When Your Spouse Starts Acting Erratically in Your Marriage

Often times right before a separation or divorce, I’ve noticed that a lot of wives and spouses of guys I work with have this tendency to fall into bad behaviors or regress to an almost “teen” state of being: going out partying, being irresponsible, sometimes being defiant against the “bad parent” in the other spouse. I’m interested in this phenomenon, since it doesn’t seem to be an isolated incident, and seems to represent certain things happening.

What I know is that, in situations like this, is that this “bad behavior” is the result and accumulation of a long time of avoiding and not attending to marital issues when they needed to be. Sometimes, when a partner isn’t getting what they want or need from the other marital partner, they can start finding alternative outlets for themselves, which may or may not include extramarital partners. Sometimes, they carve out lives outside of their marriage where they can find the fun, fulfillment, freedom and lack of responsibility that they feel that they need.

One theory is that when couples get together in their relationship or marriage when they’re young, some don’t have the opportunity to “be young,” and explore their adolescence and young adulthood, which is a problem because later, when those partners are unhappy and stuck in their adult relationship, they feel denied from that growing up period, and often want to try to gain those experiences back by going out with friends, staying out late, drinking more, experimenting more with sexual partners, and any other number of other things that are detrimental to their current relationship or marriage.

I think this is equally true, if not moreso, for women, if they get into a marriage early and start to create their sense of identity around being a wife, and then a mother. If they haven’t had a chance to develop themselves as people outside of the primary relationship, and then fall into these roles without any exploration of themselves, there is the possibility of later-life exploration, which may appear sometime in the marriage or relationship, or towards its end.

Again, I think the search for self and lack of a structured, stable identity might account for this. When people start to explore different activities, or start acting erratically in a situation that calls for consistency, it leaves me to wonder whether or not they’re trying on different identities, like changes of clothing, and exposing themselves to people and experiences to figure out who exactly they are.

I’ve heard guys tell me that they’re wives tell them that “this is who I really am” – the new, “independent” woman that she might not have been able to be in the relationship/marriage previously. I’m not sure I quite understand this, and think that it’s more of a situation of “taking the bull by the horns.” Anytime I see erratic behavior or people acting out, it’s never sustainable, and if there are issues that weren’t worked on before, they surely haven’t gone away just because the behaviors look different. They’re still there, but harder to see.

For the guys/husbands that I speak with, this can be maddening, confusing, terrifying and angering all in one. A lot of the guys that I talk with who are in this position are powerless to see their wives start to act out, and don’t know who their wives have “turned into.” They’re not the some women that they married, many say.

I try to encourage the best communication possible, which sometimes is challenging to do when your spouse doesn’t want to listen to what you have to say, or do what you want them to do. Sometimes, the power/control dynamic in the marriage has hit a point of no return, meaning that the spouse acting erratically may have felt controlled by the other spouse for so long, that they have no intention of turning the power dynamic around once they’ve seized it.

I would try to get clear about what your spouse wants from the situation, what they want from you and the marriage, and tell them your feelings about their impact on you from their current behavior. They need to know that what they’re doing is having a negative impact on you, and to give them the opportunity to stop it. I would also tell them that you care about them and the marriage, and that you’d like to get marriage counseling to try to identify and sort out all that’s happening in the attempt to get things back to how they were.

As difficult as it is to do, I also encourage men/women to stay with their feelings and experiences, and really watch and be mindful of acting erratically themselves, which could do a number of harmful things. First, it may unknowingly trip the marital dynamic more, which may see your spouse dig in an continue to act in the same way. If there’s a parent/child dynamic in your marriage, you’re inadvertently steeping back into the parent role – which makes your spouse be the defiant child who acts against you. So, don’t do it if you don’t want the situation to get worse.

If worse comes to worse, and your spouse doesn’t stop the behavior, you may need individual counseling to help you better cope with this distressing situation. You may also need to seek out legal counsel to help you understand your rights in your marriage, or with your children, if the situation won’t change with your intervention.

This type of situation is tough, because a marriage may be degrading to the point of ending, and you’re not aware of what’s happening as it’s happening. It may be confusing to see your wife or spouse engage in behaviors or hang out with people that you haven’t previously been used to. It may elect some strong emotions in you, which you may be tempted to act on the “right the ship” and get your spouse back. Hang on, because it’ll get better, eve if it’s not now. You can survive this, even if your spouse is gone for good and doesn’t want to work on or help repair the marriage.

About Jason

As "The Man That Men Will Talk To," Jason Fierstein, MA, LPC is a private practice counselor and psychotherapist for men and couples in the greater Phoenix, Arizona, area. He works with struggling men to find happiness in their lives, and with their wives.
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