This is the first post in a eighteen part series on “Marriage with a Chronically Self-Centered Spouse.” In the first two posts we will examine two case studies to illustrate the severity of marital strain involved in chronic cases of self-centeredness.
A CASE STUDY
Jim wasn’t mean. He wasn’t harsh, violent, or cutting with his words. Even his wife would admit that Jim had to be really backed into a corner before she would see his temper, and then it was clear he was trying to get away instead of “win.”
Jim was absent. He was distant, cold, and hard to get to know. More than being an introvert, Jim had a hard time relating to people. Emotions made him highly uncomfortable, even his own. He could work with people on a project, but had very few friends.
His sense of humor and things he found interesting were either private or hard to translate to other people. Science, music, writing, art, television, technology, and games that could be mastered were the things he enjoyed. These interests shared one thing in common; they didn’t involve people.
Having a family was hard for Jim. He thought of his family as “them” and “him;” a circle of people connected to one another and a dot by himself. This was both comfortable and a point of resentment.
Whenever guilt or his wife’s nagging coerced him to spend time with the family it never went well. It was usually awkward until he got angry. Then it was over… usually for several months. It would always be hard to figure out what went wrong.
Afterwards everyone had a strikingly different version of what happened between awkward, angry, and absent. With the prolonged times of silence and distance everyone had plenty of time to develop and become more committed to their own versions.
Even the most innocent dinner table “conversations” (i.e., two or three forced exchanges when his wife tried to get him to talk to the kids) could turn into tense moments. Afterwards when his wife tried to restore the peace, Jim’s interpretation of what his wife wanted him to say or do usually didn’t fit the situation well at all.
The same thing would happen on the rare occasion when he told his wife about a conversation at work or church. Jim would interpret how he felt offended or pressured. When his wife tried to comfort him by saying the comments were normal or even a compliment to him, the conversation would be over because “obviously” she “knew everything” and he was “an idiot.”
His wife alternated between thinking she was crazy and wondering if he was crazy. Her confusion and despair just felt like judgment and shame to Jim – the only social and emotional cues he seemed to be able to read.
When his wife hounded him long enough Jim would read a book on marriage or parenting. He tried for a couple of days, once for several weeks, to dutifully follow the rules in “her books.” Eventually, they went to a few counselors. Jim would listen, but all the talk about what it takes to be in a “healthy relationship” seemed foreign.
Eventually, Jim grew cynical to it all – books, counseling, marriage, parenting, emotions, and relationships. As his cynicism grew, he withdrew further into himself. He would provide for and stay with his family, but that was all he had to give. Occasionally, he would say he felt like his family took advantage of his hard work and didn’t care for him. But when they offered to do something with him the awkwardness that followed proved he was angry at the symptom not the cause.
What was the problem? Jim could not get outside himself. Jim didn’t do any better with any other non-functional relationships unbound from a job description than he did with his family. In the same way that some people lack academic aptitude, common sense, or musical ability, Jim lacked the ability to understand anyone outside of himself.
He could compensate for this struggle everywhere but at home. Everywhere else he could be a “role” who served a “function.” At home he was forced to be a person who lived in a shared world with “others.”