“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.”
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.