Dear Dr. Romance:

I have been married for almost four years to a man twelve years younger. We have a four-year-old son. My problem is I need to find a better way of dealing with my husband's bad moods, which are getting more and more unbearable to live with.  Occasionally I give in to that highly destructive self-indulgent urge to criticize my husband for it in the presence of our child, although when that happens I find a way for us to make up, apologize and/or show our enduring love (also in his presence) shortly thereafter. 

These days he is frequently in a very bad mood by the time he gets home. It is usually late as he works a day job and goes straight from there to working at getting his own business afloat.  I probably should ignore his moods, but when he's cold and unresponding (and even downright mean) to our son, my blood just boils.  I'm thinking "Thats the reward our son gets after waiting a miserably long week to get to spend some time with his dad.  And not once complaining, just waiting for his turn to be the center of his dad's universe."

Our son has intermittently exhibited somewhat aggressive and combative behavior since he was a toddler, usually in the form of play-acting.  Although he has noticeably improved and continues improving his behavior, I feel at least part of this acting out is an attempt to get his father's attention as well as a release of anger that builds up from such continuous frustration. He hardly ever gets Charles' undivided attention.  It is extremely painful for me to observe.

This past week our son started pre-school.  His dad worked late nights the whole week, but he did manage to come home fairly early Friday evening.  Then he spent most of that time talking on the telephone, which left very little opportunity for meaningful conversation with our son.  That almost felt like a slap in the face, seeing how the boy had just reached one of those special markers in life, one which had been a rather difficult adjustment for him. and his dad was becoming more and more distant that evening; he was preoccupied with his favorite subject:  his business.

Whats really bothering me is that we have been discussing this particular problem since our son was a couple of months old.  He keeps promising to do better, to make it up to him, to us.  Changing people is impossible, isn't it?  Shouldn't we allow people to be who they are and accept them as they are?  Those thoughts going on one side of my brain, the other side shouting an adamant "NO!  Our son needs more than that and he deserves more and I'm not going to accept less than what is required for his well-being."

It seems my husband was also emotionally abused as a child by his mother, who, when angry at him, would also ignore, shun and generally act as if he did not exist until she decided to acknowledge his existence once again. He admits he treats his own son the way he was treated as a child.  When we discuss this during normal, calm discussions, he says he feels he was treated too severely as a child. When I ask him how he felt at the time he was being treated that way, he responds that he hated it and that it was unfair.  And sometimes he will add something to the effect that "it worked so it must be all right."

Before I cloud the issue with excess detail, I suppose what I could use the most is any advice on dealing with this problem and also some techniques which might help me avoid arguing, criticizing and complaining (things I know not to do because they solve nothing).

If my husband&##39;s behavior sounds like he may suffer from some mild (or even not so mild) condition, disorder, etc., I would like a chance to learn about it in order to better deal with it and maybe even help him help himself.  Other things about his behavior that disturb me include having a persistently negative outlook about the world and life in general (negative comments seem to "pop" out before he has a chance to think a "good" thought; although he seems to make an effort at times to change to a positive comment.

He seems to think about himself or things related to him almost constantly. At the same time he seems to have a terribly low self esteem.  He obsessess about having a multi-million-dollar business one day and being self-made and self-sufficient.  Right now he has a low-paying job which makes him feel bad about himself.  He tends to shift blame for most mistakes to sources other than himself. All I know is my little boy, who happens to be a very sensitive little guy, is crushed over and over again by his fathers lack of attention.

Something very disturbing to me happened tonight.  My husband was dozing on our bed.  I laid down beside him, put my arm around him, and he put his around me.  Like clockwork, before long, theres the kid plopping down in between the two of us.  My husband then turns on his back and completely ignores the child, clearly not thrilled  about the sudden threesomedom.  Whether or not the child's motive was to separate mom and dad (I think that irritates my husband), I feel is unimportant because obviously he is seeking companionship from his father at the same time. I would hazard a guess that it is precisely this unmet need for his fathers companionship that is creating some emotional turmoil in our child.

