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When You Concentrate On Your Partner,You Needn't Look At Yourself - 2/15/2008

J.B. was at the end of his rope.  The previous night, he and Coral repeated the same scenario they had enacted so many times before in their marriage.  She slammed doors, banged pots in the kitchen and was monosyllabic in her responses.  “What are you angry about?” he asked.  “I just walked in the house to find you, ticked off, and I don’t understand why.”  

I’ll tell you why.  I’m sick to death of you controlling me.  I ’ve had that from the time I was a child and I won’t tolerate it anymore.”

I have no idea what you’re talking about.”  

It’s simple.  It’s Jody’s birthday.  We were going to celebrate by having a girls night out, but I had to decline because of you.  You set rules and threaten me.  I’m as angry as when I was a teenager.”

He lost his cool.   “I set rules for you?  For twelve years, we’ve gone through your cycles.  You drink - have a couple, then a couple more until you wind up making a fool of yourself, sloppy, unable to drive and flirting with every man.  Finally, I have to pick you up, or watch your friends bring you home so drunk you can’t walk to the front door without stumbling.  And don’t tell me you haven’t done it in six months, or that you think you can have two drinks and stop.  I know better.  I told you, if you start drinking, I’m leaving.  You can call it control, but I won’t allow you to embarrass me, yourself and the kids ever again.”

There’s the big man, justifying his behavior, and acting the self-righteous victim. You don’t love me.  I’m leaving.”

ith that, Coral grabbed her car keys and drove to her office, stopping on the way to pick up a six-pack.  Some time later she returned home, still angry, but insulated by an invisible wall of alcohol that momentarily took her hurt away and further contributed to J.B.’s decision to leave.  

The next day in my office, J.B. related his story in detail.  He listed her transgressions, her embarrassing behavior, the amount she drank and the numerous times he had forgiven her.  Finally, he stated, “I have no choice, I have to go.  Don’t you agree?”

I answered, “Not necessarily.  I understand your frustration and your feeling that you’ve taken as much as you can stand.  But you still have to look at you. You need to see how you’re controlling Coral by threatening to divorce her if she drinks again.  In effect, you’ve  put her in a cage where you can curtail her behavior and eliminate her transgressions, while still holding on to your resentments and appearing to others as the victim.  It allows you to play martyr, continue punishing her for her previous actions and stay angry, even though she hasn’t done anything in the past six months.  Most of all, your behavior disallows growth.  Think about it.  Are you any more convinced today that if you open her cage and let her out, she won’t repeat the same behavior?”

“No”, he shouted.  “I promise you, given the chance, she’d be out there right this moment, drinking with the girls.  Before long, she’d start coming home drunk, embarrassing me and letting herself be the talk of the community.  I can’t take it.”  

“I don’t believe it”, I said.  “You seem to be taking it quite well.  You gritch a lot, but you’ve been doing that for twelve years.  I not only believe you can take it, but that you’re using her and her behavior so you don’t have to get close to her or look at yourself.”

“What do you mean?”  

“I’ll tell you.  But before I do, let me state that I see her behavior as unacceptable.  I would never have lived with or tolerated it, but you did.  You also controlled and maligned her and reinforced her feelings that she’s a worthless, flawed human being.”  

“Well, she is.”

“Yes.  And no one knows that better than she.  But she doesn’t need it jammed down her throat.  By acting the way you have, you crippled her emotionally, made it difficult for her to leave and justified not getting close to her.  Yet, you stayed.”

“Only because of the kids.”

“I’d also argue with you about that.  I don’t see how staying and perpetuating the notion that their mother is a flawed person who, if not for you, would be a roaring drunk, contributed to your children’s well-being.  All it did was make you the “good guy” who is trapped by his sense of responsibility to his children.”

“Okay”, he stated.  “What should I do?”

“Uncage her.  Open the door and say, ‘Coral, I love you.  I want a loving, nurturing marriage with you that doesn’t include alcoholism.  I don’t believe you’re capable of stopping after one or two drinks, but I think, if that were the case, I could live with it.  I just don’t want to perpetuate the relationship we’ve had.  I’ll do my best to stop the control.  Feel free to go out with your girlfriends and do what you want.  I don’t mean that hostilely or critically.  All I want is an emotionally healthy wife who loves me and looks at me with warm, caring feelings, not one who hates me because I control her’.”

“You know what she’d say to that?  ‘Yeah, but if I go out and drink, you’ll leave me’.”

“Your answer should be, ‘Possibly.  But I’d rather you stop drinking and acting inappropriately because you want to, not because I’m forcing you to.  Meanwhile, I’m going to try not to give you any reason to buy a six-pack.’  That’s the answer I’d have you give her.  Because then, she’ll have to assume responsibility for her behavior and you will have to face the fact that you’re staying, either because things are better; because you don’t believe anyone else would love you for who and what you are, or; that you’re as frightened of closeness and intimacy as she is.  

“It is only by giving Coral her freedom and making each of you responsible for your own behavior that you give yourselves a chance to grow and learn that you can live in a healthy manner, no matter what your future holds.”   

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