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Ask Allison: My husband says cruel things when he's stressed - and I feel trapped

Our resident therapist answers your queries about sex and relationships

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Q I love my husband and I know he is a good man but he has a horrible habit of snapping at me and saying cruel things when he is busy at work or under other stress. For example, I asked him if he would meet me and my parents for lunch recently and he said no, he had better not as he had a few things to do in the morning and I would give him grief if he was late. It sounds like nothing, but it really hurt my feelings as I never do that kind of thing. He always apologises afterwards and agrees that it is unfair, but it keeps happening. It is like a default setting - stress equals casual cruelty. I always accept the apology but it is chipping away at me and making me feel trapped. What can I do to make him stop?

A This is such a distressing situation you are in. Maybe the cruelty isn't that casual? What is the default setting to offset his stress? To be cruel to you? Is he like that with anyone else? Is he like that with his co-workers (if there are any)? I'm imagining not, or there might be another word used at work to describe this unacceptable behaviour.

Let me be clear, couples snap at each other. It happens. When people are stressed, the nearest (but not treated as the dearest) are often on the negative receiving end as it is 'safe' for people to be cruel to those closest to them. But the cruel word is raising a flag for me and the fact that you are aware that it is chipping away at you, is worrying.

The preface of this - 'my husband is a good man but' - also concerns me. This type of statement is one I hear far too often and the statistics can make for stark reading of unacceptable and or emotionally abusive behaviour that can go on behind too many closed doors. Most often by charming, well-liked men who leave many women feeling not believed when they say how they feel.

This is pertinent to your example. It is the pervasive, pernicious impact of being 'chipped away' at that creates the destruction. It is the minimisation and silencing can occur for women when they share their feelings with a friend or neighbour who might incredulously look at them as they disagree with and possibly tell you how lucky you are to have such a 'good husband' that you might hesitate to share how you are feeling the next time.

You don't have to be told to be silenced, you learn.

Is your relationship healthy?

Is your relationship safe?

I can only go by the few words I have above so I hope this is not over-stepping the mark.

It's important to be mindful of your safety first. You don't need to be hit, to be hurt. I never agreed with the 'sticks and stones' narrative. The impact of the one you love being like this, can often leave people accepting behaviour that you wouldn't take from a stranger, never mind from a friend.

An apology is only sincere when real efforts to change the offending behaviour actually happens. It is interesting but not good that you are taking responsibility to change his behaviour towards you.

The only person who can change this behaviour is your husband. My concern is that you have internalised in some way that how he is being with you, is your fault. It is not your fault. Please pause and read that line again. It is not your fault.

As if you should know that you should tip-toe around him when he is stressed, or not trigger him in any way. This is another flag as you are assuming responsibility for his cruelty towards you.

Like many situations in life that are not overt, many people stay quiet., They fear, or have experienced, that they won't be believed.

In your example, it is the idea that you are being blamed for him not coming to this lunch based on his future hypothesis that you will give him grief if he is late. This level of conditionality of things that haven't even happened yet, and worse still when there isn't a history of you doing this, is where some of the pain is originating from.

It also sounds like gas lighting. I would think there are more levels to the example you have given that would be well worth exploring yourself in therapy.

Building your support network is something I would suggest that you can do and to not engage in arguments that you know that you won't impact in any way.

You could calmly say to him that you have noticed that when he is stressed there is a pattern whereby, he takes his irritation and intolerance out on you in a cruel way.

The word cruel conjures up personal statements about you and this is also a possible area of vulnerability.

If you feel it is safe, you could say that you are not accepting this any more and you are asking him to speak with someone about the impact his stress is having upon him, you and your relationship.

You are establishing healthy boundaries but there is a very strong possibility that he may react very defensively to this and put it back on you, often using words like 'you are controlling'. I

f you ever feel it is spiralling out of control, think safety first, always.

One final question, if a sister or friend told you this, what would you say to them? Love can hurt and blind your clarity as you are immersed in the relationship.

Thank you for writing in, I hope this starts you on a new pathway to find healthier boundaries for yourself within your relationships.

If you have a query for this page email Allison allisonk@independent.ie

Irish Independent