Q I don't know who I am anymore.
I am not sure if I am the problem or my husband is. He has a very strong personality and very firm ideas about how things should be done. Small things. Like where we keep the fruit in the fridge. I put it one place and he moves it to another, even though I am the one who makes the kids lunches etc. I am no angel either - I always stand my ground, so we argue a lot. Everything is a battle. I have tried to talk to him about it but he just argues the minutiae of each issue and refuses to see the big picture. He snaps at the kids too - overreacting to small things and again, when I challenge him he argues the point and ignores the real issue, which is how he communicates. He says I am the problem as I argue with everything but I hate the controlling and I don't want my kids to think it's OK for one person to dictate the rules. Maybe I am the problem. We are probably giving them a terrible example. What do you think?
A It is such an incredibly hard feeling when you don't know who you are. There's a real grounded inner peace that comes from knowing who you are, what you stand for, where you begin and where others end. It is not just being aware of yourself and your core identity, it provides a confidence in your competence with specific regard to trusting yourself, your thoughts and actions.
What I hear in your words is doubt, lots of it, and self-doubt. I also hear power struggles, yours, his and possibly each of the blue-prints you both carry from childhood on 'how' it's to be done.
Getting to understand that it is not about 'where the fruit goes' but a much deeper issue of possible inequality in the parental load, gender assumptions in relation to housework and a mismatch of expected gender and relationship norms. This is where the source of some of the issues are coming from. Not disregarding the control issues, right now, I can only explore what this is like for you.
Knowing 'you' helps you navigate how to get on with yourself and others. Everyone knows their own normal, I normally hear it expressed as 'I just don't feel like myself'. You know what you feel like when you are in a good space and you know what it feels like when it's a bit off. This feeling can range from uncomfortable, to confusing, to deeply unsettling. This is such a common but difficult issue that I hear.
Can you pinpoint when these communication issues began? It may have always been present, or did the onset of becoming a mother and being parents throw some hefty control curve balls?
That period of immense change is a life lesson no one really prepares for. The truth is, the challenges will keep coming and life will change you. Asking the big questions like 'who am I?'; 'what do I like?'; 'where am I going?'; 'who are we now?' are not just basic, but essential questions.
A loss of identity will often lead to an existential crisis where everything, from yourself and your partner to how you are living your life, can be called into question. Certain things will become less tolerable, such as demands that don't make sense to you or control that you find unacceptable.
As a side-note, relationships are in constant flux and with daily life it can be hard to hear above the noise. Unchecked and built-up unresolved resentment can lead from doubts of 'who am I' into a perpetual state of disconnection that can lead into questioning 'who are we?'. This is when emotions let themselves be known.
There is a problem; it's rarely one person. What's not helpful is when one person is doing the blaming, in a very black and white 'you are wrong and I am right' way.
This defensiveness places the blame on you and will lead to you feeling verbally attacked and then you, as the defendant will neve see how you are adding to it. This is a nasty relationship circular.
So, how can you get off the relationship roundabout?
Start by asking yourself:
How did your parents manage control?
Was it equal?
If not, who exerted more control?
Did that extend to your up-bringing?
Can you connect with any experience that felt unjust, unfair and unresolved?
Pause right here for a moment. If these questions have brought something up for you, I want you to understand that your husband cannot fix any possible childhood emotional wounds. This is work that only you can attend to. Our adult romantic relationships trigger misplaced and old wounds. Did you feel controlled as a child? How does that feel for you now? What are your boundaries? Have you expressed them to your husband?
Could you ask your husband to answer the questions above from his childhood?
Controlling behaviour is outside of your control but you are in control of what you will accept. Two people are involved here. I have only been able to look at the parts you can control. Be fully aware that his input and desire to change will lead to where it goes from here. Is this control healthy? Only you know the answer to that.
A conversation starter could go something like, "I would like us to work on the real issues. We seem to be arguing over small things that we both know are not the real issues. I'm sure there here are certain things I do that are frustrating to you, naturally the feeling is likewise but, there are specific things I'd love us to work upon together to change this". The specifics may be worked out together or with the help of a therapist.
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Q I am finding it very difficult to deal with what I see as the hypocrisy of my family. I am a 45-year-old woman and I have two younger sisters, both in their 40s also. My sisters would always have been closer to each other than with me, but I am OK with that. All three of us are mothers to pre-teen children. My youngest sister's kids are quite mean to their cousins - my daughter, who is the same age as her oldest, and also their other cousins, who are a year or so younger. I have spoken with my other sister about this and she agrees that their behaviour is appalling but she won't say anything to my sister's face, and when I bring it up, she stays silent or agrees with my youngest sister when she says my daughter is too sensitive. I feel like I am the only one who ever tells the truth and I am a bit of an outsider because of it. What should I do?