Jan, 25, the mother of two young boys, is fed up with her husband's bossiness. "I need to be a person in my own right," she says vehemently, "but Tim makes that impossible, treating me like a child, ridiculing every decision I make and arguing with just about anything I say." His attitude and actions are all too reminiscent of her domineering mother. As a child, Jan had a hard time mustering the confidence to stand up to her, and she's once again feeling like the scared, insecure and lonely girl she used to be.
As Jan sees it, Tim demands control in every area of their life: He checks her grocery receipts and lectures her if she's bought the more expensive head of lettuce. He picked out their house without consulting her and even chose the furniture, vetoing her choice of bright-colored upholstery fabrics in favor of what he considered more practical neutral tones. He's especially contemptuous of her recent decision to go back to college -- Jan quit school after her sophomore year when she discovered she was pregnant -- saying she doesn't need a fancy degree and grudging every penny she spends on books and tuition.
But school is the one place Jan feels her opinions are worth respect. "Is it asking too much to expect my husband to understand that, instead of patronizing me? I've loved Tim since high school, and I love my kids -- but I want to be more than just a mother and a wife," she says.
Though she readily admits Tim is a warm and loving father, as a husband he's a tyrant. "I've never told him this before -- I don't like to argue with him -- but he makes me feel like a nobody. If it weren't for my kids, I'd leave in a minute," she says.
Tim, 27, who owns his own antique furniture and refinishing business, is shocked to hear that Jan is thinking of moving out and insists that, as usual, she's overreacting. "She has no reason to leave me and no right to do it," he announces. "What does she mean she wants to find herself? What's wrong with her life just the way it is?"
Tim bristles at Jan's criticism that he's a penny-pincher. Having grown up with a profligate mother who squandered his hard-working father's paychecks, he's proud of his ability to keep a tight rein on the family finances.
He's equally astounded to hear that Jan hates the way he's furnished their home. "I've put so much hard work into getting it to look just right, and she doesn't even care!" he says, his voice rising. Maybe the counselor can talk some sense into his wife, Tim says with a shrug, since he's certainly had no luck.
Playing the bully
"Anger is such a difficult, hot emotion that many people, like Jan, have a great deal of trouble recognizing that they are angry, let alone articulating it," notes Evelyn Moshcetta, a marriage counselor in New York and Huntington, N.Y. Other people, like Tim, have trouble recognizing the difference between expressing their feelings and putting their partner down. It's not surprising that in such marriages one partner feels bullied and the other hasn't the foggiest idea why.
If you or your partner are guilty of such bullying, keep the following points in mind:
* Belligerent, domineering talk has no place in a healthy marriage. No matter what justification Tim may have for his actions or ideas, he has to rephrase his comments in such a way that Jan doesn't experience them as a personal attack. He must eliminate the irritated, dictatorial, preachy tone of voice that turns any conversation into a criticism.
* If you feel you are being unfairly put down, speak out. For example, Jan must tell Tim: "I feel offended by what you just said," or, "That was inconsiderate, and beside the point of what I'm trying to tell you. You're going to have to find another way to say that." If the belligerent behavior continues, don't get mad -- step out of the line of fire and walk away. You'll be sending a far more powerful message. You can say, "I won't be spoken to that way."
* Work at learning how to bring up issues that are important to you even though you're afraid of rocking the boat. People like Jan often hide their feelings because they think it is wrong to feel a certain way. However, feelings are neither right nor wrong. It's how you express them that can make the difference between a trusting, intimate relationship and one fraught with tension and misunderstanding.