Publishing a piece on Bully Wives during this momentous chapter in our cultural history might seem grossly insensitive or politically and socially deaf. I actively support the #MeToo movement and am marching in step with the challenges to male dominance and exploitation of women which have brought courageous women and some men to tell their stories, challenging the cultural taboos that have silenced them, dismissed them and punished them in the past. As a human being, a woman and a mother, I have no ambivalence about this moment in our cultural history. I hope it lasts and I will do my best personally to work towards changing our society to become a more humanistic, safe and equitable one.
Wearing my other hat, as a clinician, I also feel an obligation to complete a discussion I opened over six years ago, so I am publishing Bully Wives #2 now. My focus is on The Coupledom, that domicile in which the couples relationship resides. My goal is to facilitate its emotional health. Not to blame or take sides.
My first post on Bully Wives was published in September of 2011 and yet it remains one of the most read and commented on posts. I have received emails from desperate husbands and even a couple of calls from horrified wives who recognize themselves in my “bully wife” profile. The men are energized by the post, seeking to voice what the culture tends to keep hidden, that women can be bullies too. Yet, few women have come to me to say, “I am that woman, can you help me?” Why?
In general, owning our behavior, when it is characterized as “bullying” or abusive, is not a popular pastime and few leap into the fray to say “Yep, that’s me.” But in the case of women who traditionally have been the nest building and family emotional health experts, this seeming absence of taking steps to prevent a domestic situation deteriorating seems worthy of exploration.
What is a bully? How do the men who responded to my post describe their wives’ behavior? The salient characteristic when rereading the comments is a refusal on the part of the women to engage in a conversation about their behaviors without it escalating into a form of domestic warfare. The men describe the futility in trying to communicate their distress, as it results in finger pointing that they are the problem or leads to a complete shut down in communication. And if, as I suspect, many women identify with some part of that description, as most of us nudge, nag and have a “honey do” list, then why are some women so energized against owning any of it?
The dialogues between people that lead to growth and understanding do not usually begin with a walk in the park. They begin as a contentious communication but lead to a striving to hear where the other is coming from. But if that second part never occurs – the part where you listen – and instead is upended in an emotional brawl of sorts, that bodes badly for the future of that Coupledom. Intimate relationships are dependent on just that kind of exchange for their survival.
Why then do these women seem so frightened to have this conversation? After all, these are words, not fists.
In the service of offering something new and useful in the Bully Wives discussion, I reread my original article, Bully Wives? Yes, But They Don’t Know It, and reviewed many of the comments left, mostly by husbands and some wives. I suggest everyone read the piece now.
What was most striking in my review is the apparent resistance to a discussion on the part of the women and a dismissal of their husbands’ feelings, though a few women commented or contacted me showing a sincere interest in changing. One woman who lived some hours by car from my office, after reading the article, was horrified to recognize herself in the profile of the “bully wife.” She called to see if we could schedule intensive couples visits. In my experience, this lady was unusual as she owned that she had spent years being emotionally abusive to her husband. She displayed both insight into and understanding of some of her motivations and courage in her willingness to work with her husband towards change. Sadly, when she broached the subject of getting help, her husband refused to participate. She suspected that she was too late. There were young children and a shared life and her regret was profound. Her “wake up call” at that time appeared too tardy to save her family’s life. I am hoping that since we spoke, she and her husband found a path toward healing and a commitment to a future together.
This lady is the exception. Mostly, there is a striking absence of women taking ownership or interest in the Bully Wives piece or, when approached by their husbands, decline to participate in a therapeutic process, claiming it is not their behavior that is causing the alienation. But that’s not the point. The conversation needs to begin somewhere. When a couple comes to therapy, often it is the wife’s idea, and often she has worked hard to convince her husband to join her, yet she succeeds. Far rarer is the reverse, where the husband makes that happen. Why? And why aren’t women coming into therapy with their husbands because their husbands are unhappy with them? Do they have to wait for the affair or the announcement that divorce is on the horizon? Are the husbands never unhappy?
