Abusive? Who, Me?

Q: Recently my wife of 14 years has told me I am controlling and verbally abusive. I understand why she sees some things that way, as it's true that I've said some mean things. But I don't agree with many of the examples she gives of me being controlling or abusive. We have had no sex for 5 months as she has gone through various stages of anger and blame. I even slept on the couch for a month by her choice. We have a wonderful child, and until now, I thought, we had a great marriage. We have been going to a counselor and things are getting somewhat better, but I don't feel I can trust my wife. Twice in the last two months she told me she wanted a divorce and each time she changed her mind. I'm afraid to abandon my son and afraid to set aside what was once a great marriage because of a life stage. But part of me feels like I need to be fair to myself as well as to them. Anything you can tell me to help right now would be greatly appreciated. -- Jake, 40

Dr. Susan: It's typical of those who are controlling and emotionally abusive to believe they are giving a mile when they're giving only an inch. Tell me, Jake, how would it not be fair to yourself if you were to take your wife's perspective at face value and treat her the way she says she needs? Saying "some mean things" is indeed abusive, but there are subtler kinds of verbal abuse that add up over time. A woman can feel demeaned, disrespected, belittled, and criticized, when she lives with someone who constantly makes her feel less than okay, as though she can never do anything right. Even if she makes mistakes, it's not okay to put her down. The main thing to understand is that if the way you talk to her hurts her, then you need to learn a better way to communicate. Use genuine "I-messages," where you say how you're feeling rather than attacking the other person. For instance, if your wife is driving you crazy with her indecision, you could say, "I feel utterly confused when you say you want a divorce and then change your mind. I want to make this marriage work. Let's talk about how we can do that." Meanwhile, keep seeing the counselor if it's helping at all.

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