“I feel like the character in the movie Network who leans out the window and bellows at the top of his lungs, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!’" says Lydia, thirty-seven, a feisty, outspoken woman.
I’m sick and tired of being a doormat, getting stepped on by my husband and everyone else. . . especially his mother. The woman is toxic; she criticizes everything about me—my mothering, my housekeeping, you name it. Since the day we married, I’ve bent over backward to please her and follow her orders. Clearly, she never thought I was good enough for her son.
So the other night, when I overheard Richard on the phone with her, I knew she was complaining about me, and I just lost it. I’m not proud of my reaction, but I couldn’t stifle my feelings any longer.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been the good little wife—running a perfect household, being the perfect partner—and never saying what I really thought or felt. But lately, I haven't been afraid to speak up. Richard says I’ve changed over the years, and he’s right. I’m not the submissive little girl he married seventeen years ago.
Therapy had a lot to do with my changing. I started about a year and a half ago, when I was overwhelmingly sad and felt useless and unimportant. I spent years being a stay-at-home mom, and my boys were growing up and didn’t need me as much anymore. Most of my friends had either started working or gone back to college again. Suddenly I found myself with very little to keep me busy. It was time to think about what I was going to do with the rest of my life, but all I saw ahead of me was this gaping hole.
Ever since I was little, I hated being Lydia. My parents never made me feel loved or even wanted. In fact, both of them told me I was ugly and stupid and selfish; can you imagine saying something like that to your own child? They treated my sister and me horribly, and they fought viciously and endlessly with each other, too. I’ll never understand how my mother could have put up with my dad, he was so verbally abusive to her. Needless to say, I was desperate to marry and get away from them.
I met Richard on a blind date the year after I graduated from high school. At the time, I was working as a data-entry processor at an insurance company. We went to a friend’s Halloween party and I was smitten; it was lust at first sight. He also showed an interest in me, and became the first man who ever paid so much attention to me. Richard is very quiet, gentle and kind; I couldn’t help falling in love with him. We dated for a year and then married.
Those first few years, I thought I was happy. I fell automatically into the role of the good little wife, having babies and taking care of the house. But as the years went by, I became less and less happy and fulfilled, and now Richard and I spend a lot of time fighting. Our biggest fights are probably about my mother-in-law. Richard never stands up to her or defends me, either. In fact, whenever he speaks to her on the phone, he never even mentions me by name. . . ever! Instead, he’ll say, ‘I just came back from seeing a play in the city,’ or ‘I spent the weekend at a bed and breakfast in Pennsylvania.’ It’s always ‘I,’ never ‘we,’ as if I don’t exist. Do you know how that makes me feel?
Another thing we fight about is how to raise the kids. I know he loves the children—he always used to do fun things with them like coach their Little League games or pile everyone in the car and head for an amusement park. But when it comes to the hard stuff, like discipline and setting curfews and getting them to sit down and do homework, I’m still the one to make the rules and issue the punishments. Why can’t he speak up once in a while? I hate being the bad cop, but if I didn’t keep everyone on a schedule or remember when things had to get done, nothing would get done."
DR. PAUL MOSCHETTA:
Discipline has become a huge issue for these two, as it is for many parents. Lydia and Richard often disagree on how to handle the kids, but since they never talk out their differences, they never resolve them.
DR. EVELYN MOSCHETTA:
Lydia feels that the way responsibilities are divided now is unequal and unfair. All the fun stuff is on Richard’s list, all the difficult decisions on hers. Discipline isn’t the only issue being argued over in in the Cromwells’ marriage.
DR. EVELYN MOSCHETTA:
Lydia had slipped into a real depression. For years she defined herself by her role as a mother. It made her feel important, loved and appreciated—feelings she didn’t get from her marriage to a man who, as far as she was concerned, was unresponsive and out of touch. But as the boys became increasingly self-sufficient, and as many of her friends went back to work, Lydia felt a huge loss.
