Wanda’s molehill

by Annie Kaszina on October 31, 2011

Annie, I don’t know what to do.  Things really are better with my husband,.  He’s trying hard.  But when communication breaks down between us, I start telling myself it’s hopeless, and I have to leave – even though that’s the last thing I want to do do.  Help, please.” 

Dear Wanda,

You and I have been in contact for some time, so I know quite a lot about the background to your story.  I’m answering your question publicly, as it were, because I suspect the answer will resonate with a lot of other women, too.

First, as we both know, when we initially spoke, I wondered what mileage might be left in a marriage that left you feeling very unhappy.  Sometimes, when I’m feeling controversial, I describe myself as a professional “marriage breaker”.  I’ve been instrumental in the break up of a lot of bad marriages and relationships.  But I also love to be instrumental in saving them, and improving them – where appropriate.

Because you didn’t want to leave, you took all the learnings you’d got from being on one of my programs and used them to transform the way you interacted with your husband.  You started from the premise that, when you change, change will have to rub off on the people around you.  That’s not an easy road, at all.  And it’s certainly not a quick fix.  But you were highly motivated to stay and work it through.

The other important consideration is that your husband was responsive to the change in your behavior.  He, quite literally, started to ‘pull his socks up’.

Not every abusive partner does that, by any means.  (They might make the right noises.  But they don’t actually change their behaviour, or make you feel any safer from emotional attack around them.)

Most women want their partner to change to make them happy.  You were prepared to work on changing yourself, and simply monitoring the effect that would have on your husband.  Had things not got better, you would have left.

As a general principle, I’d say to any woman who is profoundly unhappy with an abusive partner:

Don’t try doing what Wanda did at home.  It has a very high chance of NOT working.”

But you stayed, and things have improved a lot.

Now the biggest problem you have is when the relationship has a glitch – and from what you say it is a glitch, because your husband is trying hard to please you, and has made a lot of changes.  But when those glitches occur, mentally you throw your hands up in the air, exclaim:

“This is hopeless”, and start planning your life without him.

Dear Wanda, you’re doing that very human, very understandable thing that all abused women – and not just abused women – do: you’re catastrophizing.

When we are in catastrophizing mode there are no molehills, only mountains.  Every small hurt, slight, or rejection feels devastating.  More precisely, it is devastating 

Our hopes are easily dashed.  Our feelings of despair  are easily activated.

Because I want to show you how the mechanics of catastrophizing work, I’d like to share with you an anecdote that doesn’t entirely redound to my credit.

This summer, my partner and I managed a few days away in a wonderful B & B in the beautiful Sussex countryside.  Basil, the Shih Tzu puppy, came with us.  Our landlord and landlady wouldn’t hear of Basil being left in the room when we trotted off to enjoy some country house opera.  They insisted on having Basil with them, and even taking him for walks with their two, tiny, Yorkshire terrier girls.

Basil was in seventh heaven.  (So were we. I’m still people-pleaser enough to want to make even my pooch radiantly happy at all times.) 

On the morning we left, I finally saw Basil interacting with the Yorkies.  Not a pretty sight, I have to admit.  Basil kept jumping all over them.  He was lavishing on them the kind of attention that construction workers (UK ‘navvies’, Oz ‘brickies’) etc lavish on nubile young women.  You know how it is; they offer a gross expression of appreciation – usually about some part of your anatomy – and then, if you aren’t pleased and flattered, they label you a ‘stuck up cow’.

Our hostess made it clear that, in her opinion, Basil was something that had crawled out from under a large stone.

How did I react to all of this?

I felt a goodly dose of shame that my dog-son hadn’t lived up to ‘people’s’ high standards – (a sort of “We need to talk about Basil” moment”!).  I experienced a powerful moment of self-blame – “OMG, its all my fault!”  I wobbled, momentarily, into worthlessness: “I can’t even train a puppy properly”.  And I created a story around this unimportant incident: “I’m not even fit to   be a dog owner”.

(Interestingly enough, that was something my abusive husband had once thrown in my face. )

So, what was really going on?

Obviously, I was catastrophizing.  Basil was a bit bouncy, and ‘in-your-face’, but he was not in any way nasty.  He wasn’t in any way sexual.  He was just overexcited, and a bit of a pain.

But what did I do?

The moment something went wrong, I slotted it into my old story of shame, self-blame, worthlessness, and rejection.

That is exactly how catastrophizing occurs.  We slot each new blip, however small, into our old story, and the list of our failures.  And, boy, do we know how to make a big thing of it. 

Why do we it?

We do it, as the story of my bouncy little dog shows, because we always make everything about us.  If anything is not perfect, that’s a sign of our personal failure.  I made Basil’s little dog masculine posturing about me.  Wanda made the breakdown of communication with her husband about her.

