On Healing 10/2/2006: Wives feeling disappointed, men inadequate

Dear Dr. Dan:
It seems to me there is one psychological challenge in family life that is crying out to be “named and framed” so those affected can get help: the challenge of living with the incompetent.

By incompetence, I mean the inability to understand one’s inadequacies and to grasp the adaptations needed to live successfully. This goes beyond the usual range of strengths and weaknesses. It is a certain kind of personality, innocuous on the surface, attractive sometimes, even lovable.

These people make the same mistakes again and again and seem unable or unwilling to learn from experience. While others might gradually change, so that a pattern of failure is slowly broken and replaced by an occasional success, the incompetent bash on, secure in their view of themselves.

For those who live with them, pick up after them, bring up children in spite of them, it is like dying every day. It robs them of peace of mind, creating depression, anxiety, and an untold array of effects.
— A reader
Dear reader:
I can almost hear many women reading this column and thinking, “Oh, boy, that sounds just like my husband.” And, of course, men saying, “I can feel that husband’s pain.”

One of the most common themes with couples I see is wives frustrated with their husbands’ behavior – and the husbands are either trying too hard to meet expectations or have given up and shut down. Underneath the anger are women who experience disappointment in their men, and men who feel inadequate to please their wives. Over time, both become frustrated and blame one another for their unhappiness.

I understand the suggestion that your husband might have a personality disorder. It is possible – but very unlikely.

This sounds to me like a serious marital problem.

When they marry, many women assume they’ll be able to repair most of the “little issues” they find troubling in their men. It’s called “marrying a project.”

He is thrilled with the approval and affection he gets during this stage of the relationship, and assumes it will continue regardless of what he does or doesn’t do. She gets more frustrated and emotional. He gets overwhelmed by the barrage of feelings and shuts down. This inevitably devolves into a relationship that looks like a critical mother/schoolteacher living with a petulant adolescent boy.

From your letter, I know two things: First, you are frustrated and probably have been for a long time. Second, your criticism is no longer about his behavior, but his character. And I could guess that your husband is probably just as unhappy.

Here are some suggestions that may help, beginning with the hard questions:

Do you want to stay married? If so, do you want to stay married to the spouse that you have, as opposed to the spouse you would like him to be?

And if the answer is yes, please stop trying to change him. Criticism should be infrequent and focused on specific behavior. Studies of successful couples show the ratio of positive to negative comments is five to one during an argument – and much higher during ordinary conversation.

You both have been hurt very badly in this relationship. You must do your best to stop wounding each other, through words as well as silence. Only then will either of you begin to feel safe. Nothing changes without safety.

Most important: Find a good marital therapist, one specifically trained in marital and family therapy and a member of the American Association for Marital and Family Therapy. Make sure you both feel safe and understood by the therapist.

By the way, don’t expect anyone to do therapy on your marriage. Success requires commitment and a good deal of work by each spouse. For a marriage to improve, both spouses must change.

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