Dear Captain Awkward,
You know that breaking up is a
possibility necessity the highly probable and recommended outcome and that remaining is a choice, and you understand that this is a form of emotional abuse, so I’m going to try my best to give you some strategies that aren’t about breaking up. Remember, I am trained in exactly NOTHING, so I am making these up, partially from lessons I’ve learned dealing with babies and cats.
First, I am confused – do you work from home or do you go to work at your job? Does your wife get upset when you go to work, or is it only when you’re doing something social away from her? Does she get upset when SHE’S at work or school or out?
Because it’s hard not to see her episodes as a form of controlling you.
I mean, really hard. Because she’s controlling you.
Anyway, here’s a list of suggestions:
1) A therapist for you. No matter what the fallout, you’ll need one. If you don’t find a safe place to talk about this stuff you’re almost definitely going to explode and leave one day, so think of this for now as your best chance of making something work.
2) Maybe a different therapist for her. Or some joint counseling sessions where you talk about this issue in particular and try to work on it.
3) You said you haven’t talked to your mutual friends about this issue. Do they know ANYTHING? Because bringing a few of those friends in on the problem might be a good idea. It doesn’t have to ruin the social dynamic and in fact might be a way to help you with the problem.
“Friend, (wife) and I have a problem where sometimes she gets massive separation anxiety when she’s away from me. I want to go to this professional conference/work happy hour/archery competition this weekend. Could we plan to have her hang out with you for some of that time so she feels less anxious?”
You can decide how much or how little you want to tell the friends.”Wife, I’m going out on Friday after work. Why don’t you go to the movies with Hansel & Gretel and have a good time yourself?” might also work. But tell them. Tell somebody. Stop hiding this. It’s a real problem in your life and they can maybe help you carry some of it.
4) My cat has massive separation anxiety, and one of the things I do is feed her wet food & give her treats only when I’m about to leave the house. She gets dry the rest of the time. She’s learned to associate me leaving with something she likes and has chilled way out. Can you arrange “treats” – social time, something fun to do, etc. for when you need to be away?
5) My good friends are training their 5-month old to sleep and to comfort himself if he wakes. So they ignore his cries at night (unless they go on for a certain duration and intensity = more than a few minutes, a sharp upset cry vs. a “Hey, come hang out with me” cry) so that he’ll learn to soothe himself.
You said something about developing a routine where you slowly separate. What does this routine involve? Could you start with short things that are spontaneous (so she can’t build up a lot of anxiety or derail you ahead of time). Don’t ask, tell. “I’m going for a run.” “I’m going to the library for little bit.” “I’m going to grab some coffee and get out of the house for a while.” Give her a 15-30 minute window of when you’ll be back and stick to that time frame.
Then, in front of her, take your cell phone out of your pocket and put it on the table and walk out the door to wherever it is. We didn’t always have these magic always-reachable devices and they are not necessary for living. Stay out for increasing amounts of time. 20 minutes. 30 minutes. 1 hour.
I think this will be incredibly hard for you, but also, incredibly necessary. There will be fallout. But because her emotions are not caused by you and you don’t have to take them on as your own. Let her wail and beg. Let her fantasize the worst. The best way to take power back from people who throw tantrums is to let them know that you will do what you’re going to do even if they get sad. You’ll come back because you love her, but not because she is making you, and it’s okay to shield yourself from it. As you expand this to going out with friends, tell her “I’m turning my phone off for a while, so call X friend if there’s an emergency” and then do it.
Here’s the irony. She’s worried that you’re going to leave her. Her worry manifests so violently and so toxically that you will actually leave her. You are contemplating leaving her. You do have power in this situation, though I get why it feels uncomfortable to wield it. Her power is that if you don’t do what she wants she’ll be upset at you. Your power is that if she keeps clipping your wings in this way, you’ll leave. You actually get to force some discussions about this. “Wife, we have to work on this and find a solution. I never, never want to leave you or be without you. But I need to have some space for my own friendships and professional interests or I will suffocate.”
“I know you are genuinely upset, but to make me so responsible for that pain is controlling and abusive. If you want to save this relationship, we will need to try some things my way for a while and see if we can make it better.”
As for “critically disrupting her life” as she leaves school, I can see why that’s a concern, but her career & education are her own. There will always be a reason she needs you and doesn’t think she can function without you, so if you want to go and it’s time to go, go. Maybe now when she’s right at the start of something new for herself is the best possible time.
Right now the two of you are co-dependent as fuck (I believe that’s the clinical term) and I wish you luck in separating one way or the other. Hopefully some of the baby (or cat) steps in here will work to help you make the relationship more bearable or begin the long process of letting go.
102 thoughts on “#311: My wife freaks out whenever I’m away from her.”
“And sacrificing our joyful life together because I can’t take the necessary steps to improve it?”
WHOA. You’ve done all you can to improve things. You’ve twisted yourself into knots to make things work. She’s got to take some steps as well. And yes, it’s great she’s gotten help. But that doesn’t mean that it is remotely okay for her to expect you to drop everything to be by her side when you are trying to clean the apartment. That doesn’t mean that it’s remotely okay for her to expect you to turn the car around and come home when you are en route to visit friends, because she calls you and is hysterically crying. (And FWIW, you’re kind of isolated now, aren’t you? There are only mutual friends of you and your wife, not friends of your own since when you try to see them she freaks out. You need a support network like nobody’s business right now. You need a Team You.)
There is so much that is not okay in how she’s acting. What did she do before you came along? What is she going to do if/when she gets a job? You’re not going to be there with her.
You’re in this marriage too, and your needs and your desires count, too.
Yup. This is emotional blackmail whether she means to be cruel or not. You need friends and support and chances to network and laugh with friends and just kick back and relax.
You sound so happy in the first half of your letter that I really hope this relationship can be turned around – but it’s not actually up to you, LW. You say something about taking the “necessary steps” to improve it – but a LOT of those necessary steps are hers to take. All you can do is find out whether she is willing to take them, and if not, you will have to take some necessary steps of your own out of the door. Good luck.
I keep deferring the possibility of therapy for myself, because that feels analogous to a conscious choice to separate.
NO. Just no to this thinking. Therapy for you has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO with whether or not you decide to separate from your wife. Therapy is about working through your own issues and feelings and thoughts. You don’t have to sign up for “I’m leaving my wife” therapy. You can sign up for “I have a lot of stuff I want to talk about with a disinterested and professionally trained third-party” therapy.
LW, PLEASE FIND A THERAPIST FOR YOURSELF. Not soon, not in a few weeks, but right now. You’ve gotten stuck in a place where you don’t want to talk to mutual friends about your problems with your wife (which is understandable) and you don’t have any opportunity to make your own friends because you can’t go anywhere without your wife (less understandable). Which means that you don’t have anyone to talk to about this problem, and that is just not healthy or sustainable.
You don’t have to make any decisions right now (though if you do want to walk away, at any time, YOU SHOULD DO THAT and not let guilt or other life-events or the logistics stop you. Just go.), but you do need to start thinking and talking about how to stop the unhealthy level of control that your wife has over your life. Please sign up for solo sessions, and tell your wife whatever you feel like about them (the real reason, or a made up reason if that’s easier and safer). DON’T let her convince you that if you loved her you would just talk to her and wouldn’t need a therapist. You needing to talk to a professional is not about how much you love her or whether she’s a good listener, it’s about needing to talk to a mental health professional. She should get that, because she is seeing one herself.
And then, once you’ve found a therapist you want to see and told your wife you’re going to do that, go do it. Go to every session. Turn off your phone or leave it at home during the times when you are out of the house for therapy — not just while in the session, but on your way to and from it. It will be a regularly-scheduled event that you are out of the house for X amount of time every X day to go to your appointment. Your wife, as the Captain says, will have to learn to deal with it. If she can’t get her issues in check enough to cope with the 1-2 hours a week that you need to see a mental health professional for your well-being? I think that tells you what you need to know — no matter how much you love her, or enjoy spending time with her, or how much leaving her might disrupt her life.
This, this, a million times THIS.
The therapy doesn’t have to be about leaving or not leaving her. What it IS about is having someone to unpack your feelings and thoughts with so that you can stay sane.
Also, if you’re worried that a therapist will pressure you into doing something you don’t want to do (like, say, leaving your wife), you can shop around until you find one who respects your decisions. It’s perfectly fine to decide that a particular therapist and you just aren’t a good fit.
All of these thoughts, times fifty million, plus the fact that a good therapist can *help* you come up with tips, tricks, tools, routines for working on this. They are trained to understand these kinds of problems – both your wife’s and your relationship’s – and they can help you find new ways of approaching problems. I promise, if you decide to leave your wife, your therapist should support you, but your therapist won’t be the one FORCING you to leave your wife, ever. What they’ll be doing is trying to help you achieve what you want, and as long as what you want is to stay (provided you can do so in a way that isn’t abusive for you) they’re going to help you figure out how to make that happen.
I also echo the whole couples-therapy thing. It sounds petrifying; not only do you have to tell the other person what’s “wrong” with them, but in front of a stranger?? But actually it can take a huge amount of pressure off and turn something that would have become a fight into a productive discussion instead.
My final thought is that in a lot of places, there are counselling clinics. I recommend them like WHOA because you can go in and have an “in-take” appointment and then they match you up with a therapist on their staff, so you don’t need to be blindly searching for therapists yourself. And if you don’t like the therapist they give you (which is ALWAYS ok to say and people never say that enough) they will help you find another one. They often also have things like support groups or discussion groups that maybe one or both of you could go to, as well as couples counsellors. So, kind of one-stop shopping? I find having a guide through the whole maze of even just finding a decent therapist makes such a difference. It seems so much less overwhelming and scary.
