Advice on Intimacy and Relationships
Dear Stacy: I am married to a smart, beautiful woman. We have a young daughter and live in the city. We met in law school and my wife now works for a medium-sized law firm. I am a government attorney. We always knew that in taking our respective paths, she would likely be the primary breadwinner in our family. But now, with our expenses getting higher (daughter will start private school this fall) and the frustrating federal government pay freeze, the disparity is too much for me to ignore. She makes twice what I do and I seem to be thinking about it all the time. We have discussed my feelings a few times, but I know it is hard for her to even humor me, when we both knew this would be the situation when I took a government job. So I try to ignore it, but I know it ’s coming between us. She knows something is off with us, too, but I don't think she sees it as a financial issue. She asked me if I'm falling out of love with her. I don't think I am, but it’s very hard for me to feel like a man when I have to ask her permission to buy a song on iTunes. -A Plummeting Testosterone
Dear Plummeting: I appreciate your honesty here, and am hoping you will consider being as honest with your wife during your [inevitable] conversation about the situation. But first, I need some clarification. Is your frustration about the more abstract concept of who wins what bread and where, or is it that you are actually being nickel and dimed, RE: asking permission to buy a song on iTunes? Does Wife really demand that you preauthorize all purchases? Or have you started asking her permission as a passive aggressive way of acting out against the frustration of this arrangement? Or did that just sound good when penning an anonymous letter to an advice column? This distinction is important. Choice #1 suggests you are living with a tyrant, while #3 reflects the joy of anonymity in an online society. But #2, in which your rage seethes behind thinly veiled deference to Wife as Head-of-Household, is cause for serious alarm. If this is the case, you are dead on that she thinks things are off between you.
Contempt and defensiveness are two of John Gottman's “four horsemen of a relationshp’s apocalypse. When present and allowed to grow, these traits poison a marriage. Not talking about your feelings and self-censoring just because you knew you might have them when you made a certain career choice years ago is sabotaging your relationship and this has got to stop. It is completely natural to struggle with this [somewhat] countercultural power dynamic. Pretending you are ok with it, no matter what, is disingenuous and debilitating. Get yourselves into dialogue (please consider allowing a neutral third party to help: counselor, clergyperson, etc.) so you can let yourself make room for these emotions and find healthy ways to release them.
Dear Stacy: My husband of five years is clinically depressed. He has struggled with this condition since high school and manages it with medication and weekly therapy. This has been the case since we met, so it ’s something I've always accepted. But lately, I feel like his therapist is interfering in our personal lives too much. Any disagreement we have comes around to him saying, "Well Nancy says... I don't know how to react to this. First off, Nancy is not a part of our marriage and I don't care about her opinion. Second, she has never even met me, so she ’s getting a very one-sided view of the story. I have drafted a letter to her that I would like to send, explaining my side on some recent conflicts in our household. I think she needs to hear both sides before making these declarations about how our family decisions should be made. Do I have to show it to my husband before I send it? -Letterwriter
Dear Letterwriter: As a therapist myself, I'm taking a deep breath before jumping into defend Nancy’s honor here. You have every right to feel frustrated that Husband invokes her name whenever you face a disagreement. That must be an absurdly irritating little tic Husband has developed. But it also seems absurd at least to me that Nancy would have an opinion about every little family decision you are facing. The 50-minute therapy hour, even weekly, is not enough time to cover that much ground. Let me propose a different scenario.It sounds like Husband is using the standard blame the therapist” technique to insert opposing points of view into his conversation with you. I’ve prescribed this method several times – why have a therapist if you can’t blame her for contrary ideas once in a while? Nancy should have a confidentiality policy (one which would likely require her to show your letter to Husband before any response, by the way) making it impossible for anyone to fact-check whatever he says she said. In other words, taking this up with her is a non-starter. Lets focus on what you can do instead. The next time Nancys opinion is inserted into your argument, try and take a moment to mentally reframe the statement as being what Husband really, really wants you to hear. He wants you to hear it so deeply, that he is willing to give up ownership of the position, just so that you might actually take him seriously. It’s not a great method – it obviously has you more defensive now than ever – but it’s the way he’s choosing to tell you what he needs most. If you are able, in the moment, mirror what he ’s saying and then gently ask him if that is what he really wants. See if you can get back to conversing one-on-one. If you need a little help, feel free to have Husband ask Nancy for a referral to couples therapy.
Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor and certified Imago Relationship therapist practicing in Georgetown. Her website is www.stacymurphyLPC.com and you can follow her on twitter @StacyMurphyLPC. This column is meant for entertainment only, and should not be considered a substitute for professional counseling. Send your confidential question to firstname.lastname@example.org.