By Esther Mann, LCSW
My wife, Rivky, is a nervous wreck! How do I get her to calm down? I love her so much and want to see her relaxed and happy. But she’s always such a mess about one thing or another. Honestly, though my motivation is for her benefit, it’s hard for me to be around her when she’s jumping out of her skin. It’s also hard for our children. It makes everyone around her become nervous as well. Sometimes I feel like our very house is shaking with nerves.
I’ll give you a few examples. Let’s say, for instance, we have tickets for a Broadway show and we’ve decided between ourselves to leave the house at 6:00 p.m., leaving more than enough time to get to the city, find parking, and walk over to the theater. We’ve probably counted in an extra half hour to spare. If it’s 6:01, and I’m just putting on my jacket, meaning that we would be leaving the house two minutes past the time we agreed upon, she’s already sweating!
Or let’s say I’ve finally convinced her to have company over for a Shabbos meal. And not strangers, but people who we’ve known for many years and we don’t have to impress at all. I hear about it the entire week, as she worries about it, complains about it, and is sorry that she ever agreed to have them. She second-guesses her menu, her tablecloth, and whether everyone will have a good time. She always does a magnificent job in the end. Rivky’s a great cook, she sets a beautiful table, and it always works out. And after the fact, Rivky realizes that she worried for nothing and that it was all good. But that doesn’t stop her from going through the same thing the next time around, which is why I so rarely ask her to invite company.
Even on vacation, when we are supposed to be relaxed and having fun, Rivky finds what to worry about. We’re in the sun too much; we’re in the sun too little. We’re sleeping too much of our vacation time away; we aren’t getting enough sleep. Whatever she can worry and complain about, she does.
As we are both getting older, her worrying isn’t decreasing. It’s increasing. And you would think that maybe I’d get used to it and my tolerance level would improve, but to the contrary, I can’t take it anymore. I am considered by most people to be an easygoing kind of guy—and I am, but this stuff is just too much for me.
Early on, when I’ve told her to just knock it off, she’d become even more nervous, so I stopped that approach a long time ago. Getting angry at her yields the same results. If I try to be patient and understanding, it seems as though I’m encouraging her nervousness and giving her license to get more into it.
So what’s a husband to do? I love my wife, but I’m getting really fed up with her behavior and how it’s affected everyone around her. Sometimes, I just feel like I want to run for my life!
Dear Fed Up,
It sounds like just about anyone would have a hard time putting up with Rivky’s anxiety. I believe you are an easygoing man, which is why you were able to marry Rivky in the first place. But everyone caps out at one point or another, when they realize they just can’t take it anymore. Apparently, Rivky has many lovable qualities, which is why you love her so much and I guess why you’ve been able to put up with her issues for as long as you have. But since it’s not getting any better, only worse, the time has come for change.
I hear that you’ve tried different approaches with Rivky to encourage her and enable her to behave differently, but unfortunately none of them have worked. That’s not surprising. Change has to come from within Rivky, and nothing you say or do will help her fix the problem.
Frankly, though it’s almost silly for me to try to diagnose Rivky without meeting her, it seems as if she struggles with some form of anxiety disorder, since her reactions are so extreme. We all get frustrated, nervous, irritable, and fearful at times. These reactions are appropriate in certain situations, up to a certain point. But healthy people are usually able to soothe themselves within a reasonable amount of time and go on with their lives. It sounds as though Rivky gets stuck in her emotions, almost becoming hostage to them, and she becomes her thoughts.
As much as I feel for you and your children, I really feel compassion for Rivky, because struggling in this way is overwhelming. To whatever extent she displays her anxiety to you and your children, my guess is that there is much more where that came from still inside her, driving her crazy.
Based on the limited information that you’ve shared with me, I would venture to say that Rivky needs help. She should be speaking with a professional and very likely would benefit from medication. The right medication can take the edge off the situation, and talk therapy ideally should teach her how to think in a healthier and more productive fashion.
The question is how to get her into therapy. Sadly, some people still believe there is a stigma attached to going for therapy, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Therapy offers a great opportunity to learn how to live a better life, and I would love to know that Rivky is living with greater ease and joy.
I suggest you find the right moment to bring up the subject in a sensitive way, without using any words that might make her think you believe she is “broken.” Just that you think maybe she gets a little too wound up at times and was wondering whether that is something that could be tweaked a bit. If Rivky becomes defensive, try using a different approach. Suggest that you believe the two of you need to speak to a professional to learn how to handle those times when you make her nervous. Take the onus upon yourself if necessary. Anything to get her through the front door of a therapist’s office. Once she is there, any well-trained therapist will draw out the real story and recognize who really needs the help.
If nothing you say gets Rivky to agree to see a therapist, you may have to take a tougher approach. There may have to be consequences, which only you can decide upon. If not, sadly, this will be your life. It will not get any better. You can try to be ready to leave your house at 6:00 rather than 6:02 for the theater, so that you don’t rattle Rivky, but I assure you that she will find a different reason to get bent out of shape.
It’s time for change. You all need a break—you, your children, and most of all Rivky. Good luck with making it happen.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295.