“I am unhappy because my husband is mean. How can I change him?” Proper Advice from a Psychoanalytic Perspective

I’m 38 and have been married for 15 years. With two daughters, aged 12 and ten, we’ve generally been happy, but I feel our future is under threat.

My husband runs his own business from home and works extremely hard. Living with such a driven perfectionist, it’s very hard to measure up.

I can’t really get excited about housework, especially when it’s never good enough, and I also have a well-paid job, but it’s one that doesn’t really tick all my boxes. I have a good education, was a PA before having children and am studying for a qualification in accounting.

I wish my husband could understand that looking after children and running the home is hard work – and a job in itself.

I feel guilty if I so much as read a paper for five minutes, because he’s working in his office.

Woe betide me if I’m ‘caught out’. I’ll often hear him say: ‘It’s all right for you, I have to work’, as if what I do isn’t important.

I’m constantly being hauled up over minor things and I really hate it. I’ve tried to tell him how I feel, but he says I’m being over-sensitive.

Although he never works at weekends, all his energies are concentrated on the garden, which is of massive importance in his life.

It’s lovely, but never ‘finished’ – and we very rarely actually enjoy it. Work on it comes before everything else and is the source of endless rows because I feel he should be spending time with the children.

I’ve tried to make this point, but he says no one else will do the garden. He’s missing out on so much – but he’s not going to change after 15 years.

I really want us to stay together as I do love him, and I don’t want to deprive our girls of their father – but I feel I’m sacrificing too much of myself if things stay as they are.

You’ll suggest counselling, but the hard part is convincing him that things are that bad!

Five years ago I was diagnosed with depression, but manage fairly well. But, as with any problem, everyone thinks that when you behave a certain way, then it’s the illness talking, and not you, which causes me immense frustration.

I tried counselling via Relate a few years ago, but there was little they could do without my husband’s involvement.

I don’t want to meet anyone else; I want to sort out this marriage – but I don’t know how.

I’ve obviously tried to talk to my husband, but find it hard to control my feelings and it usually turns into a row.

He thinks I’m always criticising, so I’m at a loss as to how best to approach this whole subject. How can this be, considering I’m an intelligent woman?

This letter first appeared in the Daily Mail.

My answer:
This letter has a strange beginning. You say you’ve ‘generally been happy’ but no happiness comes across. The word ‘hard’ comes up twice in the first few lines and ‘under threat’ appears almost immediately. It is clear that you are struggling, but also that you find it very hard to admit that you are struggling. It’s easier to blame someone else for the struggle…

You instantly accuse your husband of being a ‘driven perfectionist’ to whom you can’t ‘measure up.’ It seems that reader is supposed to feel that you are being bullied and dominated by a man who accuses you of failing to perform perfect housework and cannot appreciate the work you do at home.

This may well be the case (and he sounds like a classic bully – looking for errors and negating your misery with the ‘over sensitive’ label) but I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. You say yourself that your job isn’t fulfilling and you feel the need to stress that you are not only educated but that you are continuing to be educated. You finish by citing your intelligence – you wouldn’t need to stress it if you really believed it.  It sounds as though your self esteem is under attack not only from your husband, but from yourself as well. You say you can’t get ‘excited’ about housework and there is a tone of denigration there that suggests your share your husband’s views to some extent but resent him for expressing them. ‘Woe betide’ has an ironic tone that again bats away the depth of the abuse you are allowing yourself to suffer.

You say you feel guilty when you’re reading the paper, not that he tells you to put it down and this makes you angry. Your guilt is your own even if the aggression is his. If you know you work hard why do you need him to confirm this? It seems that you actually worry about not doing enough and this comes from you alone. He just backs up what is already a harsh super ego.

Obviously you resent the work your husband does on the garden and you tell him so – it is the source of ‘endless rows’. Then you say ‘he’s not going to change after 15 years.’ What about you? Might you change? You say you can’t persuade him that there’s a problem, that you went to couples counseling alone and that you do want to stay together.

Eventually we arrive at the most important part of the letter which is, of course, your depression. You cope with it, you say, not giving any detail or any sense of what the source of the depression might be or how exactly you cope with it. Medication? It sounds more as though you grit your teeth. I wonder if you have had any psychotherapy?  I rather doubt it. You feel the depression allows people to dismiss your genuine misery but, in turn, you yourself dismiss the depression and the extent of your misery.

I think this situation is a lot worse than it sounds. Underlying the domestic irritation is a great deal of despair. You feel persecuted by your husband and he apparently feels you are persecuting him when you try to raise your issues. You say ‘he always thinks I’m criticising’ and, by the sounds of it, you are indeed attacking him as he attacks you. You want him to change. You are locked into some kind of sadomasochistic exchange that neither of you feels able to get out of. I wonder if he knows how unhappy you are? I wonder if he would care? Is he hiding in the garden because he is unable to cope with your unhappiness? Are you allowing him to bully you because of your own lack of self worth?

You worry you are sacrificing too much of yourself, but I wonder why you are allowing this sacrifice to take place? This is one of these letters where someone projects all their problems into their partner and then says; ‘I don’t know how to make him/her change.’ It seems to me that you want to locate the problems in your husband because you are afraid to face the real problem which might be; ‘Why do I allow someone to treat me like this? Why do I consider myself to be of so little value?’

You feel helpless because you can’t get him into counseling, assuming you will be told by an agony aunt to have couples counseling.  I think you need to look at yourself before looking at the relationship – you could perhaps get yourself into therapy? There is real desperation here and you have positioned it all in your husband’s bullying and absence. I think your unhappiness probably predates your relationship with him though, and I suspect you chose him because of, not despite, his incapacity for real intimacy, for his perfectionism and the fact that he would collude in denigrating you. You have found someone who will be the cruel parent to your resentful but longing child. You want him to give you points on a wall chart for what you do (and you feel he’s filling his own in unjustly), but you don’t suggest that you really want to spend time with this man, get to know him or to let him know you.

Proper Advice in private via Skype or email: anna@blundy.com


About Anna Blundy

Honorary psychotherapist with a Masters in Psychoanalytic Theory and another in Psychodynamic Clinical Psychotherapy. Novelist - Author of the Faith Zanetti quintet - The Bad News Bible, Faith Without Doubt, Neat Vodka (US - Vodka Neat), Breaking Faith, My Favourite Poison. Also a memoir of my father, Every Time We Say Goodbye and my most recent thriller - The Oligarch's Wife
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