I use to say something similar “If I get a job outside of the house” it will be the first step to the end of “us”. Now I see that the finality of that statement was the expression of my extreme fear of “getting a job outside the house” and not of the end of “us”.
For me the gifts of self awareness to letting go of baggage. The side effect of letting go of baggage is more crap rises to the surface. You’ve come so far. By your own accounts your life is better than it was. Make that appointment with a therapist and get to an even better place.
I’m involved with someone who tends to be depressive in a way that’s often difficult for me to deal with. When it first became a problem, I started trying to manage his life to make him happier, mostly by arranging social stuff for him. He didn’t always do what I wanted (almost as if he were his own person!), and I was incredibly frustrated and upset by how bad he was still feeling when I was Doing All I Could.
Therapy helped me get to a point where I could see that it wasn’t my job to do that. That insight actually allows us to still be together. You already have a plan to train your wife and yourself to feel better about separation, but you can’t get started. Go to therapy. It will help you get out of the tailspin. Therapists are not there to boss you around or tell you to leave people; they help you see how to deal with the life you have and transform it into the life you want.
Sadly this kind of controlling behavior isn’t all that uncommon in my experience. Currently I have a couple friends that have to one degree or another fallen off the radar due to their spouses influence. My one friend only leaves the house now for work when she is home or if she is out working (she works afternoons/evenings) but even then it is rare for him to go out and do much in the way of social things other than our softball league as she knows he will be home by the time she is off work. He has gone out a few times without her but has paid the price in long periods of getting the cold shoulder afterwards for it.
The other friend was the most social person I knew: he was the one who called us up to start making plans for the weekend and was always friendly with anyone we met. As soon as he became engaged he virtually vanished from everyone including his own family. It takes an arm twisting to get him to come out for even a drink now. When I talk with him about it, he brushes it off with (some legit, most not) reasons. I knew his wife prior to them getting married and she had seemed fairly well adjusted and we all shared a mutual group of friends and she never appeared to be the controlling type, though our group had all grown up together so there was a long history between us all. I later found out that while she was at college the only friends she had were ones she’d known from high school who also went to the same college.
I also briefly dated a girl while in college who I noticed signs of this kind of behavior early on. She never wanted to go out to do anything and when we did go out with my friends she barely said anything in front of them and in private was critical of them. She also would pout when I had other plans with people and she wanted me to just come over to her place. That relationship didn’t last very long.
In LW’s case his spouse was his salvation from his lack of social development and “focused” understanding of the world. Ironically now that he has evolved into a more well rounded person and wants to build relationships and a life of his own she is clamping down and being confining and manipulative. From what I’ve seen in the above relationships, the spouses don’t have any objection to their partner leaving to go to work as it can be rationalized as beening necessary and actually required for them to be together. However, that time away for even work then acts as a reinforcement that ALL other time the spouse has MUST be spent with them. Going to work makes sense then as it serves a function for the relationship, but going out for a beverage with friends means choosing to spend time with other people other than their partner, which in their minds equals rejection and from there it can spiral to very dark places if not kept in check.
At least I see some hope for this relationship as she has at least acknowledged and started to take action for what she is doing. LW needs to take the Cap’s advice and pursue some counseling himself as well as joint counseling where both parties can discuss the dynamic of their relationship. Taking the other steps that the captain has suggested to ‘ween’ LW’s partner off of his constant presence. LW may also want to subtly involve her friends to get her to invite her out for things to do that do not include his involvement (out for coffee, go to a spa, take a yoga class, etc) to get her to spread her social needs around a bit.
It is difficult to spot someone who might be controlling like this. The most obvious signs are people who don’t have much of a social life/circle and/or hobbies/activities in their lives to keep them busy when they aren’t at work. But that isn’t always true either. It is good advice to pay attention to how your lifestyle changes when you become involved with someone and if they are constantly steering things that involve both of you all the time and away from larger social functions or if they get resentful if you are doing things on your own (especially activities that you were doing prior to you getting together).
Hopefully things can work out for LW and his spouse that they can both develop broader ranging lives that don’t always involve being with each other and yet can strengthen all the good things that they already have.
A short story about me – I hope the relevance will become clear:
I used to be phobic about flying. There’s two ways of dealing with that: (1) never, ever get on a plane again, and (2) find a way to learn to deal with it and be able to see the world. In my case, after four years of me refusing to do anything or go anywhere that meant I would have to get on a flying metal cigar-tube of death, my family gave me a choice: they booked a holiday to the Caribbean over Christmas and told me that they would pay for me to come, but I would have to get on a plane, or I could stay at home for Christmas alone. In the end, armed with a prescription for baby valium from my doctor to reduce the anxiety to a not-running-shrieking-from-the-terminal level, I got on the plane. It was utterly, utterly terrifying, but I survived and now I fly regularly and without fear.
You and your wife seem to have fallen into dealing with her anxiety by choosing option 1: you ain’t gettin’ on no plane, fool. If you never put yourselves into a situation where her anxiety is triggered, then she never has to go through the heart-pounding panic and you never have to see that side of her. The downside of this is that you have constructed your entire lives to create an environment that never challenges her anxiety, and it’s ended up warping your lives to the point that you are now finding it crippling.
You might think my family were cruel for putting me in the position where I had to get on a plane despite how truly frightening it was for me, but actually I am very grateful that they did. They forced me to confront how much my phobia was controlling my life and stopping me from doing the things I wanted to do, which included travelling to further-flung places than Paris or Amsterdam (London to Amsterdam by bus is an unbelievably dull and uncomfortable 10 hour trip – if I’d spent that kind of time on a plane I could have seen the Taj Mahal). Other ways to confront it might be to go on fear of flying courses or see a therapist, but either way at some point you have to test out whether things are working, and that involves you getting into a triggering situation and learning that you can survive it.
It might help you both to know (it helped me, as a phobic) that the body simply can’t physically maintain the highest pitch of anxiety. It is likely that your wife’s anxiety will spike very high when you first leave and do something without her, which is likely the reason she called you sobbing and wailing last time, but it will subside as the adrenaline starts to dissipate. Exposure will help: the more often you do this, the more routine it will become, and the more her anxiety will lessen until it is just a background noise she can tune out.
Also, from what you’ve said, you don’t know for sure that your wife would react in the way she did previously. She might find she can handle it much better than she did previously. But she has to be willing to try.
Just wanted to say something about this:
She doesn’t like this about herself, and under her initiative, she’s been seeing a psychiatrist for years.
If your wife has been seeing a psychiatrist for some years and this problem isn’t resolved then it’s possible that this person isn’t the right therapist for her, or that the type of therapy isn’t the right approach for this particular problem. Long-term psychoanalysis has its place, but sometimes it can serve as a great delaying tactic – “I can’t even attempt to deal with this until I’ve examined my relationships with everyone over the course of my life in minute detail which will take x years”.
I wonder if both of you, since you can see that you reinforce her and might need support in implementing any treatment or making sure you do any exercises, might benefit from a short course of cognitive behaviour therapy focussing just on managing the separation anxiety. I’m not an out-and-out fan of CBT (it’s too often touted as the answer to everything), but I think it can be very helpful to deal with issues like this where what you really want is not to delve into the root cause of the anxiety but to find strategies to deal with and overcome the anxiety so that it no longer has such a negative impact on your life.
It’s not good for either of you to be living like this. You’ve said she doesn’t like this side of herself. You don’t like the way you’re living. You’re at a point where you need to address it. Either she agrees to work on it or… Or you can leave her, and that’s okay too. There will never be a good time to leave someone, so don’t wait for the “right” time – it just won’t happen. If she isn’t willing to work on this and it’s stifling you from having a happy and fulfilled life, then you aren’t obliged to support her through it.
Anxiety can be managed – maybe give CBT a go. And if your wife won’t even try to address it, then you should not subordinate your need for a fulfilling life to her overanxiety.
Great points! I especially appreciated the bit about anxiety levels not maintaining themselves after awhile. LW’s wife will probably call him sobbing, but after that call not having its desired effect, she will likely exhaust herself long enough to realize that she’s not dying, just alone. LW just has to outlast the first, say, half an hour (and so does his wife), and then she will be biologically required to calm down.
Seconding this so much. One of the things about anxiety/panic attacks (using the lowercases there because I’m responding to LW’s description of behavior, not trying to diagnose) is that they can make you feel like you’re dying. Not “I am so unhappy I could die,” but “my heart is pounding, I can’t get a breath, I’m going to have a heart attack and die unless the thing provoking my anxiety stops.” That’s part of what causes panic behavior like fleeing, bursting into tears, freezing, throwing up… or making sobbing demanding phone calls. If you feel like your anxiety is going to actually kill you, then of course you’ll do almost anything to make it stop.
The thing is, though, that you’re not going to die. Panic attacks end, and in fact for most people the initial I’m-going-to-actually-die spike passes pretty quickly, replaced by “this is horrible but I’m not actually dying,” and then “this is pretty awful but I am capable of functioning now,” and so on down the line. Problem is, if you short-circuit the process by removing the source of anxiety right away, the person doesn’t get that reinforcement that, hey, the panic attack is not actually going to kill me after all, I can survive it.
