The Angry Spouse

Dear Toni-

I am struggling with a problem I thought I would never have, an angry spouse. My husband and I are in our forties, have been married 13 years, and have two children. We both work, he full time and me part time. I am self-employed and work from home. Due to logistics--I have been the homemaker, primary caretaker for the children and the go to person for everything in our household. I put in far more hours then Tim does, but I've managed to handle it all fairly well.

The problem is that Tim seems to resent his work, the house and the children. He has always been intense and at times a bit moody, but nothing like this. He yells a lot at the kids and spends most of his time at home alone--either playing on the computer, checking email or watching TV. He rarely joins us for dinner or other family activities, and only minimally for holidays, birthdays, etc. When I have tried to talk to him about it, he accuses me of complaining or making him the bad guy. His anger has been escalating to greater verbal abuse and silence. This has led to increasing emotional distance between us and I fear if it continues my feelings towards him will change. Respect and trust have already been damaged.

Before we had children we got along very well. However we both wanted to be parents and here we are. I would love to hear your thoughts and any advice or suggestions you may have for how Tim and I can work together on this problem and hopefully save our marriage. --Always Wrong

Dear Dear Always Wrong,

Parenthood is a major adjustment. There is no way anyone can accurately anticipate how they will feel or what kind of parent they will be, regardless of their past experience with kids, coming from a home with many children, etc. Suddenly you have a helpless little person in your household who is completely dependent on you for all their needs, 24/7. This is difficult for everyone, but especially so for those who value their quiet and alone time and/or are used to having a lot of freedom during their leisure hours. Add to this the need for parents to work together to divide up responsibilities in a way that allows for both of them to get much needed down time and R&R. It's never perfect and can be a time of great stress that puts a strain on the new parents and their relationship.

In your letter you say that you regularly put in far more hours than your spouse, but that you've handled it "fairly well." But what do you mean by this? It's likely that the bulk of tasks get done satisfactorily and the children are cared for--but what toll has this taken on you and your relationship with your spouse? Ask yourself if you have felt resentment, been too tired for sex, intimacy or couple time, or made comments to or about Tim in the presence of the children. Carefully reflecting on and answering these questions could give you some useful insight into Tim's increasing anger and poor behavior.

I don't say this to place the blame on you. After all, you have been carrying most of the family's emotional and physical weight and Tim has been happy to let you. He has not had your back as you might have once believed he would and should do and this could lead to a lot of resentment. Resentment can then lead to emotional distance, and it's possible the distance began even before the anger became a concern. If this is a possibility, it's a place to start.

You and Tim do need to have a meaningful talk about how each of you is feeling and what you can do to help each other get back to a better place. You begin by arranging for a time when there are no kids present and you will not be interrupted. All your communication devices should be turned off. Then you take turns talking and you should go first. What you must keep in mind as you talk is that how you say something can greatly impact Tim's ability to hear it. If you begin by saying how upset you are with his anger and his bad behavior towards the children, he will shut down. However, if you talk about how concerned and sad you are and about the emotional distance between you, and you let him know you would like to work on the problems you have together--you will have a much greater chance to keep him listening and engaged. Use "I" statements to describe how tired you are, how alone you feel and how you miss the way the two of you were. It's also OK to say you feel like the bad guy but don?t know how you got into that role. Then you ask for his thoughts, keeping your questions open-ended as you communicate your desire for his feedback and help.

If it feels as though this talk will never/could never happen due to Tim's anger and the distance between you--make an appointment with a competent therapist who can guide the process for you. Should Tim refuse to go, go alone and work on ways to get him involved and engaged. The therapist could also offer help and advice on handling difficult interactions and conflicts that come up at home and assist you to communicate more effectively with Tim.

One last thought is that it's possible that Tim is suffering from depression or a related disorder. If he has any history of it, that increases the probability that it's at least part of the problem. His behavior is not unlike someone who is depressed. Once you have that talk or consult a therapist, it will be easier to tease out the different possible contributions to his anger and withdrawal. Even if you can identify the core issues beneath the problem and learn new and better ways to communicate--the situation will not significantly improve unless and until Tim becomes more involved at home and shares more of the burdens that you are now carrying alone.

(from March 2014)

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This is the first "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" column.

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Toni Coleman, LCSW
Phone: 703-847-1768


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