We have a talent for weaving a story of failure and shortcoming from virtually anything that happens to us.  As children, we were taught to blame ourselves when ‘things’ went awry.  As adults, how can we not be aware that, with children, things often do go awry?

When I went into catastrophizing mode over Basil’s would-be masculine posturing, I was emotionally drained by my partner’s health problems.  In the main, catastrophizing is not something I do very much these days.

It didn’t take long before I reviewed the incident in a different light.   Our hostess was not a happy soul, she had an air of being deeply offended by Life, first and foremost, and by many other things, including Basil, besides.  That was her issue.

Basil was totally unaffected by her judgement.  He’s by no means stupid.  He probably noticed that the Yorkies weren’t in a rush to share their dog basket with him, but he wasn’t bothered.  He has noticed that not everyone thinks he is as wonderful as he and I do, but he acknowledges their right to be wrong.

Basil doesn’t catastrophize.  Basil doesn’t tell himself stories about what people’s attitudes and behaviours might mean.  Basil lives in the moment.  He doesn’t slot these slights into a bigger picture of all the rejections and negative judgements he’s ever experienced.

And nor should you.

Catastrophizing is every bit as useful to you as believing in The Bogey Man.  In actual fact, it’s just another – apparently more adult – version of The Bogey Man belief.

We learned it in childhood.  We don’t have to practise it through adulthood, and into old age.

Catastrophizing just means taking any one negative belief, however small, and putting it on steroids.

Don’t do it!

What happened next with Wanda?  Well, we talked about it, and here’s what she wrote the following day:

“Just a note to say thank you so much for your advice and words of wisdom on the phone yesterday.  I now feel I am armed with so much information to help my marriage work – and I’m sure it will! Thanks and much love, Wanda”

Notice, Wanda’s mountain had disappeared.  And the molehill had become too negligible to mention.

If you’d like to learn how not to catastrophize so you can be clearer in your own mind, make better decisions, conserve your energy so you can use it where it will make a difference and start feeling happier and more confident within the next few weeks, my Quick Start program really will help you.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Julie November 1, 2011 at 12:52 pm

As always, a timely post but this one comes at a confusing time. It leaves me to question once again whether he really can change. It is much simpler to act on the premise that he is never going to change and walk on.


Annie November 2, 2011 at 1:06 pm

Julie, Julie, Julie. I’m afraid you’re getting caught up in your ‘stuff’ again. I did say: “Don’t try this one at home, girls”, because it is a strategy that won’t work in most cases.

So let’s lay down some criteria:

1) Has your partner vowed he will change, and taken serious steps to change?
2) How can you know he is sincere about it?
3) Even supposing he has – and I doubt it. Why do you need to stay with him while he does it? Most abusive men – that’s 99% – will take your staying as a sign that they can get away with ‘pretend change’.
4) His transformation he has to do for himself, and by himself”.
5) At the same time you have to work on your own transformation for yourself and by yourself.

If at the end of all of that – and we are talking about a minimum of 12 months of solid work by each of you, separately – if, after all that, you both want to be together, then you have to find a different, and better way to be together.

Walking away is a sane, and constructive option. Easy, it ain’t. Wise, it surely is.


Julie November 3, 2011 at 1:38 pm

Thank you Annie, for your counsel. I have been talking to him after no contact for 6 months. I feel like I’m walking into this well armed and informed. I wonder, because of how I feel about seeing him again, (sad, no skipping heart) if this may actually be a part of my process of leaving him. I was SO angry with him, I don’t want to be that way. I also know that I am not going to take it on myself or make any excuses for him. I will keep your points in mind, lots of information there. Thank you again.


Elizabeth November 3, 2011 at 7:01 am

From my experience men jus don’t change if fact if you change and become stronger they refute it in my case my ex was a very spoilt mummy’s boy and it was quite simple I in his eyes jus couldnt possibly be worthy of the alevel of attention he gave to his mother and the very interesting thing was that when he was a child she never told him off so he simply never ever thought he was ever wrong admitting our part in the story is a very big thing but abusers jus can’t do this I think alot of it is to do with relationship with their mother. I have been on my own for 17 mths it’s great and I know I am no longer in that vile cycle of thinking I can’t live without a man but u must be able to realise things will be hard and accept that we have no money I am a single parent who works full time so yes it can be done what can be worse than being with someone who constantly puts you down no way no more I hear all the time of couples moaning about money think of the children because they know exactly what is going on