And there are ways to train your body to reduce the intensity of that initial spike–a whole variety of ways, each of which has its advantages and disadvantages for different people. But I am not LW’s wife’s psych expert–and, critically, neither is LW, so I’m not going to address that part. Instead, I’m saying this because sometimes it’s useful/important/reassuring to hear someone else say, “Even if your wife sounds like she’s actually about to burst into flames or fall over dead, she isn’t. She probably thinks she is, because that’s how panic works, but she isn’t. So you don’t have to run home as though it were life or death.”
Problem is, if you short-circuit the process by removing the source of anxiety right away, the person doesn’t get that reinforcement that, hey, the panic attack is not actually going to kill me after all, I can survive it.
Yes, exactly this. The initial spike of fear and panic is horrible, but if you put yourself through it you learn that it’s just that – an initial spike that does calm down. If you never put yourself through it, you never learn that it’s survivable.
As someone who has suffered from anxiety in the past and now treat anxiety disorders for a living, THIS IS SPOT ON. The only thing I would add is that, in addition to not receiving the reinforcement that the panic attack is not going to kill her, the LW going back to his wife after she calls frantically is actually providing NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT (i.e., removal of a noxious stimulus) for bad behavior (i.e., crying, sobbing, controlling, etc.). In this way, the LW’s wife not only learns that crying, sobbing, and controlling behavior WORKS to reduce her anxiety by bring him back, she also reinforces the anxiety in the first place by teaching herself that she cannot survive without him and can only control her anxiety by escape, not learning to fight/tolerate it. This is a dangerous cycle, and a primary way that anxiety gets worse and worse over time.
Exposure treatment for anxiety works (and it works as well or better than pharmacotherapy for most anxiety disorders). It works even better if important others in the client’s life participate in the treatment and assist the client with the treatment plan (i.e., exposures like the “weening” process described above) because the LW and his wife will have an expert coach to guide them through the process and it can be a collaborative process (i.e., it will not feel like the LW is trying to “fix” his wife). Typically exposure treatment lasts 6-12 WEEKS (not years) and it is VERY VERY rare for someone to need treatment for longer than a year or two. As such, I would strongly consider finding a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety, especially Exposure and Response Prevention (E/RP) to target these anxiety symptoms. Longer-term therapy (for both the LW’s wife and maybe the LW himself) may be necessary to address all the causes of these symptoms and dynamics of their relationship, but CBT is very effective at (rapidly) reducing panic and anxiety symptoms.
My heart goes out to you, LW. It sounds as though you and your wife love each other very much and had times when you were very good for each other. I can see why you would not want to throw that away. However, her willingness to help herself so that both of you can be happy will be the true measure of whether this relationship can survive without increasing sacrifice on your part. I wish you both the best…
Yes, bravo. Wife has been seeing a counsellor for YEARS? That is too long! You can’t wait that long for a beer with your friends!
I hope to God that I am not as hard to live with as your wife, LW, but my partner and I have drastically different levels of “quality time together” needed, so I recognize some of myself in her. It sounds like your wife can cope with scheduled-beforehand, routine time apart, so in addition to the Captain’s suggestion of increasing bits of unexpected time apart, maybe you can add an evening or two to the schedule that are scheduled as “time when I am not with you” If she’s anxious and manipulative, this may be hard to stick with at first, but this has worked well for my partner and myself. It’s easier for me to take care of myself, use my resources and Team Me, and not be super clingy if I know in advance “these evenings are for Partner and me and these other evenings are for me to leave Partner the hell alone.”
Also, if she is having panic attack crying spells when you go to visit friends, she needs to call her psychiatrist, NOT YOU. It’s not fair for your wife to make you her entire Team Her. A spouse and a psychiatrist serve different functions in someone’s life, and it’s extremely unhealthy for you to have to be her backup psychiatrist. You need to unravel (hopefully with the help of a therapist) what “married partners supporting each other” looks like, create your own boundaries related to this, and then identify the parts of your relationship that are outside of those boundaries. And then stand firm: “I can’t help you with this. You’re having a severe anxiety attack, and me coming back in the room won’t help you control your anxiety better. Please call your psychiatrist.” “I can’t help you with this. In order for me to be a good partner to you, I need time with my friends away from you. Please call your friend [or your psychiatrist].”
It’s not fair for your wife to make you her entire Team Her.
YES YES YES. Especially since her anxieties are *about* LW, LW shouldn’t be the one who is recruited to help her cope with those feelings. A relationship doesn’t mean you are each other’s entire world — you can’t be, and you don’t have to be.
As someone who has panic attacks and whose husband would’ve probably had an easier few years early in our marriage if I’d realized “It’s not fair for your wife to make you her entire Team Her” I’d say this comment is accurate and compassionate.
Perhaps not an issue in this particular instance, but when I was with my (now ex, but for other reasons) partner, I had anxiety attacks when he was expected home at X o’clock and came back hours later to hysterical fighting me, after I had for hours imagined him broken and bleeding in the ditch. This could have been avoided if he had CALLED: “Hi, going for beers with Friend1 and Friend2. Back later.” and if still not home after bars closed, “Hi, interesting discussion with Friend2, continuing at hir place. Still safe, see you later.”
Point being, I was anxious about his safety and it would have been easy to assuage. Not saying it was in any way reasonable, but his concern about not waking me was misplaced as I was already awake imagining him bleeding in the ditch etc. Sometimes anxieties are stupid but easily dealt with.
This is reasonable, certainly. However, the LW’s wife called him hysterical and crying when he was en route to see his friends, which she knew he was doing. I don’t think this was so much worry as it is a bid for control (conscious or unconscious) on her part.
Because it sounds like you love your wife and would rather find a way to make this work with her than leave her — because life with her is actually great on a day-to-day basis, but for this one huge, glaring issue — but what you have now is *not* sustainable for a lifetime, I suggest you give yourself/her a timeline. Figure out what you need in terms of breathing room, and how long would be acceptable for it to take for you to get it, and give the two of you a defined period (definitely not more than a year) to get yourselves to that (with concrete interim goals).
Clearly articulate to her what is at stake here: “I love you so much and am so happy with our relationship in every way *except* the way you need me to be with you ALL the time when I’m not at work…but that exception is huge. It is huge enough for me to feel like I might have to leave you altogether, if I can’t find a way to get some breathing room within this relationship. I know you hate hearing that, and I hate hurting you by saying it, but I so absolutely *need* breathing room that it has come down to this: either I find a way to get it in this relationship, or I leave. Since I would *rather* it was the former than the latter, I am going to start taking the space I need, and I wanted you to understand what is at stake as I — we — begin to implement those changes.”
It might sound dictatorial, but it’s a lot better than pretending the status quo is only chafing a little, or even that it is really bugging you but that you are willing to put up with it indefinitely if that’s what you have to do to be with her, only to announce to her all of a sudden a few months from now “I can’t take this any more I’m out of here” — which truly would be destructive, if she doesn’t know you’re building up to that.
Maybe make a month-by-month calendar? Like, Month 1, I’m going to start doing things at home, but apart from you, 2 hours a week. We’ll schedule out that time ahead of time, and you can help plan when it will work best for you and figure out what you’re going to do during that time — but I am going to do it. And if you interrupt me or get upset with me about not being available to you during that time, I will walk out the door and not come back until the scheduled time is up. Month 2, one night a week I’m also going to come home from work __ hours later than usual. We can pick the night together. We can plan something for you to do that night, too… we can either find you a companion for that time period (maybe a teenager who’ll come in and bake or do some other hobby with her?), or rent you a movie that you’d like but I wouldn’t, or you can go somewhere on the way home from work (CBT therapy!?), yourself. We can make sure you have someone else to call if there’s really truly an emergency while I’m unavailable. But I *am* going to come home later. And I’m going to turn off my phone during that time.
Etc. etc., working up to being able to leave the apartment to go do something (rather than coming home later than the current norm) without her having a fit, and move toward some spontaneity rather than having all your you-time have to be pre-scheduled, and eventually even a conference you would like to go to. Be respectful, and try to address her needs as best you can without you personally being there for her. Get a dog/cat for companionship? By all means, negotiate the calendar a little, so it doesn’t seem like you don’t care about *her* needs. But proceed inexorably forward in accordance with your calendar once you’ve laid it out.
And do not reward her fits anymore. On the contrary, make it clear that your response to her having one of her manipulative fits will always be to walk out the door… maybe just for 5 minutes while she calms down. 10 minutes if she does it again in the same time frame… etc.
You’ll have to be strong, but you *can* do it; when you are tempted to waiver, remind yourself “if this doesn’t work sooner or later I’m going to wind up walking out altogether, for good, and that will hurt her more.”
To be honest, I have no idea if this will work. Maybe, as you go on, you will find your resentment of her control/manipulation is bigger than you thought, and that things can’t be fixed just by carving out pieces of time for yourself within the confines of a very controlling/confining dynamic. Maybe she won’t be able to adjust to the new program, and it will become apparent long before your year (or shorter defined period) is up that you are *never* going to be able to get the freedom and autonomy that you need with her.
