Where Logic Meets Love

Being the "Perfect Wife": How I Handle a Cranky Spouse

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

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Being the 'Perfect Wife': How I Handle a Cranky Spouse | Faith Permeating Life

When Mike got home from work today, he was in a foul mood.

He'd spent an hour and a half in the car going to pick up this month's meat from our CSA. There's always terrible traffic in that area at rush hour, plus the food wasn't labeled well and we ended up short three jars of jam, plus this was the second week in a row he'd had to go out there because last week he didn't get the message they'd moved the pick-up date until he'd already fought his way there.

He dumped the bag of frozen meat on the kitchen counter, snapped at me when I expressed disappointment that they'd only given us a pound of ground beef, and then stalked off to take a shower.

So I did what I tend to do when he's cranky.

I went into "Perfect Wife" mode.

I marked down on the freezer door sheet which meat we'd gotten and put the meat away in the freezer and the honey and jam in the pantry.

I packaged up Mike's textbooks we'd sold that need to get mailed off tomorrow (something we'd done together previously).

I fed the rats.

I vacuumed the area around their cage.

I changed out of my work clothes and was just getting started on my workout when he came out of the shower. I didn't say a word to him until I was sure he was in a better mood.

I've noticed this is something I tend to do when Mike's angry. If we're having an argument, that's one thing, but if he's just in a bad mood, then my tendency is to get extremely quiet, not speak unless I'm spoken to, and go about the apartment taking care of chores and such. If I sit down, I'll avoid getting on the computer, where I could be wasting time, and will instead do something obviously benign, like knitting.

Basically I attempt to eliminate any possible word or action that could turn his bad mood against me.

On the one hand, this bothers me. It resembles too closely what victims of abuse do -- try to become perfect wives or children in hopes that the abuser won't be able to find fault and lash out at them. And Mike isn't abusive by any stretch of the imagination. It has everything to do with me and how I can't stand being reprimanded. It's like I know that the chances of him getting annoyed with me for no good reason have gone up just because he's cranky, and being unfairly accused so frightens me that I try to eliminate the possibility altogether.

(I could get all therapist-y on myself and reflect on how I developed this kind of coping mechanism when I was growing up, for the same reason... but I won't.)

On the other hand, I'm grateful for these moments. They show me my potential. They remind me that, when I'm incredibly focused, I can speed through my to-do items without dawdling or getting distracted. They prevent me from my default motion of getting on my computer, and instead force me to ask, "What's the best use of my time right now? What would I like to be doing?"

These moments where I try to be a perfect wife show me what I think the best version of myself looks like, and that I'm able to achieve that, if only for a short period of time.

Most of all, I'm glad to be forced to push my own concerns to the side momentarily. I'm able to zero in on How can I be most useful right now? What would take stress off Mike? What would make Mike happier?

I need to take care of myself, of course, but I need that balance, also. That reminder that I'm part of a partnership, and sometimes he serves me, and sometimes I serve him, but we both try to make life a little better for the other.

It's also a good reminder that sometimes we each just need some space. In a way, Mike does the same thing with me: If he figures out that I'm cranky and I'm lashing out at him for no reason, he'll separate himself from me -- go the other side of the apartment and get on his computer -- until I've calmed down. He's learned (mostly) that trying to cheer me up by joking around is the wrong way to go. If I have a sphere of anger around me, I need to clear it out in order to get rid of it. Having him in it is just going to make things worse and lead to arguments for no good reason.

Every couple is different, and some people need their spouse to cheer them out of a bad mood. I'm glad Mike and I have learned what works for us. I think we've eliminated a lot of arguments simply by knowing when to shut up and get out of the other person's space. We've learned how to recognize each other's moods and know when not to take them personally.

How do you deal with it when your partner's cranky? Do you know what makes it better or worse?


  1. I find in those cranky spouse moments I do almost the exact thing that you do. At times it bothers me but I do realize that we both need our space sometimes and can't be all happy 100% of the time. Its like you said, you've come to know and understand when the other person needs to be left alone. This method might not work for everyone but it sure does help sometimes in my household. :)

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  2. I think most of the time when my husband is cranky the best thing to do is to leave him alone for a while also. However, if he's cranky at me I find it very hard to not provoke him into an argument to get things sorted out ASAP. I'm working on it though!

  3. If he's lashing out at me, I have to stand up and tell him that's not acceptable. I make it clear that I understand he's upset and that he probably has a right to have negative emotions and show them, but to turn that into rudeness or snide remarks toward me is not okay. Being the 8th of 10 kids, this is important, I spent a lot of my childhood (most of my life actually) doing exactly what you're describing - no sudden moves or loud noises, make myself useful around the house, etc. For me personally, it puts me in a bad head space and it's not healthy for me or our marriage. Because I have a problem with standing up for myself in general, and because I cannot allow my marriage to be anything like the relationships I've had with family members (where I'm inferior and it's okay to take out your anger on me), I have to speak up and demand that Husband not use me for a [metaphorical] punching bag after a bad day. I have to stop it.

    As long as he's not lashing out at me if I do disturb him, I respect Husband's need for silence and space when he's upset. It's just what he needs. If I'm disturbing him to the extent that it's making him feel worse, he needs to respectfully ask me for space/quiet.

