Dear Dr. Debra,
My husband is always
complaining about everything to the extreme.
He is never happy. A typical day starts with
him coming up the stairs, saying he is physically
exhausted, then he goes onto say, ďMy leg is
killing me. My eye is sore. It smells in here.
I canít drink that, oh, no, I canít eat that.
Are you sure this milk is good? Smell it. It
smells bad. I suppose there are no towels.Ē
This is no exaggeration. Iím a good cook, not
a lot of variety as he is a very plain eater.
Chicken makes him sick, although he orders it
at restaurants. Hamburger he has for lunch.
Steak he is sick of. Fish smells. He likes pork
chops, but says this one tastes like soap. I
am not kidding. I have custody of my grandson
and cannot divorce as my grandson has had enough
loss in his life. However, I am depressed and
depleted due to my husbandís constant negativity.
Please help. Iím losing the will to live.
Mrs. Giving Up
Dear Mrs. Giving Up,
Thereís so much to respond
to in your e-mail. First of all, I want to tell
you, ďDonít give up.Ē Youíve obviously
been through some painful life circumstances,
and being in an unhappy relationship doesnít
help you heal. It only makes you feel worse.
But there is hope for you to make some changes
so your life gets better.
You sound depressed.
(So does your husband, but more about that later.)
You must feel trapped in a hostile environment
with a negative, critical man. Thatís enough
to make anyone feel depressed. However, there
are some things you can do.
First of all, I suggest
you meet with a counselor for some sessions
to deal with your feelings and your family situation.
The counselor will evaluate whether you need
medication for depression and, if you do, refer
you to your doctor or a psychiatrist. The counselor
also will help you process the pain of your
losses, and help coach you in dealing with your
husband and finding more enjoyment in your life.
You might need to rethink
your choice about staying with your husband
only for your grandsonís sake. It is not healthy
for the child to be exposed to his grandfatherís
negativity, nor to see the two of you in a bad
marriage. If your husband doesnít really interact
with his grandson on a positive level, there
might not be much for the child to miss if you
chose to separate. However, if your grandson
has a meaningful relationship with his grandfather,
thatís different. Iím not saying you should
leave your relationship, just that you need
to reevaluate your thinking. In order to remain
in a difficult situation, you must feel the
freedom to leave, even if you choose not to
take that option.
You need to start practicing
tough love with your husband. You need to sit
down with him and tell him his negative attitude
is making you unhappy to the point youíre contemplating
leaving your marriage. But because you want
to honor your commitment to him, and to your
grandson, you are going to stay in the marriage
and keep making an effort. However, you are
no longer going to tolerate his negative attitude.
Then let him know the changes you are going
to make in your interactions with him.
From now on, youíre
going to ignore any negative comment he makes.
Act as if he hasnít spoken, and keep on doing
what youíre doing. Donít reward him with your
attention when he complains or acts critical.
Start your new tough-love
program with food. Let him know that you go
to a lot of effort to prepare meals for the
family. If he continues to complain, you will
no longer cook for him. Instead you will only
make food for you and your grandson, and he
will have to make his own meal. Therefore, each
time he criticizes a meal, he does not get another
one until he apologizes and refrains from further
Before the family has
dinner, remind him of the new rule. When he
slips up, calmly tell him that he will be making
his own dinner the following night. If he says
something else negative, calmly but firmly say
that if he continues, you will remove his plate
from the table, and he will be excused to go
elsewhere. After that, ignore any tantrums on
his part. Or if he is talking or behaving badly,
quietly pack up the dinner, and you and your
grandson drive to a park and eat.
The idea is that
you donít give in to his negativity. This
will only reinforce the bad behavior because
heís learned it works. He needs to have discipline
in the form of removal of the food, the company
of you and your grandson, or both. But
need to be consistent. Doing this behavior
sometimes, but not others, will only reinforce
the bad behavior.
Before you start this
plan, youíll also need to clue your grandson
in to what youíre doing and why. Explain to
him that itís for both your sakes. Neither of
you needs to live in a hostile environment,
and he also needs his grandfather to be a positive,
instead of negative, role model.
Now for your husband:
He needs to see his doctor and have a complete
physical examination. Perhaps he has a legitimate
problem (in which case, heís allowed to complain
about the pain or discomfort of that issue).
Itís possible his poor attitude is caused by
a physical condition, such as a lack of potassium
or some kind of degeneration in his brain. Or
(as I said above) maybe heís depressed and needs
Your husband should
be in counseling if heíll go. The two of you
also should have some couple sessions. And,
since it sounds like your family has had to
cope with some painful situations, some family
sessions that include your grandson will be
I know it will be hard
to be strong with your tough-love program. It
might take a while, but if youíre consistent,
you should start to see changes in him.
Feel free to
write me with your questions.
Debra Holland, Ph.D., is a licensed psychotherapist
who specializes in relationships and communication techniques.
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