But at least it is straightforward and (though it might not seem like it) both respectful and non-manipulative (you’re not threatening, you’re acquainting her with your needs and the fact that if you can not get them met in the relationship with her you will have to leave). And if it doesn’t work out, you’ll know you gave it your best shot.
oops — waver not waiver
Clearly articulate to her what is at stake here: “I love you so much and am so happy with our relationship in every way *except* the way you need me to be with you ALL the time when I’m not at work…but that exception is huge. It is huge enough for me to feel like I might have to leave you altogether, if I can’t find a way to get some breathing room within this relationship. I know you hate hearing that, and I hate hurting you by saying it, but I so absolutely *need* breathing room that it has come down to this: either I find a way to get it in this relationship, or I leave. Since I would *rather* it was the former than the latter, I am going to start taking the space I need, and I wanted you to understand what is at stake as I — we — begin to implement those changes.”
I would do all the things suggested here, except this particular bit of script. It’s too much of an ultimatum. Since LW’s wife is already in a place where she has paranoia/abandonment issues, the root of her fear is that he will leaver her and not come back. Saying “If you cannot learn to control your fear, the thing that you fear most will happen!” is truthful, but I think it would be counter-productive for generating healthier patterns of behaviour. If I was LW’s wife and functioning in a similar state of mind, my immediate reaction would be OH GOD CLING TIGHTER CLING TIGHTER AND NEVER LET GO.
I would just skip to implementing the changes. LW knows it’s a problem, his wife knows it’s a problem. LW should set his personal own time frame for how long he’s willing to wait for concrete change, but there’s no reason to make her aware of it.
Honestly, I think LW leaving outright his wife as soon as he’s had enough would be a lot less destructive for her in the long run. A long build up of “If I don’t make sufficient improvements in X amount of time, my husband is going to leave me and now I failed to improve and time’s up and he’s leaving me and I have failed and everything I’ve been dreading has come true” sounds like it would be absolutely emotionally devastating.
I understand what you’re saying, but I stand by it. Having abandonment issues, she needs clearer communication, not the insecurity of guesswork. To give an analogy, in my family, we have exchanged promises to tell each other if we have any health issues, rather than “protecting” one another by keeping secrets, because that way no news really is good news, and bad news is at least concrete. Better to have to worry about the specific things that are really wrong with one another than to worry about all the things that *could* be wrong that the other person might not be telling us about.
As you say, she knows there’s a problem. She’s probably terrified she’s driving him away, making fear that he’ll leave the stinking, shitting elephant in the room. Not talking about the fact that that’s on the line doesn’t make her feel secure (clearly), it keeps her on tenterhooks. In contrast, telling her “yup, that’s on the line, but I don’t want to give up on us either and since I know it’s hard for you to give me what I need, I’ve got a plan to start taking it, being as kind and respectful as I know how but still taking it, so we can stay together” lets her know she’s not going to be blindsided, because they can talk about these things, and he does want to be with her — he’s not just going to decide not to come home one of these times.
This is especially true because he isn’t actually asking her to do anything, if he does what I suggested. He’s just saying, “things need to change, so I’m going to change them, wanted you to understand what’s going on.”
Another thing he can say is “I’ve realized that by giving in every time you get upset, I’ve helped build my own cage. Which makes it not entirely fair to blame you for the cage. So I’m *not* blaming you for it now, not resenting you. However, I’m also not going to keep replacing the bars anymore. I’m going to act like I have your blessing to do what I need to do to be happy with you — because I’m pretty sure that is in fact what you want.”
Oh, wait. I just reread — and I think I see the disconnect. When I said “give yourself/her a timeline” and “give the two of you a defined period” I didn’t necessarily mean that the LW has to announce the defined period to his wife, like a deadline. I just meant figuring out for himself how long he can stand to give the two of them to reconfigure the relationship so he has an acceptable level of freedom.
The part I think it is important to “clearly articulate to her” is that he is trying to save the marriage by taking what he needs. This is not just about “I would prefer a little more freedom.” She deserves to know that the outcome if she succeeds in thwarting the changes he is trying to make is not return to the status quo.
Yes, I feltI thought you were suggesting: “If you cannot complete X Give Me Space challenges within a year, I am leaving you.” But you are obviously not! I totally agree that LW should say “There is a serious chance this relationship will not survive if you do not learn to control your issues” and also “I plan to implement changes in the form of X, Y and Z and I really hope you will work with me on this!” He definitely needs to let her know what is at stake and there should not be any guesswork involved!
That said, I’m still a bit wary of the time frame thing. In this case, I think the issues are severe enough that LW should be free to walk out of the relationship as soon as he decides he’s had enough, without feeling guilty that he’s blind-siding his wife. As in, if he mentally gives himself a year to resolve things, but in six months time is like “Nope, can’t do it, I’m going out of my mind” he should not feel obligated to stick around for another six months. Ultimately, the best time to break up is when you realise it’s time to break-up; no logic or reasoning will induce you to do so before that moment, and nothing should make you hang around trying to salvage things afterwards!
I think we’re pretty much on the same page. I didn’t think of the framework as something he is obligated to go through all the steps of if it is not working out, either. More like “here’s what I need, here’s how I think we might be able to get there.”
But if she digs in her heels at the outset and refuses to accept that what he needs from her is reasonable and healthy, or if she accepts intellectually that the goal is reasonable and healthy but in practice she just can’t unwrap herself from around his leg, or if the process proves too painful or too slow or he realizes that all of this has bludgeoned his love to the point that he’s done… yeah, he has every right to walk away.
I have to say that the very idea of my boyfriend saying “If you don’t make satisfactory improvements to X and Y, we will have to break up.” is giving me a mini panic attack. While I agree that it should be made clear…maybe the LW should be ready for a bit extra push back on the issue at first, without automatically deciding that things aren’t going to work.
Linnae — I suspect blog-posted advice often comes out sounding more rigid and simplistic than the poster really intends, just because the confines of the format don’t allow for all the nuances and what-ifs that would be included in an actual conversation. Bottom line is, whatever advice we give the LW is going to be making things up as he goes along, applying what makes sense to him out of all this advice, adjusting it according to her responses and his heart…
Alphakitty – I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to rehash everything discussed by you and tinyorc. I just meant that while she probably would freak out at first, it would probably pass given some time to process it. While I do think the LW is very compasionate about his wife’s mental health, the initial push back might be the straw that broke the camel’s back if it came unexpectedly. That didn’t seem covered, and I do want the the LW to have the very best chance at making things better. Sorry again if I overstepped.
Alphakitty – I don’t exactly disagree with anything you said there, but I want to add that sometimes the heart is NOT what you should listen to here…yes, LW should (and has!) been compassionate towards his wife, but I suspect his very strong emotional desire in the moment of this conversation (where he is trying to set a boundary, and she is crying and clearly feeling self-loathing, as LW indicated his wife did) is to just do whatever will make her happy, ’cause it sucks when the person you love is upset. But IMO the best way to navigate those conversations and not get derailed is to override your burning desire to make the person you love feel better and keep your eye on the goal, so to speak.
Dunno what I did there, but first line should say “Yes, I felt like we had our wires crossed! I thought…”
LW, to continue with the cat/pet steps, my dog had some pretty severe separation anxiety when I first brought him home from the shelter. I did all the things you’re supposed to, gave him treats before I left, brought out his favorite toy, made sure when I got back that he received another treat for being good, etc. But he still cried when I left. And then I did some more reading, and I realized there were three major things I was doing wrong. First of all, when I was leaving, I hugged him and kissed him and scratched him and told him I loved him and what a good dog he was, etc, and then I did the same thing when I came back. And then, worst of all, if he cried before I was out of hearing range, I came back and petted and hugged, etc.
I didn’t realize until I read it, that I was unintentionally teaching my dog that crying at the door was going to get him more pets before I left, more pets when I came back, and if he was fast enough with the crying, he might even get extra bonus pets. In other words, I was teaching him to cry.
What would happen if you went out with friends and told her, “Wife, I am going out now. I will be at x place. Love you! Bye!” and then JUST LEFT? And ignored her calls, and her texts and what amounts to her crying at the door? What would happen? Really? I get that this terrifies you that she would be upset – but seriously, what’s the worst that would happen? She would cry. She would sob. She would wail. She might eventually get really angry and be that angry when you got home. And…? You have an angry wife. Angry wives are angry and then they eventually get over it. Hug her, tell her you love her, but just be happy to see her. Don’t apologize for leaving your house, don’t act like you’re the prodigal son returning, JUST COME HOME. And the next time? She will probably cry and wail a little less. And yes, she is being manipulative, which is shitty, but she does seem to be genuinely afraid of you leaving. So teach her that you leaving is not scary. Don’t make it scary when you leave, don’t confirm her fears that it really is that bad by coming back before you’ve really left, and don’t treat it like you were a terrible, mean, evil husband for leaving her when you’re back. She will eventually, hopefully, have a moment where she looks around and realizes that she is by herself, and…and nothing. She is by herself for a few hours till her husband comes back. And lived to tell the tale.
I had a somewhat similar problem with my mother, actually. She would call me 2-3x a day, and if I didn’t answer the phone right away or call her back within 20 minutes, she’d keep calling and leaving messages–sometimes calling ten times a day or more–, and would also do things like call my job or show up at my house. One time I didn’t call her for three days and she called a locksmith, lied to them that my apartment was hers and that she had lost her keys, and was going to have them come over and take the front door off the hinges. I literally got home 10 minutes before this happened. Had I stayed at work later, I’m not sure how things would’ve played out, because what she was going to do was illegal.
And every time something like this would happen, she would say, “But I was worried about you because I couldn’t get a hold of you! You didn’t answer your phone!” and she would sound really genuinely upset. But what she was doing was controlling and not okay. I tried to set some boundaries, which she completely ignored, and eventually for this and a number of other reasons, I cut off all contact with her entirely.
tl;dr – Yes, what your wife is doing is controlling and she needs to stop. Hope your situation turns out better than mine did, anyhow; and best of luck.