Most likely, this, combined with the ever-growing problems in her marriage, precipitated a midlife crisis of sorts. In marriage, it is essential that we be able to nurture each other; that’s the spiritual part of marriage. Not many couples realize that or tend to give it importance. But being able to nurture someone else, and being able to receive that nurturing, is essential for feeling like a whole, happy person.
DR. PAUL MOSCHETTA:
Now, of course, Lydia also shows us how our childhood comes back to influence how we behave as adults. Lydia grew up having not very much self-esteem. She wanted desperately to be loved and nurtured, and her dream was to have a marriage and a house with a white picket fence and a family. That was her goal. She imagined that if she could obtain that, happiness would follow. Lydia was willing to sacrifice her own feelings to play a docile, subservient role to get the feeling that says, “I’ve finally arrived. I can have some nurturing that comes to me from my own efforts."
DR. EVELYN MOSCHETTA:
But the mistake Lydia made was believing that in order to get nurturing, you have to give up who you are. In fact, it's when you know who you are and are able to stay centered that you’re able to give and receive nurturing. She lost herself in the marriage.
DR. PAUL MOSCHETTA:
That’s what we see here in this story: A woman who thought she could almost trade her self-esteem to get nurturing, and found out she couldn’t really be something she wasn’t.
“Not only does Richard have a problem with disciplining the children and dealing with his mother, he also doesn't like it when I spend money. Yes, I like to go shopping. It makes me feel better to buy a new sweater or handbag when I'm depressed. But when I do, Richard has a fit. He just doesn’t like either of us to spend money. I can tell he even hates it when I suggest we go out for dinner or see a movie. Ever the accountant, he duly notes every penny that comes in and goes out.
I want more out of life, more out of my marriage. I want to go out more, to travel, to do fun things. But how can I when Richard is a stick-in-the-mud when we're together? Often, he's like a statue, cold and unyielding.
Our sex life used to be great, but over the years, it’s become perfunctory—for both of us, I’m certain. There are still times—occasionally—when our lovemaking is satisfying, but usually, I have no idea what he’s thinking or feeling. I can't make love if I can't communicate with someone. “He claims he wants to stay together, but I don’t see a lot of evidence. In fact, I don’t feel that he loves or cares about me anymore. “I don’t like to issue ultimatums, but I don’t see that I have much choice. The only time Richard takes me seriously is when he's pushed against a wall. So here it is: I love my husband, but either he changes and meets me halfway till we’re equal partners in this marriage, or I want a divorce.”
DR. EVELYN MOSCHETTA:
Right now, Lydia holds out little hope for her marriage. She’s unveiled a long list of complaints—from money to parenting to sex issues—and places most of the blame for their problems squarely on her husband’s shoulders. More important, she’s terribly sad that the man she loves doesn’t seem to want to be involved with her, to live life with her. However, issuing an ultimatum and threatening to leave is not the right thing to do in this case.
RICHARD'S TURN: Part One
“I feel like I have a tiger by the tail,” sighs Richard, forty, who offered a weak handshake as he walked into our office. “I knew Lydia was unhappy. Now that the boys are getting older, there’s less and less to keep her busy around the house. . . but divorce? I was blown away when she blurted that out the other night. Why would she say that?
When Lydia brought up going to counseling a couple years ago, I actually encouraged her to go. Personally, I don’t believe in it, but I thought that under the circumstances it was a good idea. Lydia said she needed to make changes in her life. Well, she made changes, alright; in fact, I hardly recognize the woman I married.”
You know, I’m as tired as Lydia is of all the yelling and arguments, but I’ve never been very good at communicating with people. . . especially her. Trying to hold my own against Lydia in an argument is impossible. She is much more articulate than I am, and I can’t think of the right words to respond. Since I can never win an argument, I usually decide that the best thing is simply not to answer her at all. Sometimes, I think a switch automatically flips in my head and I simply tune her out.
Once Lydia gets started, there’s no stopping her. She gets totally wound up, ranting and raving about all the injustices I’ve done her in the last seventeen years. We start discussing one point, and before I know it, she’s bringing up things I supposedly did or didn’t do years ago. Half the time I have no idea what the hell she’s talking about.”
