Let There be Light / Carpe That Diem and Enjoy It
Dear Dr. Hurd,
My partner and I just bought a nice house in the Rehoboth area and we plan to move here full-time after we retire. The house was a bit out of our comfort zone price-wise, but we made some adjustments and everything will be fine when we sell our house where we live. But my partner has become very stressed about money when we are here: she will not allow us to turn on lights in the house, she panics when we run the heat, and eating at restaurants is out of the question. We skimped on cable and didn’t even get a landline phone. She gets angry when I tell her we can afford to turn on the lights and the heat and maybe even go out for a drink. I’m not sure what to do.
Dr. Hurd replies,
When somebody is anxious, the worst thing you can say to them is, “Stop being anxious.” If you doubt this, then think of something that makes you anxious, and then tell yourself, “Stop it.” It just makes the anxiety worse. So the thing not to do here is fight, argue, or try to reason with her about the lights, the heat, and whatever else. Instead, simply refuse to join in on her anxiety.
If she objects to you leaving a light on, then just don’t worry about it. Leave her free to turn them off behind you. If it makes her feel better, what’s the harm? If she wants the heat at a certain level, then let her do it. If you’re uncomfortable from the cold, then propose a compromise. Dare her to meet you in the middle. Instead of saying, “You’re being ridiculous; the heating bill won’t break us,” try saying, “I understand you’re concerned about bills, and I don’t disagree. But we both earned this nice house and we deserve to be comfortable. How about splitting the difference between 60 and 70 degrees?” If she refuses to meet you halfway, then focus on that, and only that, rather than the heat or the lights or money in general.
Why? The problem with most marital conflict is that people fight over things that aren’t the real issue. For your partner, her fixation on lights and other things is nothing more than her attempt to regain a sense of control she feels she lost by taking on the commitment of the new house. Does this mean she doesn’t want the house? No, it’s just that she’s anxious and nervous about the new purchase, and probably will be until the other house sells.
Give her the space to feel what she feels. Don’t waste your psychological capital fighting over things that aren’t the real issues.
Dear Dr. Hurd,
My son leaves his copy of Letters around the house and I always look forward to your column. My problem might seem silly and you might not print it, but here goes. My husband has had health problems over the last few years and has aged quickly. He just seems so frail and it makes me sad all the time. He’s willing to do everything and go everywhere we always have, but I can see it makes him tired. I just can’t find a way to look at this so I can fully enjoy our time together without thinking about how terrible it would be to be without him. Feeling this way is making me feel older too.
Dr. Hurd replies,
It sounds like you’re trying to lie to yourself. Let’s face it: Getting older or having health problems are not things to feel good about. So why bother trying? Instead of forcing yourself to feel better about the bad stuff, why not focus on what is good? Your husband is still here. And there are things you both can still do. Yes, you will have to adapt to the new reality, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time. The challenge is to find ways to have a good time in a slightly different way.
You say you’re feeling low about the fact that he gets tired. But you also said that he still likes to do the same things he did before. They just tire him out sooner. But if those things are worth it to him and make him happy, isn’t that the point? It also sounds like you’re in somewhat better health than he is. When you’re in a caretaker situation with an unhealthy or aging spouse, it’s important to take equal care of yourself. Granted, your husband requires more attention than he used to, and you lovingly accept that. But don’t neglect yourself or your happiness in the process.
It’s important to quietly reorganize your life in ways that adapt to the new reality of your husband’s limitations. I have always believed that when you live in the past you’re depressed; and when you live in the future you’re anxious. The only way to be happy and calm is to live in the present. So seize every day by cherishing every moment you have with your husband.
Michael J. Hurd, Ph.D., LCSW is a psychotherapist and author. His office can be reached at 302-227-2829. Email questions or comments to Dr. Hurd.