Tell Me About It: There is no age we get to that is too old for development or change
PROBLEM: After almost 45 years of marriage, I have just come to the realisation that my husband is a terrible bore. We both retired around three years ago so have been spending a lot of time together, and he just witters on about irrelevant nonsense. That is not really the issue, though, because I can tolerate him.
Once our three daughters got married, I noticed that their spouses rarely came to our house. We see the girls and their children all the time, but any meetings with our sons-in-law are very brief, and I noticed that I was only ever invited around to any of their houses when my husband was unavailable.
I confronted the three girls, and they quickly told me that none of their husbands can stand their dad. They say that he is condescending, patronising and complains incessantly about his physical health, while failing to inquire after anyone else. I am well aware, as is our GP, that he is a hypochondriac, as he has worn a path to the local surgery with every ailment known to mankind.
For all his faults I love him, as do our daughters, but I want our retirement to be immersed in our family and not kept at a comfortable distance. I really do not know what to do.
His hypochondria is indicative of underlying fear and anxiety and maybe the habit of worrying about his health has grown over the years
ADVICE: Retirement has a way of throwing us curveballs and for you this is one of those. It can happen that many foibles and patterns get covered over by our busy lives and then they come fully to the surface when things are not as busy. Your husband is lucky that he is loved in spite of his poor behaviour and this is your starting point. As long as the effort to change his behaviour is done in love, not criticism, it is entirely possible that this change can be brought about.
You say that he is condescending and patronising which suggests that he is afraid of not being right and this need to be the source of wisdom may display a genuine insecurity. He may not know that his interactions are disrespectful of others and so you might have a conversation (or many conversations) with him about this so that he can raise his self-awareness. There is no age we get to that is too old for development or change, so do not use this idea as a basis for not challenging him – both of you have time for this now.
His hypochondria is indicative of underlying fear and anxiety and maybe the habit of worrying about his health has grown over the years. Habits can be changed but we need motivation and support in order to do this. His motivation might be that he gets to be invited to visit the extended family if he takes on board the suggested changes and that he does not get invited if no effort is made. In either case you should go and enjoy yourself as much as possible – not only because this makes your life richer and better but also to show him what he might be missing.
With support and engagement, he stands an excellent chance of breaking free from his fear and poor people skills.
Empathy for others is a core competency in the field of Emotional Intelligence and there is a mountain of evidence that these competencies can be learned – any book by Daniel Goleman would be a great starting place for him. In fact, if you are struggling to get him on side, he could engage one of the many trained Emotional Intelligence coaches to get the process started (see rochemartin.com for more information).
There is no doubt that everybody’s lives in your extended family would benefit from your husband getting to grips with his self-absorption, so rope in as many close people as possible but ensure that they will not shame him or be overly critical. With this support and engagement, he stands an excellent chance of breaking free from his fear and poor people skills.
At a lighter level, you and the girls can reward him for every time he asks a genuine question of another person, eg put a euro in a jar that can be given to his favourite charity at the end of the month. This is even better if there are grandchildren involved as they would love to be the arbiters of this competition and their delight would be an added bonus. The questions need to be real, in that your husband has to be curious and not know the answer before he asks it, and this might prove very difficult for him.
Some time spent practising such open questions would be useful so maybe you could get him to try a couple every dinnertime and in this way, he could improve without the fear of failing when he is with your daughters and their families.