Monday, July 23, 2012

Spousal Punishment

It was a casual question, but Frank's tone was wistful: "Are you guys going on the Canyon Lake trip?"

We nodded and told him that, yes, we were going to be joining about 50 neighbors on a bus trip to Canyon Lake for a paddle boat ride and lunch later this week. We asked if he and his wife Barbara were going as well.

He shook his head. "I'd love to go," he said. "But Barbara doesn't want to go. And she doesn't want to be left alone. And so...." He trailed off with a shrug.

And he asked me, once again, if I ever planned to get licensed as a therapist in Arizona. I told him, once again, that while I was keeping my California license and malpractice insurance to do occasional phone follow-ups or emergency sessions with a few long-time clients in Los Angeles, I had no plans to practice in Arizona.

I thought -- but didn't say -- that even if I were to see patients here, Barbara would be a nightmare to treat. Yes, she is depressed and anxious and I have a lot of experience treating those conditions. But I also know that Barbara is determined not to feel better, not to give up one iota of the misery she feels and makes quite clear to everyone in this community. Her continual unhappiness is a weapon in the daily punishment of her husband for his role in deciding to pull up stakes in Seattle and move to Arizona several years ago.

Actually, the decision to move was mutual. But they had very different motives. Barbara imagined being close and involved on a daily basis with their newly married thirty-something daughter, their only child, who has been living and working in Phoenix for some years. Frank envisioned a relaxed retirement with time to play, to go on little trips, to get in shape for the first time ever and to enjoy this new phase of their lives with nearly non-stop sunshine.

Reality has been harsh for both.

Their daughter, while glad to see them perhaps once or twice a month, is busy with her career and new marriage. The young couple loves to travel, to socialize with friends, to relax in each other's company during time not claimed by their busy careers and her part-time evening classes for an MBA.  Barbara hates her son-in-law and complains that she had expected she would enjoy long, fun weekends with her daughter, but "he monopolizes all of her free time!" Overcome with anger and disappointment, Barbara went on an emotional strike against her husband "for dragging me to this god-forsaken place!"

And so she boycotts most of the fun events or activities here and demands that he do the same. Her depression and anger rule their life together. And she refuses to be helped -- even when he drives her to yet another psychologist or psychiatrist.

Frank's long-awaited relaxing, fun retirement has become a stressful round of doctors' appointments and emotional stand-offs over fun he would like to have.

Barbara has made it abundantly clear that there is no way she will ever experience a moment of joy -- or allow Frank to -- until they are back in Seattle.

Frank and Barbara are infamous in this community, but, of course, there are countless other couples world-wide who struggle with tension, distress and regret.

Spousal punishment can be inspired by and cause misery for a variety of reasons.  As a therapist, I've  seen spouses punish the other for a long ago or more recent transgression: an infidelity, a lost investment, a wayward child, a business that went under or a career that never quite blossomed. But much of the spousal punishment I've seen lately has come in the wake of a relocation.

Living with such tension is hazardous to health, life and the pursuit of happiness. It takes two, of course, to perform this malevolent marital dance: the outraged punisher and the partner who feels guilty or otherwise deserving of punishment. It can be a relationship pattern that persists for years if the relationship survives.

What can you do to stop the cycle of marital punishment before it erodes whatever love and goodwill you ever had for each other?

1. Seek marriage counseling:  When you're locked into a non-productive pattern of punishment, anger and guilt, it can be a downward spiral. Seeking help from a professional may enable you to stop that spiral and negotiate a peace settlement, especially when it's difficult or impossible to achieve an emotional cease-fire on your own.

2.  If the trigger for the anger and punishment is long past, if the behavior hasn't been repeated, or the event can't be undone, consider dropping the matter. Air your unhappiness and conflict, possibly with the help of a therapist, come to a mutual resolution and then agree to drop it! To do less is to condemn both spouses to a life of misery. Hurtful things happen in a marriage. If you hang onto the hurt and punish your spouse for years after the incident or decision, there is no end to the unhappiness. If, on the other hand, you can forgive the other, express regret that this happened and agree to move on, the marital prognosis improves considerably.

3. If a decision begins to look like a mistake, stop the blame and start working together to resolve the problem. When faced with a crisis, it is much more productive to start working together to resolve the issues instead of blaming and punishing each other.

Another couple here, who also moved from a very high priced city where they could never have afforded to buy a home, found that even though they were able to buy a lovely home here, resentments festered initially. She missed her family and friends. He was disappointed when she reneged on her promise to keep working (there is a substantial age difference between the spouses and she's in her early forties). They found themselves snapping at each other until recently when, after a health scare, they realized anew how much they love each other. They stopped the blame and decided to work together to resolve their difficulties. She has devoted herself to learning to cook a whole new way to address his health issues and working with him at the gym to help increase his level of fitness. He has found that he misses work and was happy to find a job nearby that makes him feel newly connected and that also eases the financial strain of their mortgage. Finding peace together has made them more open to settling in and making friends here. The change is quite evident as they reach out to others, smile more and find joy in their surroundings.

Yet another couple we know moved here from a lovely community in the hills of Tucson, hoping to find a more economical lifestyle without skimping on amenities. Over time, they found that, for them, cheap was expensive: yes, the homes here were more affordable, but they missed their old neighborhood terribly. So after a year and a half of his unhappiness and her trying to like it here, they finally agreed that the only solution was to go back. They sold their home here and moved back to the old neighborhood, finding a home for a bargain price. It was simply meant to be. They've rediscovered their joy in being in a cooler mountain climate, with an array of sports opportunities not available here. And they're feeling closer than ever -- having shared a less than optimal adventure here and re-discovering their appreciation for their long-time home town.

