Tell Me About It: ‘I sometimes can’t figure out her mood and feel I’m always on watch’
PROBLEM: I would appreciate your advice on an impasse in our relationship. My wife and I both enjoyed social drug use in our 20s, but we moved away from this when our kids were born. I became the main breadwinner while she was happy to take the bigger part in being responsible for the children’s day-to-day needs
I knew that she sometimes smoked marijuana when she socialised with her girlfriends. I now suspect that this has started to become a problem for her and that she is using it regularly, as the kids are getting more independent, and she has more free time in her day.
I sometimes can’t figure out her mood, how things are going to go over something quite small, or if she’s going to be so chilled that she acts indifferent to everything. I feel that I’m always on watch.
Yet when I try to have a conversation with her, she often reacts angrily and has thrown around the term “coercive control”, which worries me. I tend to wait for the moment to pass, and allow her time to calm down, but by then I seem to have lost the opportunity to address the problem.
Our children are early teens, and I don’t feel good that they are seeing us this way, but generally at the moment they support their mum.
ADVICE: This is a difficult situation – your wife’s volatile moods, probably linked to drug use, and you being accused of exerting coercive control. The price you are paying for peace – of a sort – is high, as it sounds as though there are two unhappy people in this relationship. Can you risk losing that peace so that a (small) crisis presents itself? We often need this push to get us out of the status quo and into a new realm of possibility.
All this points to the need for a serious conversation. As the efforts to date have not worked you need to plan this to happen outside the house, while on a walk or out for coffee so that the usual responses don’t escalate. This will protect your children from any fallout that may happen.
Being on endless watch creates its own consequences and this may be contributing to your wife’s sense of being managed and it leaves you walking on eggshells in your home.
Your wife needs to know that you are suffering and that you are seeking help to try to keep the family and your relationship from deteriorating. She may decide that she does not want to improve things and if this is the case, you will have to face up to it and make your own decision.
The fact that your children are teens and therefore at a vulnerable stage of development is a point that should inform all your conversations and efforts, and this may be the one thing that you both agree on. If you put their needs at the top of your agenda, then you can both look at what you can do to make the next few years safe and enjoyable for them. At the least, this will involve a change in the vigilance/reaction situation that has developed, and you may both need separate and joint help to make this happen. Individual and/or couple counselling would be beneficial – this would demonstrate a commitment to the family survival as well as allowing some real engagement to take place.
If your wife does have an addiction issue and is willing to address it, she will need the support of a partner and family to help her through the stages of recovery. However, your own habitual responses will also need investigation and challenge as the silent “victim + observer” stance that you have adopted has not aided the situation and may have contributed to it.
As always, the place to start is with yourself, so book yourself an appointment with a counsellor and/or go to an Al-Anon meeting and move away from your “frozen” position. It might be helpful to know that this “freeze” stance is a well-known trauma response and so you might have some self-compassion for your fear of loss of family stability. This demonstrates that you hold family high in your value system and it might be helpful for you to acknowledge this and for your wife to hear it. Your silence and vigilance has not led to any good outcome, so break free from this and seek help.