Friday, December 26, 2008

Lives of Quiet Desperation

"I love my husband, but how do you make a man stop embarrassing you in public?....He asks complete strangers walking by if they would 'like to buy a wife cheap.' He tells me people think he's funny..."
(From "Not Laughing in Cincinnati", a Dear Abby questioner)

On a radio show recently, I made the rather sweeping pronouncement that eighty percent of divorces are unnecessary. I told the host that, unless a marriage is characterized by ongoing physical or emotional abuse, untreated alcoholism or drug addiction, or repeated infidelities, there should be a way of resolving problems within the relationship, at least to the extent that both spouses are reasonably satisfied most of the time.

And I do believe that. But I was talking about people who give up on their marriages too easily, without trying new or imaginative approaches to dealing with conflict. The other side of that coin are the people who suffer forever in what clearly seem to be hopeless and dispiriting marriages. These are the people who, like the Dear Abby questioner, claim to love their spouse, but die a little bit every day because of that spouse's relentless bullying, verbal abuse, and control. These are the people who should get divorced, but never seem to, usually because of an acute lack of self-respect and self-confidence.

I hope that doesn't sound like you or your marriage, but if it does I have some simple advice for you: don't put up with it another day. Don't let him call you a dumb b*tch, a fat b*tch, or any other kind of b*tch. Don't let him make jokes at your expense, funny or otherwise. Don't let him set humiliating rules for you, or monitor your whereabouts, or prevent you from seeing friends or family, or impose unwarranted limits on your discretionary spending.

But how do you stop something that has been going on without protest for years? I think you begin by staying calm, and dealing with the problem the moment it manifests itself. "John, what you just said was humiliating to me. I don't ever want to hear those words again." If he laughs, avoid the temptation to rip into him; just say, as quietly and firmly as you can, "This is anything but funny. I'm dead-serious about this."

Your new-found assertiveness may be greeted with shock, disbelief, and even anger. "Why are you telling me this now?" And, yes, you did go along with it for far too long. You may have held your tongue out of a fear of conflict or a hope that the problem would just go away. But making a mistake in the past doesn't mean you have to keep making it. Today is a new day.

Because, as I mentioned, self-confidence---or the lack thereof---often plays a key role in these situations, professional help may be needed to address the underlying problem. And professional help may be what's needed for an abusive bully, as well. But bullies are not known for self-awareness, and not likely to seek help unless pushed to the wall. The best plan is to overcome your own inhibitions first, and then assess the situation. Maybe your spouse will, after the initial shock, start respecting you and start changing his ways. If so, great. If not, divorce is an option, and it may be the best option. It's certainly a better option than suffering in silence, or writing desperate letters to Dear Abby.


A Message to My Readers

Until very recently, I have kept to the schedule I announced back in August of 2007 of writing one new blog article per week. There are now well over sixty articles archived on this site, and I immodestly believe that most of them are worth reading and re-reading.

But, in addition to my blog pieces, I now write a monthly column for, and in January I'll be a twice-a-month columnist for I'm proud to be affiliated with both of these high-quality sites, and I want to be sure I have the time and energy to produce good and original material for them. As a result, I've decided to scale back my blog schedule to two per month.

I thank once again those of you who have been reading these articles over the past sixteen months, and I hope that my quality-over-quantity approach will ensure your loyalty in the coming year.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

"That's an Order, Honey!"

"My dad started running...after my mom ordered him to lose weight."
(Stephanie Simon, quoted in a Wall Street Journal article, "Still Running After All These Years")

Dr. Harvey Simon is a man obsessed. The Newton, Massachusetts internist has run ten miles a day for thirty years. He has not missed a single day, even when suffering from broken toes and crippling back spasms. He has run through blizzards, ice storms, and hurricanes. As a doctor, he knows that he's subjecting his joints and bones to far more abuse than they were meant to handle, and he admits that he would never advise his patients to do what he does.

As a former runner, I found Dr. Simon's story fascinating, because I know how easy it is for a habit---even a good habit---to turn into an obsession. (Just because a little bit of something may be good doesn't mean that a lot is better). But as someone who writes about marriage, I was struck by the fact that, for Dr. Simon, it all began when his wife "ordered" him to lose weight.

Maybe it's just me, but I find something troubling about a husband or wife ordering his or her spouse to do something. If I ordered my wife to lose weight, she would have every right to feel that I was being obnoxious and presumptuous. Obnoxious because someone who needs to lose weight doesn't need to be reminded of it. And presumptuous because my "order" implies that I'm in a position of authority over her.

Think about it: who has the authority to issue orders to us? When you're a child, your parents do. When you're in the military, your commanding officers do. When you're at work, your boss does. When you're in the hospital, your doctors do. If you're unlucky enough to be in jail, the warden and guards do.

But your spouse is not---or shouldn't be---the equivalent of a parent or a drill sergeant or a prison guard. I'm not saying that your spouse isn't entitled to have opinions about your appearance, your habits, or your lifestyle. But the right way to deal with these opinions is either by keeping them to yourself (which is usually the best way, unless they're truly eating away at you), or by gentle persuasion.

Gentle persuasion can take a lot of forms, but it's always characterized by an underlying respect. You're treating the other person as an adult. You're not embarrassing him or nagging him. You're not saying that you're perfect and he isn't. In fact, the best form of persuasion in lifestyle matters is to say that you could both stand to lose some weight, or exercise more, or watch TV less, or whatever the issue may be. And then you attack the problem together, and celebrate each other's progress toward the agreed-upon goal.

The only exceptions to the gentle persuasion rule would be cases in which a person's actions are creating an immediate danger to himself, to his spouse, or to innocent bystanders. Thus, if your spouse is threatening you with bodily harm, you call 9-1-1 first and reason with him later (or better yet, forget the reasoning and move out immediately). If he's dead drunk and about to take the wheel of the car, it's OK to grab the keys and "order" him to lie down in the back seat until you get home.

But if he's twenty pounds overweight, or wearing clothes he should long ago have donated to Goodwill, or still sporting that Fu Manchu mustache that looked so cool in 1978, you may not like what you see but you don't have the right to order him to do something about it. Because not only does an order imply lawful authority, it also implies punishment for disobedience. If you defy your boss, you can get fired. If you disobey your commanding officer, it's thirty days in the brig. But what is the punishment for disobeying your spouse? The silent treatment? Banishment from the bedroom? Divorce? Unless you're prepared to put teeth into your orders, don't issue them.

And don't forget the old adage about not wishing too hard for something. Dr. Simon's wife did indeed get him to lose weight, but at the cost of creating a crazy man.