I had to wean my mom off near-daily calls (AT WORK) and it took a looong time. Now we’re down to once a week scheduled calls and once-in-a-while purposeful calls.
Call while I’m at work.
Me: (hushed tones) Is everything okay?
Mom: ??? Yes of course!
Me: Oh, good. I’m at work so I can’t really talk. Can we chat on Sunday or is it urgent?
Call after work.
Me: Is everything okay?
Mom: Why don’t you just answer the phone with ‘Hi’?
Me: I thought we had a thing where we’d call once a week, so if you’re calling now, I worry that someone’s dead.
Now calls when I’m at work.
Me: Who died?
Mom: LOL. No one died, I just need to finalize these plane tickets.
And we have long calls on Sunday afternoons to shoot the breeze. Seems to work for us, but then, my mom never lived close enough to be able to break in (!!!) or otherwise check up on me.
Glad to hear yours worked ^_^ I wish my situation had been more like that, but unfortunately my mother just said things like, “Well, if you don’t want to me to call you at work/show up at your house, you better answer your phone next time.” So it didn’t work, and eventually I had to be tell her to never contact me again, and after she stalked me for a while, I had to call the cops on her once when she showed up at my apartment and wouldn’t leave. But that was a few years ago and once she realized I was totally willing to involve the cops, she left me alone.
Which is too bad, really, because it would be nice to have relatives where I could have a conversation like, “How are you? How is the weather there? Do anything interesting lately?” Hopefully that’s something I’ll be able to with my kids, at least.
It is sad. But you are awesome for making and keeping a livable boundary for yourself.
It might be something to plan things that you would like to do, give her plenty of advanced warning, and then give her the option of going along. I am doing x on Thurday, you are welcome to come with me. When x comes along, she can go, or she can stay by herself.
This way you are getting more of what you need, but also not imposing anything on her.
Except that it sounds like what the LW needs is time away from his wife. What if she just says yes to every thing he plans to do? If her anxiety is preventing him from doing activities he wants to do, that’s a separate issue from her anxiety preventing him from doing things without her.
The LW is 100% not “imposing” anything on his wife by wanting to get drinks with friends from work or to clean the apartment. His wife is imposing on him by refusing to let him ever leave her side. Her behavior is abusive (it may not be deliberate or malicious on her part, but that doesn’t change its effect), and a big part of the dynamic of abuse is conditioning the recipient of that abuse to think that their needs — to not be hit, to not be screamed at, to be able to have their own friends or interests, to be able to leave the house whenever they want to — are impositions on the abusive partner and that “compromise” requires them to give up some or all of those needs.
Yes, the LW is not imposing by getting his own totally reasonable needs for time alone or with friends met.
When this sort of codependency/ panicky clinginess happens with a loved one, it is so hard to break the cycle because it involves causing pain to someone you care for.
My friend’s sister had a comparable issue a few years ago. She was then in her early 20s and a rape survivor. She lived alone, near her mom and started to get panic attacks, with resulted in her not being able to leave th house unless her mom was with her. It was a huge burden on the mom, who could not take a vacation because her daughter would be trapped at home, or would call screaming and crying asking mom to come home.
Long story short, therapy really helped the daughter and eventually she got over the problems, but it was not easy and I admire her for it. Now she works as a counsellor for a charity giving advice over the phone to other people with anxiety that traps them inside or in codependent relationships.
Then, in front of her, take your cell phone out of your pocket and put it on the table and walk out the door to wherever it is. We didn’t always have these magic always-reachable devices and they are not necessary for living.
In fact, my experience has been that planning for and experiencing no-networked-devices time is what is necessary for living a fulfilling life. Networked devices and the applications they run have been specifically designed by the companies that make money off them to be as intrusive, distracting, and disruptive of contemplation and real social interaction as possible. Turn those fucken things off or leave them at home and do stuff with friends, lovers, family, or by yourself. There isn’t *anything* that can’t wait, except for a medical/criminal emergency, and in case of one of those, 911 should be called.
Oh, and I should add (and I have mentioned this before in comments here), intrusive/manipulative people who are used to exploiting the supposedly constant instantaneous access provided by networked communication must be deprogrammed by *never* answering their calls, text, e-mails, etc immediately. No matter whether you actually are available or not, they must be trained to expect that you are not answering, and that they will have to wait until *you* choose for communication to be initiated. Yes, they will gnash and snivel, “Why didn’t you answer? What were you doing that was so important?” Your only response is “I was busy, and I am getting back to you now.”
A thousand times yes…
But it’s so hard.
I am trying to do this with a work colleague who calls me all the time including late at night (9, 10 pm).
If I don’t answer, she gets VERY UPSET and rings over and over.
Eventually (like tonight) I end up answering just to get her to stop calling.
I can’t make her understand that I am not “on call”.
But this advice is good…. Going cold turkey on answering….
Wow, Lilly, that’s not okay and has to be dealt with. I would suggest (as an immediate quick-fix) to assign your colleague a silent ringtone, so that you might see your phone ring, but don’t have to deal with the physical (and annoying) ringtone. But in the long run, this colleague has to understand that she has no business in calling you when you are not on call or when there isn’t an emergency. If talking to her hasn’t helped, then I think you should talk to your supervisor or manager?
Lilly, have you spoken with your (and her) supervisor about this? Have you talked to HR about this? This is something they need to know about.
Word. Bring the cell phone records so they can see how often the calls come.
Thanks for your responses, you guys, it’s really appreciated.
I love the silent ring tone idea and I will do that today! I am also keeping the cellphone records.
I spoke this morning with my supervisor as suggested. (I had not done that before because, well, the boundaries of my job are not very clear – and that is another issue I need to discuss with them.)
Anyway, my supervisor said that Colleague has no business calling me like this and that he will talk to her. I took him at his word, although in the past he has said he will do stuff and then did not. I hope this time he does. But at least I can now tell Colleague that it’s not my job to answer her late evening calls, and direct her to my boss if she complains.
Colleague is a hard worker and I respect that and her achievements – she is just very aggressive and assumes I should be available to help her and do work for her all all times, even though it’s not my job. I also don’t like that she yells at me, which I have told her not to do.
Wow, there are a ton of issues around how email, cell phones etc make people assume sometimes that we should be constantly or instantly available, which feeds into the issue the LW is having with his wife. Setting boundaries with these technologies can be difficult, in personal life as well as at work.
LW, I hope that maybe I can chime in as another person who’s experienced pretty horrific anxiety. Because I feel like your partner is absolutely being overattached and controlling, but if her anxiety is a huge reason for that, it can be managed. I used to have crippling anxiety, and I would behave in very similar ways. I HAD to be able to contact my dad (I was in school at the time) at all times for him to come get me if I had a panic attack. If I couldn’t – for WHATEVER reason – I would feel incredibly betrayed and hurt. Not because my dad had done anything wrong, but because my jerkbrain had taught me that I had to have that escape route OR ELSE.
Luckily, my dad was able to be around to help me out, but I know that had a big impact on his life. Even now, when I’m far far better, my parents both avoid taking holidays in my exam periods in case I need him. And that kind of isn’t OK. It isn’t OK for someone to have to dramatically alter their life so you can live yours.
From your partner’s point of view, it may be you are her only Safe Person. So perhaps she can cope when she really has to (like if you’re at work), but not otherwise. She needs to learn she has other Safe People, preferably including herself. Is there someone else she could hang out with while you get your own space? Your own space should definitely include not contacting her by text, I second the Captain there. She needs to be OK without you, not just without you in person.
I also second the recommendation for CBT. Even if she continues with her current psychiatrist, CBT is great at providing focused solutions to specific problems. A therapist could help her (or both of you) come up with a plan for how you can get to a point where this is less of an issue for her.
But here’s the thing: see how much I wrote ‘her’ and not ‘you’ above? See how much the other commenters wrote it? These are HER issues. It sounds like you’re doing a lot to support her, which is great of you. It’s also not mandatory. If this is too much, you can totally leave. But if you want to stay, maybe these things are helpful to you. I hope so.
LW, I want to say some things about anxiety that are from my own experience and from stuff that I’ve read. I’m definitely not an expert on any of this, but I’ve found it to be true in my (anxiety-filled) life, and maybe it will help you and your wife find a solution.
I’ve heard the anxiety / avoidance routine described as addictive. It sounds counter-intuitive (how can something so unpleasant be addictive?) and I’m not sure I totally buy this framing, but it might make sense to you, so hear me out. What happens is this: You encounter an anxiety-triggering stimulus (you see a spider, you stay home while your spouse goes out, whatever). You experience anxiety, and it sucks hugely. So, you take immediate steps to remove the stimulus (you run screaming from the spider, you call your spouse sobbing and demand that they come home). Once the trigger is gone, you come down from the anxiety. You feel better. Cortisol down, endorphins up… and you feel good. And it is that feeling good that can become addictive. And your body and brain learn that as long as it makes that anxiety response, you will feed it that ending-anxiety fix. So you keep being anxious about stuff. The way to beat that addiction (at least for me) is with some straight up classical conditioning. I think this works on two levels
1) Stop giving your body the positive outcome it has come to expect from the anxiety response. Don’t run screaming from the spider, instead make yourself stay and stand near it. Don’t get your spouse to come back back, instead live with the anxiety of them being away. It can be good to start doing this is in a controlled and extra safe way (people’s suggestions about you going out for short, pre-defined lengths of time, or having her spend time with a friend while you’re out so she has someone to comfort her are great ways of doing this).
