Friday, June 28, 2013

Dismaying Story #138: Her Rage versus His Insecurity

Dear Andrew,

My husband has an odd mix of traits that make him wonderful on so many levels. He is brilliant, affable, funny, and down-to-earth. He is passionate, capable and with certain people, compassionate to a very high degree. He’s handsome and affectionate. He’s a good provider for our family and has no problem doing housework. In fact, he excels at both! So how could I dare speak against such perfection when so many women would KILL to have a guy even a hundredth this awesome? Because there are some deep-rooted psychological issues that I’ve attempted to help resolve, but I’ve been unsuccessful.

My husband grew up in a trailer-park to an alcoholic, abusive father and an accommodating doormat of a mother. His environment could be described as squalor, he said. At one point, his father was arrested for assault after threatening his mother with a gun. My husband was probably ten or so and his refusal to move from in front of his mother saved her life. His father and younger brother purportedly did nothing while he and his mother did all the cleaning, cooking, laundry, etc. Essentially, they enabled.

My husband graduated high school and married his high school sweetheart, with a daughter born not long after. His wife, sadly, had several challenges that stemmed from childhood trauma, such as debilitating OCD and crippling insecurity that led to risky sexual behavior like multiple affairs. Two additional children and worsening symptoms later and he was in front of a court-appointed counselor who recommended that he should leave his wife and take the children with him, or the courts would do it instead.

Then he met a woman with two even younger children who was about to become homeless. He re-married, but she was abusive, hateful and entitled. He went from having $30,000 in the bank to being $40,000 in the hole. She publicly humiliated him and privately emasculated him. He didn’t want to be a two-time loser so he stayed and became a miserable, functioning escapist via alcohol, porn, and mild drug use.

Eventually he left her and met me six months later. I spent the first six months of our relationship reminding him I’m not one of his exes. He would project based on their past behaviors. We eventually married but we’re struggling in a few areas.

I was raised in a home where the physical environment was the exact opposite of his. My parents were so controlling, so perfectionistic, that they threatened to burn all my clothes but one outfit if I didn’t keep them perfectly washed, folded and put away at all times. I wasn’t allowed to shut my door because that is a sign of people who are doing something wrong and they threatened to take it off the hinges if I did. I was told to be seen and not heard. Laughing and singing was considered obnoxious and I was quickly slapped or beaten for speaking out of turn. EVERYTHING I did was criticized, belittled or shamed. I left as quickly as I was able but carried many emotional scars. It took two failed marriages of my own and a lot of counseling to get to where I was able to have some semblance of inner peace. I learned how to keep things clean without being obsessed about it and that it’s okay to let go of the need to be perfect.

Enter my husband. A dish left unwashed causes him to obsess that things are going to revert back to his childhood days. The only time he can relax is if he is surrounded by the starkest, cleanest of environments. If he had his way, while we were taking our last bite of food, we would be walking to the sink to wash the dish so as not to leave any dish undone for any length of time. Clothes are the same way. Leaving a nightgown or PJs on the bed so I can rewear them the next night makes him stressed. Keeping a hairbrush or medication or a toothbrush on the bathroom counter is intolerable. And while some people would say, just tell him to clean it up himself, that means he is entering into other peoples’ spaces and cleaning up others peoples’ things, putting them where he wants them to go or pitching them if he feels like it. Which is invasive, controlling and extraordinarily inconsiderate.

He admits to obsessing over things but denies that it’s detrimental. He says, “It’s who I am and I can’t change what I feel. It’s hard-wired into me from my childhood.” He feels that as long as he is able to control his environment, he is able to have peace and we should all help him achieve that peace if we love him. While he doesn’t belittle or shame us, it’s obvious he’s distressed over every little thing. I have successfully convinced him to leave my side of the room alone, but in shared spaces, such as the bathroom, he refuses.

Because I grew up in a very aggressive, very violent household, I learned all about rage very early. I experienced passive-aggressive behavior on a daily basis. It took me years to learn successful coping skills to prevent going into a rage or acting passive-aggressively when something upsets me. My technique is to calmly state that while I want to resolve the situation, I am feeling very emotional and very stressed and feel it’s best to remove myself from it for a time. I reassure him that I will come back to resolve it when I am calmer and more able to think clearly. My husband takes this as outright rejection. In the past he has followed me wherever I went, demanding that I talk to him NOW and saying that my behavior is unbiblical and is equivalent to asking for a divorce. When I forced him to go to counseling to get an outside, third-party perspective, he saw the harm that his aggression was causing, but he still hasn’t been able to let go of the feeling of abandonment and rejection. In spite of every effort to reassure him (even while trying to stifle extreme anger), it doesn’t register with him that my coping skill has nothing to do with punishing him, but that I simply need to be where it’s calm and quiet so I can think and regroup.

So, there are my two issues. How do I deal with his need for perfection? And secondly, when we’re arguing and I need to be alone for a while, how do I deal with the constant texting about how alone he feels and how rejected he feels?

