Let’s begin with an acknowledgment that the term moody is used to describe a very wide range of feelings and behaviors. At its most extreme, moodiness is known clinically as bipolar (formerly manic-depressive) disorder. It is characterized by very high highs and very low lows that alternate for periods of days, weeks or months. These are often related to a chemical imbalance in the body and can be brought on by stress, lack of sleep or other external factors. Usually treated with medication, they affect between 1 and 5 percent of the population, with onset occurring most frequently from late adolescence through early adulthood.
The type of moodiness I’m concerned with here is much more commonplace and, though serious, not nearly so life-defining as bipolar disorder. While sometimes exacerbated by a temporary hormonal imbalance, moodiness, I believe, has more to do with incomplete information: an inability or unwillingness to correctly identify its causative factor(s). In other words, the moody individual either can’t or won’t delve into the situation to understand and sort out what is going on.
Moodiness is frequently characterized by sudden or irrational changes in temperament, bullying or demanding behavior, episodes of punishing silence, hyper criticism, tears, angry withdrawal, harsh tones of voice and sudden outbursts of temper.
I suspect moodiness is the result of unresolved conflict – not conflict between people as much as conflict within them. This conflict may be the result of two or more converging issues, any or all of which are poorly or incompletely understood. Men, who by temperament or training are not usually terribly introspective, most often struggle in this way, though anyone who is in the process of figuring things out, but hasn’t arrived at clarity yet, may experience this conflict.
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Moodiness may also represent a simple conflict where people don’t feel safe or good enough to simply say what is on their mind. Women, trained to be supportive and nurturing, are more likely to fall into this category. In general, men are more likely to suffer from a perceived inability to express themselves, while women are more likely to fear being labeled as a nag or a witch if they do.
The main thing when encountering symptoms of moodiness in spouses is to realize that this is about them, not you. With very few exceptions (such as acute, high-impact incidents: the loss of a loved one or a job, a serious medical diagnosis, etc.), I would advise against attempting to placate, assuage or jolly your spouses out of their moods. You have to live with them, but trying to coax them out of their mood will most often backfire and result in reinforcing their behavior. So doing will lend credence to their perception that you are the cause of their moodiness, and when your attempt ends in failure, it will only serve to make you appear wrong (again).
I’m not suggesting you ignore the five-hundred-pound gorilla in the room. You can wait for a lull in the dark mood and say, Gee, I can see something has been bothering you. Would you like to talk about it? This expresses your concern while maintaining your boundaries. Most often problems erupt when the non moody spouse buys into the situation and reacts to it with guilt, anger, fear of abandonment, etc. If you need the clarity, you may ask directly, Is this because of something I’ve said or done? just to clear the air on that point. It’s OK to show concern, as long as you keep in mind that this is about your spouse, not about you.
You may try to show compassion or concern by saying, How can I help? or What do you need from me right now? Most people in the grip of a mood are really struggling and could benefit from some kindness and support. Your task is to feel compassion for your spouse’s struggle, while politely insisting the issue be expressed with clarity and maturity, with a minimum of histrionics and carrying-on. Try to avoid coming off as cold, judgmental or disapproving: accept the person while refusing to engage with his symptoms.
It helps to keep in mind your spouse’s positive qualities, the love, goodness and decency you recognized when you married them. Those qualities are still in there, but your spouse has become separated from them in the dark morass of their mood. Imagine yourself dealing with their good inner self rather than coping with their difficult symptoms; it will help you stay positive and loving.
When your spouse is uncommunicative or really in the dark throes of their mood, it may be necessary to give them some space. It may be helpful for you to leave for a while, to go for a walk or out for a cup of tea. Avoid the appearance of abandoning, stalking out or otherwise reacting harshly to their behavior; that only prolongs the symptoms. Just calmly maintain your boundaries, say where you are going and when you’ll be back and go do what you need to do in order to keep from being sucked in.
If the moody episodes persist or become deeper and darker, you may need to consult a medical professional. In its extreme, moodiness may be masking a deeper problem, such as depression or a chemical imbalance. But most often the mood eventually passes and your spouse returns to being their normal self. This may be the best opportunity to make further inquiries as to your spouse’s understanding of their inner conflict: the optimal time to inquire is when they are not in the throes of their symptoms.
We all get moody from time to time. Particularly when multiple ongoing challenges arrive simultaneously (money is low, the kids are sick, job security is threatened, etc.), it is often difficult to pinpoint exactly what is bothering us. During times such as these, the tendency toward moodiness increases, at least until we are able to get a handle on what is happening and begin to sort things out. Sometimes something as simple as strange dreams or consecutive days of bad weather may be enough to set us off.
Try to be gentle and understanding. But be aware that most problems arise when the non moody spouse tries to quietly grin and bear the antics of the other. Feelings of anger and resentment may gradually build up and the next thing you know, you’re going from 0 to 60 in 3.4 seconds when your spouse walks in the door with that look on their face. Be loving, be attentive but don’t buy in.
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This booklet is written by William R. Colagrande, MS a NY State licensed psychotherapist with over thirty years experience. So I Married Someone Moody features an easy to follow fictional narrative to illustrate and personalize the course material, insightful questions to reflect upon and supplemental readings geared to help you improve the love, warmth and closeness you feel in your marriage.
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