2) Make yourself learn that the realistic outcomes of the triggering situations are not as bad as you imagine. If your wife is anything like me, her anxiety is manifesting as this terrifying thought spiral about all the possible bad things that could happen as a result of you being away from her. Maybe you’ll forget about her and stay out all night! Maybe you’ll have so much fun you’ll want to go out every night and never have any time for her! Maybe you’ll get hit by a bus and die! Maybe you’ll fall in love with one of the people you’re out with and leave her and then flaunt that love affair in her face and she’ll be forever alone and it’s all because you played monopoly without her that one time! aaaaaarrrgghhh! No wonder she gets anxious. Look at all the terrible things that might happen! So. What I would have required here is a) having the experience of you being away and b) having the outcome be that after a while you come home, probably in a pretty good mood, and nothing bad happened at all. And this would condition me to learn that you leaving the house doesn’t need to be a cause for anxiety.
LW, these are really things for your wife to do, and I’m not trying to make it your responsibility to do make her do them, but I’m telling you about my experience with anxiety because I don’t want you to feel guilty about “making” her feel the anxiety. Because if my partner and other loved ones did everything they could to arrange my life so that I never encountered an anxiety trigger ever again, they would NOT be helping me. They would be enabling me in making my life smaller, sadder, and less fulfilling.
Holy crap that’s long. Okay, tl;dr: avoiding anxiety triggers only causes more anxiety. The only way to beat anxiety is to let yourself feel it.
Yes. This this this. None of this is your fault, LW, and I am terrified of victim-blaming here, but anxiety really is this weird combination of addictive (where the other person is unwittingly enabling it by doing the natural thing of providing comfort) and abusive (as covered above). The only thing you can control is not giving her the response that enables the cycle (which is NOT YOUR FAULT, and by giving that response, it DOES NOT MEAN that you are CAUSING the cycle, even if your intuitive response here isn’t helpful); it’s really up to her to break out of the addiction (which is hard, because anxiety is miserable as well as self-perpetuating, and it’s very hard to believe that it’s not going to go on forever and ever/the worst isn’t going to happened).
Thanks for adding this. Agree completely.
This is such a great point. I know a lady whose daughter developed an irrational fear of dogs. In hopes that she’d feel safe, the mother and father started mapping out plans of attack to avoid dogs at all costs. I mean, who wants their kid to feel afraid if you can take that away for them? It makes sense. But finally, somewhere amidst the phone calls to school friends who asked her over for playdates and birthday parties to make sure they did t have a dog or if they did all evidence was hidden of said dog, avoiding the parts of the mall with pet stores, immediately leaving and hiding in the car if one wandered through the park, they finally realized the problem was getting worse, not better, and they saw a therapist who told them that they had inadvertently confirmed that yes, Virginia, dogs are scary creatures you should avoid always. In order to confirm the opposite, they essentially had to force her to deal with dogs again. No more avoiding; Suzie has a dog and if you want to play with Suzie, you gotta deal with the dog. A dog at the park? Yup, look at that dog not doing anything scary. Hey, pet store. See how not scary it is walking by? It was tough, it sounds like, but after awhile she got over it.
Spot on. Anxiety and OCD share some neurobiology. Studies of kids with OCD and their families have shown that OCD symptoms in kids who have families that accommodate the behaviors are WORSE than in families where the behaviors are not catered to. Similarly, when anxieties fixate around specific events (whether phobic or not) indulging in the avoidance behaviors that Anxiety tends to produce have the cognitive effect of VALIDATING the anxiety and reinforcing it.
LW, this is in no way blaming – it’s not possible for *anyone* to know what they don’t know – but the effect of your accomodating your wife’s anxiety is inadvertently keeping it in place. As the parent of two kids with anxiety disorders, I hope I can empower you with some of my experiences. I found that once we got good therapeutic support (in our case, CBT and DBT for the kids and coaching for the grown-ups) and we stopped accommodating the anxieties, not only did our children do better, but WE did better.
This became a positive feedback loop rather than the negative one we had had that was spiraling out of control. The less tied OUR behavior was to accommodating our kids’ anxious thoughts and behaviors, the more energized and empowered we felt. The more energized and empowered we felt, the better we got at providing *helpful* support for our kids. Our increased confidence was good to model for them, too. It helped them feel more confident, and helped lessen their anxiety.
This is not easy, and it’s not something that happens over night. It’s a process, and it takes commitment and emotional & mental resources (as well as the time and money for good therapy!). But so did dealing with our kids’ Anxiety and resultant behavioral and emotional dysregulation. The difference was that in the latter case, it was unhealthy and draining and we felt increasingly helpless. With the former, we ALL did better.
Good luck, LW.
Sorry if this is too off-topic but the thought of a five month old baby being “sleep trained” is causing me some anxiety.
Wow. That’s really your anxiety to manage, because yeah, it’s really, really, really off topic. The parents, kid, etc. are fine and happy, they are using a method suggested by their pediatrician, and their parenting choices aren’t really up for general judgment and discussion.
Yeah, ditto. 😦 I don’t want to get into the many many reasons behind it, but suffice to say it makes me sad and anxious to think about that.
Thanks, guys, for proving the point that any parenting decision that is shared anywhere will be criticized by someone who does not know the child, the parents, or anything about the situation.
Please take your anxiety (and reasons) elsewhere. Do you really think I’m going to share your comments with the parents? Or that they’ll stop the thing that is working totally fine for them and their child based on what you say here? They can see that he’s fine in the baby monitor. He’s not going to get eaten by a dingo.
BOUNDARIES. This is a boundary. Don’t cross it again.
My goodness yes! It makes *me* sad and anxious to think of two adults trying to perform the wonderful and terrifying job of being a parent on half an hour of sleep a day between them. Poor things!
We sleep trained our son and he’s almost 8 and is FINE. Really. There is a happy medium between Fully Attached (to the point of having no sleep EVER!) and Neglectful Monster (that wishes they were childless again).
If we’re on the topic of the stimulus/response nitty gritty, it’s worth noting that the usual sleep training program teaches:
a) yes, I can summon my parent, it’ll take X minutes of loud crying to do so
b) [once bedtime stuff has happened] it’s not all that interesting to summon my parent, and not usually worth the effort
You specifically aren’t cutting off parental attention, or expecting to extinguish crying as a behavior. It’s not like the kid is whining for a cookie, and you’re teaching, “nope, whining doesn’t work ever.” The parent’s visit isn’t a reward like the cookie is – the bed time parent is just boring and predictable.
A reason I suggested moving the during-freakout conversation from hysterical voice calls to SMS (down thread) is that one’s SMS’d ETA is a much closer approximation to the kind of check-in that a sleep-training parent usually does: boring, time-delayed, predictable.
I think it’s relevant to point out that the “sobbing, wailing, and begging” episode occurred “years ago”, since when the LW’s wife has taken herself to a psychiatrist and is “lots better”.
So would she react the same way now? The LW doesn’t know, because he’s still working with the old conditioning, unwilling to test or push things in case it evokes the old negative reaction.
Which is very understandable given the disastrous reactions he’s had in the past. But there’s also an issue that can come when someone’s been very ill (physically or mentally) and starts to get better: their partner can stay stuck in the role of caretaker, and not be able to adjust to the new healthy person.
The LW came up with the plan he couldn’t go through with, but that seems to be something he did entirely on his own, without discussing it with his wife.
If the relationship is so great in other ways, and if his wife really has been working hard with her psych, it may be time to sit down *together* and work out a plan for gradually increasing time apart.
And yes, definitely, therapy for the LW sounds like a great idea, because whether he breaks up with his wife or not, he needs some help unpicking the conditioning here.
I want to echo this:
“I think it’s relevant to point out that the “sobbing, wailing, and begging” episode occurred “years ago”, since when the LW’s wife has taken herself to a psychiatrist and is “lots better”.
So would she react the same way now? The LW doesn’t know, because he’s still working with the old conditioning, unwilling to test or push things in case it evokes the old negative reaction.”
Also this :
“If the relationship is so great in other ways, and if his wife really has been working hard with her psych, it may be time to sit down *together* and work out a plan for gradually increasing time apart.”
LW, you are not here to fix your wife. It is unfair to you and, to be honest, disrespectful to her, for you to decide that this is your problem to act on unilaterally. She is a grown up who is working on her issues in good faith. You owe it to her to be honest with her about how you feel and to work on these issues together. Her anxiety is her problem, your crippling inability to speak up as to how her anxiety is hurting you is your problem, that neither of you wants to get divorced and that you are not happy with the status quo is your shared problem.
Be honest with her and with yourself and see if you can work through this as a team (with or without therapy, but I’m with the choir on that one, therapy can really help).
Thanks for chiming in on this. I’m worried that I didn’t call this out adequately in my letter.
There have been other discussions and tears shed, but I haven’t really pushed the envelope in a long time.
I hope some of this has been helpful to you and that you figure out how to get what you need. You deserve that, ok?
I accept that. And I’ll break through. My thanks to you and all your wonderful commenters.
Fear not! All of of us wish you and your wife only the best… any reasons for optimism that this may just work out well in the end are welcome news.
