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CAN THIS MARRIAGE BE SAVED

COMMITMENTS : Powerless to Stand Up to His Put-Downs

October 10, 1994|By the editors of Ladies' Home Journal

"This past year has been awful," says Susan, 23, a stunning blond whose eyes are shadowed from lack of sleep.

Her marriage two years ago to Christopher, a wealthy Englishman 20 years her senior, seemed like a dream come true. But his constant criticism is making her ill.

"Christopher accuses me of spending so much time with our son, Jason, that there's no time left for him. He says that I'm a terrible cook and that the house is a mess. I can never please him."

When her husband gets going, there is no stopping the harangues, Susan says, and she feels powerless to defend herself. Recently, she's been having panic attacks: "I was walking down the street last week and I felt my throat tightening. I couldn't swallow and I started gasping for breath. Thank God, a neighbor saw me and helped me home."

But Christopher, a no-nonsense business executive, has no idea why his wife is so unhappy.

"I work very hard," he says brusquely, "and frankly I do not believe Susan is paying enough attention to me or the marriage."

*

When he comes home, he says, he wants a home-cooked meal, "and I do not consider greasy barbecued chicken from the deli a decent meal." He also insists that Susan has no respect for things that are important to him. "I'm paying a fortune to renovate our home, and she lets Jason spill apple juice on the Aubusson rug," he says with disgust.

Convinced that his wife, not he, needs help, Christopher dismisses any implication that his behavior or attitudes are contributing to the marriage woes. "These medical problems are all in her head," he announces.

"Most likely Susan's medical problems are psychosomatic in origin, but that doesn't mean they are not real," says Evelyn Moschetta, a marriage counselor in New York City and Huntington, N.Y.

"Susan is so upset by Christopher's constant criticism and lack of respect and support that she literally cannot swallow what is happening in her marriage."

*

There is no question that Christopher must take some responsibility for the problems in this relationship. But whether or not he does, Susan must learn to stand up to the barrage of verbal assaults. If she continues to deny her feelings and submerge her anger, her self-esteem and her marriage will be damaged beyond repair.

Many husbands and wives feel unfairly criticized by their spouses, yet find themselves powerless to stand up to put-downs.

If you have a similar problem, these steps can help you rebuild your self-esteem and regain your footing:

* Remind yourself that you are entitled to your feelings and have every right to speak up: "I feel offended by what you just said," or "That was inconsiderate." If the insulting behavior continues, try to control yourself and not lash out wildly in defense. Instead, walk away. You'll be sending a far more powerful message.

* Choose your words with care to avoid fanning the flames. Speak firmly, but in a way that doesn't demean your partner: Stick to what therapists call the "When you . . . I feel" model. For instance, Susan can say, "When you criticize my cooking, I feel you're not paying attention to what's really important in a marriage. I love you, but I cannot cook a gourmet meal every night."

* Try not to respond to criticism by hurling criticism of your own. This only escalates the argument and deepens the power struggle. If you think you can't respond reasonably, say so: "I'm too angry to talk about this right now. After I've had a chance to calm down, we'll continue."

* Ask yourself if there might be even a shred of truth in what your partner is saying. If there is, can you negotiate a compromise? Susan can make the living room, with its expensive furnishings, off limits to their toddler. On the other hand, if having a home-cooked meal is so important to Christopher, perhaps he can share the responsibilities, with Susan doing the shopping and Christopher helping with the cooking when he gets home.

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