Shelby is a 42 year-old woman who has come into therapy because she’s unhappy with her marriage. She says she’s lonely and depressed because her husband, Perry, doesn’t pay enough attention to her or the kids. He’s either at work or home in the garage tinkering with one of his projects. He usually drinks a few beers when he’s out there. Not only do his hobbies take a lot of time, but Perry also sinks a lot of money into them-money that could be used on household needs like new carpet, repairs to the roof, and other things Shelby thinks are more important.
I asked Shelby how she’s handled her issues with Perry in the past. She said she’s brought up her complaints-the spending, the time, the drinking-but it always ends in an argument. She’s also asked for the things she wants, but when Perry says they don’t need those things, she backs off. When asked what makes her back off, Shelby answered, “I feel guilty about upsetting him. After all, he works hard during the week and deserves his free time. I also feel guilty about asking him to put less money into the hobbies he loves, so I don’t really push the issue. I just kind of hope he’ll see it from my perspective and compromise.”
I was interested in Shelby’s repeated use of the word “guilt”. I explained to her that guilt feelings are caused by the knowledge of having done something wrong or against one’s values. Guilt is the feeling signal that one should change one’s behavior. I asked her if she really thought she was doing something wrong by bringing up Perry’s habits of distancing and spending. Shelby thought about this and replied; “No, but I get nervous when he gets mad. He says I’m upsetting him and I know I am, so I shut up. I guess I don’t feel guilty as much as afraid of his reaction.” This was an important insight.
Shelby realized that at the point in the conversation when Perry gets uncomfortable- because they know each other so well this happens almost immediately- she gets defensive and starts backpedaling. She also realized that she wasn’t clear what she was asking for from Perry. More or less, she wanted to voice her objections and then wanted him to figure out the solution from there. She didn’t want the anxious feelings that likely would have resulted from making a decision her husband might not like. Shelby began to think about what she actually wanted, expected, and was willing to accept in her relationship.
Instead of her old habit of complaining to Perry that he was making the family wait to start dinner she simply told him, “I’m putting dinner on the table at 6:00 pm. Please join us.” Instead of hanging around the house on a Saturday, hoping Perry would initiate a family activity, she decided take the kids to the beach and invited him to join them. The first time she did this, he declined. She was agitated and had that same old “guilt” feeling but now she recognized it for what it was; anxiety. She went out anyway. When she came home, she was met by a sulking, inebriated husband. Instead of starting an argument with Perry, Shelby calmly continued with the evening routine. The next week Perry asked his wife what the plans were for Saturday and joined the family on a trip to the park.
Shelby continued to work on clarifying her expectations with Perry. After a few weeks, she told him she was going to have new carpet installed. Initially he disagreed, but Shelby calmly told him approximately what the cost would be, how she was planning to budget for the purchase, and she invited him to go look at samples with her. Perry agreed and even ended up picking a nicer carpet than Shelby had suggested. Matters between Shelby and Perry didn’t magically improve. Shelby had lots of setbacks in her efforts to communicate more clearly and directly with her husband. It remained a challenge to persevere when Perry’s response wasn’t what she hoped for. Over time, however, things began to get better. Shelby felt more in control of herself and didn’t get so upset when things didn’t go her way. She and Perry felt closer to one another and the skills she was working on with her husband helped with the kids, too. Shelby learned to distinguish between a true guilt feeling and the discomfort of upsetting another by asserting herself. She also learned to better tolerate that discomfort in situations when it seemed important for her to “rock the boat.”