Dealing With A Critical Spouse

Dear Heather,

My husband and I have been married for 12 years. While he is a good father to our 3 children, he is a very critical husband. He is constantly belittling me, snapping at me and yelling at me. He rarely offers words of affection, compliments or praise. To make matters worse, he is often depressed, and refuses to get help for his depression. This is confounded by the fact that my own father is a joyful, positive, even-tempered man. Currently, I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t take being in the marriage anymore. I feel I am at a crossroads in my relationship and don’t know what to do. Help!

Dear HELP,

Being married to someone so critical is a very difficult challenge. It sounds like you have suffered a great deal due to your husband’s demeaning and depressive nature. You say you are at a crossroads and not sure which way to go. Ultimately, only you can decide what is best for you and your family. However, before you decide to give up on your marriage, consider taking a different approach towards changing the current marital dynamic.

The first thing you need to do is develop and maintain an emotional boundary between yourself and your husband’s negativity. No doubt criticism, yelling and snapping are painful to endure. One of the reasons it is so painful is because you take his words personally. From this moment on, you must begin to see your husband’s negativity as a reflection of his own wounded emotional state and not as a result of anything you may have said or done. Therefore, when your husband interacts inappropriately with you, you can respond in one of 2 ways:
1) You can choose to ignore him so as not to reinforce or prolong a painful interaction.
2) You can calmly acknowledge his point and reflect your pain back to him. (e.g. I know you are upset that I didn’t fill the car with gas. I will take care of it first thing in the morning. I am hurt by the harsh words. Please find a more respectful way to communicate with me.)

You mention your father in your letter and the kind of person that he is. No doubt your disappointment in your husband is confounded when compared to your father’s temperament. Pay close attention to the extent to which you compare your husband to your father. You are comparing your father’s best qualities with your husband’s worst. Doing so will only make you feel despondent about your situation and sap you of motivation to deal effectively with your husband. Focus on the good qualities your husband possesses and rid yourself of the tendency to compare.

Lastly, you write that your husband is depressed. How do you know? Has he been diagnosed by a professional or is this an observation you or other family members have made? If going to a psychiatrist is intimidating to your husband, you can suggest mentioning his symptoms to his PCP at his next checkup. If your husband is refusing treatment, don’t try to reason with him – that will likely make him feel like you are implying HE is the whole “problem”, and he will resist even more. Suggesting that the two of you seek help together for marital issues may be a less threatening approach. If that doesn’t work, get your self into therapy. This will serve 2 purposes: It will give you vital tools and support to manage your marriage better, and it will set an invaluable example for your husband, which he may eventually follow. Once he is open to the idea of getting help, he may need your involvement to fascilitate the process. While you want him to take charge of his recovery, many men struggle to ask for help so your initial involvement and encouragement can be vital in getting the ball rolling. Good Luck!

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