Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family? Dr. David will address two questions from Crosswalk readers in each weekly column. Submit your question to him at TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com.
Dear Dr. David,
How do you handle a marriage where the husband acts warm and loving one day, and angry and irritable the next? I’ve been married to him for twenty years and it’s been like living on a roller coaster. When he is irritable, which is often, we argue and fight and say hurtful things to each other. We are always on edge with each other, he never talks unless I initiate the conversation, and even at that, we are both guarded when we talk.
I’ve asked my husband many times if he’ll go for counseling, because I believe he might be depressed. He says he’s not depressed and won’t consider going for help. We can never discuss anything rationally and peacefully because he will fly off the handle, which then sends me flying off the handle. I feel that we just have a marriage in name only and want to leave. I keep going back and forth in my mind thinking that maybe it will work out after all, but I feel that there has been too much water over the dam creating damage to our marriage over these past several years to even try to salvage it at this point. He can actually turn his emotions around several times during the day! Any suggestions? ~ Miserable in Marriage
Any time someone’s mood fluctuates the way your husband’s does, there’s a problem. Roller coaster emotions have several possible origins, each of which should be explored.
First, it is quite possible that your husband is biochemically and emotionally depressed. Men express depression differently than women. While women tend to talk about their discouragement and sadness, men rarely share their feelings openly. Instead, it comes out in the form of irritability. Your husband needs to see a physician and counselor to rule out clinical depression.
Second, you note that you “fly off the handle” in response to his anger. Obviously, you have communication and conflict resolution problems which must be addressed. You need skills, and these can be learned. While I certainly don’t condone his anger and irritability, you need to work on your reactivity as well. I strongly suggest you seek counseling to learn how to not get hooked by his outbursts. (Please see my recent book, Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life.)
Finally, I’m concerned about your approach to the problem. You go back and forth in your mind that “maybe it will work out.” Problems don’t just “work out.” Problems need solutions, and you need his participation to help you work out your problems. As long as you stay and hope for change, without taking definite, decisive action, you’re enabling a very dysfunctional process to continue.
So, stop hoping for change—get into counseling for yourself and then insist that he join you later. Make a list, with the help of your counselor, of all the problems and define a plan of action. Set a boundary for him—either he joins you in working on the problems, including seeing a doctor, or you’ll be forced to seek a temporary, Therapeutic Separation with the goal of reconciliation. Only then, using God-given wisdom with a definite plan, will you know if your husband will join you in infusing new life in your marriage.
Dear Dr. David,
I’m a middle-aged woman growing more depressed every day. I’m the oldest of four children, and my parents’ health is failing. My problem is this: I live in the same town as my parents, while my siblings live hours away from here. Thus, I’m the one who ends up caring for my parents.
I feel very guilty for saying this, but my parents are getting harder and harder to care for, and my siblings offer little help. My husband is getting more and more upset with me because of the time I spend helping my parents, and because I don’t ask my siblings for help. So, I end up resenting my siblings, annoyed at my parents, and burned out. Besides, now my marriage is suffering. I’m at my wits end and not sure what to do. Help. ~ Tired of Caring
You speak for thousands men and women in mid-life who are sandwiched between the needs of their parents and their children, not to mention desiring a closer relationship with their mate. The demands can be horrendous and there is every possibility of getting lost in the shuffle.
You mention several concerns.
First, you’re giving more and more time to your parents, wearing yourself out, and not asking for help from your siblings. Even the fact that you are expected to ask your siblings for help implies that your parents are primarily your responsibility since you live the closest, and are the oldest yet this should not be the case. All of you should share in the responsibilities of your parents. All of you should be making decisions together regarding their care.
Second, you also mention feeling guilty about caring for your parents. I suspect that beneath your “false guilt” (you cannot expect yourself to be everything to everybody) are understandable feelings of anger. I’ll suspect you have a hard time expressing anger toward your siblings, and probably also have a hard time setting boundaries with your parents. In all of this you must find time for you and your family. If you don’t, you will end up feeling very resentful.
Finally, you share that you’re feeling burned out. It’s beyond time to listen to your feelings. You cannot do it all—even though I suspect you’ve lived much of your life trying to meet every need. It’s time to take care of yourself so you’ll have something left to give to yourself, your children, your husband and even your parents. This will take some serious reorganization and a meeting with your siblings to plan for the future.
I encourage you to consider the life of Jesus, who pushed away from the crowds at times to give himself a rest. He didn’t try to meet every need, and even took time to celebrate and enjoy life. He needed breaks and looked to his friends for support. He trained his disciples to carry on his mission after he left this earth. You may find comfort in reading John 15, where the Apostle John talks about pruning good fruit (good activities) so that the remaining fruit (activities) can be even better.
David Hawkins, Pd.D., has worked with couples and families to improve the quality of their lives by resolving personal issues for the last 30 years. He is the author of over 18 books, including Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, Saying It So He'll Listen, and When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You. His newest books are titled The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.
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