By Esther Mann, LCSW
This week’s letter is being answered by Jennifer Mann, LMSW.
I have been married for a long time to a wonderful man. Avi has a big heart and has a hard time saying no to people. Because of this, over the years, we have become sort of the “good cop, bad cop” couple. This is true of our relationships with our children, friends, and parents.
Avi can’t discipline the kids, so that has been my role. I have always resented it terribly. To this day, our children, who range in age from older teens to late twenties, still view me this way. I have been the one to tell them they can’t spend on this or that, to punish, to deal with the reality of having children.
Several of our children have children of their own, and if it were up to Avi we’d be a 24/7 babysitting service. Before you start swooning over what a wonderful guy he is, let me tell you that he resents babysitting and most of the time complains to me that the kids take advantage of him. He will complain for days after about how ungrateful the kids are and that they have come to expect this from him!
I, on the other hand, will tell my kids no when I can’t do it. Most Saturday nights he is babysitting and I am out with girlfriends. I would like an evening with my husband. I would like my husband to tell our children that he and I are going out.
Things have come to a head now because Avi’s father is aging and needs a lot of attention. True to form, it is Avi, from among all the siblings, who has taken on the brunt of the responsibility. They have told me they would gladly do more, but because Avi is so generous with his time and they are busy with work and family they “allow” him to spend as much time with their dad as he would like.
I have had it! We both work, so we basically see each other on the weekends. He is so tired from his week that he sleeps Shabbos afternoon. He babysits Saturday nights and now spends his Sundays taking care of and spending time with his father.
Am I awful or crazy to think he should be spending some leisure time with me? I almost feel like I need to ask a favor or be sick in order for him to notice me. I don’t want to be made to feel like the evil wife who is taking her husband away from his ailing father, which he is doing to me now—laying on the guilt really thick. Do I put my foot down about the childcare and time with his father (bad cop as usual) or do I learn how to accept his nature and forget about spending time with him?
Dear “Bad Cop,”
You are not alone in your “good cop, bad cop” marriage. So many couples fall into this trap, with one spouse taking charge of rules, discipline, and boundaries while the other seems to be around for fun, candy, and lots of yeses. It can’t be pleasant for you to always be the one to say no. Most people do not enjoy disciplining their children or being the bearer of bad news. “Sorry, Sam, you can’t have basketball lessons this year” or “No, we can’t babysit this Saturday night. We have plans.” Ideally, this task should be distributed more evenly.
From your e‑mail, it seems that you have taken on this role 100% of the time and he has taken on this role 0% of the time. I urge you to make a deal with yourself that you surrender your role as “bad cop.” If you decide that you are no longer the bad cop, then you will have already broken the cycle. There is nothing “bad cop” about not babysitting, or with wanting an evening with your husband.
Now your father-in-law is aging and needs more attention and physical aid. Avi is laying on the guilt, and because spending time with an aging parent is the right thing to do, you are soaking it up, and maybe even somewhat accepting that you should fade into the background and take a back seat to your children and father-in-law. Your emotions may be a constellation of guilt, anger, resentment, and perhaps a sense of pride because you think Avi’s intentions are honorable. In addition to all of this, there is the added element of him presenting himself to the world as “Super Dad, Super Son, and Super Chesed Guy,” when behind closed doors he moans and groans to you!
From your description, Avi may be an “overfunctioner” outside your marriage and an “underfunctioner” inside your marriage. Overfunctioners are people who, for a host of reasons, have a desire to be on the go, accomplishing things sometimes by means of helping others. They feel most alive when they are solving other people’s problems. In Avi’s case, he is always available to overfunction for his children and ailing father. He has taught his children that he is always ready to babysit, so they keep asking him. He is turning away help from his siblings, so they will go about living their lives because Avi will save the day! But for you he is unavailable.
You seem so alone in your relationship. You want to spend time with your husband and be made to feel like a priority. I am sure Avi is a wonderful man and successful in many areas, but in this one he has room for improvement. We all have certain rights in our spousal relationships, and one of them is to be made a priority. Couples may bicker over how much time is enough time and what being made a priority entails, but you have painted a black-and-white picture: You two don’t spend any time together.
Have you spoken to Avi about your feelings? You don’t mention if this has come up between the two of you. Couples can continue to play out the same patterns for years, with people becoming complacent in their roles, thinking things can’t change. How did this cycle get started? Do you make your feelings known to him? If you haven’t, then he wouldn’t think any change is necessary. What is Avi’s perspective? Would he view you as the overfunctioner in the relationship? Why have these “good cop, bad cop” roles maintained themselves over the years?
If you haven’t already had this conversation, I think it is due. Try not to focus on what you don’t like about his actions, and instead place the focus on how his absence makes you feel. For example, “It is wonderful that you are such an active grandparent, parent, and son. However, I miss you and I want to spend time with you.” If he is amenable, then he will make the time to be with you; after all, you are not asking for the moon.
If you have already spoken about this and you find the conversation going in circles with no change, it may be time for you to suggest couples’ counseling. It is possible that there is a deeper issue here that has Avi avoiding his marriage. If he will not go with you, I advise you speak to a therapist on your own to work through your feelings. Good luck.
Jennifer Mann is presently working as a psychotherapist at Ohel. She also works as a relationship coach and can be reached at 718-908-0512.