I, for one, shaped myself around my husband more than I should for a while, not even realizing how I had gradually ceded independence and equal-personhood (he often cared more about an issue than I, so yielded without minding, until I realized he had come to expect deference almost as a right) until it accumulated to an unacceptable point and I had to retrain us both… so I understand how it happens. Compromise is good, yielding to your partner’s needs is good… until it isn’t.
Judgment and blame aren’t the point. The point is finding a way forward, to which end you should take the advice that resonates with you, ignore that which seems to be based on misconceptions about your situation.
I realize this may sound kind of jerky, but this is coming from my experience in the addiction and codependency world. It’s just that, frankly, your wife is a grown woman who is capable of handing her own anxieties, and if she isn’t, she is capable of enlisting professional support to help herself handle her own anxieties. When it feels like your wife is standing in oncoming traffic screaming for your help, it’s good to remember that she is perfectly capable of getting out of the road. You can certainly support her journey, but you don’t have to swoop in and save her, or protect her from herself.
I don’t think it sounds jerky. I think it’s kind of why my advice focused on the LW figuring out how much time he needs to himself, on what terms, and making a plan to get there — because that is totally within his power.
I actually consider it respectful to treat her like someone who, when presented with a clear articulation of what he needs and what the consequences will be if he fails to get it, can learn to adjust her behavior in order to get what she wants.
Agreed. At first it feels weird and icky to “abandon” your partner like that, even by simply having the expectation or the need for individualized space. You fear fallout and the chaos that inevitably happens when you break the behavioral contract you usually inadvertently signed onto. Ultimately, trying to control these triggers on her behalf is a fool’s errand. There is only so much he can do, and her expectations that he never leave her side OR ELSE are beyond acceptability.
To continue the thought, I hate whining with a burning, visceral passion. So I communicated to my kids from the time they were very little, “Please don’t whine. When I hear that tone of voice, it makes me want to do the exact opposite of what you are asking you for. If you tell me what you want in a normal tone of voice, you are much more likely to get it.” I think that was perfectly respectful, just apprising them of facts they needed to know about the environment they live in (of which I was a very significant part!), and giving them credit for being able to adjust their behavior accordingly.
In the same way, telling the LW, “I need to be able to go out and about, without feeling like I’m on a horrible, short, humiliating leash. If I don’t get that, I am not going to be happy enough in this marriage to stay in it,” or “When you have fits every time I try to go out on my own, it doesn’t make me want to stay with you it makes me want to run far, far away,” that’s actually respectful; it acknowledges her as a person capable of understanding your position, and working with the information.
“I think that was perfectly respectful, just apprising them of facts they needed to know about the environment they live in (of which I was a very significant part!), and giving them credit for being able to adjust their behavior accordingly.”
Exactly. And not that the LW’s wife is a child or anything, but it’s perfectly reasonable for him to renegotiate these limits and express how he doesn’t want to live, and for her adjust (or not) accordingly. It’s about Using Our Words, all around.
I used to worry myself sick about people I cared about. I went through a period of time where a bunch of friends/family died in like rapid fire around me. So after that with close friends, my mom, my dad, and a boyfriend I would call them crying if they’d been gone/not in contact with me for so long. I wasn’t abusive or controlling about it. I was just sad and worried myself into panic mode so calling them to check on them was a tear fest.
I am not saying this is your wife’s problem. But here is what worked for me: I made these people aware of the situation. I kept a journal – private. I also kept a public journal on livejournal and connected with people with anxieties like mine. They would comment and I would comment on theirs and we would sort of support each other through our anxiety. This journal has long been deleted.
I did some searching and the old anxiety disorder journal I used to be a member of seems to be deleted too. But here is one that still looks active: http://panic-anxiety.livejournal.com/
I also got therapy outside of it. I saw a school counselor and got free counseling from a therapy place that was covered by my health insurance. So it was like a two for one. If she is going to school perhaps she can get free counseling from her university. It probably won’t be as helpful as her therapy she has already. BUT it might help her through the day while she is at school to know she can stop by and talk to someone if she starts to feel really anxious.
I am still a pretty anxious and full of anxieties but I’ve learned lots of coping mechanisms. What your wife needs to do really is branch out, outside of you, learn a lot more about herself and make a social circle outside of you.
If you come from a pretty active city area. Perhaps try that meetup site (http://www.meetup.com/)? Go with her to a few meet ups she is interested in. Like ghost hunting, wine tastings, dog walking groups, knitting circles, skiing, even? Then slowly stop joining her. Eventually she will start making her own trips away from you giving you the space and time to enjoy things solo.
Sounds like Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia. Her agoraphobia is about you, not a place. I’m so sorry, this sounds miserable. Please find a marraige counselor and some individual therapy also. If she’s been seeing a psychiatrst for years with no obvious improvement, something is wrong. Perhaps she is minimising to the docotor, or perhaps she needs a new one. Along with some anti-anxiety meds.
Anathema Device, I’m sorry the idea of sleep training a five month old causes anxiety. The idea of five months with no more that two hours of consecutive sleep causes me anxiety too. But that’s another letter, no doubt.
There are many effective ways of dealing with anxiety disorders, LW. Both of you could use professional help, I hope you are able to get it soon. Good luck.
While I hope she gets help, too, both their sakes whether she has a label-able condition does not change the fact that she’s making the LW miserable enough that he (reasonably enough) doesn’t want to stay in the marriage on these terms.
And the only thing HE can do about that is try to change the terms of the marriage.
Whether she can accept the changes on her own, or whether she gets (more, or more effective) therapy to help her accept the changes, or whether she fights tooth and nail to keep him in the cage she thinks she needs him in to feel safe and it ultimately destroys the marriage…. those are beyond his power.
I was wondering the same thing about her being so anxious–could be a more serious issue. This is an unhealthy abusive dynamic for sure, but it sounds like you two care about each other so it is worth it to see if she is willing to get help. Think about what she did to help you get over your social anxieties. How did she do that? Maybe now it is your turn to help her? She will be grateful for it just as you are. A couple should help each other grow.
That said, if she’s not willing to grow…and grow up, then it’s time to get out for sure!
Hope this helps.
I don’t think that internet-diagnosing is especially helpful, but your point about maybe needing a new therapist is a good one.
LW, if your wife isn’t making noticeable progress in managing her anxiety, then something could be up with her treatment. Not all therapists are right for all people and all conditions and neither are all courses of therapy.
The baby is dependent on the parents, not the other way round.
People are really pissed about this sleep-training thing, huh?
I feel like I need a friendly puppet to sing a funny song called “Not all babies and parents are the same!”
Second verse: “There are lots of different versions of Just Fucking Fine!”
I have a funny story about that: we did the sleep-training thing with my daughter, putting her down and returning after longer and longer intervals if she fussed. It worked great, she was soon a great night-time sleeper, and we were happy, less-sleep-deprived parents. Oh, were we smug about our parenting skills!
My son came along. I know by now that he just doesn’t need as much sleep as most folks. And he’s a very social guy. But I didn’t know that then. So we tried setting what seemed like reasonable, age-appropriate bed-times, leaving him in his crib for longer and longer intervals before going in to reassure, just like we had with our daughter. However, unlike her, instead of settling down and accepting the concept of bedtime he would get hysterical… to the point of vomiting all over his bed and his little yellow footie-pajamas! Need I say we quickly abandoned that approach, and just let him sleep with us? (No worries; he’s neither scarred by the attempt to impose reasonable bedtimes nor rendered insecure/undisciplinable by excessive coddling in the family bed. In fact, he’s that delightful 14-year old I wrote about in another post… though I still catch him awake in the wee hours, long after the rest of us have gone to bed. But he’s thriving, so… whatever).
So much of parenting is trial-and-error… what’s right not just for these particular parents at this particular moment, but what’s right for this particular child at this particular moment. And just when you think you’ve got it figured out, it changes. Fortunately, there is not one correct answer; there are many many ways to raise delightful, secure, wonderful people.
Right. If it didn’t work, they’d try something else.
No, I don’t think it is fine. But I won’t go deeper into it because you don’t want this derail.
I generally value your contributions here. I am not a parent. I am not that baby’s parent. Neither are you. Let’s leave this derail well alone.
Actually, I do want to say more. If kids are happy, healthy, warm, fed, loved, and alive, I’m not really invested in one method of parenting over another. Every kid is different. Parents are different. I see this shit all the time – IF YOU DON’T DO X, YOU ARE POSSIBLY RUINING YOUR BABY FOREVER. ALWAYS BE OPTIMIZING OR YOU ARE RUINING. BE PERFECT OR YOU RUIN YOUR BABY. ALSO OTHER CHOICES THREATEN MY CHOICES SO I MUST FIGHT THEM.
People parent differently all over the world. Babies: Mostly not ruined! For example, experts widely agree that breastfeeding has many benefits for kids’ immune systems & development, etc. But not everyone can or should breastfeed. IS BABY RUINED? No. Baby is not ruined. Or, breastfeeding can be a bonding experience for mother and baby. But it isn’t that way for anyone. Do moms who don’t breastfeed not bond with their children? No. They bond just fine. Because if something works well, parents keep doing it. And if it doesn’t work well, parents change it up and do something else. Babies: Tiny deliverers of constant feedback. Parents: Allowed to make informed decisions within a variety of “pretty good” alternatives.
But 10,000 judgmental internet posts from people who are sure that OTHER PEOPLE’S BABIES MIGHT BE RUINED just sprung up as soon as I said that.