Maria November 3, 2011 at 7:44 am

As much as I wish my ex would change, I know he wont! He has not promised he will and has not stopped treating me like I am nothing. In fact, since I left him he has told me how much he loves me BUT never once promised me to change yet I still try to make it work!! I know its all in my head because i hate feeling rejected and the more he pushes me away, the more I want him… He doesnt return my messages when I email or text him but he does answer the phone when I call him just to tell me that he does love me but we dont ‘mix’ well and then I go into ‘convincing mode’ and I hate it because I know he is loving it yet I dont know how to stop myself!! I hate how much I beg him and how he keeps saying no! I know he is a jerk, and has made my life miserable but why do i want him back?


christine November 3, 2011 at 12:55 pm

I myself have been int hat same situation over and over. i also begged and pleaded with him.all along i knew he didnt care but the more he pulled away the more i wanted needed him but when i felt a little stronger and stoped calling him the tables had turned and he would do the running,i would then think ok things are good and continue with it untill he realizes hes won me back and the head games name calling and control starts again.this has happened over and over and every tme i knew it wasnt right and i had to do something to stop the cycle because he wasnt going to,he was happy having his life and controling mine. actualy it was him teling me he was gone and wasnt coming back only becasue i said something about him he didnt like,so this time i didnt reply,i didnt react,i thought what an idiot,the truth hurts sort of thing.he has txt me a few times since but i havent responded,iv wanted to,mainly late at night when im feeling lonely,but i think get yourself to bed chris, tomorow is another day and if i do txt him i know i will regret it. i have a new future ahead of me and its going to be a better one where i dont have to think ahead of what im saying or doing all the time.good luck to you,if i can make a fresh start anyone can x


ruth November 3, 2011 at 11:49 pm

Dear Annie,Thank you so very much for all your help & support.I was with my husband for 45 years.Last year i had had enough of the pain,lies & betrayals & i told him to leave.It has been hard but now at long last the fog & tears are disappearing.He still is doing his act to the children & anyone who will listen (but that is his problem- NO LONGER MINE).Everyone is feeling very sorry for that poor man who had a bitch etc as a wife.Thank you again for the strength to help me succeed. Ruth


Wendy Morling November 4, 2011 at 2:06 am

Wow! – thanks Annie, you really have answered my question as to why we catastrophize!
I have been told by friends that when my husband was mean & nasty that it was “his stuff” & that I mustn’t take it so serlously! But when you live with it year in & year out it takes it’s toll and you end up believing most of the things he tells you which makes you miserable.
But now that he has changed for the better, I see the value of not always making it about “me” and that it is mostly about “his stuff!”. I’s just difficult to let go of taking it personally since all his venom “has been aimed at me” for so long!
So I realize he will not be perfect, but he really is trying and I’m doing what you suggested and acknowledging him for all the little things that he does. I have been pretty absent from family life for awhile now as I’ve been involved in Amateur Dramatics and helping backstage & props & he’s been making meals and being very patient with my absence.
Even tho my husband & I have got closer and chat more, I am still not yet able to melt into his arms and feel “safe” there. I just cannot do that yet, and am often looking at other men and comparing. I just cannot let my guard down and trust him emotionally yet. I wonder how long that will take? He has been better for 11 months now.
Thanks for everything Annie,
Love W x


Barbara Alcott November 9, 2011 at 9:22 pm

I got the courage to leave after twenty two years of physical and emotional abuse and stayed in my home since I have a home business. I get alimony and so my ex has been using scare tactics and now electronic harassment equipment to try to force me out of my home. The local police don’t know what this type of harassment is since it is done remotely. My ex lives in bluetooth range so he can watch everything I do and I feel there are most likely cameras inside and outside and my phone is being recoded too according to Sprint. He is a an executive with IBM so has the money and knowledge to use this against me. I can’t sell the home in this market and I’ve had to have the paramedics since the electronics cause havoc with my heat rhythms. I don’t have any family close and don’t have a friend close enough to stay there and just do my business here. I’ve considered telling the judge who gave me the opportunity to refinance and keep the home about it since I feel I got the home legally and he got two hundred fifty thousand dollars out of it. I’ve read all of your books and read every email and have come so far but nothing has prepared me for this type of evil. Money is his God and he wants me dead and of course is doing it in such a way that it looks like it is just my heart condition. The equipment-one is called a ‘mosquito’ uses high and low frequencies that affect my internal organs. I’ve spoken to a person who sells this equipment and he has verified that from my symptoms, it is being used. Any suggestions? I don’t have a phone or computer that isn’t being hacked into. My ex is such a sick man. I’m a software engineer so not a stupid person and have done much research on this to try to figure out what is going on. The site amazing1.com is the site I talked to the owner since he sells the equipment.
I could use any help you can give me.


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