4. Realize that there is little that can't be changed, but that a change of attitude may work better than a change of venue. One younger couple we know, Jake and Jennifer, who live on the all ages side of this community with their two young children, have spent the past 10 years moving in search of stable job opportunities. While they loved their last home in Wisconsin and hoped to set down roots there, the lack of employment put them on the road again to Florence, AZ where Jake was offered an excellent state job with benefits and a pension. Jennifer subsequently found a teaching position at a local school. Their only problem, on arrival, was with Florence. The heat. The dust. The remote location. It all added up to an initial funk for Jennifer who missed the greenery of Wisconsin and Jake who missed the blue expanse of Lake Michigan. "But then we decided to count our blessings," Jennifer told me recently. "We both have jobs we enjoy and our income feels secure at last. And this is a beautiful community -- even if the surrounding area can look a little bleak. Actually, I'm re-casting that from 'bleak' to 'stark beauty'. And we love our nice, big, affordable house. So we're truly blessed and are finding that keeping open minds and hearts has made this move a happy one at last."  It was their decision to be happy here -- not necessarily the place itself -- that made the critical difference.

5. Realize that when you punish your spouse, you also punish yourself and others close to you. I have a dear friend who received a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity that would require a family move from Pittsburgh to New York. His wife was vigorously against the move, even though they would not be leaving family, close friends or her career (since they were planning to start a family and she wanted to be a stay at home mom).  After a lot of discussion and soul-searching, he accepted the position and insisted on the move -- and she never forgave him.

Even though his increasingly successful career made it easier for her to stay home with the children and provided a nice lifestyle for them, she continued to be angry. Finally, after nearly a decade of professional triumphs but personal misery, my friend arranged with his employer to step down from his dream job and return to a less exciting one back in Pittsburgh, hoping that this move back would mollify his wife. But her fury persisted. As the years went on and punishment continued, the love and friendship of their early days as a couple eroded completely. Finally, he had enough and moved out of the house after more than 40 years of marriage.

Their children express love for both parents and sadness for their marital ordeal. Perhaps not surprisingly, the children have not been in a rush to marry, generally waiting until they were over 30 and established in their careers before heading for the altar. Although the husband is one of my dearest friends and so I have heard (and greatly sympathized with) his side of the story over the years, I can't imagine that life has been easy for his wife. Their unhappiness together for so many years has to have taken a toll on her health and life satisfaction as well.

6. Rediscover each other as best friends and true partners.  When things go wrong and people start to blame and punish each other, it's easy to forget what your relationship has meant and what the commitment of marriage means.  Bob and I discovered this when, during a rough patch early in our own marriage, we sought help from a wonderful psychologist named Bruce Ludmir.  Dr. Ludmir gazed quietly at us as we sulked in our respective corners of the room. "Haven't you forgotten something?" he asked. "Haven't you forgotten that you promised to be there for each other? To be partners? To be best friends?"

His question touched our aching hearts and we resolved to work on our differences, to heal our hurt, together. It is a decision that has made a critical difference in our marriage and our lives since.

Where there is love and a willingness to work together, so much is possible. 


  1. My heart hurts for those who spend decades wallowing in the resentment and anger you describe here in this excellent post. Life is too short to hang onto stuff like that. We do have choices about how we react to our circumstances, and sometimes that's the only thing we're in control of. The good choice is always going to be the peaceful, loving one.

  2. I feel so badly for Frank and the Franks of the world who can also be Francines. Life is too short to be so miserable.
    Can they not move back to Seattle though that probably would not solve her problem but might help her daughter's marriage. The SIL has to feel the resentment.
    Can't blame you for not wanting to get involved. Sure takes the gold out of the golden years.

  3. This is a sad tale!
    Too bad for the Franks, and for all marriages that seem stuck in a never-ending loop.
    Great advice, Kathy.

  4. These were very helpful words. My husband and I have been going back and fort on retiring to our lake house. I am for it financially although! I admit, I am disappointed to leave our nice area. He wants to have 2 houses - probably wasteful financially - but it may be worth it as I now see. I was annoyed with him for retiring early but I've gotten over it and now I am happy to have his company.

  5. As you were describing Barbara, I couldn't help but think of the role played by Penelope Wilton in "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," a marvelous relocation movie if ever there was one! When I hear something like this, I am always so grateful that Rick and I have very separate interests and friends that stand on their own, along with our "together" friends. While we have no plans to leave town right now, I feel like we could both cope, though I think the main discussion would be city (aka downtown) or not-downtown! How sad for them. And I think we all hope that won't be us someday. That's why your words are so very helpful.

  6. Dear Kathy, I've never been married and yet I've had and have many friendships and so I much of what you've written here can apply to that. But what really came across to me was the way your posting reflected the last three years of my life. I moved, after living in Stillwater, Mn, for thirty-five years back to Missouri. I had thought things would be a one way and they didn't turn at that way. For the first two years I found nothing to like in this state that is so politically and culturally different from Minnesota. I criticized so much here, never seeing the good. The glass always half empty. That's not my usual way to be and so finally, after two years, I realized that I wasn't be true to me and my beliefs. Since then I've found much to like here and if my plan to move back to Minnesota isn't realized I know that living here the rest of my life will be enough. Very likely, more than enough. Peace.