My husband and I are a bit stuck and I could use your help navigating my way out. We are a large family and my husband carries the bulk of the financial burden.
Things have been quite stressful lately, as one of our children has been quite ill. To cope, he becomes hyper-focused on order, systems, and organization, which I just cannot provide to the degree he needs it.
He’ll start nit-picking (the peas are in the wrong drawer, the toilet wasn´t flushed long enough.. type of things). We have had conversations about what that does to me, especially if it is not balanced with appreciation or attention in some form.
At this point, I am trying to focus on myself and ways I can help increase our family’s income. I have gotten quieter, because I don´t want to hear any criticism. I do try to stay open to what he has to say and not close the door.
How do you stay open within a relationship, when really, you are in survival mode and multiple conversations (over the span of months) haven´t brought about a change?
When life hands us a series of sucker punches and creates chaos in your regular, every day, we’re going to react and our reactions aren’t going to come out in perfectly scripted ways. They will be messy, imperfect, and human.
Your husband’s behavior sounds and must feel controlling. People get like that, sometimes, when they feel like their back is against the wall. They focus on the silly things…. even peas.
It’s not ok and it hurts. Some will tell you to cut and run at the first sign of this behavior. I have a different take.
Our instinct during times like this is to just stay quiet. We think it will help us keep the peace but in actuality, the silence allows space to grow between couples. Partners fill that silence with their own stories and assumptions. By staying quiet, he might start to think you’ve stopped caring, that you’re oblivious to his stress, or that you don’t see the problems your family is facing.
Say it out loud:
Honey, we’ve had a rough start to the year. We’ve managed X, Y, and Z all the while, money has been tight and time has been short. I see that you’re managing a lot and carrying a lot on your shoulders. I want you to know that I appreciate your effort. I see how hard you’re working.
Tell your partner what you want them to think:
I know you’re anxious and I know that when things get tense, that you like to have things orderly. While I know I am not as orderly as you wish I was, I want you to know that I am aware of you and that I am trying. With all that we are both managing, we’re not going to get everything right. However, is there one thing, that if I ensured one thing was always as you needed it to be, that would be helpful for you if I prioritized?
Remember you’re in this, too, and that you get to say so:
This has been impossibly hard and I know the financial burden is falling largely on you as I juggle the kids and their needs. That can’t really be helped right now. You know that when you get stressed and take it out on me, that it hurts me.
It actually puts us on opposite sides. I just run away from you, avoid you, and hide. I don’t want to do that. I know that must only make you feel even more alone in managing all of it but when you treat me like I am the reason for our problems, I retreat. It’s not helpful but it’s what I do.
Ask for a new plan or strategy:
Look, what we’re doing here clearly isn’t working. We’re either at each other’s throats or we’re not talking. The kids are picking up on our tension, we’re unhappy, and none of this changes the stressors our family is dealing with right now.
The way we are managing this clearly isn’t working. We need a new plan. After the kids go to bed, I’d like us to start over. Let’s look at this thing with new eyes. I want us to be on the same team and come up with something that feels better for both of us. I really hope you want that, too.
How to Manage Disrespect Directly
During times of stress, we sometimes react imperfectly. Whenever I give this kind of advice, I am always asked why one person has to “do the work” when the other person is acting out?
My answer: It comes with the part of committed relationships that sometimes require we suck up things we really shouldn’t have to. Of course it isn’t fair but if you’re committing to someone 24/7/365, crap will happen. You are going to have an imperfect moment at some point and you are going to need your partner to have your back.
Ultimately, you are going to have to set and maintain a boundary around disrespectful behavior but first, see if you can break the wall down a bit.
In How to Respond When He Shuts You Out, I talked specifically about how men, in particular, tend to react when they are stressed and offered ways their partners can better support them.
First, try to understand his reactions and reflect your understanding back to him:
Hon, you just snapped at me because of peas! It seems like the stress might really be getting to you and that you’re feeling out of sorts. Do I have that right?
Ask what you can do to help and be prepared to hear “nothing.”
Sometimes people just stress and there’s nothing we can do. Our partners might logically know this but still, it doesn’t stop them from taking their crappy mood out on you for no good reason.
Reflect, Ask, and Then Set the Boundary.
If you’ve reflected back and offered help and are still met with disrespect, it’s time to set the boundary:
Look, I see you. I see everything you’re managing and how hard you’re working but I am working pretty hard, myself. This is happening to me, too. You’re not alone. I am trying to take care of the things that come up with the kids so you don’t have to be distracted by them. I am working on ways that I can add to our family’s income. I know you’re stressed but you don’t get to treat me that way.
If the only way you know how to manage your stress is by digging at me, I need you to know that I am going to back off. I am just going to give you space to work things out. Your behavior is disrupting our partnership. Your words and your behavior hurt me and I owe it to myself to protect myself from that. When you’re ready to reconnect in a more respectful and peaceful way, do let me know. Otherwise, for the time being, I’ll be taking some space.
What is right now won’t always be
Relationships get messy when life gets messy. You’re both hurting. Wishing you both peace and respite from this unrelenting time. May you find a way to hurt together until life gets easier.
Previously published on Choose to Have it All
Photo: Getty Images