Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

A Husband's Lament: Why Can't She See I've Changed?

August 5, 1996

George is a perfectionist, a workaholic and a guy trying to win approval from others by doing all the "right" things. He is trying to overcome his feelings of shame and inadequacy that came from growing up in an alcoholic home. His compulsive need to "look good" is taking a tremendous toll on his family.

George is good in his work. He goes overboard trying to please his customers. He works long hours. When he is at home, he’s hard to be around.

George's wife, Emily, can't take it any longer. She has tried to get through to George about problems in their marriage and family. His temper, pushy ways, blaming and constant barrage of criticisms are wearing his family out. George is so argumentative that Emily gives up trying to raise issues with him. She feels constantly under attack. In an argument, he will pursue her and keep the pressure on until she would finally give in.

After one bad blowup, George tried to make a few changes. His temper outbursts were fewer and he started to spend more time with his family. However, his intensity, his need to be right and his overbearing manner didn't change. The changes he took pride in weren't good enough. Everything still had to be his way. Emily and the children still felt the brunt of his demands.

George had little insight into his steamroller tactics and his poor listening habits. He hadn’t changed his lack of respect for others and the one-sided quality of his conversation. He always had to be right, no matter what the cost.

Despite his good intentions and Emily's pressure, George reverted to his controlling ways. Finally, Emily left. George, after a quick foray into counseling, now proclaims he has changed. Emily isn't buying it. She knows better. She has been down that road too many times. She wants real change or she wants out.

To his credit, George seeks out pastors, counselors and a support group where he gains some insight into his behavior. However, he now uses their counsel as further proof that he is right, that he has changed and that Emily is wrong for not welcoming him back wholeheartedly. If anything, he had learned to be a little more subtle in his arguments. This has made him even harder to deal with.

What kind of changes does George need to make? What can he learn that he doesn't already know.

  • George needs to learn the connection between his growing in an alcoholic home and his workaholic perfectionism. George buried the pain of his childhood long ago. He hasn't come to terms with his past. He is living many old family patterns from his childhood except for the alcohol abuse. His inner self-dislike has been hidden from everybody except Emily who knows some of the scars he carries from his childhood.

George is trying to earn respect and approval without acknowledging his weakness and imperfection. He doesn't trust others. He doesn't feel good enough to do that until he can prove himself first. Behind George's good works is a scared, hurt, abandoned little boy who doesn't know that others will love and respect him, even if he is not perfect.

He needs get in touch with the past, learn from it, grieve and let it go. He needs to learn that it is his own opinion of himself that really matters. He is good enough already. He can stop using his family as punching bag to prove he is, at least, better than they are.

  • George needs to learn to be playful about life. He needs to take life less seriously, laugh at himself, let his hair down and develop a sense of humor. He needs to take care of his own needs in a positive way - to learn he is special without being perfect.
  • Instead of incessantly trying to engineer things for his own happiness George needs to go out of his way for others. His own needs are so strong that his goals and desires come first too often.
  • George needs to understand that being wrong is OK and to admit his mistakes. He doesn't need to protect himself by blaming others or finding fault. He is so confident of being right that he can’t see how Emily and others close to him have valid points of view.
  • Most of all, George needs to be a good listener and to genuinely connect with his wife's feelings. His long-winded, pushy communication habits make problem-solving with him an ordeal. George doesn't understand how mechanical and how cold he comes across as be begins one of his diatribes.

No matter what else happens in counseling, George has to learn to micro-manage his conversational style because the one-sideness of the relationship becomes apparent whenever he opens his mouth. His communication style is controlling and at the heart of why Emily doesn't want to be around him.

Men like George show up at the pastor's or counselor's doorstep full of pain, good intentions and in a big hurry to fix things. They don't understand that real change is tough and will take much work before their untrusting spouse will want to come back.