It feels like a vicious cycle/circle.  Boy wants dad, dad wants wife, wife wants vacation (just joking there).  Seriously, whats so disturbing to me is that it feels like my husband is craving my attention just as badly as our son is craving his father's.  I might understand that if I felt I ignored my husband to any degree, but I don't.  Quite the opposite is the case.  I basically am unable to ignore any human being, even if I tried.  He is a talker and he gets a lot of my attention.

These are things that cannot wait; they cannot be done without or substituted or made up for.  When parents are not available to their child, when the child goes unheard, unnoticed or ignored, with each occurrence that soul is permanently and irreparably damaged to some degree.  I can no longer stand by and watch this happening to our family.  I am taking action.  Somebody, somehow, some way is going to get through to you.  

Dear Reader: 

I understand your frustration, but, as you said, getting angry isn't going to do any good. What you really need to do is find a substitute for his dad in your son's life.  Do you have a brother/father/ cousin who can take an interest in him?  Your husband needs a role model for fathering, and also a little motivation. Seeing some other man involved with his son (and make sure he sees it)  can do both.  If not, try getting a Big Brother for your son. 

You are not going to be able to push your spouse into doing what doesn't come naturally to him, what he has no basis for understanding.  He obviously identifies with his work (as do many type-A men)and believes earning a living is sufficient. 
The effect of abuse in childhood is that the adult grows up to be unfeeling and withdrawn.  It is not something he does on purpose -- it's called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and it's an emotional dysfunction. It is not just going to go away because you tell him to change.  Your husband needs help, but he probably would not be willing to admit it.  I recommend you go to some Adult Children of Alcoholics ( ACoA) meetings, or get into therapy yourself, to learn about the problem and get support in working through it, because your husband will most likely not go on his own, due to his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Your spouse would see low pay as a big problem, but he won't see lack of emotional expression or support as a problem.  He doesn't really acknowledge that emotional bonding is desirable, since he never experienced it.  The truth is, your son would be OK if his father were dead or gone.  He would still grow up to be a well-balanced man.  Yes, it would be ideal for him to have contact with his father, but there are other things that will give him what he needs.  Try not to make this a bigger problem than it really is. Stop holding out for Charles to do it, and go about finding the necessary substitutes.  Single mothers have to do this all the time.

Because of your husband's childhood issues, he can't get sufficient attention to meet his needs.  That's the disorder he has.  And he will  see your son as his rival for the affection he desperately needs, but at the same time can't let in.  Don't count on your husband "taking it to heart."   He is damaged, and the repairs needed are extensive.  You're better off seeking to replace what your son needs elsewhere, and take the pressure off yourself and your husband. He doesn't understand what it is to love, because he was not loved himself as a child, so you're trying to get blood out of a stone --no chance.  You are the one who has to see what's going on.  If you insist on your husband doing it, matters will just get worse.

So, you need some therapy to get yourself on an even keel before you can help either your son or your husband.  Try my article "Guidelines for Finding and Using Therapy Wisely"  To better understand your husband's issues read It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction 

It Ends With You

Later, Reader replies:

You are great!  Your answers were VERY HELPFUL. I was desperate and only wrote out of desperation, not even thinking I'd receive ANY answer, much less an answer that actually makes sense to me. I have been reading about PTSD lately and did not even connect that disorder to my husband.  Thank you, thank you, thank you. I will remember how grateful I am when I do become financially able to pay for some counseling/therapy.  I did about a year ago get the idea of "big brothers."  I guess it is time. Love your advice!

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Author's Bio: 

Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. is a licensed psychotherapist in S. California since 1978 with over 30 years experience in counseling individuals and couples and author of 13 books in 17 languages, including It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction; The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again; Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage, The Commuter Marriage, and her newest, Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Differences. She writes the “Dr. Romance” blog, and the “Happiness Tips from Tina” email newsletter.

Dr. Tessina, is CRO (Chief Romance Officer) for, a website designed to strengthen relationships and guide couples through the various stages of their relationship with personalized tips, courses, and online couples counseling. Online, she’s known as “Dr. Romance” Dr. Tessina appears frequently on radio, and such TV shows as “Oprah”, “Larry King Live” and ABC News.