"He's Way Too Insecure"
The Counselor's Turn
Given Jessica and Michael's history of volatility, jealousy, and mistrust, it was clear that counseling wouldn't be a quick fix. But as I told them in the first session, "If you work hard to understand what's driving your behavior and then change how you treat each other, you can repair your marriage."
Jessica and Michael come from different cultures, so the first step was to explore how their backgrounds shaped their attitudes and communication styles. Jessica was raised in a strict Korean-American family: Her father, a successful physician, ruled the household, while her mother, a timid librarian, deferred to him on everything. He was hypercritical of Jessica, who felt like she had no voice in the family. Although she hoped to become a doctor, her father didn't believe that women should practice medicine and refused to pay for medical school. "I'm still angry that my father didn't support my career dreams," she told me.
I believe Jessica had been transferring those feelings directly onto Michael -- her critical, demanding husband. When Michael bashed Jessica's career or parenting style, she felt like she was back with her critical dad and she lashed out with double the intensity. As a successful professional in her 40s, she could fight with her husband in a way she'd never been able to with her father.
When Michael was a kid, his family was constantly in conflict. Arguments were frequent and loud, not only between his parents but also among Michael and his three siblings. So like Jessica, Michael never learned healthy communication habits. His father cheated on his mother and, during the 10 years it took them to divorce, they were so preoccupied with their own marital drama that they ignored Michael. Given that childhood history, it was easy to see how Michael developed poor self-esteem and why he was sensitive to any perceived slight, such as Jessica's glancing at another man or withholding her travel itinerary.
Also, Michael's family was wealthy and always had plenty of household help. He was never expected to do chores and he brought this mind-set into his marriage.
By examining their pasts, the couple came to understand what was underneath their attitudes, behavior, and expectations. Over time they learned how to change themselves instead of trying unsuccessfully to change each other. "Michael is insecure -- that's just who he is," I told Jessica. "But you can change how you react to his accusations. If you stay calm instead of firing back, Michael won't have anyone to fight with." Likewise, I advised Michael to stop expecting Jessica to be a particular kind of mom: "Your wife grew up in a culture that relates differently to children than the way your culture relates. Set the example you hope she'll follow, but don't become verbally abusive if she doesn't live up to your warm-and-fuzzy model."
From there I addressed Michael's suspicions of Jessica's infidelity and his unresolved anger over the gym membership. I pointed out that the two aren't linked: Not coming clean about a gym membership isn't the same as having an affair, and Michael had created unnecessary conflict by constantly equating the two. Still, Jessica needed to be honest with Michael even though she was afraid of his temper. "If you're not open, he'll always be suspicious," I cautioned. "When you go on a business trip, share your itinerary before he begs for it. When your plane lands, call to say you arrived safely. The more open you are, the more secure Michael will feel, and the less likely he'll be to go ballistic."
Jessica and Michael's way of communicating with each other was unacceptable. Spouses shouldn't raise their voices, call names, swear, or scare their kids. "Is this how you want your children to see marriage?" I asked. "Starting now, there is a no-screaming policy in your relationship." I spent a lot of time coaching them on healthier ways to communicate.
Jessica and Michael also needed to reconnect as a couple. I suggested at least 30 minutes a week of positive couple time -- no talk of kids or chores -- plus a monthly date night, where they could have fun and remember why they fell in love. And I urged them to focus on what they liked about each other and to give each other more praise than criticism. Michael now makes a point of acknowledging Jessica's financial contributions to the family, and since he started paying her more compliments, she's now less hostile and a lot more willing to sit through weekend baseball games together.
As for the division of household labor, the easiest solution was to hire a cleaning service. And if Michael continued to pile dirty clothes on the floor between their visits, Jessica had to stop acting like a servant.
Jessica and Michael worked hard to transform themselves during their two years in therapy. Their relationship remains a work in progress, but they're light-years ahead of where they started. Michael has become less suspicious and more accepting of Jessica's business travel. She gives him more attention to boost his self-esteem. "Therapy taught us that we can't change each other and gave us the tools to change ourselves," Jessica said. "Our marriage isn't perfect, but we don't fight as much, and we're much happier now. I'm glad we didn't give up."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2012.