In this week The-You-I-Know Series, I created Alison, a woman in her mid-thirties, with two small children, who can’t stand her spouse. Here is how the story goes.
Alison: I CAN’T STAND HIM.
Me: WHY NOT?
Alison: I’ve been unhappy for a long time. Like, really long.
Me: How long?
Alison: I’m thinking even since I had my first baby – 11 years.
Me: That is a long time. Have you been unhappy that whole time?
Alison: Well, I don’t know. Sometimes I’ve been happier. Hard to say. It’s been…up and down.
Me: Right – that’s how it goes in marriage.
Alison: I’m thinking I can’t do it any more. Like I just can’t stand the sight of his face. It shouldn’t be this way.
Me: That thought makes it worse. Marriage can’t be a lifetime of harps and roses.
Alison: I’m not getting names of divorce lawyers or anything. I’m not independent – the kids….
Me: Well can you stand being so unhappy?
Alison: I don’t know – I don’t even understand it, really. He is not a bad person. In many ways he is a really good person. It’s just that I feel so frustrated around him. This morning, I was getting breakfast for the kids, and he was sitting in a chair with his computer enjoying reading and it just made me so…angry.
Me: Did you want him to help you out?
Alison: No, he doesn’t do that. He works all week – he works hard. I have the kids. I’m in charge of that. In many ways, he has it easier, though. Because he has a regular schedule. I never know what my days are going to be like. I can’t build in anything regular for myself. And I’m tired too on the weekend.
Me: Could this be why you are so unhappy?
Alison: Yes. And I’m so sick of people telling me to “do something” about it. What am I going to do? Tell him that he has to work AND do stuff around the house? People say I should go back to school? With what? I don’t have the time or the money. Or the energy. Get a job? Wouldn’t be worth it financially. I’m stuck.
Me: Yes, you are.
Alison: So what can I do to feel better?
Me: What reason do you have for feeling better?
Alison: I don’t know.
Me: So how can you feel better, then?
Alison: I feel like I should be happier.
Me: You’re not. Why can’t you be what you are?
Alison: No, that’s not nice. That’s not right. That’s not how it should be…Do you think I’m at the point where I should consider divorce? We don’t respect each other any more.
Me: If you want to change your state of mind, that is certainly one way to do it.
Alison: But my question is, can I get into a better state of mind without a divorce?
Me: I don’t know.
Alison: That’s what I don’t know either.
Me: I would try to see if you could. Maybe you could change your state of mind without divorcing. Divorce is good for when there is absolutely no doubt in your mind whatsoever that you need to change the marital status to create a change in your mental state.
Alison: Well I’m almost to the point where I can’t stand it.
Me: Hmmm. Could you find something to change within the marriage that would help you with your frame of mind?
Alison: If you’re suggesting, like everybody else does, that I should get him to help me with the dishes, I’m going to scream. It’s a great idea maybe — but I feel too guilty. I already feel like I don’t do enough. He’s always makes sure to tell me “I WOULDN’T BE WORKING THIS FRIGGING JOB IF IT WASN’T FOR YOU”. He wouldn’t be working his job if it wasn’t for us – he’d be doing something he loves. So I feel bad about it because I’m doing what I WANT to be doing staying home with the kids.
Me: The best advice is not always the right advice.
Alison: It’s tough. But basically, when I’m not near my husband I almost feel better. I look forward to him coming home, because he does talk to the kids and I have some breathing space, but I can’t stand him five minutes after he walks in. And I don’t want to sleep with him.
Me: He is a frustration to you. Not a comfort.
Alison: Exactly. He doesn’t comfort me at all. He seems annoyed with me. He seems like he can’t stand to be around me either.
Me: You’re both unhappy.
Alison: I guess he is, too. Though he never talks about it.
Me: Do you?
Alison: Not this way. I mean, I tell him I had a hard day, or that I’m tired. But he doesn’t know how unhappy I am.
Me: And you don’t know how unhappy he is.
Alison: You think he’s unhappy?
Me: He sounds unhappy.
Alison: God, it shouldn’t be this way.
Me: I know.
Alison: Do you think I should ask him to do more around the house?