DR. PAUL MOSCHETTA:
Many men have the same lament. In general, women are much better at expressing their feelings than their spouses. Studies have shown that women can actually handle conflict and discussions of hot topics much better than their husbands. When Richard feels flooded by Lydia’s barrage of negativity, he becomes defensive, stonewalling and avoiding conflict at all costs rather than fighting a battle he knows he can’t win.
“As I said, Lydia doesn’t talk; she lectures or lashes out in this belligerent way, pointing her finger at me as if I were a child. There’s a big chip on her shoulder, like she’s daring me to knock it off. Often, she’ll call me at work, barge into my home office when I’m trying to concentrate on some paperwork, or interrupt me when I’m gardening because she’s ready to talk. Well, maybe I’m not.
She’s also so arrogant. She has a set way of handling every problem, and if I have a different opinion or want to take another approach, I’m automatically wrong. She always thinks that her way of doing something is right. That’s one reason we fight so much about the kids.
For example, when the boys were little and I worked late, I’d want to spend some time with them once I finally got home. But she had a fit if bedtime was delayed fifteen minutes. Even now, if the kids leave their room a mess or don’t help with chores, she'll also get upset. I don’t think any of these is a crime, so I don’t make a big deal out of it. Besides, I don’t see the children all that much, so I don’t feel like spending the evenings yelling at them.”
DR. EVELYN MOSCHETTA:
In many ways, Richard sounds like a divorced father who sees his kids only on weekends. He wants to make sure that the short amount of time he has with them—time that’s growing shorter as his sons hit adolescence—is pleasant. The trouble is, like many men, he doesn’t know how to be loving and still set limits with his kids.
RICHARD'S TURN: Part Three
“From day one, Lydia has never been able to get along with my mother. Look, I know my mother isn’t the easiest person in the world to get along with, but I find it hard to believe she’s said half the things Lydia accuses her of saying. I know Lydia is exaggerating in that drastic way of hers. But even if my mother is obnoxious at times, so what? I let those kinds of things roll off my back, and I think, for the sake of peace and harmony, Lydia should, too.
I’m the youngest of two, and I have always been my mother’s favorite. Then, when I was seven, my older brother drowned in a swimming pool accident, and my mother became even more protective of me. Why can’t Lydia understand what she must have gone through? If she did, Lydia would put herself out a little more. But if she doesn’t want to talk to my mother, she doesn’t have to.
I'm just trying to avoid conflict. That's why I don’t mention Lydia's name in conversations with my mother. I know they don’t like each other; I’m simply trying to keep peace. Can’t she see that?
Now that I think about it, there’s something else that bothers me. I don’t appreciate being called cheap. When it comes to money, I’m fiscally conservative. Lydia ought to know that unless we stick to a budget, we’ll never have enough money to pay for the boys’ college educations, let alone our retirement. I’ve asked Lydia to use a little restraint, but she ignores me and does whatever she pleases. If that’s her idea of meeting me halfway, I’m not sure I want to stay married, either.”
DRS. MOSCHETTA'S COMMENTS
However, we didn’t share their pessimistic outlook. In fact, there are signs that this couple really cares about each other. And despite Lydia's railing and posturing, she still hopes that Richard will finally understand what she’s going through.
Lydia’s childhood was an unhappy one. Criticized and demeaned by both parents, she grew up lacking in self-esteem, and part of her didn’t believe she was worthy of being treated any better. According to Lydia’s recollections, her father was verbally abusive to her mother, who not only endured the abuse but turned around and unleashed her anger and frustration on her daughters. Lydia absorbed the message that this is what marriage is all about. Also like her mother, Lydia stuck to the role society scripted for her.
