Dear Therapist:

I got married a few months ago and everything is amazing, I just have one problem. My wife's older sister who got married a few years before us is married to an extremely uptight and controlling person. My wife was specifically looking for someone laid back, relaxed, easygoing, and nonopinionated after witnessing what her sister is putting up with. I definitely fit the description. However, any time I do voice my opinion or express my objection to anything she does she goes into panic mode. She is so afraid that I'll turn into her brother-in-law that she can't even hear what I have to say. I was wondering if I just have to wait it out and see if with time, she'll get to know my easy personality or is there something else I need to do?



Congratulations on your marriage! We all know that new experiences can be exciting and upsetting at the same time. It sounds like this is the only issue that you have at this point, and that’s wonderful. Though any problems early in a marriage can be troubling, it is important to acknowledge and emphasize the positive aspects of your relationship.

Since all relationships are comprised of at least two people, each person within the relationship adds their own emotions, fears, and insecurities into the mix. What emerges is a new combined entity—in this case called marriage. Just as individuals change over time, relationships are constantly evolving. This means that each action that begets a reaction begins or continues a relationship pattern. As time goes on, some relationship patterns can remain static, while others are ever-changing.

At this point in your marriage, your wife and you are in the beginning phase of building a lasting relationship based on understanding, trust, and emotional connectivity. All of these take time. With regard to the issue that you bring up, you appear to believe that you have an understanding of your wife’s fears, and you believe she doesn’t understand well enough who you are. This seems to be affecting the trust that she has in you (and perhaps the emotional connection between the two of you).

I believe that what you describe is perfectly normal, especially toward the beginning of a marriage. Your wife may trust you, and believe that you are nothing like her brother-in-law. She may be well aware of your laid back and easygoing nature. In fact, it seems that this is a significant part of what drew her to you.

I think you hit the nail on the head when you referred to your wife going into panic mode. She may consciously recognize that she need not worry that you will be uptight and controlling. When triggered, however, our conscious, logical thoughts often go out the window. When in panic mode, we are in fight-or-flight mode, in which our unconscious mind tells us how to feel and act.

If, under normal circumstances, your wife does realize that you are neither uptight nor controlling, this is an indication that her reactions when triggered are likely just those—triggered reactions. When someone in our lives is reacting emotionally, we often make two mistakes. The first is to assume that their actions make logical sense to them. The second is to therefore try and help them see the error of their ways. In our efforts to do so, we may actually be doing more harm than good by feeding into their fears (i.e., “See; you’re trying to control the situation right now!”). When we recognize that the person is being emotionally triggered (and that their actions don’t necessarily reflect their beliefs), it becomes easier to validate their fears. We can then wait until such time that they are no longer triggered so that we can have a productive discussion.

Although our instinct is to try and fix the problem immediately, in these cases this is usually not a good idea. Additionally, our instinct after the fact, when everything seems fine, may be to let sleeping dogs lie. This instinct is also often problematic. The wrong time to discuss issues is when one or both parties are emotional. Therefore, the proper time to have these discussions is when everyone is calm, and can dispassionately explore the thoughts, feelings, and reactions that should be addressed.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


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