A visitor to my website 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. If she doesn’t get her way, she does 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 see how much trouble our marriage is in because I’m truly unhappy and can’t say I love her anymore. But I also feel sorry for her and our sons, and just can’t bring myself to leave.” Interestingly enough, the writer asked me to respond in the form of a column — she checks his email, too! So here goes:
The key to your question is, “But I also feel sorry for her….” She knows this, and that’s why she treats you the way she does. She clearly has problems, but so do a lot of people. People with problems come in all shapes and sizes, and some are bullies.
Bullies look for weaknesses to exploit. That’s what she’s doing when she “backs you into a corner.” If a man threatened you like that we wouldn’t hesitate to call him a bully. But when a woman does it through words and emotions, the legal status is the only thing that’s different.
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. We never knew what would happen next.” If you’re stressed, think about how they feel.
Standing up to her doesn’t mean threatening her. Emotional and physical abuse won’t work. In fact, she’s probably trying to provoke you so she can tell everybody what a victim she is. Simply refuse to listen to or respond to her complaints. Walk away from her threats. When she threatens suicide, call 911 each and every time. Suicide is, after all, against the law. Try to explain (when and if she’s composed), that you’re willing to talk when she’s reasonable, but not when she’s emotional and threatening. When this limit-setting sends her into a rage (and it will), walk away.
Lawyers should be a last resort, but you owe it to your kids and yourself to know your legal position. People like her often exploit the legal system to their own unbalanced advantage. Know the facts and record them somewhere. This may be the single most important step you take.
Examine what makes you feel sorry for her and why you refuse to treat her as a bully. I assume you loved her before, but 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 that with a good cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist. Think of your wife as one big noisy symptom of what’s wrong with you — but YOU can change.
Ignore the psychobabble of 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’re willing to change. 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 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 for your sons.