This is the eighth post in a sixteen part series on “Marriage with a Chronically Self-Centered Spouse.” In the posts six through eight we will examine four broad types of self-centeredness: (a) low relational intelligence, (b) lazy or apathetic, (c) situational explosiveness, and (d) intentional manipulation. This order is chosen to follow the Matthew 7:1-6 pattern of giving grace even in how we address level three marriage problems.
“I’m Not Always Like This”
It is relatively common for both spouses to say that the volatile spouse is “not always like this.” When this is the case they usually want to understand the communication or situational triggers that cause these bouts of explosiveness. The problem is spoken of in “us” language.
But it should be remembered and clearly articulated – abuse is a matter of personal responsibility, not a relational culpability. It results from a lack of self-control. When one person is willing to harm another to get his way, then no amount of working on “us” will remedy the problem and is a distraction from what needs to change first and most.
One of the marks of this type of self-centeredness is that when the aggressive spouse “comes to his senses” he is usually highly remorseful for what was said or done. An abuser who lacks this kind of remorse either lacks relational awareness (type one) or is intentionally manipulative (type three).
Getting to this remorse has a general pattern, but can have many variations. First, there is some period of “normal.” Because of the volatility this is usually a braced-normal as the spouse and kids are uncertain of what will end it. The durations of these periods are usually later used as evidence by the self-centered spouse that there is not a problem.
Then something goes awry to the self-centered spouse’s expectations or preferences. Later this event will be blamed for all that follows. But in reality the explosive spouse is so committed to his definition of what “ought” to be that no one can be heard. Any alternative explanation or even an admission of weakness / forgetting is called an excuse and viewed as deserving a punishment as intense as the spouse’s displeasure.
This is where we see the key feature of self-centeredness. He will not consider an explanation other than his own or give grace to anyone who violates his sovereignty (right to have things as he pleases). In his growing anger, he listens to himself more and more and feeds on his own displeasure, insecurity, or dominance.
As this happens, his logic and responses become increasingly irrational to everyone else. He is defining his own world and it becomes highly uncomfortable for anyone who does not agree with him to live in it or understand him.
After a cooling off period, the self-centered spouse’s idiosyncratic interpretations subside, at least to some degree and he realizes his actions were wrong and offensive. This results in strong remorse, at least for a while. With time, if the problem is not addressed he will either grow numb to post-rage conviction (his wife commonly calls this being “cold”) or become increasingly committed to his idiosyncratic interpretations (which leads to a type of intentional manipulation).
For as long as the remorse lasts, the couple typically views this sorrow as repentance and goes back into a braced-normal style of living. They talk about the “triggering events” more than the self-centered response and come up with a plan to organize their lives more to the self-centered spouse’s preferences, usually referred to as “needs.”
In a counseling case like this it is essential to get the couple to see the personal response (self-centered interpretation without self-control) as more important than the triggering event. Once the couple can see this, the counselor has several objectives:
- Help the self-centered spouse consistently resist the blame-shifting pattern of focusing on the situation. Until he can, across several sessions/weeks, interpret the same event and even new events as his lack of self-control, this objective has not been achieved. Short-term realizations are enough to build upon in these situationally sparked aggressions.
- Identify the common themes of his idiosyncratic interpretations. The self-centered spouse must see that his rants are built upon seeing common events in ways that are unique to him and forced upon these moments when life does not go his way. Until this happens, times of braced-normal should not be mislabeled as “safe” or as evidence of significant progress.
- The self-centered spouse must agree to talk with mutually shared friends about what has been occurring and to grant his wife a “time out” if she fears he is escalating. He treats his wife this way, because he believes he is alone and can get away with it. Adding a social dynamic inhibits this belief. The wife’s fears may not always be correct, but an important part of her learning to trust is seeing that her words matter even when he is upset and will be honored.