Vail Relationships column: Hurt people hurt others
Dear Neil: Why is it that my wife belittles me and doesn’t seem to think very highly of me? I have a successful career, I am faithful, emotionally there for her and I try hard to please her. But my wife is often insecure, gets jealous if I even look at another woman, and almost any disagreement or minor irritation can lead to her getting mean and vicious toward me.
When I inquire why she is so angry with me, she describes some momentary irritation that upset her — never something bigger than that. For years she has been this way, and this keeps me from feeling as close to her as I would like. Why does she react like this? It’s making me question whether I should remain married to her.
Can’t Do Right Around Her in Denver
Dear Can’t Do Right: Your wife is attempting to make you feel inferior because she feels inferior. She’s attempting to knock you down a couple of pegs so that you have poor self-esteem, just like she does. She figures she’ll be stronger and more powerful if she can make you feel smaller and weaker, because then she’ll be more confident that you’ll see each other as equals, and you won’t leave her.
Hurt people hurt others. Hurt people tend to interpret words and behaviors personally, and tend to think of themselves as victims who have been treated unfairly. Hurt people tend to mistreat or act harshly toward others — especially those close to them — because those are the people they feel the safest and most secure around. They have trouble tolerating virtually any type of emotional injury, slight, insult or threat without feeling the need to forcefully retaliate, which means they’re perpetually at war with someone most of the time.
I don’t know what caused your wife’s emotions (her childhood? A personality disorder?), but it is clearly coming out toward you. And your marriage pays a steep price for this behavior because her actions won’t allow you to let your guard down so you can feel safe around her, so how close do you think your relationship with her is going to be?
If this behavior were going to change, then your wife would have to develop a greater degree of empathy for how it feels to be on the receiving end of her words and actions. She would have to cultivate a sense of accountability for what she says and does, and she would have to give up feeling entitled to hurt someone because she herself is afraid, anxious, upset or insecure. She would have to stop lashing out at you and replace that with an articulate description of what you could do to assist her in feeling safe, secure, happy and content.
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder. He is the author of the best-selling book “Love, Sex and Staying Warm: Creating a Vital Relationship.” Contact him at 303-758-8777, or visit neilrosenthal.com.