I'm afraid I am a bad wife

Will I cause my second husband to do what my first husband did?


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Cary Tennis
August 30, 2005 10:26PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I am terrified that I am a bad wife and I will damage the man I love. I am married to a very sensitive, sweet, loving, understanding and wonderful man. He is so much more than I deserve. The problem is that he is not perfect. He is human. He forgets to take out the trash, wash the dishes, pick up his socks, and mail a letter. Then I might get mad at him because I specifically asked him to mail that letter. This is where things fall apart. He gets upset at himself because he forgot, and I fall to pieces. I spend the next week yelling at myself in my head that I am a bad, cruel, horrible, mean person. Seem weird? Well, let me give you some background that might explain why I can't seem to get over this pattern.

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My beloved is my second husband. My first husband put a gun in his mouth and left me alone on this planet shortly after deciding not to take me with him. The kicker is that even though he pulled the trigger on his own, even though I know schizophrenia played a role, even though I know that I loved and adored this man, even though ... even though ... I still know that he killed himself because I am a bad wife. Yes, my intellectual brain tells me "this is not true." My doctors, friends, family and everybody on the round world can tell me "this is not true." It doesn't matter; I know it in my soul. I know the things I did even if no one else can see them.

I criticized him, I lived my life poorly, I made horrible decisions, and I was not a good wife at all. He has a fragile mind and I didn't give it the care it needed. I was too selfish.

So now that I am with this amazing man who helped pull me out of hell itself, I hear myself say, "Why did you forget to mail that letter!" and then I disintegrate as I imagine I am driving him to his death too. Once again my intellectual brain tells me that my beloved is normal, healthy and beautiful in mind. He doesn't have the problems that the first did. But on the rare occasions we get in a real fight (once a year is frequent fighting for us), I spend the next week having nonstop dreams about the first's death and am a wreck for months after. I wake up over and over to check to make sure that my beloved is still in bed and breathing.

I live in fear of losing my temper, getting frustrated, angry or even just a little bit mad. All of this hangs over me every second of the day. My beloved seems to understand that I go through this, and he does everything in his power to help me. He and I have been friends for almost 20 years. After the first's death, he came up to get me in the city I was in and brought me home to his city. He spent a year pulling me through night after night of screaming nightmares and bandaging my soul. And now, I live daily in fear of having an argument and damaging his soul or living the next months with my own tormented soul.

I just can't seem to get past this. How do I stop living in fear and start enjoying my love?

Desperate to Be a Good Wife

Dear Desperate,

I feel confident that there are methods by which you can learn, gradually, to attenuate some of these fears so that they are not so overwhelming. Bit by bit, as you lessen the fear, you should start to enjoy your husband more. Part of the process would involve a kind of intellectual struggle, questioning the language you are using and structures it implies. Such terms as "good wife" and "bad wife," for instance, cause problems because they are so difficult to define, and thus to refute. If you "know in your soul" that you are a bad wife, how is anyone to dispute that? It can fill you with fear and dread, particularly, say, if you were raised with strong religious or moral beliefs about what happens to people who are deemed "bad."

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One way to combat that is to recognize that the term "bad wife" itself has no real force or meaning. It is simply a kind of verbal monster, full of dread and threat but no substance. In confronting this monster, you might also have occasion to ask where it came from. Was there a person in your family who was a "bad wife"? What happened to that person? Was she genuinely a bad wife, or was that simply how others perceived her? No doubt if she had a bad fate, you would not want to have the same fate. But the term "bad wife" is too nebulous to have much concrete meaning for you.

There might be aspects of being a "bad wife," however, that are real emotions -- grief, guilt, shame, for instance. That's fine. You're human and you're bound to have such emotions from time to time long after such a traumatic event. Also because you are human there are severe limits on what you can control, and the experience of that powerlessness is also very much a part of being human. But having those emotions does not mean you are a bad wife. It just means you're human.

Being human also involves, from time to time, losing your temper, becoming impatient, demanding and short. When these things happen, the best thing to do is apologize and try to do better next time. Remember it's not the mail that's important, but the human being.

In fact, you are a human to whom something utterly dreadful has happened. One would think that what you deserve is care, rather than censure and suspicion for your occasional lapses of decorum. That care can come from others and from yourself. You can be kind to yourself and try to reassure yourself. You can also seek such care and reassurance from others, including your current husband. Rather than simply taking care of him, why not also think of ways in which he can take care of you, and ask him for these things? Something as simple as a back rub or a dinner cooked for you can make a difference between a day in which you feel hopeless and a day in which you feel cared for.

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There are other ways, too, that you can care for yourself day to day. Take a look at your routine. Are you under a lot of stress at work? Are you eating well and getting enough exercise? Do you have a long and stressful commute? Do you get enough sleep at night? All these things are important. Making a change in any one of them can improve your overall contentment. Then you will be better able to do the difficult but satisfying work that lies ahead, working with a therapist or other person.

This will all be a gradual process. And there will be difficulties. I do not know the whole story. But I want to share with you my hope. You have been through a lot. You have shown much strength. You can get through this.

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