Again, it seems so ridiculous to be complaining at all when so much of him is the stuff of dreams! It’s just that these two problems are the source of 99% of our disagreements. Even if it seems we’re disagreeing about who left a dish out, what we’re really talking about is his perfectionism and inability to overcome it. Or, if we’re arguing about his invasion of space and my need for solitude, we’re really talking about his inability to step outside of his own needs and trust. Which is so strange because in most circumstances, he is extraordinarily empathetic. But when he’s emotional, he ceases to be rational. And while learning effective coping skills would work great for him, he doesn’t think he has a problem. He blames others for having a problem with him. It’s a vicious cycle. And it’s exhausting.


Dear Perplexed,

You say the physical environment you had while growing up was the exact opposite of your husband’s, but I think you’ll agree that your childhood experiences include an unfortunate common element; you both had to deal with abusive situations. I hate that the two of you had to endure the abuse you’ve described, and I’m sorry to hear about your current problems.

Abused children are tremendously affected in myriad ways, many of which exhibit themselves as challenges during adulthood. One common pattern is for such children to struggle with adult relationships. Your letter mentions several of the ways in which this can happen, such as:
  • Tolerating abuse or other negative behavior when it starts to occur with a partner, perhaps due to low self esteem or because you’re used to dealing with it;
  • Interpreting your partner’s behavior in the context of the previous abuse you’ve received — constantly looking for negative ways to interpret their behavior, rarely giving them the benefit of the doubt; and
  • Bringing various insecurities and sensitivities into a relationship.
This last category seems most highly related to the two primary challenges you mentioned — the struggle over standards of cleanliness and your differing approaches to conflict resolution.

First of all, you shouldn’t question the need to deal with such issues. A problem is still a problem, even if many other aspects of your relationship are wonderful.

The last paragraph of your letter makes the distinction between topics and issues. When you talk about whether or not he should touch your toothbrush, that’s a topic. His desire to move the toothbrush and your desire for him not to do so are just the visible symptoms. The true issues run much deeper. You’ve touched on some of the issues, such as the inner distress you both admit to feeling in certain situations. You both seem to be aware that these issues stem from your past experiences to some degree.

Your frustration is obvious in your letter. You’re searching for ways to exert some control, a path you can take that will lead to improvements. I can promise that discussing the symptoms (the topics) will not effectively deal with the underlying issues. You’ve already seen that. You can ask him to leave your mess alone until you’re blue in the face, but he’ll still feel the same anxiety inside.

Identifying an underlying issue is a necessary first step to resolving it, but it’s not a full solution. This sounds like something you’ve tried. You believe he’s obsessing and you’ve told him so. Unfortunately the types of issues you’re dealing with are long-standing and complex. Pointing them out is not enough to make them go away. That’s like coming across a highly claustrophobic person who is unfortunate enough to be trapped in an elevator. You can say to them, “Oh, I know what this is. It’s claustrophobia, so you can stop being anxious now.” That’s clearly not going to work, just like it hasn’t worked for you to point out what you see as his issues.

By the way, I understand his position when he says, “This is just how I am, I’ve always been this way, and I’ll never change.” He believes this to be the absolute truth. From his point of view, he has been like that for as long as he can remember. Nothing has ever happened to change his experience, so it’s an understandable assumption on his part that nothing could ever change it.

I said I understand his belief. I also disagree with it. Just as our internal and external behaviors are shaped by our experiences, we can re-shape and re-learn new behaviors. When past traumas are involved, however, the re-learning process almost certainly requires extensive work with trained professionals and comes with no guarantee of eventual success. The individual must be highly committed to the process, so often it’s easier to say, “It can’t be done. This is just who I am.”

Okay, now let’s move on to some good news. I do have one suggestion that I believe will help you feel less perplexed and a bit more in control of whether your interactions with your husband have positive outcomes.

Here’s a fundamental truth I’d like you to wrap your head around: You can’t control his behavior; you can only control your own.

At first that might sound like bad news. After all, your letter clearly states that you believe he’s the problem and you’d like to know how you can deal with it. I suggest you take a moment and re-read the last paragraph of your letter above. In describing each of your two issues, you use the phrase “his inability.” You describe your standards of cleanliness as within normal bounds, while his need for perfection is obsessive. Your approach for handling conflict is apparently a reasonable strategy you’ve developed in response to your past traumas, whereas his approach is an unreasonable “inability” that has arisen from his past traumas.

According to you, you’re right and he’s wrong. You’d like to keep doing exactly what you’re doing, and you’d like to know how to change his response.

You haven’t mentioned anything about changing the part you can control — your own behavior. And that’s where the good news comes in. Every relationship is a give and take. You act, he reacts, then you react to his reaction. In other words, both of you have just influenced the other. The key to success is to realize that the most effective way to influence the situation in a good direction is to behave in ways that promote positive outcomes.

