Q: Hi, Jenny,
In my marriage of 16 years, I’m the one who is the giver. I’ve given over and over again for the sake of my husband’s career – moving for his sake, and being supportive about how much time away from home his job takes. I’ve also been supportive of all of his sports interests, and I’m a gracious hostess to his family. I’ve done all this, even while he criticises me. He thinks I should work more at my career or my own hobbies. He says he doesn’t ask for all the attention I give him, and he blames me that I’m angry and resentful.
Ever since we had our first child four years ago, I’ll admit, I have been resentful. (Now we have two.) Every time we try to talk, we end up in a huge fight. I know I shouldn’t be so resentful, but I’m beginning to think the problem is that he is truly selfish.
Why else wouldn’t he be more appreciative of what I do for him? And supportive of me the way that I’ve been for him? I feel like he should be happy with me for what I do, and we should be closer, but he doesn’t seem to get it. I don’t know why we can’t make it work, and am really hoping for your expert advice. I’d be very grateful for your comments.
We are seeing a marriage counselor and she said our problems stem from my past trauma. (I was abused as a child.) I have a hard time believing this is really all my fault.
Or have I attracted a man who is as selfish as my abuser? Is there hope that he can change? Or should I think about getting a divorce to end the fighting for the sake of our kids? Thanks for any help you can give me. Angie (not her real name)
(I’ll be answering Angie’s question in a series of short articles going in-depth on this important subject. The upcoming series will cover EXPECTATIONS, COMMUNICATION & SEX. The first one starts right below.)
First of all, you’re a SURVIVOR! The trauma responses you have in your adult life are in no way your fault. But now that you are an adult, those reactions are your responsibility – meaning now it’s up to you to do the healing.
Since I don’t know your husband, I can’t really say what his part is or if he is truly selfish. Your feelings clearly indicate that you need things to change. I do know you deserve to feel better. And you can change your part in the painful patterns in this relationship.
Trauma has likely created for you, what we refer to as an “enduring vulnerability” in Gottman Method Therapy.
This is the wound or difficulty from the past that impacts the present relationship.
I see that you might be struggling with expectations when you describe the clash you have with your husband around how much you support him. You’re confused about why he doesn’t appreciate you more for all that you do for him, yet criticises you instead.
It’s as if the two of you are working off of different scripts while trying to perform the same scene in a movie. He may be working from a script he learned unconsciously in childhood (called an internal working model), or he may be improvising – following what feels true and right in the here and now.
My sense from your question is that you are following a trauma script. But what feels like it SHOULD work – from the script you are following – only earns you the opposite of what you’re expecting. Instead of his appreciation, you receive what feels like criticism. This is because what you’re doing doesn’t line up with – or attune to – the reality of his actual feelings and needs.
He says he wants you to stop doing so much for him, and yet, my guess is that if you were to actually change what you do, you might feel panic-y and fearful. An irrational worry might take over – maybe connected to a fear of abandonment. It would resonate as “true” in your body, and if that body-based belief had words, it might say something like, “No matter what he says, he really expects me to work everything out for him, and if I don’t please him, he’ll abandon me; or hurt me. I’m only valuable when I serve his needs.” These would be the powerful beliefs of your wounded inner child. It’s as if she is trying to help you by driving you towards performing a role according to the old script that kept her safe in the past.
But do you see, Dear Angie, that your husband can’t have a relationship with a role. He can only connect with the REAL you! What’s so frustrating for couples dealing with trauma, is that at the very moment you think you’re connecting – (in your case, through helping your husband) – trauma has actually hi-jacked your nervous system and switched you from a pattern of connection to a pattern of protection.
Playing this role of supporting your husband whether he’s requested it or not – is actually a defense. The thing about defenses – is that while they protected us from hurts in the past, they hinder us from genuine connection in the present – when no real threat exists.
Because here’s the truth – Nobody can connect to another’s defenses.
You aren’t alone. I see many people who struggle with this issue.
My client “Jenna” (name changed to protect her identity) came to see me with her husband, Daniel. Jenna was depressed, even though everything in her life should have been making her happy. But Jenna was constantly exhausted and in a low mood. She complained that she always felt like she was behind in housework, and yet, could never take a break. If she couldn’t be happy, neither could Daniel, and in their misery, they had grown apart.
Here’s how they described it to me.
Daniel: “If there is one load of towels to wash, she can’t go to sleep at night.
“She’s a total perfectionist about our home, and every meal has to be cooked from scratch out of a gourmet cookbook.”
