“What is her problem all the damn time? Why can’t she just chill out? We don’t have problems, she has problems. I have to get back to work.”
The man who comes into counseling with this sort of mindset we will call Mr. Perfect. This high-achieving specimen of masculinity is usually in some field requiring an excess of education or on-the-job training. He is successful in his career and receives a lot of positive feedback.
Not just competent at work, he can also take the kids for an afternoon on his own because he is calm, cool and collected in all situations, even those involving toddlers and poop. His friends consider him a good guy. He is attractive and well-spoken. In an emergency, he is the person you want around. What a guy, right? (Don’t swoon just yet.)
The one albatross around his neck is his crazy wife, whom we shall call Crazy Wife. She texts him all the time. She thinks he may be having an affair or that he is a workaholic. She complains that he doesn’t seem to be very interested in what she thinks or feels.
She sometimes gets so “crazy” as to cry or scream, just to get a reaction from him. Of course he doesn’t give her one. He is not into that sort of overdramatic thing.
Of course he loves his Crazy Wife, he married her, didn’t he? And he’s been the same guy all along, what does she want from him now? Candlelight and roses?
Mr. Perfect often makes his Crazy Wife feel gaslighted. She thinks she must in fact be as insane as he thinks she is because she feels so out of control around him. Her friends think her husband is great. Good provider, friendly, and great with the kids. But emotionally, he is absent.
He shares no vulnerabilities with her, no fears, and no insecurities. He doesn’t even like talking about vulnerabilities, and shuts down or problem solves when his wife brings up her own emotions.
A woman stuck in this type of dynamic is frequently struggling with low self-esteem from experiences in her own upbringing. Her husband’s stone-faced response to her emotions throws her into attachment panic, the same as it does for babies whose mothers look at them without expression.
The Crazy Wife wonders if there is anyone listening to her at all when she talks to her husband. She feels alone, yet, since he is physically there, she cannot make sense of why she feels so lonely.
How does Mr. Perfect turn out so perfect? Many times men grow up in an atmosphere that condemns emotional expression. Boys are told not to cry and to suck it up when they feel hurt. Many households are fairly devoid of emotional expression, something that the children don’t realize, and may never realize as adults if they don’t look closely at their upbringing.
Men raised this way often gravitate toward women on the highly emotional end of the spectrum, whom they originally, during dating, find fascinating and intense. These women, for their part, initially find less emotional men to be stable and impressive. They admire their emotionally restrained partners initially for their confidence and ability to handle themselves well in most situations.
Yet, over time, both partners start to feel misunderstood by each other. They become polarized, where the Crazy Wife acts increasingly “crazy” in her attempts to get some sort of a “human” reaction out of her husband, and Mr. Perfect acts increasingly perfect, never sharing any weakness or vulnerability of his own. He becomes even more detached over time, as he grows increasingly scared of how out of control his wife seems.
A good movie example of this dynamic is the start of “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Meg Ryan is an alcoholic and acts dramatic and “crazy,” and her husband is a definite Mr. Perfect, who admits no weakness of his own.
The first step toward a healthier relationship is for Mr. Perfect to admit some of his fears and vulnerabilities, ranging from earlier in childhood to now as an adult. The Crazy Wife will often be astonished and moved to hear her “robotic” husband speak more emotionally and put himself out there emotionally. She may be able to stem the tide of her “crazy” behavior, which was really how she was frantically attempting to seek emotional connection. And she can try and explore why she is so violently triggered by a perceived lack of connection with her partner, and what this means about her experiences with emotions and relationships in her early life.
If this relationship dynamic resonates with you, try to take the first step toward a closer connection and look for a couples counselor. You do not need to stay locked in a toxic pattern, and you owe it to yourself to see if your marriage can change for the better. If Meg Ryan and Andy Garcia could do it, so can you.