Jared, my husband sucks. He never listens to me, he’s almost always gone, we’re living like roommates, and I don’t think he’s attracted to me anymore.
I’m so sorry to hear that. I can see how really upsetting and stuck that must feel.
I know. It’s awful. Can you fix him please?
I’m sorry, what?
Can you fix my clueless husband please?
Umm…sorry, no I can’t.
You can’t? But I just feel so alone. Why can’t you help me?
Well, I can help you; I just can’t fix your husband.
Arrrrgh. Why did I bother calling you? You’re useless to me.
I know, I understand. And I’m sorry, I really am. I wish I had a magic wand that would make all your marital troubles go away, and if I had one I swear I would share it with you because I know you’re frustrated and lonely and that your heart is hurting. I know you want a partner and a companion who will respect you and treasure you and validate you and make you feel important and loved and not alone.
But can I let you in on a little secret?
Your clueless husband frustrates me, too. I know that a therapist isn’t normally supposed to express such things, but let’s face some facts: he doesn’t want to come for counseling, he thinks that “talking about your feelings” is unproductive and exasperating, and he disparages my fee as a waste of good money. Would you want to work with someone like that at your job? Probably not.
But you’re a man; he’ll open up to you.
No he won’t. I mean sure, I’m male, but so what? And remember I’m also a therapist. Most of my personal and professional relationships are with females. Women make up 76% of new psychology doctorates, which is awesome, but it means that I'm not exactly The Husband Whisperer. And he married you, so I’m fairly certain you two must have had at least a few good chats somewhere down the line. But if he's telling you he doesn’t want therapy, he probably doesn’t want therapy. He might not believe in the process. He might be feeling too overwhelmed and ashamed. He might be trying to solve the problem in a different way, but I’m pretty sure he just doesn’t want to come for counseling and there’s nothing I can do to change that.
So I guess things are just hopeless then?
Absolutely not! I said I could help, and I meant it. Because you are here. And because you are here and you are talking to me it means that you are invested and you care that things don’t remain the same. You are a powerful agent of change. Because of your readiness to face the problem head on and to give voice to your needs, you are ready and capable of amazing transformations. It may not be easy, and it may not seem fair to do the work, but change is possible, and it can start with you.
And by the way, I want you to know that your husband may not actually be as clueless as you think. Or if he is, is it possible that you’ve not expressed your vulnerable emotional needs as clearly as you imagine? Have you said, “I’m lonely, I miss you”, or have you buried that sentiment under a litany of criticisms and past hurts, leading to a deadly attack/defend cycle? It’s incredibly hard for us to express our more vulnerable emotional needs clearly and directly when we’re emotionally upset. Instead we put out subtle jabs or implicit tests, hoping our partners will notice or rise to the bait, or just maybe they might be able to read our minds and our emotions like we hope they will be able to -- and many men do happen to be slower at noticing more subtle body language and emotional expressions; men have often been socialized to avoid direct eye contact more than women.
And another thing, believe it or not, is that your clueless husband may not be as unsupportive as you realize. Men are just as frequently supportive in their marriages, they just happen to more often embed those supportive comments within defensive anger and hostility when they’re stressed out, meaning the supportive signal is too often lost among the harsh noise. And have you ever noticed how hard you tend to be on yourself sometimes? You may have harsh judgments about your abilities, your body, and your accomplishments. Were you aware of just how hard it can sometimes be to reach you through all the harsh critical self-chatter?
So I cannot fix your clueless husband. But I can help you in holding accountability and no tolerance for ongoing abuse, affairs, and addictions. I can help you set boundaries for yourself so you don’t feel constantly drowning in other people’s problems and stresses. I can help you give voice to your authentic and vulnerable needs without fueling further shutdowns and alienation. I can help you regulate the overwhelming hurt, anger, and sadness when those difficult feelings start to feel like they’re too much to bear. I can even help you change your relationship to that insistent and destructive voice of self-criticism and self-doubt that plays out in your head. And who knows, maybe then, at the end of it all, we might just possibly change your clueless husband.
Do you know someone struggling with a clueless spouse? Then please feel free to share this article with them on Facebook, Twitter, or by email. Want to get even less clueless? Stop on over to my website at www.dccatlanta.com for more articles, interviews, videos, and more!
-Jared DeFife, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and relationship therapist in Atlanta specializing in caring, thoughtful change for "love-stuck" couples and individuals struggling to recover from break-ups, betrayals, dating dilemmas, conflicts, and commitment crises.