Dirk and Gloria: Power Struggles

Dirk and Gloria have been together in a committed relationship for 15 years. They have three children under the age of 10. Gloria is a successful attorney at a large law firm, and Dirk is a stay-at-home dad. Dirk was working when he met Gloria, but injured his back several years into their relationship and was out on disability for a year. Once he was off disability, Dirk decided not to go back to work. Since Dirk was staying at home, the couple decided to start their family, and Dirk would be the primary caretaker for the children.

After their first child was born, Dirk developed a close relationship with one of the mothers in the neighborhood. They spent a lot of time together having coffee and talking while their children played together. When Gloria questioned Dirk about the friendship, he became angry and accused Gloria of being possessive and unreasonable. Gloria dropped the issue until she found a receipt for an expensive bracelet Dirk had given his friend. Dirk continued to deny any kind of relationship with the neighbor, other than friendship. Gloria dropped it, and over time the friendship with the neighbor cooled.

From the beginning of their relationship, Gloria’s friends and family were constantly telling her how controlling Dirk was. He monitored everything Gloria did and complained when she had to work overtime or go on a business trip because she wasn’t spending enough time with the children. This controlling behavior was obvious to their friends because Dirk would say these things in front of them. If they were out for dinner, for example, and Gloria ordered desert, Dirk would say she didn’t need it. If Gloria wanted to buy a new pair of shoes or a suit for work, Dirk would tell her she was a spendthrift and the budget wouldn’t allow for it. It was obvious to everyone who knew them that Dirk was in control on every front. Even in parenting, he was strict with the children and often contradicted Gloria in front of the kids when she tried to be more lenient.

Three years after their last child was born, Dirk again became close friends with a woman he met at the kid’s soccer games. They began to spend more and more time together as their kids played on the same team. They went out to lunch with the kids after soccer, and sometimes spent time together taking the kids to the movies, or other activities if Gloria was out of town or working late. Gloria confronted Dirk on his apparent attachment to his new woman friend. Again, Dirk became outraged and accused Gloria of being a hypocrite because she didn’t think men and women could be just friends. He reminded her of her friendships with the male attorneys at work and that she had lunch with them or even traveled with them on occasion. Gloria backed off because she believed Dirk had a point and maybe she did have a double-standard. When Gloria noticed credit card charges for items she knew she didn’t purchase for women’s apparel and jewelry, she confronted Dirk. He was rather matter of fact about buying his friend some gifts because her husband was struggling financially and she needed some new clothes. He was just helping out a friend.

Gloria again backed off but when she discussed the situation with her friends, they were adament that she was being taken advantage of. They thought Dirk was lying and spending too much time and money on this friend. Besides, they said, her relationship was not a healthy one. Dirk bossed her around, humiliated her in front of friends, and controlled every aspect of their relationship together. They encouraged her to give Dirk an ultimatum about the friend and start getting a backbone and standing up to Dirk’s dictatorship.

Can this relationship be saved?

Poll Results: 75% YES, 25% NO

Well, in my opinion, this relationship can be saved ONLY if Gloria stands up for herself and gets a self-esteem. To allow Dirk to control her every move, humiliate her in front of friends, and dictate what she can and cannot spend, or how she does her job is completely unacceptable. This relationship is abusive. One person is trying to control the other, primarily through bullying and humiliation. This dynamic is very very destructive to the relationship,and is a terrible model to present to the children.

Like many women, Gloria is extremely capable and successful in her professional life, but on a personal level she can't stand up for herself in her marriage. My guess is that she is working out some childhood issues here. When someone's behavior seems so out of character; and the picture seems so clear to others, there is a good chance that some of the deeper issues are out of Gloria's awareness. She is not financially dependent on Dirk. In fact, he is dependent on her. So, we have to assume that she is codependent or emotionally dependent on Dirk. This is the key issue in this marriage. Dirk is emotionally abusive and Gloria is allowing it.

The second issue is that Dirk is giving what little supportive and positive energy he has to women other than his wife. Certainly, men and women can be friends, but Dirk's relationships with these other women are fulfilling some needs that should be met in the marriage. Needs such as companionship, going out and having fun, and mutually enjoying the children, for example. Dirk bestowing expensive gifts on these women and hiding this from Gloria is a great big red flag. My guess is that he is reacting to the fact that, as a man, he is not a wage earner and he has to give these gifts to assert his masculinity. The major issue with it, though, is that he's lying to Gloria (by withholding the information). This is a betrayal that Dirk is not willing to address. Instead he gets defensive and tries to shift the blame onto Gloria being a hypocrite. This signals real problems in their communication.

The marriage can be saved, but the point of change starts with Gloria. Dirk will not propose they seek marriage counseling because, underneath his righteous indignation, he knows he's behaving in a way that is dishonest and self-serving. Gloria will have to give him an ultimatum here. Either he participates in marriage counseling, or she will have to seek therapy on her own. This will be a threat to controlling Dirk and he won't like anyone else having an influence on Gloria and their marriage. This anxiety on his part may facilitate him participating in counseling. Just let me say, the therapist will have his/her hands full. If Dirk does not agree to participate, or starts therapy and soon drops out (this is very likely to happen), Gloria must continue in therapy herself to see why she is staying in an emotionally abusive relationship. There is some hope, but it will require a lot of change from both Gloria and Dirk.

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