A further insight is related to this “I’m right, he’s wrong” business. There’s a spectrum of possible behavior for each of the two issues you mentioned. Let’s start with your standards of cleanliness. Your husband seems to be toward the “ultimate clean freak” end of the spectrum, while you’re able to exist quite comfortably in the midst of a bit more clutter. Statistically speaking, I suspect a larger number of people would tend to be similar to you rather than him in this respect, but that doesn’t make you right and him wrong. It just means the two of you are different. Your approach feels right and comfortable to you, as does his to him.

I’m willing to bet there are untold numbers of men to whom you could be married where this situation would be reversed. In other words, many men would consider your standards of cleanliness WAY too stringent when compared with their own preferences. Imagine being married to the guy who considers it a waste of energy to make the bed more often than Christmas and Easter. He leaves his tightie wighties on the floor in front of the shower every morning, and no amount of reminding or downright nagging is enough to get him to drop them in the laundry hamper instead. You have the daily pleasure of either picking them up yourself or looking at them every time you walk into the bathroom. If you want to talk about statistical probabilities, this is the situation I hear about more often than yours.

In both types of situations, the problem isn’t that one partner is right and the other is wrong. The issue is that each of you feels comfortable within a certain range of cleanliness along the spectrum, and your ranges don’t overlap. You haven’t been able to come up with a common compromise where you can both be comfortable and happy.

The same is true with your respective approaches to conflict resolution. You’re more comfortable being apart immediately after the onset of conflict (so you can deal with your rage), whereas he’s more comfortable being together at that time (so he doesn’t feel rejected). Both of you have your own needs. Both of you feel justified in those needs.

Both of you have the opportunity to change your own approach.

Neither of you is inclined to do so.


The underlying assumption embodied in your letter is that your approach should stay the same and he should change. What if you opened up the possibility that you could both change? If you think about that, I bet you’ll agree that this doubles the possibility of finding a common comfort zone along those spectrums I described above. If both people can move toward middle ground (rather than only one of you) then successful compromise is more likely.

As an example, let’s talk about your rage reaction. I get the sense you’ve accepted that this will always be a part of your life. Your coping strategy isn’t about avoiding rage. Instead, the rage comes over you and you find a way to ride it out in isolation.

What if you could learn a different reaction to conflict, one that doesn’t involve rage? Pick a situation where you became enraged and had to withdraw so you could regain control of your emotions. Many, many people could be presented with exactly the same stimuli and have no anger reaction. “That’s true,” you might say, “but they don’t have my background. Unfortunately the rage is part of who I am and I can’t change what I feel. It’s hard-wired into me due to the very aggressive, very violent household in which I grew up.”

Hmmm. That sounds a lot like the argument your husband offers for why he can’t change. I’ll offer you the same rebuttal; it is possible for you to re-learn how to react to conflict, although admittedly that would require commitment to change and plenty of hard work with the support of a professional. Imagine if you could remove or lessen your rage reactions. I’m betting you would enjoy life more, and the two of you would have one less issue standing in the way of compromise.

I suspect the two of you share more similarities than you might be willing to admit. You’ve both suffered tremendous emotional trauma. You’ve both endured the pain of multiple failed relationships. You both have complex, deep-rooted issues that affect your current ability to compromise with your partner.

And you both have many wonderful qualities that make it WELL worth whatever effort it takes to find those compromises.

I’m not trying to downplay the difficulties of dealing with issues stemming from childhood abuse, but I do believe you can increase your chances of shared happiness if you (a) gain a bit more understanding and empathy for his point of view (rather than simply considering him to be wrong), and (b) open up the possibility of two-way compromise, rather than expecting all the concessions to come from him.

I’m so glad you chose to write to me. You clearly care a great deal about your husband and your marriage. He’s lucky to have such a caring spouse, and I suspect that one fact will go a long way toward helping the two of you be happy together. I wish you both the best of luck!

All the best,


  1. Great response. I agree wholeheartedly with this. We can only change ourselves. Maybe if she tried to fit in with his way of doing things more - then over time he would realise she is not going to turn the home into a chaotic mess and he would be able to relax. In the meantime if children are part of the planned future for these two then they need to get into therapy to find a way of dealing with this long term because babies have a way of turning nice neat organised homes into the complete opposite and it would be a shame if any children of this marriage ended up with similar issues due to their parent's difficulties.

  2. Anonymous8:51 AM

    Excellent read, once again.

  3. Anonymous8:54 AM

    As insightful as always.

  4. Anonymous8:55 AM

    Andrew, your response left me feeling as if I had read a mystery and couldn't see the obvious clues until Inspector McAllister revealed all. ;) Well done!

  5. Anonymous8:57 AM

    Interesting read. I like the way you described yourself.

  6. Anonymous8:58 AM

    Very sad. But maybe their different approaches might eventually lead to them both finding a middle way and tempering their respective extremes. I hope so.

  7. This is such an interesting blog Andrew. I agree with your response and wholeheartedly believe that it's possible to overcome the legacy of one's childhood so that you can respond rather than react to these sorts of challenges. I once read that relationships are the best mirrors of ourselves and that has certainly been true for me in my marriage. Whilst any kind of conflict in a relationship is hard, working through that conflict is often our best opportunity to become better people.