Dear Dr. Chani,
I am frustrated with my wife. Actually, I am really angry at her. She was not there for me during the recent nightmare I went through. My father was hospitalized in isolation with coronavirus and was very, very seriously ill. Thank G-d he is back home and on his way to a full recovery. But I do not feel that my wife was there with me enough during those very trying weeks.
Don’t get me wrong. My wife asked me how my father was multiple times a day. She interacted with various members of my family to find out what she could do. She noticed that I was a shell of a person and could not really function, so she picked up a lot of balls that I dropped.
You might be thinking, “Oh, that sounds pretty good.” But it is not what I needed from her the most.
My wife is my best friend. I expected her to be sensitive to my desperate emotional needs during this crisis. I needed her to ask me questions about myself, like: “How are you?” “How are you feeling?” “How are you managing with this terrible situation?” “Let’s talk. Can you tell me how you are doing?”
She was so focused on doing things to help and to solve problems that she did not focus on me and taking care of my feelings. I am upset at her. I feel this created a gap between us that it is hard to fill. Can you help me?
I can only imagine how you feel. It sounds like you were overwhelmed with concern about your father’s condition. You were especially stressed since you could not even visit him in the hospital to be with him during this terrible time. Your father was deathly ill and you did not know what each day would bring. The emotional pain was enormous. You wished you could have shared your tremendous emotional burden with your wife.
Your wife was focused on the practical aspects of the crisis. She was very helpful in a pragmatic way, but not emotionally. You felt like you were emotionally “running on empty” and you wanted your wife to fill some of that – and she came up short.
There are important points to realize here that can impact your relationship now and in the future. It can be helpful to understand why your wife might have been overlooking this glaring need so that you can narrow the divide between you and your wife.
People have different ways of dealing with stress or trauma. Some people find it helpful to talk about their thoughts and emotions. It can be particularly therapeutic to express their emotions to someone they trust who can understand them and support them. People who cope this way find talking about their feelings to be cathartic and comforting.
On the other hand, some people find it easier to translate their grief into practical actions. It might seem like they are doing those activities to solve the issues the traumatic situation creates. Do not be fooled. They have a much greater purpose. These activities provide a way to translate the emotional sadness and tension into pragmatic things to do. In a deeper sense, what they are doing is transforming the natural feeling of powerlessness created by the difficult situation into a feeling of being in control. Instead of feeling helpless, they seek to be able to do things to improve the situation somewhat, which can be greatly empowering. It can sometimes be a helpful antidote to stress and trauma.
Another way that people cope is that they avoid thinking about their stress and trauma. It is almost as if they open a drawer in their brain and file the emotional pain away in a mental folder. People who prefer to cope this way do not want to talk about their emotions. Talking actually makes it more difficult for them to manage their stress or pain.
It is important to realize that people can incorporate more than one method of coping into their experiences. They may find ways to practically help improve the situation, and also desire to talk about their feelings. They may temporarily choose to file their feelings away in a mental folder, and then express them at a later point. At the same time, it is not uncommon for a person to strongly prefer only one coping method.
There are two important ramifications that come from people preferring different coping methods. These insights can help explain what happened between you and your wife.
Firstly, when you prefer one coping method, it can be difficult to be aware of a coping method that is different from your own. Even a very thoughtful and sensitive person may not know how to emotionally support you through a crisis since your way of coping may not come naturally to your loved one and vice versa.
When you craved the opportunity to express your emotional pain to your wife during this difficult ordeal, it was very frustrating to you that she did not pay attention to your emotional needs. Please understand that your wife may have had the best intentions to support you during this time, yet her preferred coping style may have prevented her from realizing what you needed most. She did not know that you wanted her to reach out to you, and ask you about how you were feeling, since that is not the way of coping that she was experiencing at the time.
Secondly, your wife may not have supported you emotionally because it was the opposite of what she needed to cope with your shared crisis. When your father was ill, your wife was experiencing her own trauma. Having a father-in-law that is extremely ill, a husband who was distraught, and the widespread threat of the coronavirus in the background were probably very difficult for her. Of course, it is not the same as the stress that you experienced by having your father in the hospital. At the same time, it did take a toll on her. It seems that she was predisposed toward translating her stress into helpful actions. She tended toward that approach so naturally that it was hard for her to even imagine that you had a very different need that left you feeling out in the cold.
Your wife was unable to sense what you needed. When she was so stressed herself, it was very hard for her to imagine that she was not living up to your expectations.
So, what do you do? Once you understand that you and your wife were approaching this from different perspectives, it is important to have an open and forthright conversation with her. The most important gift that you can give yourself and your spouse is to sincerely explain what your needs were and what your needs still are.
In your conversations with her, you do not need to focus on how your approaches and needs are different. Rather, explain what you need from her and why it is important to you. Do not expect her to know. Try not to see it is a deficiency that she did not intuit your needs. In your complex and difficult situation, you both had different approaches. The more that you explain to your wife both what you would have liked in the past and what she can do currently, the closer you will feel to each other.
WIth best wishes for your father’s continued recovery,