“The Knife and the Wound Both Need Each Other.”
— Sheldon Kopp, Psychoanalyst and Writer
I’ve been married to Laura for 25 years and I’ve never been able to please her. We go for a period of time with things going well between us. Then out of the blue she gets bent out of shape over some imagined worry that preoccupies her. I understand that I may not be the most sensitive husband at times but Laura goes nuts and exaggerates how bad things are between us and rants for hours. She slams doors and usually wants nothing to do with me for long periods of time. We go from peace to war for no apparent reason. If I try to make up with her she accuses me of being manipulative or hiding something like an affair with another woman. There is no calming her. I have to tiptoe around her moods. Once I wanted to visit my father in the hospital when he had a health emergency. Laura got real surly with me for missing dinner and accused me of being disloyal to her. She doesn’t like my family and wishes I wouldn’t see them very much. I sneaked over to see my dad anyway and Laura hit the roof. She won’t try counseling. She sees everything as my fault. If it weren’t for my two children and having to pay alimony I would be out of here. The best I can do is to spend more time on the road for business and volunteer at my church when I’m in town. But that’s no real solution.
For good and bad, lately I’ve seen more and more couples that don’t conform to the traditional sexual stereotype of married people. As a culture we expect husbands to be clueless and self-involved regarding family and community matters and for their wives to be self-sacrificing and overly responsible bearers of well-being for others. Traditional sitcoms and TV spoofs often run along these lines and get a lot of bang for the buck from such themes and their variations. Times have changed. Nowadays husbands may be the primary nurturers while their wives are self-absorbed. Perhaps we have reached true sexual equality when men and women can equally bear the good and evil of modern living.
Unfortunately, as witnessed in the above vignette, the suffering that used to occur in patriarchal marriages may now occur in more egalitarian families. Kind men can marry selfish wives. Two partners can get stuck in a modern version of good and evil.
Actually it’s important to realize that neither partner in the above example is truly all bad or truly faultless. The kind husband needs his self-centered wife just as much as she needs him to be overly generous. They needed each other this way prior to being married to each other. They do not make each other that way. Unlike more capable partners who co-create a dysfunctional relationship between each other and can make positive changes, some married people cannot help themselves from being trapped in a dysfunctional relationship, as the above example shows. Patterns of exploitation and masochism in a marriage are not made in the present relationship; they arise from previous unrecognized childhood damage prior to the current relationship and only get played out in the current marriage.
Oddly enough, people trapped in a hopeless patterns often desperately cling to one another, are often unaware of why they do so and cannot see what other options they have. Make no mistake. Suffering in silent resignation to the inevitable hurtful marital patterns and blaming your partner is not a viable solution. There are difficult yet positive alternatives to such misery that both married people can either choose together or choose individually aside from each other.
Why do husbands put up with self-centered wives?
Actually it’s a tribute to some men who stay committed to a self-absorbed wives. Part of this devotion is about a commendable “until death do us part” mentality, affirming that men are quite capable of being committed to their relationships. I have seen many men who have this kind of devotion. Some of them do that for the sake of their younger children whom they do want to spare them from a growing up in a divorced household. However too often partners of selfish wives typically stay for the wrong reasons. They stay not out of love but out of fear. They over focus on their selfish wives and endlessly trying to make them happy because they are way too afraid of living on their own. Too many such sacrificial husbands don’t feel they deserve real love and are quite unsure of making it on their own. The macho side of men make it nearly impossible for them to see just how scared they are of abandonment. Often they had an emotionally distant relationship with their own mothers and expect nothing more for themselves. So they suck it up and overlook how they are being treated by their wives.
The cruel irony of this situation is that such men are actually quite adept at relationships and could quite easily handle being on their own if they had to be. Their fears of not being able to live on their own are quite groundless, particularly because in relating to a selfish wife for years they have been essentially on their own anyway. Sometimes men stay irrationally committed to a selfish mate because they feel overly responsible for her welfare. Selfish wives can actually be quite helpless and such men feel trapped by their unrealistic burdens. They cannot see that their wives are actually responsible for their own lives and that they are not bad people for expecting to be so responsible for themselves. Often they fail to see that it is a lost cause to make a selfish woman happy.
The high drama of such relationships often occurs in a fog state where little realistic thinking occurs. It is actually quite sad to see men being over-committed to hurtful women, particularly when so many men are cold and unloving in relationships. A typical reaction to such pairing by outside observers is “Why can’t their wives see what a good deal they have?!”
Why do selfish wives expect their husbands to love them anyway?
It is painfully obvious and almost comical that a self-centered spouse expects the impossible of her mate. For instance, the woman in the above example, after fuming over her husband’s visiting his father in the hospital, got upset that her husband would not make love to her later. She literally cannot see how foolish it is to berate her husband and then in the next moment expect him to be adoring of her. This splitting of bad stuff from good stuff is characteristic of what she grew up with as a child and is a sign of major damage that gets reenacted in her current marriage. She becomes difficult not because she wants to be a bad person and hurt her spouse but because she feels she has no other choice but to demand the impossible of her mate. She is, in fact, trapped in her own internal hurtful patterns, often which she does not see.
Typically people who are continually selfish do not want to see how hurtful they really are because it would admit to an imperfection, a major threat to a fragile sense of self. Selfish people who get a glimpse of their imperfections often become severely depressed. They deflate like a hot air balloon being pricked by a needle. Selfish people often choose to remain selfish because it is just too scary for them to do otherwise, particularly when they lack adequate professional help. Selfish wives, like their sacrificial husbands, are victims of their own demons and are equally deserving of compassion and love.
How can suffering partners make positive changes?
I wish I could say there are 10 easy steps for partners to take to have a better marriage. There are no such 10 easy steps. Working on communication together will not do the trick. The pairing of selfish wives with sacrificial husbands, and vice-versa, is often doomed from the start. Read Narcissistic Lovers by Cynthia Zayn and Kevin Dibble, M.S. New York: New Horizon Press, 2007.
The only glimmer of hope for the marriage and the advisability of marital counseling is when both partners agree to honestly look at themselves and not blame each other. In such relationships it is typically better to start with the marriage and see if it can be revived in the hands of an experienced counselor. Someone trained in trauma and attachment theory would do best.
Otherwise, as difficult as it is to face, it’s advisable for each partner to pursue individual counseling. The selfish wife may need to learn how she impacts others and her husband may need to learn that he can exist on his own apart from his partner. Both may benefit from developing a stronger sense of self, which will last them a lifetime.
When they look back on things, after years of personal struggle, they will often be glad they took the time to work more on the “me’ part of themselves and less on the “us” part. It is a journey of courage. Indeed, it’s impossible to be an “us” before we can be a “me.”
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.