Q. My wife and I have been together 18 years. Life used to be great; we got on really well, had fun, amazing holidays, a lot of laughter and were equally matched with our views on life. It all changed after our first son was born. She became very focussed on the children (we now have three boys), almost bordering on obsessive. We stopped talking and discussing world views, we don’t laugh like we used to and all our attention is on the boys, career and the home, leaving little or no time for us as a couple. Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids, I wouldn’t be without them. And I love that we both have successful careers, but I struggle with constant nagging and criticism. She’s often sarcastic and puts me down in front of the children to prove that I am an idiot who can’t be trusted to do anything right. We have sex a couple of times a year, usually when she’s drunk.
It has become progressively worse, especially now we both work from home a couple of days a week (I try not to be home on the same days). She explodes into a rage if I respond or try to defend myself, so I often don’t say anything to avoid conflict. I go for long cycle rides to escape, but know that I’ll return to a barrage of more accusations or she won’t speak to me for days. I miss our old times, and although I love my boys, I can’t put up with this life for much longer.
A. You seem to be treading on eggshells for fear of conflict. Your avoidance is fuelling your wife’s ammunition in the battles against you. You’ve both slipped into a parent-child dynamic – she goes into critical parent, treating you as if you were a lazy good-for-nothing teenager and placing you as a sibling to your boys and not as an equal to her and father to your children. As she steps into critical-parent you automatically go into adapted or tantrum child. This parent-child dynamic is a passion killer, so no wonder you’ve only had sex twice in a year.
Eric Berne’s book on ‘Games People Play’ talks about this, he calls them Ego States.
Your wife’s perfectionist behaviour is fear-driven. It most likely comes from a fear of not being good enough, getting it wrong and being a failure. Her focus and dedication to your sons are commendable but come at a cost to your relationship and her. I doubt she can relax in her own skin and be happy with a job well done. I bet she’s constantly moving her own and everybody else’s goalposts. Internally, she’ll be just as critical with herself as with you.
I would want to know more about her childhood – how was her relationship with her mother and father as she was growing up? Were either of them critical towards her? How did her parents interact with each other? The answer to these questions may give you a clue as to why she is such a perfectionist.
Let her know you’ve noticed how hard she’s working and what a great job she’s doing. Be prepared for an attack but let it go and don’t retaliate. Instead, acknowledge what she’s saying (remember you’re not agreeing, you’re just acknowledging) and suggest you make time to put things right. Ask her what she needs and how you can both work towards a more balanced relationship.
Make the necessary arrangements for you and your wife to have some time together – have breakfast together after the children have gone to school and before you start your working day. Go for a walk at lunchtime when you’re both working from home. Plan a meal at home together after the children are in bed. Run her a bath with some nice bubble bath, candles and a glass of her favourite drink where she can relax whilst you’re cooking. Set the table and switch off all technology. Have some music in the background. Make a deal that you’ll not discuss the children, chores or work and talk about previous holidays and fun moments you once had.
Avoid trying to have sex at this point it’s too soon. She’ll think that’s the only reason you are being nice. By all means cuddle and kiss – you’ll need plenty of that to repair the intimacy, but no sex, not just yet.
If arguments persist, I suggest you seek the help of a qualified couples therapist, either me or one registered near you – www.psychologytoday.com
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