Is this grudge-holding an American thing?

ImageQ I married an American woman I met while working in Chicago, and two years later we moved back to Paris, my hometown. We had two children right away, and soon after they were born I got a huge promotion and had to travel constantly. Two years later, my wife got pregnant again. My job was extremely stressful, and as she never stops pointing out, I was not very available to her during her pregnancy, which was difficult. All hell broke loose in my company at the time our third child was born, and home seemed like a nightmare, too.

Now our youngest is 2 and things are superficially back on track, but my wife claims I betrayed her by my behavior during that tough time and that she’s lost her trust in me and her feelings for me. I’ve explained my reasons over and over and apologized, but she refuses to let it go. Is this grudge-holding an American thing?

A To answer your direct question, I am not aware that holding a grudge has any cultural roots. Some people seem to have a chip on their shoulder that probably got started in childhood, and for them, holding a grudge comes naturally and is a justifiable outlet for their floating aggression. However, I would be tempted to look in a different direction for an explanation of your wife’s behavior.

As a Frenchman, you were operating in known territory with a support system to back you up which no doubt included family and friends. Your wife, on the other hand, followed you to a new and unfamiliar environment where she had to start from scratch while simultaneously dealing with whatever changes in behavior you perhaps displayed by virtue of returning to your home turf. She then promptly had two babies, which was also a first for her. Extensive research emphasizes that young children put a strain on all couples, and can even be a death knell for those whose relationships are already fragile.

Rightly or wrongly, most young women these days assume that children are a joint project and that the father will shoulder some of the burden of childcare, but you report having traveled extensively for work, thus leaving your wife to bear the brunt. I would venture to say that she was already feeling let down at that point, even though she may have been trying to keep her resentment under wraps as she saw you struggling with a difficult work situation.

The final straw, apparently, occurred during her third pregnancy and that baby’s birth when you were not only totally preoccupied by your job, but also very fed `up with your home environment and therefore, it is safe to surmise, both distant and irritated. Your wife probably went from feeling just angry to feeling abandoned physically as well as emotionally, and, almost as a survival mechanism, made a decision to shut you out. Although you have furnished explanations and apologies and, on the surface, things have settled down in your family, I believe that she has been wounded almost to the point of being traumatized, and that your failure to truly recognize that is responsible for her failure to “let go” as you put it.

My advice is that you try to really open yourself up to hearing how very painful this whole period was for her. She undoubtedly has many memories of times when she needed you and you were not available. Instead of explaining to her once again about a big contract you were frightened of losing, or an essential meeting which you just couldn’t miss, simply empathize with the feelings she expresses and how awful it must have been for her. Try to avoid feeling blamed, as that will send you into defensiveness, and your consequent justifications will perpetuate the cycle you know so well. Don’t be afraid of the emotions she shows, be they hurt or anger.  It’s better that she express them in all their force than that they be choked off by your rejoinders and stay inside her as a grudge.  It’s true that forgiveness on her part is necessary if you are to rebuild a close relationship, but your ability to assume full responsibility for having let her down at crucial “couple” moments is an essential preliminary to that.

Jill Bourdais is a psychotherapist practicing in Paris both privately and in a hospital setting. A specialist in couple/family problems, she organizes workshops dealing with improving relationship skills and building self-esteem.