However, after a year in individual counseling, Lydia made a 180-degree turn away from the submissive, docile wife she had been. Though she feels happier with herself in general, she still blames Richard for their marital problems and accuses him of being stubborn and incommunicative. She's now voicing her feelings, but, not surprisingly, the way she's doing it is causing Richard to see her as the aggressor always on the attack. If Lydia wants Richard to talk to her, she can’t frighten him away.
It doesn't help, however, that Richard is easily frightened. Introverted and socially ill at ease, he’s the epitome of the passive, female-dominated male. He was never encouraged as a child to talk about his feelings or voice an opinion, and he hardly spoke during the first few sessions.
For years, Richard had been smothered by an overprotective mother broken-hearted over the death of her elder son. Reluctant to do anything that might further upset her, he fell into a pattern of passive acceptance of her behavior, however outrageous it may be. Time and again, he excused her intrusiveness, and expected Lydia to do the same.
When faced with conflict, Richard clams up, slips into an icy, sulky silence and tunes out Lydia. Though he insists he does this because he feels he is no match for his articulate wife, his withdrawal is, in its own way, just as provocative and controlling as Lydia’s escalating criticisms and temper tantrums. The unspoken message is, “You’re not important. I don’t really care about your feelings and needs.”
Not surprisingly, the more Richard refuses to enter into any discussion with her, the more infuriated Lydia becomes. She doesn’t even realize that her criticisms have grown more intense, her tone mocking and contemptuous.”
“In our first session, we told Lydia that while we respected her concerns and believed many of her complaints were legitimate, the way she is trying to communicate with her husband and achieve her goals is definitely not productive.
'You can be assertive without attacking,’ we told her. ‘Unless you make your point in a tender way, he’ll never hear you.’ In our sessions, we stopped Lydia whenever she overstepped her boundaries. She has learned to slow up and turn down the volume, to refrain from interrupting her husband when he speaks, to monitor the tone and loudness of her voice and edit out hurtful comments. When Richard saw that Lydia was making a real effort to change her combative nature, he felt safe enough to open up and express some of his own opinions and needs to her.
As we noted earlier, Lydia has a tendency to talk about one issue, then throws other, often unrelated topics into the mix as the conversation becomes more heated. Understandably, Richard feels flooded by this tidal wave of rebukes. Now, however, Lydia is learning to stay focused on the present and deal with one issue at a time, and Richard feels strong enough to say, 'Lydia, you’re doing it again. I can’t listen when you dump one criticism on top of another.' This puts her on notice and she immediately puts on the verbal brakes.
Richard is also working on the obstacles to healthy communication that he can control. We told him, ‘Though it may be unpleasant for you to listen to Lydia when she’s upset, you have to give her time to vent her feelings. You can’t retreat into silence or leave the room. Try to stay with her and listen empathetically when something bothers her instead of telling her she’s exaggerating or getting worked up over nothing.’
We also told Richard that even though it may seem trivial to him, the fact that he never mentions his wife’s name in conversations with his mother is insulting and hurtful to her. ‘Just because it’s not a big deal to you doesn’t mean it’s not important to her. You can’t keep up the pretense that Lydia doesn’t exist,’ we said. Switching to ‘Lydia and I’ or ‘we’ is a small gesture, but one that means a lot to Lydia.
Together, Lydia and Richard have made progress. First, they made a pact that they would never go to bed angry—which means they have to stick with an issue until they resolve it. Then, as Lydia is learning to back off and drop her guard, Richard is moving front and center when it comes to discipline. ‘It’s not that I don’t want to take responsibility for the discipline,’ he explained at one point. ‘I just want to handle it my own way.’ Now that Lydia is giving her husband more latitude, she’s finding, much to her delight, that he’s rising to the challenge.
The last point that needed to be resolved is their bickering over money. Lydia solved that problem herself: She found a job in a crafts and needlepoint shop at the mall and now uses her salary to buy what she wants.
We now see Richard and Lydia periodically to catch up on their progress. 'If there’s one thing I learned from all this,’ Richard now says, ‘it’s that if you really want to, anyone can change. I hope it will no longer take a crisis to get us motivated.’ ”
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