Dear Dr. Julie: My husband and I have been married for about 15 years and I'm getting tired of how he treats me. He gets angry with me because I "touch his nerve." But I don't always know what that "nerve" is. I have noticed he gets upset with me if I get anxious about something he is doing, like how he drives, but otherwise, I can't tell what will set him off. Do you have any thoughts on what might be going on and what I can do?
--At A Loss
P.S. When I ask him about it he says that we've been married long enough that I should know.
P.P.S. I'm so tired of this I'm considering divorce. I don't want to divorce him, but I'm tired of how unfriendly and mean he is towards me.
Dear At A Loss: I think if you had some idea of what was going on, that would help. Let me take a guess at what might be happening.
In order to figure this out we need to observe patterns. You've made one important observation of a pattern: he gets upset with you when you are anxious about his behavior (driving). That's an important clue.
I suspect he is interpreting your anxiety as a lack of trust in him. You don't trust that he's a safe driver, you don't trust that he has your best interest at heart, you don't trust that he cares about you. Something like that. If he is having any thought like that, it is possible he is feeling like a failure, ashamed of his inability to make you feel safe and trust him, and, in turn, doesn't feel like it is safe to talk with you about it. He just tries again (or harder) but it doesn't do any good, you still get anxious and he gets angry again.
In a broader context "touching his nerve" means that whatever you are doing is poking at an insecurity he has about his ability to be a good husband and create an environment where you are happy and thriving. It doesn't matter if he is reaction makes sense or is logical. It is what it is.
If you are thinking it will help to tell him that you trust him and he is not a failure, it won't help. Actions speak louder than words and in this case he is interpreting your actions to mean that you don't trust him (or so we are guessing). Words are not going to counter that interpretation.
This is at the heart of the problem in many long-standing misunderstandings in marriages. Ask yourself, if you felt like a failure or felt like he was criticizing you by the way he acted, would his words help you? Not likely, because his behavior wouldn't change.
Rather than talking to him about how you feel, you will need to demonstrate it to him in a manner he understands. Since you don't know what he would understand, get curious and look for patterns. Ask yourself questions about what he likes, observe when he is calm and when he is not, and see if you can see patterns to what "touches his nerve." If he expresses some level of upset with you, instead of defending yourself, be curious about why he's having that reaction. That may involve asking him follow-up questions, or it may just be a matter of checking what you know about his situation.
Is he Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired? That acronym spells HALT and will help you remember that he's human and if he is any of these things, he will be more sensitive and reactive.
Look for patterns and then respond to his pattern by considering (a) how you'd like to be treated, (b) what you know about how he wants to be treated, and (c) if he is any of the elements of HALT, help him out: feed him, leave him alone, give him a hug, or give him time to rest or sleep.
One last note: He is also pointing out that he doesn't believe you care enough about him to know where his "nerve" is. This is blaming you for his reaction. It's a form of defensiveness, which is a sign of a significant breakdown in the relationship.
One thing men respond well to is clear communication and boundaries. (Women often sacrifice clarity in our communication in order to "be nice." Don't be nice, be clear.) At a time when he is able to pay attention to you, tell him how his defensiveness makes you feel (e.g., angry, sad, lonely, attacked, etc.) and what you are going to do when he gets defensive from here on out. Let him know that you are trying to make changes so you don't step on his "nerve", what the changes will be, and how you will be handling him getting defensive and blaming you from now on. And then follow-through.
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