  4. I have lots of respect for you and all of the commenters. I started out in my marriage very defensive. I was used to being used and I was done with it so I lashed back at everything. I slowly learned the same lessons you have learned. At the same time, he has learned very well when to leave me alone and when to 'baby' me to get me to smile. :) Time with the ones we love is the best way to learn ourselves!

  5. @Jason and Jessica Knorr
    Glad you've figured out what works in your household! Those moments of unhappiness and crankiness are not fun, but knowing how to deal with them so they don't get dragged out longer is helpful.

  6. @Lozzz123
    Yeah, the trickiest part is figuring out if he's annoyed with me, and drawing it out of him why he's annoyed, or if he's just cranky about other things and is getting annoyed over little things for no reason. The first few years we were together I was really bad about assuming all bad moods were caused by me and wanting to know how I could fix things. Now I know he just needs to calm down and then either he'll tell me if something's actually wrong, or he'll just be fine.

  7. @Mórrígan
    That's good that you know what works for you. Sometimes I do say something to Mike, like last week when he kept interpreting everything I said as sarcastic or an attack--I had to say, Timeout, I feel like you're misinterpreting everything I say. And he acknowledged that he was just in a weird mood and was hearing everything defensively. But most of the time it's unproductive for us. It's especially true if I'm PMSing--I might get really, really angry at him for something, and when we were dating he would get defensive and try to argue with me why I had no reason to be angry, which would make me angrier and I'd cry, and it would turn into a big fight. Now he's better than I am at recognizing when I've lost control of emotions, and he'll just nod and apologize and then wait for me to calm down and realize I'm being ridiculous. He realized it was better to apologize for something stupid than to try to rationally discuss something with me when I was that upset. That's what works for us, anyway.

  8. @Jamie Joseph
    Absolutely! It's great to have a partner who can respond to your needs. And having Mike as a mirror to say, "This is what I've learned you respond best to when you're upset" is a great learning tool for me to understand myself better.

  9. It struck me as I was reading your post that perhaps one of the reasons you end up going into "perfect wife" mode is that it's your way of trying to self-soothe when things have gotten heated around the house.

    I don't have a partner, but I do have a close friend whom I have a close enough relationship with where we do tend to see each other at our worst. One of the things we've discovered in our friendship is that it's really important to let the emotional storm pass before trying to have a serious discussion about why it occurred in the first place. If one of us is feeling particularly angry or sad or anxious or some other uncomfortable emotion, we try to stop and name the emotion we're feeling but not make any judgment at the time as to why it's occurring.

    Then, one of us will ask the other if there is anything we can do to help soothe the other... Sometimes it's hugs and cuddles, sometimes it's asking for space.

    We also have found that using music to help express an emotion that seems to be plaguing us helps too. If one of us is sad, we'll put on a sad song and curl up in bed and cry to it. If one of us is angry, we'll put on an angry metal song and scream along to the lyrics. Then we'll usually put on some happier music or some stand up comedy to lighten up the mood.

    Once the emotion itself has passed, it's a lot easier to figure out what caused it and discuss it.

  10. My boyfriend doesn't often get cranky, but he does get sullen and upset about things sometimes, and a little annoyed -- we're still learning, but so far, I've learned that at those times, I do need to go to him and find out what's bothering him -- he's not likely to tell me what bothered him, and he can stay sullen for a while if I don't approach him.

    With me, I think he's learning slowly how to deal with my irritable moments. Most times, he just needs to step back and let me breathe, and he's been doing a great job of that.

  11. @Nikkiana
    That's an interesting point about how my coping mechanism is a type of self-soothing. I think it's probably all tied into my discomfort of being reprimanded; in a way I'm saying to myself, "He couldn't possibly be mad because of you; look how useful and good you are."

    Identifying and naming our needs is something Mike and I are always working on. A classic one is "I don't want advice, I just want you to listen right now." I'm usually pretty good at asking for what I need, but first defining what it is I need or feel can be a lot more difficult.

  12. @Tabitha
    I used to be like your boyfriend, in that I would want people to notice and inquire when I was upset. Eventually I realized this wasn't a healthy way for me to deal with it because I was just allowing myself to further justify feeling upset or victimized when others didn't notice how upset I was. Mike is the opposite--even if something's clearly bothering him, he won't respond to inquiries about it until he's ready to talk about it. Different people have different ways of handling their feelings and talking through them, and it can make a big difference once you understand your partner's unique needs and coping mechanisms.

  13. Ahh, I am like you. When C is upset about something, I feel the need to make things better, even indirectly. Probably so he's not getting cranky at whatever isn't done/put away/etc. It's funny, because he's not a mean guy or a bossy one, but when he's upset, WATCH IT! The littlest things will continue to keep him in a bad mood. I know it's not my fault, and he's not mad at me, but still I have this need to stay busy. Sometimes I think it's an overcompensation, like I'm trying to be so busy so he thinks I'm not really paying attention to him or his upset. You know how some people totally need to be left alone when mad? C is like that, so it is like I'm trying to be totally absorbed in whatever I'm doing so I don't notice him (or so he thinks). I didn't realize that's what it was until now. Good topic!

