"His Big Mouth is Costing Us Our Marriage": Can This Marriage Be Saved?

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The Counselor's Turn

"Many couples come to counseling believing they have a multitude of problems," the counselor said. "Often it's actually one specific problem that has penetrated into several areas of the marriage. That was true for Meg and Norman. Meg was angry with her husband for his outbursts, poor grooming, sloppiness around the house and stubborn refusal to change. Norman was angry with his wife for trying to censor his comments, nagging him about his appearance and rejecting him sexually. But it soon became clear that the major underlying problem was a battle for control.

"Overcoming a control struggle begins with understanding its source. For Meg and Norman it started in childhood. Meg's mother was a classic micromanager who badgered her daughter about her clothes, hygiene and friends. Though she loathed these tendencies, Meg unwittingly repeated them in her efforts to control Norman. Indeed, she fixated on his perceived flaws-his outbursts, appearance and laissez-faire attitude about household order-in the same way that her mother had fixated on hers.

"Meg viewed her father as the 'good parent' because he didn't criticize her, but his passivity left Meg's mother to be the heavy. Over time I helped Meg see that her father was partly to blame for the way her mother controlled her, and her parents' difficult marriage cast her into the role of peacekeeper -- a role she still plays vis--vis Norman and their friends. 'This scenario is common in single-child families where one parent wants children and the other doesn't,' I told Meg. Only children often have more difficulty dealing with loss than people with siblings do -- the hypothesis being that they can't afford to lose any family members because they have so few. Often they form unusually close bonds with friends, who become their surrogate family. The fact that Meg's father died when she was in high school has made her especially sensitive to loss. It also helps explain both her fear that Norman's comments will alienate her friends and her lingering anger about the loss of Susan.

The Control Factor

"Meanwhile, Norman was also controlled, but by his father. Though Norman enjoys his work, he still resents his father's insistence that he study something that would lead to a high-paying profession; he became visibly angry as he discussed it. In response to his upbringing, Norman developed a need to do as he pleases, whether it's speaking his mind or wearing his hair too long. If Meg tries to change him in any way-even for his own good -- Norman rebels to avoid being controlled. 'On a subconscious level you're mad at yourself for obeying your dad,' I told him. 'When you refuse to accommodate Meg's requests, you're really rebelling against him.'

"Despite their surface differences, Meg and Norman are similar in an important way that holds them together: Mutual victimization by controlling and emotionally absent parents. 'You're both right about each other's shortcomings,' I told them,'but neither of you is as bad as the other thinks.' By understanding the source of their problems, Meg and Norman developed empathy for each other. And that helped them see that each was being overly sensitive -- Meg to Norman's outbursts, Norman to Meg's nagging.

"I gave Meg a homework assignment to try not to criticize Norman for a week, and she reported back that she found it tough to do. 'I never realized how much I need to nitpick,' she said. Over time Meg was able to stop for two reasons. First, she did not want to be like her mother. Second, she realized that her criticism was counterproductive. The more Meg nagged Norman, the more he had to prove he couldn't be controlled.

Continued on page 5:  The Counselor's Turn, continued

 

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