Me: He’s going to think he has to “fix” things, to make you happier. But he is tired, so he’s going to resent it and maybe even get mad. And you’re going to feel like you have to “fix” his being mad then, which will make you frustrated.
Alison: God – is there any hope for us?
Me: It is very frustrating to be married without any help.
Alison: It is.
Me: It is very hard for couples to understand each other, because they don’t like having to see each other in pain. We all get frustrated because we have our own needs and we also feel burdened by the needs of our spouse.
Alison: How can you work on that? How can you see the pain the other person is in?
Me: I don’t know.
Alison: I mean, I guess I could try to see the pain he is in.
Me: Is that going to make you want to do more for him?
Alison: Maybe. Maybe. Which is not the answer.
Me: No. This problem of having to “fix” each other is almost insurmountable in marriage. Especially close marriages. It really gets in the way of feeling relaxed and being able to be comfortably grumpy or mad and be understood.
Alison: But I would actually like him to fix me. Like help me with dishes. Just not complain about it. Right now, he doesn’t take care of me at all. I don’t even know if I take care of him anymore.
Me: Right. The only way to survive marriage is if you can tolerate the other person being miserable sometimes. And also uncaring, unfeeling, resentful, mad, frustrated, negative, selfish, or self-involved.
Alison: I hate that. That doesn’t make me feel loved. If you’re going to do the dishes but be an asshole about it, that doesn’t help. I’d rather do them myself.
Me: It’s very hard to feel unloved. You have to tolerate the other person ’s frustration a lot in marriage.
Alison: Do you think it’s healthy? Is it healthy to be OK with the other person being unhappy? Acting mad and put out all the time?
Me: Well it is not healthy if you cannot tolerate it – if it’s too painful. If the realities of both people being unhappy, unavailable and unpleasant make you sick, you have to get away from that state of mind. Otherwise, if you can stand it, it passes or gets buried under by positive feelings.
Alison: If you can stand the realities, it is easier to stay together. For the kids. Less complicated. Yeah, we’re both not the most pleasant people to be around. But in my case, it’s because of him.
Me: Right. Sometimes, when the kids are grown and there are less demands, a couple can find each other again, and then, the closeness is very strong because of what you endured together.
Alison: Why? Why wouldn’t all the disappointment create a permanent rift? I’ll never love my husband the way I did when we met. I’ll never be in love with him again. I know him too well now.
Me: This rift becomes a bond because each person has proved to the other that you could stand your horrible state of mind enough to have stayed together. You could stand each other. Ultimately, it’s nice to be with someone who can stand you. Who has enough love for you to deal with being around you even though you were both miserable and suffering. You take comfort, later, in not having been abandoned in the face of all that negativity.
Alison: I get that. And we do have some fun times, sometimes. A couple of times a year. We have sex about every six weeks or so.
Me: That’s huge. You can tolerate the horrible states of mind if your partner has the potential to provide you with some pleasure.
Alison: So…you’re saying more date nights, right?
Me: Only if it helps with your frame of mind. If it depresses you more, then you need to find other activities that help you tolerate your state of mind.
Alison: Got it. Ok. So, I’ll have to see.
Alison: It’s been “real.” Seriously – I feel like such an idiot sometimes when people suggest you “do” something. Sometimes, you don’t know what to do. Nothing will help.
Me: Yes. Thank you for tolerating your state of mind enough to open up to me . I know you can’t “do” anything about your situation right now.
Alison: Well, in a way I can do something — as far as figuring out what I can tolerate. Or what I can’t.
Me: True. You have the power to think and feel. Let your heart lead the way. Keep studying what is most difficult and what is tolerable. Study your frustration and study your husband so you two can negotiate who is allowed to be more unhappy sometimes. Keep us posted.
Alison: Um…I am a character you created from your mind.
Me: Well, you are a character who, like me, like my family and friends, my patients and people I read about, has these moments of hopelessness and conflict. Of despair. We are all evolving. That’s the secret to how change really happens.
Alison: Not by making a decision. By getting to some place in your head.
Me: Right. Excellent, The-You-I-Know!
”Alison”: Thank you.
Me: I am happy to have helped “you.”