That’s why I am shutting down this derail. Not because I’m an advocate of “sleep-training” vs. “attachment parenting” – fuck, I didn’t even know what those things were a month ago. People know their own kids best and can adjust their strategies accordingly.
Yeah, I already got that. It was pretty clear.
I sympathize with the LW and his wife. LW, your wife sounds like she’s in a lot of pain, and I’m sure that is causing you pain too, because you love her! and she’s really awesome! But it isn’t really your bucket to carry, you know?
I have really mild anxiety, and I have been known to throw a pretty shameful fit when we have a fight and my husband leaves to take a walk or a drive whatever to cool off. So I understand the true utter terror that your wife feels and how absolutely preventing that terror AT ALL COSTS seems like the best solution.
I think you know it is untenable, and I’m betting she does too. In a calm and loving moment you should absolutely bring it up and ask her what she thinks you (both of you) should do. I’m betting her response won’t be “you don’t leave the house except for work”.
I think that acclimating her to absences will be the best approach. It will probably be helpful to have her therapist in on the plan, especially if she/he is experienced with anxiety/phobias. If they’re not, maybe find a new therapist for this specific project. They might have some novel ideas for helping you both work through this with the least amount of trauma.
Couples counseling. And individual therapy for each of you, from someone other than your couples therapist. Please make sure you are seeing someone trained in couples therapy (an LMFT if you are in the US-most other professionals are not trained in couples therapy.) Seriously, a couples therapist can help you two talk about the underlying issues that feed this pattern and then help you break the pattern. Couples therapy is not for planning a break up (unless the couple wants it to be), it is about making sure the two of you have a sustaining, healthy relationship. If you want to be really scientific about it, ask for a therapist who uses an emotionally-focused therapy approach to the couples counseling, because that is shown to be highly efficient. I’m a huge proponent of family and couples counseling. Well done family therapy changes lives for years after it is over. We live our lives in relationship- but sometimes those relationships need care and family/couples counseling is how you get that care.
This is an extremely small piece of the entire situation but I noticed the use of the word “psychiatrist.” That typically means an MD and usually their focus, and the bulk of their training, centers around medicating patients. Some psychiatrists are different and do non-medication (talk or behavioral) therapy. And sometimes people just get confused between psychiatrists and psychologists (Ph.D.s who do therapy, but often have more of a research or medical focus) vs licensed social workers/Masters of Social Work holder (LicSWs, MSWs). All of these can be referred to as therapists, but the focus and training for each is very different.
It sounds like nit-picking but if your girlfriend is really getting treated by an M.D., the treatment may focus on medication and/or the M.D. may not be the best person to turn to for solutions if medication does not treat her issues. You do say she is “lots” better but it sure doesn’t sound like it, so I wondered if this could be one reason.
BUT this is aside from the main issue about which I completely agree with the Captain and commentators, i.e. that 1) you can’t solve her problems and 2) you do need to take care of yourself in the ways they have outlined.
Don’t forget LPC (Licensed Professional Counselors) and LMFTs (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists. Of all the professionals listed, they have the most clinical focus-not to say Psy.D’s or Ph.D’s or LCSW’s are not qualified, just that their educations tends to focus on many things, leaving less time for therapeutic training.
Yes, sorry, you are right, and there may be even more initials we are forgetting… but the main point, which I think we agree on, being that the type of initials does make a difference, and that in this case a “higher” degree is not necessarily better. (There are also places where you need incredibly little training to hang your shingle up as a therapist, which is yet another issue…)
In my personal experience I have found I preferred working with psychologists less, and I’ve never seen a psychiatrist for anything besides medication (although, even in that restricted realm, some are much better and some are not so good).
I noted the same thing. Not that medication can’t be helpful, but if there isn’t talk therapy also, that might be helpful to add.
This is something close for me as my parents have a pretty similar dynamic; whilst it isn’t quite as severe it is also something that cannot be identified as a problem within my family. My father does a sport which he loves to death and which has an annual festival where for about a week there are heaps of fun things to do each day. My mother has restricted the amount of involvement he has in this sport more and more over the years until recently they have started *leaving the city over the duration of the festival for the express purpose of making him unable to attend*.
God, I wish I was making this up. When I heard about this most recent clusterfuck I put my foot down and suggested they go to couple’s therapy which didn’t happen. But, LW, if you have any success I would love to hear about it. It sounds like you two have a great thing in so many ways and like there is a lot of love there. It might be a situation where you need to be not cruel but a bit tough to be kind. I wish you all the very best and I’ll be checking in on this thread with the hopes of good news. I think demanding good treatment from your loved ones is an act of love, and respect, and i commend you for it.
Wow, that sounds really bad for your father. Why does your mother not allow him to do something he enjoys? It sounds like therapy for her rather than couples therapy might be better, if she is willing to explore that issue?
I think this sort of thing happens rather frequently. Recently I went to a colleague’s wedding and it took place in the evening, the colleague has a massive family and a ton of friends, and very nicely also invited several of her co-workers including me and a senior manager, who I sat next to at the meal after the wedding ceremony. He was really uncomfortable and fidgeted with his phone a lot so I asked him politely if everything was OK. He said his wife kept messaging him and he had to go home soon, because he is “kept on a short leash”. He said that as a joke but I didn’t think it was very funny. Anyway, he kept his phone out and it was obvious he was getting a ton of SMS’s. Eventually, he got up to leave in the middle of the meal (!!!) and said “I’d better go, my wife wants me to come home to help her with the kids, or I’ll get shot.”
Again, he made it into a joke but I just… I didn’t think it was funny that he had to cut his night out short in such a sad way like that.
Yikes 😦 That’s also really disrespectful to the couple who paid money to serve this person a meal at their freaking wedding. I totally understand the impulse to turn things like that into a joke, but I am never sure how to respond to that kind of “humor.” I want to be supportive, but not intrusive, you know? Anyway, I hope things get better for the LW and for your colleague.
Ugh, you’re right, it is a ‘my mum thing’ and not a ‘couple thing’. But you get even less success with that angle, because then you’re “telling her she’s crazy” which, yeah, I can’t even. What’s really horrible is my Dad is completely unable to even acknowledge it’s a problem… or that is, he can only acknowledge it in a conversation in which she has also acknowledged it. Yep. Uncool.
With the story about your colleague, I think that’s a great example of how misogynist scripts serve to oppress men as well: the “oh, all women are controlling and emotionally manipulative bitches amirite?” line only deprives men of the language they need to express that the behaviour they are being subjected to isn’t OK with them (in het couples that is).
I hope you don’t think I’m overstepping here, Awkward Niece, and if so I’m sorry, please ignore me! But as the child of two parents with similar bizarre and not particularly healthy dynamics, I found the best way to cope is just to step out. So if one of them starts talking about things which clearly aren’t OK, I tend to just change the subject. I’ve tried suggesting therapy, and trying to help them fix stuff but…they’re grown adults. It’s up to them to fix things, and the stress it causes me to ‘help’ just isn’t worth it.
Oh Alice, you’re not at all! And in fact that is exactly what I have done, it’s just sad that it took me about three years to figure out what you took a couple of days to suggest I do :-p
So. Now I let them do their thing, and I do mine. And I am much happier, and they are… well they are out of my hair 🙂
Thanks for the kind advice, it’s nice to know others are handling this in a similar way to me.
“My wife has contributed so much to my life.”
“She created a space wherein I was able to develop emotionally in ways I’d been fundamentally lacking. Due in no small part to her, I have become awesome.”
LW, it sounds like you feel indebted to her. She’s done much for your self-improvement, right? So tackling the tough issues in a decisive way would feel like a betrayal, right?
It can be tough getting past feeling like you owe somebody profound emotional capital. Loyalty is a tough egg to crack. But no debt you owe anyone is infinite. And romantic relationships are about two people being crazy about each other, not a perfectly balanced reciprocation system. Maybe you are crazy about each other, maybe there is still time to leverage this into something much better, but try not to frame your relationship as a matter of what you “owe” her. Nobody owes anybody their entire livelihood.
If you were falling out a building and Spider-Man swooped in to save you, you would owe Spider-Man some serious thanks. You would not owe him obedience to his every whim.
Not sure I agree with the analogy totally, unless you were like, married or in a relationship with Spidey when you fellout of the building. Otherwise, Spidey is a total stranger whereas the LW and his wife have a shared history and more.
Otherwise, I agree with the stuff about a betrayal. It’s hard to cause someone you love pain.
A triviality, but replying via SMS is sometimes an optimization over taking a hysterical voice call. If you can move the whole conversation to SMS, you can more easily keep your own tone neutral and calm and the built-in delays can work in your favor, without wholly removing the reassurance that you are still safe and on schedule.
If she is ashamed of being a crying wreck, a way point for her might be a way to ask for and receive reassurance, in a more acceptable way, while successfully hiding her tears.
A problem that seems worth admitting, is that once you’ve been shut-in for long enough, it’s hard to figure out what to do with yourself, while you’re retraining your environment. In my case it’s little kids, but I find it fairly hard to concoct an appropriate errand to go casually do on short notice, and while I was more shut in, most of the friends I might’ve met for dinner or coffee have wandered off. I’m sure I can and will rebuild the friendships, but it’s disheartening to focus a lot on extracting yourself, only to find yourself coming home early because going out to dinner alone was less fun than it looked.
You can’t really recharge by going out alone unless going out alone is something you do often enough that it’s no big deal, and you need a lot of faith in the process to power through the time of “I arranged this thing so that we’d all be stressed out and have no fun.”
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