Q:Although my wife and I both have law degrees, our problems are not in our careers but in our marriage of over 20 years. I suspect that she's already decided to leave me after our youngest child leaves for college. She's always sulking and keeping to herself lately, and acts like a martyr when I come home a little late or if I don't give her just the right gift for a special occasion. It seems that nothing I do makes the grade with her, and when she's wrong, she won't admit it. She says I don't pay attention to her needs, but she never asks me how my day has been. I love her and don't want to give up, but how can I get her to care about me again?
A:It sounds as if you and your wife are living in the same physical world but very different mental worlds. No doubt, you would both prefer a harmonious, sharing relationship. But your perspectives on the situation are very different, and neither of you is apparently having much success (or maybe much interest) in seeing things through the other's eyes.
Through your eyes, your wife is rejecting you, belittling your efforts, dismissing the rightness of your point of view and showing no concern for your needs, while you are trying hard to be a good husband. Through her eyes (or, more accurately, her perspective as inferred from your description), you are the one who doesn't care, as reflected in your choice of gifts, your tardiness in returning home, perhaps your need to prove yourself right, etc. It is quite possible that she has withdrawn from you not to reject you but because she herself feels hurt and disappointed.
Of course, these hunches are overly simplified and may be off the mark. (That's why this column is meant as informational rather than therapeutic.) But it is often striking how even people who deal very effectively and insightfully with friends and colleagues have great difficulty gaining perspective on their intimate relationships and get stalled in their attempts to resolve conflict. People who come into couple therapy often imagine that they will prove that they are "right." In fact, "winning" the argument is never the route to resolving marital conflict. Notice, too, that you are labeling your wife (e.g., as a "martyr") and making assumptions about her feelings and motives as if you can read her mind. (And she is likely doing some of the same with you.)
If you would like to get a sense of how a couple therapist might approach these matters, you might read Aaron Beck's Love is Never Enough, which exemplifies the Cognitive Therapy approach. More to come in a future column, and, as always, remember that LCL's clinical staff is available to consult with you and, if indicated, make a referral.