I am married now for less than a year. My husband lost a long, drawn-out child custody battle. It has been over a year since this has taken place. Since the verdict, he has trouble accepting the reality of his life. However, the past few months, he has changed dramatically! He is not the same man I married. He has lashed out, said things I never thought I would hear this man say to me and has not come home on occasion. I think, and I might be wrong, that he may be severely depressed. I don’t know how to handle his moods and he refuses to speak to a professional. He says that he doesn’t like himself and that he feels lost as well as confused. This makes me feel sad and heartbroken for him and me (selfishly speaking). I understand the grieving process but certainly didn’t expect to feel like I am worthless to this man. His rejection towards me I take personally. No matter what I do or say it’s always the wrong thing! Could you provide me with some advice, please?
— H.B., Las Vegas
If I’m doing the math right, the gavel banged on this court decision a few short weeks or months before the two of you married? Is that correct? Your dating/courtship, then, was concurrent with the custody battle? Does the mother believe your relationship with your husband is the reason she is no longer married to him? And, if that is what she believes, is she right?
I’m at a loss here, in part, because of some things I don’t know. What did your husband lose in the custody battle, and why? How many children does he have, and what are their ages? Was he fighting for joint custody, but the mother won primary? Sole? Did the mother win the right to move the child(ren) out of state? Does your husband retain visitation rights?
Was the mother’s case nothing more than an argument of logistic convenience? That is, does she believe (and did the court agree) that it is in the best interest of the child(ren) to live primarily with her because of proximity to school, medical treatment or because the needs of the father’s workday render him less able to be present and participating? Or did her argument include allegations of any sort of parental neglect, dereliction, incapacitation or even abuse? And, if so, would your husband say that any part of the allegations were/are true? That is, would your husband say that some part of this conflict is rightly something for which he is indeed morally responsible?
He says he doesn’t like himself, that he feels lost and confused. I wonder, then: Is your husband grieving an injustice? Or a not unpredictable justice? Is he suffering the pain of unfairness? Or the necessary and even holy work of surrender to moral failure?
Or, did he lose this custody battle because his counsel was incompetent? Or because family court can indeed sometimes be a capricious beast? The decisions that come out of those courtrooms can and do regularly surprise me.
Yes, H.B., your husband is grieving. I’m trying to figure out exactly what he is grieving and what ownership is rightly his regarding these losses. I would guess that he is unclear about the answers to these questions. The behavior you describe sounds like a man seriously “stuck” and very well-defended, psychologically speaking. And, yes, he may well have fallen into a serious depression.
H.B., unless I’m missing some other part of the story, I would say it’s very likely that his “rejection” of you is actually a function of his depression and self-loathing. That is, he’s projecting. I’m not making excuses for him, nor am I suggesting your pain isn’t real. And certainly I do not suggest it is something you should indefinitely tolerate. But I am suggesting you’d do well to remind yourself this isn’t as personal as it feels.
See, you wouldn’t be the first wise woman I know who has saved a man from himself. Saved him from isolation, ego, self-hatred and the tragedy of all-too-human pride. Ah, men. As a group, we suck at grief. When we’re sad, we tend to punish ourselves and too often those around us.
Take one more shot at getting him into treatment. If he refuses, tell him you’re going — to find a therapist who will help you survive, matrimonially speaking, this time of his loss, and to mitigate and minimize the damage to you that results from the unlovely way he is handling it.
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 email@example.com.