The problem is, we need to have these conversations to improve and grow as a couple and a family. How can I have them without him becoming upset?
— Hard Conversations
Hard Conversations: I’ll start this with the entirety of my advice in two words, then explain why for the rest of the column.
Your husband clearly would benefit from professional help and I do hope he already is in counseling for his self-esteem issues. But my advice is for you: Find a therapist for you, alone, and get to work on both understanding and navigating this dynamic without getting sucked in.
You captured one reason when you described your need to have “I need help with X”-type conversations. That ability is baseline stuff for a functional relationship of any kind, and for co-parents it's make-or-break.
The other reason is abstract yet comes with more comprehensive, tangible consequences. When he “reacts like I'm telling him he is the worst person in the world,” that's a form of manipulation, which in turn is a form of control, which is a form of abuse. People who are openly down on themselves tend not to be seen in that light, because they are (appropriately) seen as ailing emotionally, but a person can both suffer and be abusive.
Look at how he weaponized your asking for help — which is valid, always, even if he's already doing his share or more, because the response to unfairness either way would be conversation, not accusation.
And look at the effect his reactions have on you. He gets “very emotional” and accuses you of “saying he never helps.” Catastrophizing. Escalating. You go into it wanting help — more on that in a moment — and you come out of it “feeling terrible for making him upset and wishing I had just kept my mouth shut,” presumably just doing for him whatever you were asking him to do.
That's how manipulators/controllers/abusers train their partners to do all the work and not complain about it. You know: You're living it.
Now, let’s say you’ve omitted key information and he’s doing most/all of the child care already, and you’re merely his self-anointed critic. That would change a lot of the math here. No one wants to be “improved” by an equal. But you said “help” — with the baby who is as much his as yours? As if it’s your job and he “helps"? And you give him “constant reassurance.” Details are telling.
And, even if you've been unfair, adults don't say, “Oh, so I'm a bad dad now?” Adults say, “That's not fair, I think I do my share and then some.” Civil debate ensues.
Conversation has two parts: what you say, and how it’s heard. You are responsible only for what you say. Not for how your husband hears it. So there is no “without him becoming upset” — there is only your part, speaking your mind clearly and kindly. The rest is up to him.
That’s where the counseling comes in, to help you understand, see and hold this line. To help you stop assuming the responsibility and emotional work for things on your husband’s side of the boundary, including how he hears what you say and how he feels about himself. Having boundaries is the work that puts you emotionally out of the reach of anyone’s manipulation/control/abuse.
This is a longer explanation than you’d think because this problem is more than it seems. It’s not just “He feels bad about himself so I try to help him feel good” (the first thing we all think, not just you). Instead, it’s “He’s not well and you’ve unwittingly helped him complete the circuit of his emotional sickness.” So, therapy, just for you, and soon.
Dear Carolyn: How do you deal with the holidays when you are estranged from just one family member?
Anonymous: On your terms, always, and as simply as possible: What do you want?
Choose toward vs. away from, too. You can decide to be positive or negative, confident or fearful — toward something good, or away from something bad. The former feels better even when the action's exactly the same.
So, you can opt out to celebrate your own way! … or to avoid this relative. You can attend for continuity and tradition! … or for fear of missing out. Embrace good! … or hide from bad.
Better to act than react.