"He's Moody and Angry All the Time"

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The Counselor's Turn

"Despite Eve's doubts that the marriage was salvageable, I felt certain it was," said the counselor. "Ben had already made two critical changes: He'd stopped self-medicating with alcohol and felt deep remorse at how hurtful his actions and words had been.

"Eve and Ben had the same problem: the inability to express emotions, thoughts, and needs effectively. Instead, they assumed the worst of each other, acting on those assumptions in an unhealthy way.

"Eve tiptoed around Ben, trying to heed his wishes while ignoring her own. She had to work on not only finding her voice but also using it. That's a tall order for someone who grew up in a home where no one paid much attention to her and whose mother subordinated herself to a demanding husband.

"Ben, too, had poor parental role models and was deeply affected by his upbringing and the trauma of his father's suicide. Beneath the anger was a boy who desperately needed attention and love. When Eve directed her attention elsewhere, he felt as rejected as he had as a child.

"I believed that Ben, like his father, suffered from depression, which, in men, often manifests itself as anger and irritability. I referred him to a doctor who prescribed an antidepressant to regulate his moods. And I outlined a plan aimed at identifying Eve's and Ben's real feelings and shoring up their self-esteem. Each carried a notebook in which they recorded every argument, describing the situation and feelings that triggered it, as well as any physical sensations it evoked.

"When Eve got that knot in her stomach, she'd pause and ask herself, 'Why am I feeling this way?' Once she'd figured out the reason, she would calmly say to Ben, "I don't like the way you're throwing your anger around. It frustrates and scares me. Please own up to this and stop putting me down.'

"With Ben, a tightening of the jaw was a sign that he was about to lose it. He trained himself to become alert to this sensation and to stop, breathe, and ask, 'What can I do differently?' He admitted that drinking muddied his thoughts. 'I'd miss the signals that I was stepping over the line and giving Eve and the boys a hard time,' he said. When a disagreement threatened to get out of hand, the couple would call a time-out until both calmed down.

"These strategies worked wonders. Once Eve was able to tell Ben her needs, the marriage felt more balanced. 'People treat friends and coworkers with more respect and courtesy than their own spouses,' Eve said. 'We were both guilty of that.'

"'But now we've learned compromise and kindness,' Ben said. 'We know we have each other's back.'"

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2010.


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