'I can't talk to my wife about anything to do with race, trans people, migrants or vaccines'

Sometimes I avoid her altogether, but she has noticed and is hurt - R.
Sometimes I avoid her altogether, but she has noticed and is hurt - R.  

Dear A&E,

Until relatively recently, my wife and I have had a good marriage with a happy home. However, life has become more difficult. When we talk (beyond everyday subjects like the cats and our daughter) I'm aware certain topics must be avoided at all costs.

Anything to do with race, trans people, migrants or vaccines and I end up listening to a diatribe. She seems obsessed by these things and is capable of turning almost any conversation towards her pet hates. Sometimes I avoid her altogether, but she has noticed and is hurt.

So we have a problem but we can't talk about it. I don't want to separate and I don't want to argue. All I can do is just carry on, but I'm sure we are both unhappy.

- Unhappy

Dear Unhappy,

The temptation, of course, is to start by assessing the content of tirades like these. To establish right and wrong and logic and empathy. To have a measured debate and, if necessary, to agree to disagree. In an ideal world, you and your wife would park the knotty areas where your points of view do not align, then sail off into the wide blue yonders of your day. But this is not an ideal world. This is a marriage.

This is clearly difficult and distressing for you, Unhappy, and, it seems, equally so for her as she has registered your need for distance and is upset. Beyond her socio-political views, her anger and relentlessness may be an unhelpful way of seeking a deeper connection with you: talk to me; see me; show me you care.

It can feel very isolating when someone we love moves from thought to belief; from point of view to a kind of religion. But it is isolating for her too. And so you sit, wondering where your connection went.

The good news is that you both care about this fading connection. She is hurt by your pulling away, which is more encouraging than if she were happy to just sit in her self-combusting rage machine and burn out. Where does the anger come from? Nobody likes to be told that their behaviour is triggered by something else, but her sheer hostility towards groups of people and ideas is probably a symptom rather than a cause.

We took your problem to psychotherapist Emma Reed Turrell, author of Please Yourself: How to Stop People-Pleasing and Transform the Way You Live, who points out that in her experience, relationships typically end over what is not said, rather than what is.

"It's possible that while these are the issues your wife talks about - the 'content', if you like - they are not her real concern," says Reed Turrell. "Why does she feel the way she does? What might her 'pet hates' reveal about her distress on a deeper level?

"Without debating the content of her diatribe, we could bring compassion to our understanding and wonder whether what she's looking for is really just to have a voice and to be heard, hence when you avoid her, she feels hurt."

She may really be saying: "I care passionately about these things, what did you care passionately about? Do you care passionately about me?" As you bring compassion to this situation, can you also bring passion? Love? A reassurance that she is incredibly important to you and that you crave the intimacy you once had? You could set your boundaries by explaining that no, she is not imagining it: you are avoiding her sometimes because you find her anger crushing, but you love her.

"You say you don't want to argue, so perhaps you have been taught to avoid conflict at all costs," says Reed Turrell.

"Maybe you liked the status quo of the good marriage and the happy home, but marriages and homes evolve and we must evolve with them. Her emotional needs are different now and you may have to bring more of yourself to connect with her at this new and deeper level. But take heart: relationships can evolve into something more rewarding and meaningful when we risk rupture to make the real repair."

So your current avoidance may protect you on a moment-to-moment basis, but it will only serve to calcify your marriage. With real effort, this strange period in your relationship could serve you well in setting you up for your next iteration as a couple.

Nothing stays the same, Unhappy, and change is painful. Can you find the courage to ask her what is really fuelling her wrath and resentment? To ask her what is making her sad or scared? And listen. Really listen. You may be feeling battered by her opinions, but can you find a way to really care about her feelings?

And do not rule out therapy. Reed Turrell suggests "a neutral and experienced third party who could be really helpful at translating the 'content' and looking for what lies beneath".

Read last week's column: 'I feel furious with my elderly parents for separating - am I being callous?'


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