The past year has been hard on our family. My husband and I have beautiful children and are gainfully employed, but he dislikes his position and is dealing with major depression and anxiety. I’ve been holding it together, some days are better than others, but I support him and am trying to help him as he journeys to recovery. About seven months ago, I finally got my postpartum anxiety under control and have been feeling better, which is a blessing because I don’t know that I could handle everything without having my own mental health in check.
Lately, my husband has sometimes been difficult to be around. He has forgotten some of the small things I’ve asked him to refrain from doing over the years (“Please wash out your spit from the sink” and minor things like this). I talked to my therapist, and she advised me to write these things down and, if I felt the need to bring them up at a later date, I could. Having them somewhere would help me figure out what was important enough to address and what was just a nagging thought that would pass. This was great advice because my husband also asked me to take it easy on him and stop criticizing him about small stuff. Because our children are small, I wasn’t confident that a diary would be private, as they tend to go through things. So I decided to email myself when I wanted to write down my complaints. The emails turned into vent sessions with myself and I also wrote down some other bigger relationship issues I had feelings about. I’d planned to review these issues and address them with my husband, maybe after he got through the worst of his depression.
My husband and I generally respect each other’s privacy. For instance, a few months ago, while using Google Maps in the car, my husband opened my email and asked why I’d received a note from an admissions department regarding a master’s program. I wasn’t seriously looking at the program — I was just curious — so I didn’t share with him that I had inquired. It was surprising that he read my email, and I asked him not to go through my emails again, and if he had any questions, I’d be more than happy to answer them. We don’t keep secrets, so this wasn’t an issue, and he apologized.
Now you can see where this is going. Last night, after a hard day at work, my husband opened up our personal computer. I was still logged in to my email when he opened the email portal to check his own, so my inbox popped up. He saw an email about three or four down in my inbox titled “relationship complaints,” and he decided to open it. He not only read the most recent email I had sent myself, he also read the other three.
These emails I sent contained private, very negative thoughts that I did not want him to see. I was working through my emotions in a healthy way. He knows I journal to clear my head, and he knows that I have a tendency to send emails to myself as a way of journaling. The emails contained only criticisms of him; some were very petty while others were larger relationship issues we need to work on once his mental health is in a better place.
He immediately confronted me, and I became defensive and hurt that he invaded my privacy. He is hurt and thinks I have shown him I don’t love him, like him, or want him around. We aren’t speaking.
I know we need couples counseling, which I’m going to set up today. But was I really in the wrong to email myself these private, very negative thoughts? If not, how can I get through to him that, while it’s understandable that he is hurt, he invaded my privacy in a major way?
No Space for Private Thoughts
Dear No Space,
Your husband is operating from a place of extreme insecurity. It’s one thing to feel hurt and also a little embarrassed that you snooped. It’s another thing entirely to put your hurt feelings above everything else, including the ability to address the fact that you read several different emails after being asked, very specifically, not to do so.
Maybe he was looking for reasons to feel even more terrible than he already does. Or maybe this was a way to put some of the blame for his despair onto you. It’s alarming, though, that even after he clearly violated your privacy, his main reaction was to feel hurt that you don’t love him enough. His depression and insecurity are blocking his ability to take responsibility for himself and accept that marriage is not an unending holiday of unconditional positive regard.
If I were your couple’s therapist, I’d make you watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind together, because there’s no better examination of the ambivalence inherent to spending your entire life with one person. Love and aggravation go hand in hand. When you accept that, it’s not depressing or hurtful or torturous. It’s natural. Sometimes it’s even funny. In order to feel your love for a partner you also manage a household with, you sometimes have to feel your hatred for that person, too. Maturity is knowing that all humans act weird and smell bad and do obnoxious shit. If you try to ignore the bad stuff while repeating the words “I love this person! This person is my favorite, I feel nothing but love for him!,” you will become a robot who feels nothing at all.
Instead, you have to be who you are, where you are, even when it’s inconvenient. And you have to tell the truth. Without honesty, there is no relationship, no partnership, no marriage, nothing.
Unfortunately, many couples prefer to live inside a lie of their own mutual creation. They want to imagine that they are loved and adored every second of every day, even if that requires both partners to become skilled actors. Their insecurities demand that everyone around them live in a fantasy world with them. Anything less means that all of their most shameful feelings and deep-seated worries about themselves must be true.
Believing that your partner’s role is to feed you unconditional positive regard at all costs is tantamount to trying to erase the sensations and textures of sharing a life with a real live human being. Doing that means choosing a rom-com over real life. Not only is that approach incredibly unrealistic, but the fantasy doesn’t work. After all, you don’t look sexy and say clever things around the clock. You are not a scripted movie star. When you expect way too much from both yourself and your partner, it makes you disappointed, anxious, and, eventually, dishonest and alienated from each other.
You need to find a way to be honest with each other and accept each other’s negative thoughts and feelings without letting it crush you. Yes, of course, you have to try to remain romantic and optimistic and you have to suspend your disbelief a tiny bit. But you also have to share some unwieldy, uncomfortable feelings and thoughts and opinions, too, so that you’re really showing up and connecting. Living in reality without fear is what marriage is all about. Once you start choosing fantasy and lies and mutual self-protection, it’s downhill from there.
So is it wrong to write down your negative thoughts? Of course not. It’s good for you and good for your marriage. You’re doing this difficult thing with pure intentions. Even when your complaints feel a little unfair, that’s just a way of letting your feelings flow so you can begin to accept them instead of feeling guilty and disappointed all the time. Instead of holding your husband at arm’s length and rolling your eyes at everything he does, you’re trying to focus on him. You’re trying to feel your feelings for him. Complaining about him privately, to no one but yourself, is a way of digging for your love for him.