“It’s true,” Jenna agreed.
Jenna was doing the perfect home-maker thing full-throttle while also holding down a full-time job and parenting with Daniel.
You may have noticed the repetition of a key word here – should.
We therapists have a nerdy little joke about that word: “Don’t should on yourself.”
If you hear yourself thinking should – pay attention! It’s likely due to fear about performing from an old script. Should is often connected to shame. But when we notice we’ve been forcing ourselves to perform from a “should” script, we see a place to start healing!
Keeping things in perfect order, was, for Jenna, a protective move. It kept her from shame. It created a feeling of safety – based on the script she followed as a kid with her mother and step-father. From the time she was 9, it was her job to care for the younger children of her mother’s husband. She grew up with emotional neglect – having to dismiss her own needs and feelings. She also suffered emotional abuse – when she was told her needs didn’t matter. She recalled some episodes of physical abuse – fights when her mother slapped her or pulled her hair.
Now, many years later, sitting in my office, Jenna reflected with new insight about following her should script. “Seeing the results of what I do in the home – everything being perfect – really calms me down. It definitely makes me feel safe – like nobody can blame me or hurt me. I won’t get caught with things left undone.” Her eyes filled with tears. “It sure sounds crazy to hear myself say that out loud.”
Daniel reached over and took her hand. “I’m sorry I’ve criticised you for this. That must be so hard,” he whispered.
“And I’ve put that on you,” she continued, “as if you were the one who would be mad if the towels weren’t clean or the dinner wasn’t perfect. That wasn’t fair.”
“I seriously couldn’t have cared less,” he shrugged.
“I know that now.”
Jenna was now able to feel the truth – that Daniel could never connect with her defensive behaviors – the constant performing; believing she was pleasing him. What she and Daniel both wanted and needed in the here and now – was true connection – or what we call attunement.
“Can you allow his touch to soothe you, now?” I asked Jenna. “Soften your body. Relax your jaw, and just let everything inside you feel soft and safe. See if you can open to the warmth and soothing of Daniel’s loving presence.”
She closed her eyes and put her attention on the connection with Daniel. A soft smile came to her lips. “I can feel safe with you, Babe,” she assured him.
At home, Jenna continued to practice paying mindful attention to feeling the safe loving connection with Daniel. She let in his love – while at the same time, tolerated the discomfort of letting go of her old scripts. She left some laundry undone and eased up on some of her high standards in the kitchen.
She and Daniel practiced attuning to one another’s reality – Looking into one another’s eyes when feeling soft and safe, and discussing their real feelings and needs in the present moment – avoiding the shoulds.
But when “the shoulds” in her brain started to overwhelm her, especially when under stress, Jenna learned to confide this to Daniel. “I’m struggling with feeling overwhelmed. Like I should be doing more.” And he helped her soften and accept, breathe and then challenge the old belief to change the script.
This all calmed her mind and heart, so that eventually, she no longer felt the compulsive tug of the old wounds, forcing her to perform in the old way.
Now, Dear Angie and Dear Reader, I need to add that Jenna did this work with Daniel in the context of our therapeutic relationship. For many people, having the wise support of a trauma-informed therapist is invaluable. I hope you’ll be able to connect with one for yourself. (And if anyone reading this is a such a therapist, I’d be thrilled to hear from you for networking and referrals.)
What To Do: Attunement
We all need to attune to ourselves before we can connect with our partners.
- A: Awareness of Emotion
- T: Tolerance that there are always two valid viewpoints when conflict arises. Learn to accept that your expectations or wishes could be different from your partner’s.
- T: Turning toward one another’s needs
- U: Understanding
- E: Empathy
First, attune to yourself. Ask yourself: what do I truly feel? What do I truly need?
How can you meet your own genuine needs with kindness – or ask your partner to meet them?
Once you are aware of your own emotions, and can accept them with kindness – you’ll grow in your ability to be aware of your partner’s feelings too. Recognition of REAL feelings is the goal, and this is often a huge and difficult shift for trauma survivors.
As you become more self-aware, you can attune to your partner. Turn toward their true feelings with acceptance of what’s real for them. Let go of the anxiety around what “should” be.
See if you can build trust and safety with your partner by practicing telling each other the truth about feelings. Accepting one another’s truth, rather than performing roles from old scripts leads to the joy of living together in the here and now.
Ask Jenny T is a resource, but sometimes you feel like you need a rescue. If you’re at that spot, please add to your arsonal by seeking support through the following:
Disclaimer: This post is not a substitute for a professional therapeutic relationship.