Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My wife is always mad at me. We have two kids in elementary school, we’ve been married for 12 years, we both work full-time, and no matter what I do she’s unhappy with me, even though I do whatever she asks me to. I get chore lists from her every week, I take the kids when she needs me to, and I check in with her to see how she’s doing, but she still blows up at me at least once a week. It’s been this way for over a year and I’m getting really tired of it. I feel like I can’t do anything right and I’m always letting her down. I went on a weekend golf trip with a few friends, my first vacation in over a year, and when I got back she was so mad she wouldn’t talk to me. We finally went out on a date night and she couldn’t relax and we ended up fighting over stupid things instead of enjoying ourselves. How do I get my wife to relax? I know a lot of other husbands who are doing a lot less than I am who are getting a lot less shit from their wives. I just want to be happy again.
Getting Fed Up
Dear Getting Fed Up:
What we have here is one of those situations where everyone is being an asshole. I know that you don’t think you’re being an asshole, but you are. “But she’s being a bigger asshole!” you may protest. Well, she’s being an active asshole and you’re being a passive asshole, but you’re both taking advantage of each other and it needs to stop.
Fact: Being married while having children while both working full time all-the-way-around sucks. It just does. I mean, being in love is great, and having children is great, and having a job that you don’t hate is great, but when you combine all three together somehow you end up with a 34-hour day shoved into a 24-hour sack that keeps happening over and over again, every day, until you snap.
There’s something called the U-shaped curve of happiness – people are pretty happy in their 20s and then something changes, and things get worse, and worse, and worse, until you hit your 60s and people start to report that they’re happy again. What happens? Those kids move out is what happens. Life calms down is what happens. You have fewer obligations and you’re able to focus on yourself again is what happens. But you’re a bit away from that, so we gotta focus on the present and ways to get you through this low spot.
Our modern lives assume that everyone has a stay-at-home spouse. This means that when you don’t, when both of you are working, and you’re raising kids, you basically have no down time. People react to this stress in different ways, and many couples turn on each other. Instead of working alongside each other, they start competing with each other. Competing for limited resources such as sleep, going to the store by yourself, or even spending an uninterrupted 20 minutes taking a poop. These things are precious commodities when you have young children and you work full-time and many couples find themselves begrudging the other person for any free time they’re able to carve out.
Your wife is being an asshole. Instead of identifying and treating the source of her stress, she’s focusing on the symptoms of her stress and blaming you. She’s treating you like you’re her employee. She’s not speaking to you calmly, and openly, and asking for sustained changes that will make her, and your, life easier. She’s working as hard as she can to hold it all together until she can’t anymore and then she’s freaking out all over you. It’s a touch abusive and not a good way to communicate. Yelling at you may be cathartic for her, but it sounds like it’s a new stage in your relationship and I know that it’s doing you harm. She needs to not assume that just because you’ve been in this marriage for 12 years that you don’t still have the option to leave. She needs to not assume that you’re willing to be her punching bag. She needs to not assume that she’s always right and you’re always wrong. She needs to figure out why she’s so mad all the time and make a change.
Now, here’s your turn: Your wife is likely mad all the time because you’re being an asshole. You aren’t your wife’s employee so stop fucking acting like it. Stop acting like managing your household is above your pay grade. Start acting like her equal. You’re a grown ass man, why the fuck do you need a chore list? Don’t you have eyes? Dishes, laundry, picking up after the kids, getting their lunches ready, planning their next outing – these are all things that need to happen every day and things you should be aware of without someone writing them down on a piece of paper and holding it in front of your face. You think you’re being relaxed and chill but really you’re putting a ridiculous burden on your wife and then, when she complains about it, getting upset with her that she’s not “relaxed” enough. You know how hard it is to manage someone else? A grown ass man, nonetheless?
Do an experiment – write down everything you do around the house. Be as specific as you want to be – include putting the empty toilet paper roll in the recycling. Include wiping your kid’s runny nose. Include bringing your wife a cup of tea. But you can only include things that you do on your own, without her prompting. Then have your wife do the same. I bet you a million billion dollars that her list is four times longer than yours.
Do another experiment – switch roles for a week. Your wife won’t do shit unless you explicitly ask her to. Should be fine, right? All you have to do is ask and she’ll do whatever you want. So ask. And ask. And ask. And ask. Now, check back in – how tired are you at the end of that week? Did you even make it a week? Did you even make it a day?
The 1950s fucked us all. It sold us on the idea that the ideal for a home is for one person to work and one person to manage the house. But the thing is that managing the house occurs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, while working outside the home is a mere 40-hour-a-week commitment. But we privilege that outside work because it makes money and we still assume that money shows us what’s valuable. And then women started working outside of the home, which was something we all agreed was OK, provided that they still found a way to take care of their homes. For my parents’ generation, a man who was willing to accept a chore list and help his wife around the house was a hero. Look at him, being so progressive, not complaining, allowing his wife to boss him around. But today, in this generation, that shit is no longer progressive. It’s oppressive to expect your spouse to manage your ass.
Start acting like you and your wife are equals. Use your eyes, use your judgement, and do things that need to be done. And, dude, for real, never again say that you “help” with your children. Your children who contain ½ of your genetic material are not your wife’s main responsibility and your secondary duty. If you “help” with the kids that means that you do fuck all with the kids until your wife is about to freak all the way out, and then you take them to the park for like an hour and expect some kind of award when you get back. Take care of the kids, who are your kids and therefore your responsibility. Wake up with them, put them to bed, help them with their homework, do all the things that a parent is supposed to do without being prompted and without expecting some kind of “Wow you did your job” trophy.
Your wife, meanwhile, needs to start using her words when she’s calm instead of holding in all of her frustration until she’s so angry she can’t tolerate the sound of your breathing. Freaking out on you is a bad technique, it’s harming your relationship, and you are right to be tired of it. No one should be screamed at. No one should be given constant negative feedback. She may like being in control, but for the sake of your marriage, and her sanity, she’s going to need to loosen her white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel of your household. I mean, it is very seductive, to be so wronged all the time. To know that you are being misused and to be righteous in that anger has a sort of appealing clarity. My husband sucks – I’m going to yell at him about how much he sucks and then I’ll feel better. But she doesn’t really feel better afterward, just sad and tired, and you feel bad, and then everyone feels bad. She needs to own her part in the creation of this problem – the truth is that she’s OK with you being her household assistant up until the moment where she’s not OK with it. So she needs to help you create a new system where you both take equal ownership in running your home.
Couples therapy can really help you guys negotiate this transition and I highly recommend it. Just know that it’s not as simple as her not yelling at you anymore – she’s yelling at you because you don’t understand her pain when she speaks it to you at a normal volume. Do you see how tired she is? Do you understand that by going on a golf trip you just added 30 hours of overtime to her already packed week? Do you ever allow her some time to escape for a weekend?
You aren’t her enemy and she isn’t yours. You’re just two people in a situation where your coping mechanisms are breaking down. So make new ones. Take responsibility, change your behavior, and make the reasonable request that she start communicating with you openly instead of waiting for her anger to give her an excuse to explode.
You can fix this. She can fix this. Decide, together, to stop being assholes. Decide, together, to fix this.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.