On a more positive note, I have seen an increase in recent years of couples embracing the notion of “prevention” and coming to therapy to catch problems while they are small and fixable. Often their family histories of divorce have taught them a great lesson, don’t wait!
But we are speaking about women here. Are we as women so afraid of being “found out” as not kind, not loving, not nurturing, not perfect spouses or sexual partners? What is our problem? Is this yet another example of gender role definition, narrow and limiting. I think so. Generations of cultural expectations and stereotypes. After all, aren’t women the acclaimed experts on emotional coupling – the banner babes of kindness, goodness and familial devotion? If we aren’t always particularly kind or if our demands can become increasingly rigid, or if disappointments in our spouses or our lives make us bitter partners at times, why do we refuse to own the behaviors that ensue? Because it is a cultural taboo even if in fact it is true? We were taught – and you have to be taught – that our value is only as good as is our goodness to others.
Our culture is going through some desperately needed growing pains now. The focus is on the bad behavior of men – and deservedly so. Finally! So my timing may seem very off here. But life is far too complex to settle on one scenario at a time. Especially on the domestic front. We as humans tend to be comforted by simplicity, victim and victimizer; we know who to defend, who to condemn. But on the home front, while raising children, sharing homes, finances, pets, relatives and friends, that format just doesn’t work as well. The only formula to combat the dangerous simplicity of victim and victimizer is for each to own their contribution, when the stakes are high and there is still time – and no one is physically in danger or emotionally shredded to bits. When there is still time and muscle to work on honesty, self-reflection, and education (there is so much to learn about the dynamics of relationships which, frankly, most couples don’t know). On the other hand, there is a movement in the field of education to provide programs on emotional intelligence in the schools, in the hopes that future generations will gain tools to understand their own emotions, as well as those of others. Mental Health and Education professionals have long recognized the cultural illiteracy in personal emotional self-awareness and empathy towards others in our society. Where were these experts most likely to observe that deficit? Perhaps in the family lives of their patients and students.
My goal here is to try another round of “bully wives” that invites more conversation, less avoidance and fear, that gives permission to women to own their “bad” and not fear that this is a profound personal failure. The shame they may feel in acknowledging these behaviors will lead to a greater gain. How so? By tolerating that what they do can be hurtful or harmful to their partners, it gives room to learn new behaviors for managing their disappointment, harsh expectations of themselves and their spouses, frustration, hurt, and even broken dreams. Hiding this truth from ourselves prevents us from finding better, less destructive methods of dealing with the pain that leads to these behaviors. And that being a good person, a loving person, is dependent on the ability to take ownership of the hurtful part of us too.
We as women don’t have to believe anymore that being “good girls” is required or that we need to deny that we can be aggressive, insulting, denigrating, dismissive or difficult to please. Just as assertive women are not necessarily “bossy,” hurt and angry men are not necessarily babies or spoiled or selfish or even “all about themselves.” Hopefully, the days are waning where women are judged good by a passivity monitor, along with the belief that women are here for the gratification of men. And men are not dismissed when they describe feeling unfairly treated, uncared for, intimidated. Self-respecting and respectful equals raise the best children, run the best homes and serve society in the most useful ways. Aspects of the bully wife and the bully husband are in all of us. It’s usually the outcome of complicated feelings and expectations that need owning and outing. This is the conversation that adults need to have, that will allow wives to seek out professionals who are ready to help them do just that.
Always say yes to listening, when spouses ask to be heard, and no to denial or accusatory responses. Handle your fear of being called hurtful or uncaring with a steady head and a listening ear. By doing so, you are already less bad, less hurtful, less culpable. And you are not a sucker either. You are an adult. Couples relationships are not debates, with teams fighting for the rightness of their position. A coupledom is a dance – partners can take turns in leading, but both have to be responsive to the sway and movement of the music of their shared lives.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2018