  14. @Rabbit
    The littlest things will continue to keep him in a bad mood.
    You know what's funny? This actually doesn't describe Mike. It describes me. When you said that, I realized the connection; if I'm cranky when I get home and I start taking it out on Mike, it's often because stuff is not done--Mike forgot to run an errand, the apartment's messy, the dishes aren't done, etc. And I tend to feed my bad mood by looking around and seeing all the other reasons I have to be irritated. So I bet my reaction to his bad moods is driven in part by what I wish he would do when I'm cranky.

    You also bring up a good point about becoming totally absorbed in something so it's like I don't notice him. If he's mad about something specific that happened at work, I will of course sit and listen to him tell me about it. But if he's just generally cranky about everything, then there is that element of "Look, I'm going to take care of important things, not pay attention and cater to you being grumpy."

    So many good thoughts on this topic!

  15. @Jessica
    Hahaha I am like that too though! When I am in a bad mood, I will get on C for not taking in the trash can or not picking up after himself. My bad mood usually had NOTHING to do with him, so I don't know why I do this. Probably because the little things get to me more when I'm already upset. If I was in a cheery mood, I wouldn't care.

    Maybe...C isn't as bad as I am after all, haha.

  16. @Rabbit
    Haha, maybe :) That's exactly what it is with me, that things just get to me more when I'm already in a bad mood. Thankfully, as long as Mike isn't also in a bad mood, he will usually just apologize for whatever I'm annoyed about and let it roll off him. It's something I need to work on, though, for sure.

  17. Oh yeah, I also need to keep on working on it...

    By the way, I forgot to mention this before, we also have a freezer inventory list! It's the only way to know what we've got and what needs to be used up soon. We have cuts of meat, dates, and weights on ours...

  18. @Rabbit
    Nice! Ours is basically so I don't have to stand with my head in the freezer while I'm meal planning every week :)

  19. Interesting. I don't think I could deal with a moody spouse who snapped at me for one reason and me didn't respect me and my emotions. If they seemed mad or needed their space, I would try to give them space. A spouse yelling at me would be grounds for divorce to me. We're not animals.

    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  20. @Lil Miss Red T-Shirt
    Mike and I are both human, and we have flaws. We knew that when we made a commitment to each other for life. He is never mean or abusive to me. Both of us just get irritable like everyone else, and sometimes we make mistakes. We rarely if ever yell at each other; usually we have very healthy arguments. But when we don't, we work through it. I married him not because he's perfect but because I'm willing to learn and grow with him and be continually working on how to best communicate and serve each other.

  21. I used to go into perfect wife/mother/sister/daughter mode until I found out through therapy why I was doing it and no longer do. When anyone around me is cranky I assume it is nothing I did unless otherwise told and simply try to mentally stay out of their space. If they want to vent I listen sympathetically, if they want advice and I have good ideas I offer them up. I have chosen not to continue with relationships with people who when cranky look to target me as their scapegoat. My husband never ever does. I have taught my son to behave in the same manner. I have told him everyone gets grumpy once in a while it is normal but never try to pin it on someone just to make yourself feel better. Talk to the person you are upset with or if it is just circumstances, traffic, too much noise etc. try to work through it or ask for help.

    1. I think what you describe is a good ideal to work toward. I always try to tell Mike if I'm upset with him for some reason rather than letting it stew, and to tell him if I'm cranky for other reasons and just need some space or whatever. But I'm not perfect, and things can particularly become problematic in the day or two before I start my period. It's not that I'm trying to pin things on him to make myself feel better, it's that when I'm in a bad mood the things he does really do seem upsetting/frustrating/insulting to me whereas they normally might not. So unfortunately it's an ongoing struggle.

  22. Ah yes....PMS. I too have that one day a month where I just see red all day. It's on that day I try to be out of the house and away from anyone!

    1. It's frustrating to me when people try to say PMS isn't a real thing. I'm like, please, come live in my body for a day and feel what it's like to have your emotions completely out of control!

  23. What I don't understand is Why do I not make any since when I know I am Right? Me & my huby have been together for 4years now. Just lastnight he asked me if I wouldn't get load when We're into it. I said yes if he can do the same. He said that I wasn't making any since. The he said he was done talking & went to bed. Everytime when I make a good point He's don't want to talk anymore. & Just wants to fotget about it & is upset the rest of the night. I want to work it out & talk.

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  25. Thank you so much for posting this! You've no idea how much I needed to hear this today. My husband's job is very stressful and he has to drive an hour and 20 minute commute to boot. It's only his second year in the position, so he's still on a learning curve. Having said all of this, in the moment of his crankiness, none of it seems to matter. I've been trying to cheer him up or solve his problem and then, just as you said, his anger and crankiness gets turned towards ME! I want to say, "Hold it! I'm your FRIEND! I'm trying to HELP! I'm on your TEAM!" But it's too late. I like how you put that, the "sphere of anger." I definitely need to stay away from that sphere. Wish someone would've told me that a lonnnnnng time ago. #17yearsofwastedcheering

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