Wife's anxiety makes husband withdraw


August 07, 1994|By From Ladies' Home Journal Los Angeles Times Syndicate

"This marriage will be over unless major changes are made right now," announces Ruth, 33, who recently quit her job as a hospital nurse to spend more time with her two children, ages 7 and 3. "Dan is an island unto himself. He rarely talks and never consults with me on anything. I know he's working hard, but why can't he call me if he's going to be home late? Does he think he's living alone?" she continues, her voice rising frantically as the words tumble out.

"In the morning, he has his coffee and leaves for work. Doesn't it occur to him to pour the milk for the kids' cereal? To help me get them ready for school? Must I ask him a hundred times?"

Bedtime, she notes, is a disaster. The kids are out of control and, instead of backing her up, Dan's idea of discipline is to yell or let them do whatever they want.

Married 11 years, Dan and Ruth found their lives idyllic at first. But then one catastrophe after another befell them. First, Dan was abruptly fired from his job -- a political maneuver, but the effect on his self-esteem as well as their finances was devastating. After seven months, Dan found a job with a firm in another state. They sold their house -- at a huge loss -- and moved 400 miles from family and friends. Soon after, Dan's father died of a cerebral hemorrhage and, less than a month later, their 7-year-old daughter came down with a rare bone infection in her hip. She's fine now, but her surgery and recovery were hard on the family.

But Dan, Ruth insists, remains oblivious to everyone and everything. "If he isn't at the office, he's raking the leaves or fixing the fence. He operates on remote control. Can't he take a Sunday and go with us to the park? Or at least ask the kids to help him rake the leaves?"

While his wife can barely contain her anxiety, Dan, 38, sits listlessly. The fallout from his unemployment lingers. "Though I know getting fired wasn't my fault, I can't help feeling humiliated," he says. "But while my career is back on track, I don't know why my marriage isn't."

Dan admits, however, that much of the time he only half-listens to what Ruth has to say: "Ruth is a worrywart, worse than her father. It drives me nuts the way she can't stop worrying. She actually calls me at work to complain about the kids!" He'd like to be close, but Ruth's obsessive fretting drives him away.

Learn to control anxiety

"Thrown into a whirlwind of stress, Ruth is reacting, as many people do, on the basis of emotional legacies from childhood," say Evelyn Firestone Moschetta and Paul Moschetta, a counseling team in New York and Huntington, N.Y. Indeed, it's difficult for frantic Ruth to sort out which problem to tackle first. As she speaks, she darts from one dilemma to another, without resolving the first -- just as her father did.

Ruth must stop obsessing so she can harness her energy to solve her problems -- and not push her husband away in the process. One strategy for constant worriers like Ruth is "thought stopping."

Here's what you do: Whenever you find your mind leaping from one anxiety to another, close your eyes and imagine the word STOP in large letters. Visualize the letters slowly, one at a time, in bright, vivid colors. Replay them over and over until you feel yourself relaxing.

If you're a worrier, like Ruth, you'll find that your marriage benefits greatly once you get yourself on an even emotional keel. Once Ruth is calmer, she also will be able to express her feelings in a non-threatening way, so her spouse will be inclined to respond to her needs instead of tuning her out.

The bonus: Ruth will be even more reassured to know that her husband is not only listening but also backing up his words with actions by taking a bigger role in bedtime routines and stepping in to support her in disciplining the children.

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