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Ask Ellie: Give up the role of taskmaster in marriage

Try hiring a professional for big jobs around the house

Dear Ellie: My husband of 30-plus years retired early. I’m disabled, we’re doing well financially — no debts, no mortgage.

But his angry outbursts are escalating. It began years ago when I was often so angry at him, I’d slap him. But I was only hurting our relationship so I stopped all violent expression.

I don’t know how to handle his explosive angry responses to everything. He goes to instant extreme anger; I walk away or ask him to calm down. He continues, I start yelling. But I do not touch him in anger. I made a vow.

The days are hard due to my pain issues and our arguments. He’s wonderful about picking up household jobs I used to do. He’s stressed by my illness. He takes care of his mom’s place, our place, our two dogs.

I leave notes regarding important things because he’s easily distracted. Our therapist thought it’s ADHD, but he refused to be tested.

A recent discussion regarding painting the house brought the expected anger. Counselling? Four attempts to resolve these issues led to him denying he understood what a certain chore I requested was all about. I walked out.

Our therapist doesn’t know why he was stalling on accomplishing anything in therapy.

He grew up seeing his alcoholic father beat his mom. His attachment to her is like he’s still a child. She feeds him, he drops everything and runs to tend to her.

His anger is like his father’s was: Hostile. He’s more like his father over time.

Because of my physical needs, I cannot leave. He won’t leave. I just want him to listen, pay attention to what I say, do simple things I ask of him, and now, paint the house. But it led to his over-the-top anger, again. Any ideas?

Burned Out

I’m starting my response with a practical suggestion: Hire a painter.

You have the means, he’s helpful at doing what he chooses, but he doesn’t want to paint the house, which is a big job.

Introduce this idea gently, not as an order, but with empathy in realizing that there’s no reason for him to devote the time and effort to a major paint job.

Now, more on empathy in the relationship: Your story reveals two very difficult past realities between you two.

1) Years ago, you were repeatedly abusive, physically slapping him to express your own anger. Of course, it’s very significant that you ended that abuse. But it remains within your history together.

2) He grew up within violence and abuse. As an adult, he still screams like that child, protecting himself against being told what to do. You give him orders for tasks, yet, when you leave him alone, he’s “wonderful” at picking up jobs you can’t do.

You two need a re-set of the relationship. But professional therapy can only help you both if you change the pattern that is destroying your marriage.

Give up the role of taskmaster. If some work projects become very important — e.g., plumbing problems — discuss together the best way to get it fixed… a plumber? A new sink? Just stop making it a battle between you as boss and him as worker.

Focus on your well-being, get whatever medical and physical-therapy help that you can. He needs deeper therapy regarding his childhood, though he likely fears the emotional pain. Understand that.

FEEDBACK Regarding the woman’s “sexually remote” husband (March 11):

Reader: “They need to talk to a sex counsellor/therapist who can get to the roots of what’s happening between them, and provide guidance and suggestions for realistic actions to hopefully repair and enhance their sex life.

“This man may have deeper issues — perhaps premature ejaculation (speculated by her mentioning his “slam bang” sex). He prefers to avoid sex altogether rather than risk embarrassment.

“They should try giving each other massages, do meditative sensual exercises, etc.

“Your response to seek a lawyer regarding divorce surprised me, as you often recommend therapy. Instead, you were agreeing that she should up and divorce him.”

Ellie: She mentioned “dreaming of divorce.” I countered that she should learn from a lawyer what divorce actually entails, not rush to it. But his blaming her for taking “too long to climax” was a very negative signal of his disinterest.

Ellie’s Tip of the day

For a partner with painful past memories of witnessing abuse, conflict is a trigger. Therapy can help, if it’s wanted.

Send relationship questions to ellie@thestar.ca.

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