A visitor to DrHurd.com writes, ‘My wife of two years goes out of her way to control me. Everything from constant phone calls asking where I am, to ordering me to go to sleep when it suits her or to stop doing things I’m enjoying because she wants attention. More seriously, if she doesn’t get her way, she will do everything she can to ‘back me into a corner’ and physically and emotionally hurt me until she gets what she wants. She even uses threats of suicide when all else fails. As I write this I can see how much trouble our marriage is in because I am honestly and truly unhappy and can’t say I love her anymore. But I also feel sorry for her and our sons and don’t find it so easy to leave.’
The writer asked me to respond in the form of a column (I think she checks his email), so here goes:
The key to your question is, ‘But I also feel sorry for her’.’ Your wife knows this, and that’s why she treats you the way she does. She clearly has problems, but so do a lot of people. We tend to think of people who have emotional problems as not being capable of being bullies, but that’s not correct. People with problems come in all shapes and sizes, and some are bullies and some are not. Your wife is clearly a bully.
Bullies are adversarial and look for weaknesses to exploit. That’s what she’s doing when she ‘backs you into a corner’ and threatens you. If a man threatened you like that we wouldn’t hesitate to call him a bully. But when a woman does it through words or emotions, the legal status might not be the same, but everything else is.
You have to stand up for yourself. If you can’t, then do it for your kids. You cannot provide them with the example they need unless you stand up to their mother. Years from now, they could be telling some therapist, ‘My mother was irrational and abusive. My father never stood up to her. Our household was terrifying and we never knew what would happen next.’ If you’re stressed out, think about how your children feel.
Standing up to your wife doesn’t mean threatening her back. Emotional and physical abuse won’t work. In fact, she’s probably trying to provoke you so she can tell everybody how you’ve victimized her. Don’t give her the satisfaction. Just refuse to listen to her complaints, and refuse to give them the dignity of a response. Walk away from her abusive threats. When she threatens suicide, call 911 each and every time since suicide is, after all, against the law. Try to explain (when and if she’s more composed), that you’re willing to talk when she’s reasonable, but never when she’s emotional and threatening. When this limit-setting sends her into a rage (and it will), walk away and ignore her.
I strongly advise you to consult a lawyer. I believe lawyers should only be a last resort, but you owe it to your kids and yourself to know your legal position. Your wife is volatile, and people like that often try to exploit the legal system to their own unbalanced advantage. Know the facts and keep them in the back of your mind. This may be the single most important step you take.
Examine what makes you feel sorry for her. Figure out why you refuse to treat her as a bully. I assume you loved her before, but you have to let go of the past. She’s either changed, or she was never who you thought she was. If some part of you likes being treated badly, or you think you deserve it, you should discuss these issues with a good cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist. He or she can help you identify mistaken assumptions contained in your emotions. Think of your wife as one, big sad symptom of what’s wrong with you — but YOU can change.
Ignore the psychobabble you’re going to hear in today’s goofy culture about how your wife ‘needs help.’ Sure she needs help. But she’s not the type who’s going to benefit from it. ‘Help’ implies that you know there’s something wrong with you and that you’re willing to change. I’m sure that’s true of you, but it’s never true of people who take their problems out on others. And, frankly, people like her rarely, if ever, change.
Life with such a person is one gigantic act of self-sacrifice. If you think that’s noble, then good for you. But there’s nothing noble about being a martyr. If you want to be happy, you’re going to have to change your behavior towards your wife. And that, by far, is the noblest thing you can do for yourself — and your sons.