My Wife is Spoiling for a Fight

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

First, some quick background. I am a male with a history of bad behavioral decisions that end up biting me in the rear, often months later. One decision I made in t past 6 months was to quit my job (no warning, no job to transition to) due to the treatment (high stress, high responsibility, low authority, etc.) I was getting. My blood pressure and blood sugars (Type 1 diabetic) improved over the next few months and I got a new job in December. But the stress of that decision put a lot more strain on my already brittle marriage. My wife is very money conscious (due to some bad money situations before we met) and this additional strain on her income was heavy. In the middle of this already “Joyful” experience, she demanded that we move to reduce her commute, as “that wasn’t my problem anymore”. I moved us and essentially completed most of the move before Christmas.

What I am having trouble with is the situation that has existed for a few years. My wife is not very in touch with who she is now nor what she wants. Partially her upbringing and partially clinging to the belief that if she spends a great deal of time doing something, she will be rewarded in a deep and meaningful way, she is very unhappy. Both she and I have a long history of depressive behavior and both have had less than stellar experience medicating for this. I strongly believe that the lack of communication success between ourselves has been related heavily to both wanting maximum rewards for what she focuses on (regardless of what is asked for or needed) and not knowing what she wants really. I get short tempered when I seem to keep stepping in arguments with her and she sits and claims moral superiority (i.e. “Here is the datum that shows a detail is wrong in your plan, ergo you are wrong.”). Mix in a lot of job stress where her preferred superiority and desire of credit for effort (not result) has been highlighted and noted as a weakness in her managerial role. This recipe ends up in needing some advice from a professional while I try to figure out how we can see a therapist long term (I have to convince her somehow).

I do not want to argue with her. I want to understand what is upsetting her when she is upset so that I can modulate my behavior or avoid her touch points in daily life. She will not focus on helping me, preferring to find other topics to push me on (budget, who took care of the dog, what meeting she has to reschedule). This results in me feeling like she wants me to stumble into her issues, let her blame me, then let her solve the problem by getting rid of me (an approach she keeps flirting with and telling me she will do at the drop of a hat). How do I talk with her to help me while not setting her off. Or am I better off just distancing myself until she wants to talk with me? I can’t change her but I would like to change what I am doing to unstabilize this brittle structure.

A: You’ve written an articulate and thoughtful letter. Although you don’t want to fight with your wife and acknowledge that you can’t change her, you do spend most of your letter talking about her issues. I think you would get better results if you focused on your own for a time. You don’t need to convince your wife of the wisdom of getting professional help before you get started on it for yourself.

You see, long-term couples (whether married or not) develop a system of communication that becomes cyclical and self-fulfilling. You both know your roles and lines really well. You can’t get out of the recurring drama because you cue each other. If one of you can change your role, the other will have to respond. By going to a therapist yourself, you can learn some new ways to think about the situation and you can learn new skills for getting through the impasse. When you behave diffently, your wife will have to learn a new role as well.

If you decide to go this route, it’s essential that you do it without judgment on your wife. Simply let her know you are starting therapy. Don’t suggest that you are superior for doing so. Don’t pressure her to join you. Just let her know that you want to figure out your part in what goes so wrong between you. Also tell her you’ll be happy to include her when and if she is willing.

Meanwhile, jump into therapy with enthusiasm for the project. At the very least, you may finally get a handle on your pattern of making poor decisions. At best, you may learn how to be more effective in your marriage.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 9 Mar 2011

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2011). My Wife is Spoiling for a Fight. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 31, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2011/03/09/my-wife-is-spoiling-for-a-fight/