Q: Sometimes I feel so angry with my husband that I want to scream. In fact I do end up screaming. I can't stand to see myself act this way, but I can't help it, he gets me crazy. When I try to talk to him about something serious, or talk about feelings or even approach him for some affection, he's always making a "joke" out of it.
The joke deflects the seriousness of my conversation, and I feel pushed away and abandoned. I am left feeling like he "won" because he doesn't have to take my complaints seriously. Nothing is resolved, nothing happens differently. It's the same old miserable marriage day in and day out. I just keep thinking about how I am trapped. What should I do?
A: You are building a case of negative, hurtful and angry thoughts that is taking on a life of it's own. Psychologists call this a negative perspective, a solid scheme of thoughts and beliefs about how rotten your husband and your marriage is. This line of thinking is similar to how depressed people think, in that "depressogenic" or negative thinking results in a person feeling miserable, hopeless, helpless and angry. You are obsessing about how awful the marriage is, but you are the one ending up sick, hurt and as if you want to quit.
What gets lost amid the depression, defensiveness and anger is the hurt and sadness you feel in being disappointed that you cannot communicate in a serious, mature and meaningful way with your spouse. It is likely you feel very alone in this marriage.
In these cases, we see what Stan Tatkin, a professor in psychobiology of couples at the University of California at Los Angeles, calls the angry-resistant marriage. The line of thinking in this marriage is: "I am tired of being misunderstood all the time. I can't stand it, I can't bear it, I am so angry. The angrier I get, the more my husband avoids me, or makes fun of me, and I'm in a vicious cycle of anger and resentment. I will not be vulnerable to him. I am sick of him making fun of my feelings. He could care less if he hurts me."
Distance, anger, disengagement and resentment increase between the couple as this cycle takes hold.
The antidote to this destructive marital cycle involves intervention aimed at helping the couple put words to their feelings and fears.
Often a therapist has to take an active role in disallowing the dodging of the emotions and helping each member of the couple to tolerate the angry and hurt emotions of the other. It is only when we can trust our partner to hold us even when angry and hurt (as long as they are not being abusive verbally or physically) that we can allow intimacy to grow and develop.
Our culture often does not give people a model for holding and accepting the emotions of our loved ones. We have been afraid in the past of expressing emotions and depending on partners for help: our fear of being "co-dependent."
More and more, research shows that mutual interdependency and the tasks of being able to be patient, loving and accepting of the emotions of our partner has a central role in marriage.
This does not mean that emotions should be used for "emotional blackmail" such as, "If you don't buy me the car I want, I am going to be miserable and make your life miserable."
This process has nothing to do with possessions and everything to do with being accepted and loved in the present with what you feel, how you see the world and how you think as a unique person.
This process is made more difficult in that we are often afraid of our own feelings, afraid we will look weak, overly sensitive, immature or irrational.
To protect from our own vulnerability and being rejected when we put forth our heart and soul to another - our needs, wishes and longings - anger seems the best strategy. It seems strong, fierce and protective.
The short-term gain for anger is feeling safe. The safety, however, comes at the price of feeling alone.
Seek help if you feel you haven't yet given up. Your husband is probably protecting something himself with his chronic "joking." Try this, as best you can.
Janet Hibel has a diplomate in counseling psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology. E-mail your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (561) 694- 6703.