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'Extremely Controling' Wife And Passive Husband

Question:

I have been married for 13 years. My wife is extremely controlling, has a bad temper, and is overly sensitive. I am the exact opposite — I am laid-back, happy and never get angry. This has made the marriage an unhappy place for me, but I feel that because we have 3 children, I am trapped. It all started back when we were dating. She is 3 years older than me, and so has always been at a different stage of life than I was. So, when she announced it was time for us to get engaged/married, naturally I balked at the idea because I did not expect to get married for another 4-5 years. She begged and cried and I caved in and we got engaged, as I thought this would keep her happy for a while. It didn’t. She immediately started planning the wedding for the following year. I expressed my feelings to her about not rushing things, but she ignored me and continued to finalize the plans. I felt I had to go thru with the wedding at that point because it seemed like there was no way out of it, but I fully expected it would only last about a year. However, one year turned into two, and before I knew it, she announced that her biological clock was ticking and that it was time for children. I told her financially we were not yet ready for kids, but again she ignored my feelings and again I gave in to her. However, I did not realize it, but each time she ignored my feelings and each time I gave in, resentment had been building inside me. Finally, after 11 years of putting up with things and letting her get her way because I was the easy-going one in the relationship, I finally felt like I had to do something. So, I actively sought out a high school sweetheart and rekindled the realtionship via the internet. I then paid a visit to this person and began a physical affair. My wife found out about it, and my life has gone from bad to much, much worse. I realize that I should not have gone about things in this way, but I felt that finding someone who actually cared about me and was unselfish was the answer. I justified it by telling myself that what my wife doesn’t know won’t hurt her. Unfortunately, I underestimated my wife and her abilities, and after some digging, she discovered the affair. I was not sorry about the affair itself, but I was sorry for hurting my wife. We have gone thru counselling and have managed to stay together, but she is even more in control of my every move now because whenever I try to excercise some independence, she brings up my affair and tells me she can’t trust me anymore so that’s why she has to keep me under her thumb. The irony is, she has always had me under her thumb. She also repeatedly comments that there are men out there who would be thrilled to have a “wonderful, attractive woman like her for a spouse”, but I believe that the true reason she wants the marriage to work now, is so that she does not have to re-enter the dating scene and/or face life as a single mom. My dilemma at this point is: do I stay for the sake of my young children, or do I go to ensure my life is happy from here on out? My wife is not the sort of ex who would remain friends after the break-up — she has stated on many occasions that if we ever broke up, she would move away so that I would not be able to see my children again. This comment always weighs heavily on my mind whenever I think about leaving. (Financially, it is also impossible for me to leave right now, as I would have no way to rent an apartment) While we are together I try hard to maintain a positive relationship with her for the benefit of the kids, but this too is hard as she is not an easy person to get along with. Any advice or guidance you can give would be greatly appeciated.

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Answer:

You may be blessed with a laid-back, happy personality, but your statement about never getting angry is clearly not accurate. Saying that you are resentful about your marriage is not the statement of a man who never gets angry. I can see why you might think you never get angry, however, as you strongly come across in your letter as a passive, rather than assertive or aggressive individual. Keeping the peace is very important to passive people, and they are willing to not own all kinds of feelings they may have which would cause problems for the general peace. Instead of expressing your anger directly to your wife, you expressed it passively (or passive-aggressively) by having an affair. I’m not not a big fan of affairs, myself, as they tend to cause a lot of emotional harm to families and to children especially. I think affairs are essentially cowardly behavior. Still, I can see why (from your perspective) you would feel so very needy of positive attention and affection. We’re all humans here. We have needs. The differences between us are how well we create situations for ourselves that allow us to satisfy those needs in positive ways.

Becoming assertive means to learn the middle ground between passivity and aggression. Aggression is when you make demands of others and hurt them when they don’t comply. Aggression is essentially about power and it doesn’t care about the needs of people who are subject to that power. Passivity, on the ohter hand is capitulation to power. Passivity means to take marching orders from a dictator, and to accept that dictator’s right to give commands, at least publically. Passive people may grumble about having to follow orders, but they don’t speak up much. They are too afraid of rocking the boat, or of getting hurt. If aggressive people don’t respect the needs of others, passive people don’t respect their own needs.

Assertion is the middle way between passivity and aggression. To be assertive means to find a way to defend yourself against others’ aggressive actions, while at the same time, not becoming aggressive against others yourself. People who are too passive for their own good often confuse aggression and assertion becuase they can’t distingish between defense and offence when it comes to anger. This is subtle stuff to learn for someone who doesn’t already know it, which is why it is a good idea to do more than just read about assertiveness, but rather work with a trainer or class instructor who can help to provide examples of assertive action, and opportunities for practice role-playing.

The advice I have for you is that it would be a very good idea for you to take some assertiveness classes, read some assertiveness books (the classic book is called “Your Perfect Right”, by Alberti and Emmons, but there are many other good ones too these days), and probably visit with a therapist who can help you work on becoming more assertive. If you don’t do this, your essentially passive mindset will lead you to recreate the same “hell” you’ve chosen for yourself currently with the next woman you meet. If you don’t do this (e.g., learn to be more assertive), I don’t believe you’ll find happiness with anyone.

The nice thing about becoming more assertive is that you will perhaps learn how to deal with your wife in a more assertive way, and in so doing, perhaps be able to come feel better about yourself and about her. Part of the problem now is that you are probably not very good at making your own wishes known. It may be that she is just insensitive or self-absorbed, but lets give her the benefit of the doubt and say that while she may have some of those qualities, she may also be saddled with a husband who doesn’t understand how to clearly state what he needs from her and so doesn’t appreciate those needs or take them into account. By becoming more assertive you can learn how to help her to know what you need in a strong but also kind way. This will allow you both (hopefully) to dialog and come to compromises that will work for both of you. As you grow as a person in this assertive regard, maybe your marriage can grow with you to become something that is more pleasant for you both. And, if not, you can still leave the marriage at a later time.

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