I love my wife very much. She grew up in a loving Korean culture — a large family. I ran away from home at a young age in a divorced, small-family American culture. She is loving and gentle, but I sometimes talk sharply to her in correction. How can I rid myself of this damaging behavior? R.J., Las Vegas
A brief letter, refreshingly devoid of excuses. A simple, straightforward question. Five sentences that contain so much to admire.
You love your wife very much. I believe you. Yet you behave in a way that "damages." This baffles you. You know it’s wrong. That’s it’s beneath you. And beneath her. But it keeps happening.
You admire her family and the culture in which it has thrived. You contrast it, both with your own family and your own culture. It makes me wonder: Is there an "innocent little boy" in you that is gratefully nurtured by her family and the family history? That vicariously attaches himself to her familial legacy like a man lost in the desert clings to a miracle oasis? While simultaneously (and perhaps secretly) envying your wife’s riches in family? Is it unfair that she should have been reared and nurtured in love, respect, constancy, regard and the warmth of people who cherish one another ? Does your wife simultaneously offer you a redemptive healing and force you to notice places of emptiness inside yourself?
Don’t answer with your logic. Answer with your heart.
But enough of my psychoanalytic meanderings. Therapeutic insight in selfhood is just one resource in examining and changing this behavior. There are other ways to right the course of love.
I note your use of the word "correction." I find that people often say exactly what they mean. You find that, in marriage, it is sometimes your job to "correct" your wife. Maybe you have, right there, stumbled across the only diagnosis you need to begin to make changes.
"Correction" is not the language of lovers, friends and peers. It is the language of parents. In your case, the language of a father. You are not your wife’s father. You are her husband. She is not a child or an adolescent. She is an adult woman. She does not need "correction," especially not from you. I’m asking you to consider how, as a husband, you might too often cast yourself in the role of a parent.
Notice this as you talk and act in this marriage. Pay attention to your language and your very posture in the relationship. Be curious about this. Even astonished. Then change it. Permanently strike the word "correction" from your marital lexicon. Replace it with words such as communicate, share, negotiate, listen, learn, tolerate, understand, compromise and reconcile.
If you talk and act less like a critical father, you will find that "talking sharply in correction" becomes less necessary.
Next, change the way you are thinking about the need for these changes. Of course your wife deserves better; but, for now, stop thinking about this in terms of something you are doing for her. Think about it as something you are doing for yourself. Confront yourself, for yourself. Because you respect yourself. Your self-respect demands a higher standard of honor as a loving husband. Attack this "damaging behavior" in yourself.
The very moment you are aware of talking sharply, either because you hear yourself doing so or because you notice her pained reaction, stop. I mean more than just stop talking sharply. I mean discontinue the entire conversation and start a new conversation. It’s like being a stage actor in rehearsal who botches a line, stops, steps out of character and discusses the mistake with the other actor. Together, they notice the mistake. In words. Then and only then do they step back into character and try the scene again.
In the very moment you notice, stop. Confess in words to your wife: "It’s not OK for me to talk to you this way, and I’m sorry. Please let me try again." In this way you will be practicing consciousness. You decide to be awake and present to your behavior. Accountable. Committed and faithful in the task of learning more about love. Dedicated to the life of growing and becoming the man and husband you most admire and respect.
This is how we change unlovely habits.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.