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Marital Games

May 9, 2009 | by Dr. Michael Tobin

A couple is caught in the common marital game called "Who is the Biggest Victim?" where the two competitors vie for the position of whose needs are more legitimate.

Dear Dr. Tobin,

My wife and I seem to have many arguments over my taking time for myself. She is home all week with the kids, however she gets out of the house three times a week for an average of 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours an evening. I, on the other hand, get up early to go to a shul and learn Torah and then go to work. When I come home I babysit the kids and get them to bed those three evenings (and most Sundays while she is in her garden) and we both are home the remainder of the week together.

Sometimes on Sundays I would really like to get out of the house to do small errands or just to get out by myself without the children.

My wife confronts me about this and turns this "me time" into "you don't want anything to do with the family" (even though I had planned to do something with my boys that day).

I do not demand this "me time" often and the time I take is seldom more than two hours. The problem is each time I suggest "me time" it is the wrong time (according to my wife), I am accused of neglecting my children, and we enter what can stretch out to two days worth of arguing.

My question is when is it appropriate to take "me time" and why can't I get my wife to understand that I am entitled to it on occasion as she takes hers for granted? I do not consider between 11:00 A.M. and 1:00 P.M. on Sunday a serious prime time offense on my part.

Thank you,



From the tone of your letter I would have to think that your wife is an unreasonable and demanding woman. You enable her to leave the house three or more times a week while she is critical of you for asking for a morsel of time for yourself. This certainly doesn't sound fair.

I don't know your wife and I don't know how she perceives the same situation. However, what I do understand is that you feel victimized by her and powerless in your ability to communicate your needs. You believe that what you're asking for is legitimate and you just don't seem to understand why she can't get it.

The Game

If your wife is truly a nasty, ungrateful and selfish woman, then the only advice I can offer you is either accept it or try to convince her to get help either with you or on her own.
However, I'm going to assume a different reality, one that is based on nearly 30 years as a marital therapist. This reality is the following: Your wife and you are caught in the common marital game called "Who is the Biggest Victim?" In that game the two competitors vie for the position of whose needs are more legitimate. The interesting thing about this game is that there are three losers: you, your wife and the marriage.

The only way to end a game is to know when you're in one.

You think that you've lost because your wife gets to do what she wants and you don't. Your wife loses because she's convinced that you don't care about her or the family and the marriage loses because the end result of this game is "two days worth of arguing."

The only way to end a game is to know when you're in one. Here are the signs: It's repetitive, the players feel awful and nothing gets resolved. However one thing may change -- the roles. Sometimes the husband is the victim and the wife is the persecutor, and sometimes they switch and the husband becomes the finger pointer while the wife desperately attempts to defend herself.
One thing never changes -- everyone feels miserable.

So here's my advice:

1. Recognize that you're in a repetitive pattern called a game and that as long as you choose to play neither of you will ever get what you need.

2. Don't fight, argue or complain to your wife about your lack of time for yourself. Tell her that you want her help in finding a few hours a week for yourself. If she wants to understand why you need it, explain your reasons in a non-defensive manner. Tell her that you want to find a time that won't interfere with family plans. If you approach her in a spirit of cooperation, she'll be more receptive.

3. If she responds defensively and/or critically, don't take the bait. Respond to her with a question that will help clarify why she's so resistant.

For example, ask her a question such as the following: "I can see that my request for some personal time makes you upset. I just don't get why it bothers you so much. Could you explain to me the reason?"
Practice the art of active listening, which is to repeat back what you hear her saying. For example, she says: "All you ever think about is yourself. You never think about me or the family." An active listening response would be: "What I hear you saying is that you believe that I never think about you or the kids. Is that right?"

More often then not her response to that statement would be: "Well, I didn't mean all the time. Just sometimes I feel neglected by you." If it goes that way, the game would end and a real relationship might begin.
The usual reason why a couple is unable to cooperate over such a seemingly uncomplicated problem is due to the lack of intimacy, trust and closeness in the relationship. In future articles and letters I will be addressing specific ways to increase marital intimacy. Meanwhile I suggest that you read "Ten Things Never To Do in a Marriage" and begin to practice the exercises in the article.

Good luck,
Dr. Michael Tobin


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