Q: When I try to talk to my wife about personal matters anymore, she just seems to blame me for how I feel. She didn't used to be this way when we were dating. We used to be able to talk for hours about everything that mattered, and we were so close. Now, if I bring up something that is bothering me, she feels I am attacking her and blaming her so she fights back. I am just trying to get across how I feel about something and before I know it, we are in a fight.
For example, if I tell her that it upsets me in the evening when she is talking on the phone to her friends instead of spending time with me, she tells me it's boring just to sit in front of the TV, and I'm always trying to control her and tell her what to do. That's the furthest thing from my mind. I just want to spend time with her. I don't understand how this thing is unraveling and how I can stop it.
A: What you are describing may be your wife withdrawing from you when you want to be close, which can certainly feel rejecting to you and emotionally painful. This is a common negative cycle, which develops between partners where each one is chronically misinterpreting the intensions of the other.
You may feel lonely, missing your wife's company, and wanting to invite her in to be with you. She however, may misinterpret this feeling overwhelmed by your needs, as if they are drowning her, and she must run for her life to survive. This protective function can become deeply woven into the pattern of marital interaction, creating a great deal of disappointment and distance.
The best way out is to try to understand how this pattern developed and what it might mean.
When we reach out to a partner emotionally, we expose a very vulnerable and fragile part of ourselves. In a sense, we are saying, "I want to be close to you. Do you accept me? Am I good enough? Can I trust you with my feelings? Do you love me for who I am inside not what I look like or what I provide? Will you be there for me, no matter what happens in life?"
Unfortunately, through life's ups and downs, we all have the experience of being let down emotionally by our partner.
Consider the example of a wife who, when in labor with their first child, watched her husband disappear in the hospital to out to check out the score of the big game and missed the entire birth.
Such errors in judgment, although human, cut a deep swath in our ability to trust the other with a secure emotional bond.
Such errors sometimes take years to heal, even with constant bids for forgiveness.
To make matters worse, these relationship blunders usually touch a nerve that harkens back to the family of origin. For example, if the wife had a parent who was continually letting her down or emotionally unavailable. An example of this type of parent would be the parent who was consistently missing her soccer game or ballet recital.
All of these factors can be discussed and understood, strengthening the emotional bond between you. However, it creates a great fear of rejection to expose one's deep core issues to a partner.
In her book, "Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy," author Susan Johnson writes, "Partners usually have difficulty articulating what they want, perhaps because they do not feel entitled to the response they need, because their desires are not clear to them or are too painful to hold in awareness. They are also reluctant to ask since asking would place them in a position of vulnerability with their partner."
If your wife has been experiencing a pattern of perceived disappointment in the marriage, or even too much overwhelming demands on her emotionally that she cannot fulfill, then we may begin to understand the reasons causing your wife to pull away and protect herself as if you are the enemy.
When you ask to be close, she may feel internally, "I can't do this, I'm a failure as a wife." To protect herself from this feeling of incompetence, she pulls away and avoids interacting with you.
As a couple, you may need to take some time to talk these things through. A therapist can often be helpful because it is the therapist's job to keep you from just blaming each other for the problem, which only results in a fight. The therapist protects both of you.
Once your wife starts talking and revealing how she really is feeling, you may feel hurt, defensive and misunderstood. It is a human tendency to fight back when we feel attacked, and that is what most of us do when confronted with problems in a marriage. A therapist in this situation can "catch the bullet" like Superman does, but with emotional bullets instead of real ones. The therapist helps you work through your reaction to her complaints without letting this be destructive or shutting her down.
Once someone is willing to share a vulnerable part of themselves to another, they must be protected or they risk retreating back into their protective shell. A therapist runs interference on all of these dynamics and allows the healing process to occur.
Try it on your own as best you can. If you run into trouble however, seek out the help of a licensed mental health professional trained in couple counseling. A few visits can be of immense help.
Janet Hibel has a diplomate in counseling psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology. E-mail your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (561) 694- 6703.