But now he’s turning that very honorable process into something else. He’s using it as an excuse to say, “See? You don’t love me! I’m not enough for you!” He’s swimming in his own shame and taking it out on you instead of facing himself and facing the truth.
Your husband should be writing down his private thoughts, too, not to mention going to see his own therapist. I’m sure he has his own gripes to process. He needs to figure out how he honestly feels instead of expecting you to be some kind of eternally forgiving Virgin Mary. His lack of concern for your privacy and his defensiveness over your notes to yourself are a testament to his unhealthy boundaries.
Something tells me this isn’t the first time he’s taken something that was FOR YOU and made it about him and his feelings. You’re right to see this as a big deal, because it is one.
The good news is, you just took a shortcut to where you were probably headed either way: TOTAL HONESTY. You wanted to wait until he was feeling better before you told him the truth about how you feel. But here you are. His actions brought you here. This is where your real marriage begins and the fantasy and acting and pretending end. If his addiction to fantasy has been one of the things you’ve found disappointing or frustrating about him, guess what? He just jumped off a tall cliff into reality. That was his choice, not yours.
I wouldn’t automatically assume you have a shitty marriage based on this turn of events, though. I don’t care if you’re both feeling totally annoyed and hurt and pissed off. This is a pretty common turning point in most marriages. When you haven’t had a lot of unvarnished talks about the little grievances that have added up for both of you over the years, it can be jarring to finally admit just how ambivalent you both feel at times.
Maybe you two should try to spend some time with older married couples who get along well, because they tend to be pretty open about their irritations with each other. The best couples I know roll their eyes occasionally, and it’s obvious that for them, that’s normal and acceptable. Why? Because living with the same person for over a decade is a MOTHERFUCKER, motherfuckers. You can love someone like crazy and still hate some of the shit they do.
Let me give you an example: My husband is a pretty good cook, but I always know better than him, about everything. Sometimes he doesn’t clean the counter to my specifications after chopping up a mess of raw meat, just for example. I consider his cooking very slow and inefficient, and merely watching him move around in the kitchen makes me feel impatient. I grew up watching my mother, who is an amazingly good cook, skilled and relaxed and intuitive, with great taste. So even though these days my husband’s meals are often better than mine (and I’m a good cook — of course I am, dummies!), if I watch him cook, I get picky and pushy and judgmental.
So when my husband is cooking, I don’t go into the kitchen at all. I know myself. But if you asked me to go in there and observe and then write down my thoughts? I would craft a masterful case against my husband’s competence as a person. I would start with the raw-meat mess and then I would use that bad choice as an organizing principle and apply it to EVERYTHING STUPID ABOUT HIM.
I wouldn’t do this because I hate him. I would do it because (a) I have a lot of opinions and feelings, and (b) I am a wound-up person with laser focus, and (c) I actually enjoy making cases for and against people, places, and things, and (d) I live in a house with another adult human being who is not me. This adult human does not sound or smell like me, and he doesn’t do things the way I do them, therefore I SOMETIMES HATE HIM.
I also love him. I can feel my love for him in part because I can admit to myself (and to him!) that he is grating on my nerves. I try to tell him when something bugs me, but I try to do it when I’m not actively irritated and he’s not tired and pissed off.
I also bite my tongue. I also play with my dogs when I’m feeling wound up over nothing. I also shut up as I start to say the wrong thing and then backtrack and say something nice instead.
I manage my feelings around my husband. Sometimes I bullshit him a tiny bit, until I can find a good, calm time to sort through my feelings with him. Sometimes I bullshit myself a tiny bit, and act like nothing’s bothering me, until I can find a good, calm time to admit that I feel disappointed or sad or pissed off or anxious about something.
But if I overmanage and repress my feelings, that can make me numb. If I try to block out his smells and sounds too much, that can make me block him out too much and then I get weird and callous. Sometimes he pushes me to “Be nicer!” and then I have to admit that I do have a few gripes and we should probably discuss them, ideally at a time when we both have a sense of humor about what irritating losers we can both be a lot of the time.
We still squabble every now and then. It’s impossible to coexist with another volatile human animal and not sometimes clash. Accepting that is 90 percent of the challenge. In fact, I wrote the first very smug draft of this column and the next day I had an actual fight with my husband that went beyond squabbling. I read my draft, and all I could think was, UGH, WHO AM I TO INSTRUCT ANYONE ON HOW TO BE MARRIED?
Marriage is humbling. As victorious and bulletproof as you can feel as a couple at times, there are always unforeseen market corrections ahead. And the only way I know to crawl out of a marital crisis is by being as vulnerable and as honest as possible. That’s what we had to do in the wake of our fight: We had to tell the truth about how angry we’d been, at ourselves and each other.
That’s the other 10 percent: Telling the truth and trying not to feel ashamed of it. Telling the truth and not looking away. Telling the truth and not taking it personally, even when it’s personal. Telling the truth and laughing at the truth. Telling the truth and seeing the truth and feeling more love because you’re living inside the truth instead of living inside a shared lie.
The truth includes the fact that I’m extremely grateful for my husband. For all of his particular flaws and insecurities, he’s a person who’s confident enough to handle the truth, and brave enough to welcome it. He’s also very generous and patient with his extremely opinionated, moody wife. I think about that every single day. Even when he makes me mad, I remind myself what a good person he is. He also looks good, which helps because I’m very shallow.
In spite of the fact that your husband has probably been an anxious drag and he’s also been a snoop and a giant fucking baby about your journaling, try to be patient with him. Depression and anxiety can be so debilitating that they warp reality completely. Try to forgive him and make some room for how hurt he feels. And try as hard as you can to feel grateful for where you two have just landed. Even if he hadn’t read your emails, you couldn’t have skipped this step. This is exactly where you need to be.
Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?, here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.
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