maturity/emotional development when you first met her... and now that you have shifted you, you have realized that she isn't a match anymore.

You wrote: "In the past, when I've tried to express how I feel about her behavior's affect on me and the kids she throws it in my face and accuses me of being ungrateful and making statements like 'When will I ever be good enough for you?'"  This is another item to really think about. If your relationship dynamics have shifted, then everything will feel out of balance — for both of you. By pointing out her lackings (meaning: she is not addressing your needs, and you are telling her so, respectfully), she is constantly feeling like a failure. Is that your "fault"? No... you are just telling her that you are unsatisfied, and want more from her. But consider this: What if how she is treating you is all she is capable of? What if that is her best for this moment in her life. You've reported how you feel and what you want... and if she is unable (or unwilling) to do something different... maybe she isn't capable... and by hammering away at her, she is constantly failing you — and herself... which makes her even more ungrateful and resentful... and the cycle continues.

It's also important to note that you went outside your marriage to feel whole again... and you did it behind her back. I understand the feelings behind that decision, but clearly that has made a bad situation worse... and likely fueled even more disconnection between you two. 

My advice: Based on what you have written, you have some choices to make. The unfortunate truth is: You can't make anyone change. People learn, adjust, and grow because they want/choose to. Can you create an environment where someone wants to change? Sure... but ultimately, the choice is theirs to do so. The only thing you can control is how you act... and react to how they are treating you. From what you have written, it sounds like you might have some harsh realities to contend with... and potentially some decisions to make. If she is willing to do some individual work — on her also, not just the relationship — I would bet that will put you both in a much better place... and potentially help the relationship get to a healthier way of being.


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