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Q: My wife left me a few weeks ago, saying my temper pushed her away. I became so depressed that I started to see a counselor. I want to do whatever it takes to resolve our differences, but she refuses to go for counseling and she won't answer my calls or e-mails. We've had a lot of stress during the few years we've been married, and I know I've made mistakes. I really believe that, through counseling, I can learn to control my anger. I'm sure it's something I learned -- and therefore, I can unlearn it. But instead of giving me a second chance, she's served me with divorce papers. What can I do?
Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a psychologist in Denver, Colorado, and author of The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong and Loving Marriage (New Harbinger Publications), answers:
A: First, I applaud your efforts to learn to face problems in a manner that is more effective than angry outbursts or depressive hopelessness. Anger is an attempt to force others to do what you want, irrespective of their concerns. Depression results when you give up altogether on trying to get what you want, and instead feel hopeless about solving your problems. Neither anger nor depression lead to marriage satisfaction. You say that you might "dispute" your wife's divorce attempt. That sounds like more fighting. What can you do instead of getting mad, giving up, or more fighting in response to your wife's divorce proposal?
Perhaps you can join your wife in putting an end to the old angry marriage that was probably harmful to both of you. Agree with her: The old marriage needs to end. Thank her for seeing that so clearly. In addition, ask her if she would be willing to join you in trying to launch another relationship, one that is completely new and different. You can then ask your wife if she would be willing to postpone divorce for a few months of learning and growing. Ask if she is willing to work with you -- through counseling or by reading self-help books -- to understand together what went wrong in the old marriage, and what you each need to do differently in your subsequent relationships, whether together or with new partners. If you and your wife agree to take this learning route, it's probably best if you go to counseling or a marriage skills course together, not to separate individual therapists. Learning new patterns of living together as a couple works best when you are both learning the same new skills at the same time.
Your old marriage was based on controlling your wife. A healthy marriage is based on mutual appreciation. Appreciating means that when you are tempted to become angry at your wife to get her to do what you want, you instead remind yourself that to love is to value your wife's perspectives and concerns every bit as much as your own. Then instead of badgering your wife in anger, you will seek to understand her. When you learn to devote as much energy to listening to your wife's concerns as you devote to speaking up for your own preferences, then you can build a marriage based on true love.