couples therapy

Why Are We So Awful to Our Spouses?

Photo: Camerique/Getty Images

When my oldest child started preschool, I was thrilled to get reports that she was following the rules, playing nicely with others, and just generally being her best, sparkly self.

Truthfully, I was also sort of surprised because at home — well. Most afternoons she’d tumble through the door in tears and wailing, usually not because of anything in particular. It was just her being out of sorts, annoyed at being denied some small indulgence, peeved at the need to wear a coat/shoes/pants.

This is apparently “after-school restraint collapse,” a term coined by a Canadian psychotherapist and teacher. For my daughter, after holding it all in and together throughout the day — not screaming at the teachers or kids about something minor, staying focused on the various directives coming her way — after school was when she’d run out of gas, and in the presence of her family, she was letting her freak flag fly. She was safe at home and giving us her very worst.

It’s a fairly common thing, too, and hardly unexpected given that certain emotional resources aren’t infinite, especially when they’re still in the developmental phase. That said, it may never actually go away for most of us.

If you know me or see me around the neighborhood, you may find me chatty, smiley, and fun with most people. But that woman is not the same one my husband hangs out with the rest of the time. She can often be found huffily doing the dishes, sometimes stomping around muttering about stray socks, or maybe curled on the couch emanating “unsubscribe” vibes and just generally being grouchy. Not a lot of sparkle.

When I asked friends about this, every single person I spoke with (granted, all of them happen to be part of the same limited cross-section of society as me — cishet, white, liberal city dwellers — so this wasn’t exactly a science experiment) nodded vigorously and confessed that they too aren’t their best selves in the confines of their own homes.

“Um, that’s basically all we talk about in couples therapy,” laughed my friend Pilar, who has two young kids.

“I sometimes realize that I gave more positive energy to the checkout person at the grocery store than I do to my husband most days,” admits another friend with two kids, whom I’ll call Tracy.

“If I treated my friends the way I treated my husband, I am not sure I’d have all that many friends,” says Libby, who has one child.

Science backs this up too: A 2014 review in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science found, albeit unsurprisingly, that the people we’re closest to are the most common target of our “everyday aggression.”

Here’s where I should point out that it’s hardly monster behavior we’re talking about here — no abuse or belittling or screaming or truly asshole stuff. It’s more general crankiness, in which simmering annoyances (which may have nothing to do with your partner, though sometimes they do) seem to fester and ooze out as a clipped tone or endless complaining about minor household things. It’s the shuffling around with a chip on your shoulder and the lack of energy to spare for the person you handpicked to be your loving, lifelong partner. Add to that the realities of invisible (and visible) labor disproportionately placed on women’s shoulders — like, say, the forever remembering of birthday-party presents, doctors’ names and appointments, and appropriately sized seasonal gear, seemingly at a moment’s notice. Plus, the fact that being a parent of any gender in America is a particularly unsupported enterprise. And, of course, if you’re a woman of color, the wage gap alone — Black women in the U.S. are paid 37 percent less than white men and 20 percent less than white women — may be enough cause for resentment.

It’s no surprise that many of us are clenching our jaws at the sound of our spouses chewing, or asking if they could try to sneeze less aggressively next time.

It also bears noting that despite all this, it’s not just a woman thing. My husband specializes in snarling at people (me) for taking his favorite spot on the couch, for asking him to scoop the cat litter in the wrong tone (also me), and for various offenses that have to do with the TV remote control (everyone).

“The grind of life often leaves you depleted,” Kimberly Harrington, the author of But You Seemed So Happy, in which she details her recent separation from her husband of 20 years, tells me in a phone interview. The funny thing is, now that they’re no longer a couple, she admits that they treat each other much nicer now. “We exhibit a level of manners and appreciation more associated with longtime friendship than with longtime marriage,” she writes.

In part, that’s because when you’re actively in a partnership, says Harrington, “everything can feel like a referendum, and you’ve often got so much bubbling under the surface. But at the same time, you have this freedom and safety because you’ve committed to someone on that level.” Which means feeling safe enough to have an adult temper tantrum without worrying that the other person is going to walk out. And during particularly trying times — e.g., the entire pandemic era, the blur of new parenthood days, whenever someone is sick — letting it all hang out at home may mean you have just enough play-nice resources in stock for your irritating co-worker, the maskless fool on the subway, or a means-well relative at a family gathering. Growl at someone on the subway and you could get punched in the face. Growl at home? Just another Tuesday, and you can apologize and make amends later.

“This whole dynamic is rather normal, and the comparison between how kids can behave at home versus at school is apt,” says Dr. Alexandra Solomon, a licensed clinical psychologist and relationship expert who hosts the podcast Reimaging Love. “It’s all a weird side effect of what happens when you cultivate safety and intimacy and love — there’s less vigilance and self-monitoring, so we often end up doing or saying things we don’t love.” And yes, women can sometimes struggle with this in different or more intense ways than many men, says Solomon, “because they so often are in the primary-caregiver role and then they find themselves worn out just when their partner might be looking for connection or intimacy.”

So it’s all normal, and I shouldn’t be all that ashamed of it. But what to do about it all … if anything?

The classic party line from most couples therapists is that both partners need to put in “the work” to keep a relationship strong — i.e., the much-vaunted date night and better communication so that less is bubbling under the surface. Solomon does echo that advice, but she notes that “date night” hardly needs to be that whole Saturday-night-dangly-earrings-and-a-table-for-two scenario. “It can be a walk in the middle of the day, brunch, holding hands at a random moment, or even going out with other friends more often,” she says. In fact, socializing with other people — couples, singles, whomever — is something Solomon says can be especially energizing since it lets you watch your partner in their “public” role, where they may bust out their great sense of humor, their empathetic ear, or whatever makes them sparkle.

That said, life is hard (really hard at times) and this may come off as just another coping mechanism that’s not all that sophisticated. What really counts is how you handle that adult temper tantrum, both in the moment and after — with a healthy measure of empathy for yourself, as flawed as you may be, and with a hand extended to your partner.

Ask your partner what they notice, and see how your behavior is affecting them or if they can have some understanding, suggests Solomon. “You have to talk about it. Simply by naming it, you pierce any shame or silence about this dynamic that may have built up, where one or both of you might think, Oh no, we have a big problem. Openly talking about it allows you to acknowledge the unpleasant elephant in the room and perhaps have a laugh about it,” she says. Solomon also recommends that couples work to keep small but important exchanges in place, for instance, “always saying please and thank you and asking for a redo when something goes awry.”

At the end of the day, long-term relationships — and family in general — are usually warts-and-all arrangements, the very essence of “for better and for worse.” This is some of the worse, but I’m trying to be better. Aren’t we all?

Why Are We So Awful to Our Spouses?