Dilemmas: How should I deal with my sulky wife?

Ian loves his wife of six years, and they have three kids, but he can't stand her sulking. Sometimes, after a minor row, she won't speak to him for a week, and moves into the spare room. He's starting to find it difficult to cope. How should he deal with this?

Virginia Ironside
Thursday 05 August 1999 00:02


I used to be a sulker. Not on Ian's wife's grand scale, of course, but pretty bad. And first I'd like to put the case for the poor old sulker. To be a sulker is agony. You find yourself right down a pit that you just can't climb out of. And, because your partner's so puzzled and hurt, rarely does he throw you a ladder to help you get out. The sulkee may feel miserable and lonely but, I can tell Ian, it's nothing like as bad as the way the sulker feels.

After a row you feel personally betrayed by your partner. You feel he hates you and doesn't care a jot about you; your whole being feels threatened. There aren't any self-confident sulkers. Sulking, contrary to popular belief, is not an aggressive act, though it may appear so. No, it's a state of feeling so dreadfully under threat that you cannot bear to speak.

The way most people react to sulkers is to get fed up with them. They start by pretending the sulking isn't going on, and cheerfully discuss what you're both going to watch on telly that night. To the sulker this feels totally cruel. Here she or he is, bleeding to death, as it were, trapped in a pit of pain, and all the other person can do is rattle on, pretending that nothing's happening. The cheeriness compounds the problem. The next stage for the sulkee is that he gets angry. "For God's sake, snap out of it!" he'll say, totally fed up. "How long are you planning to keep this up?"

Keep it up? As if it were an active act? Nearly all sulkers would dearly love to be able to shed the sulking mood, but they feel as if they've locked themselves into a room of isolation and thrown the key out of the window.

Occasionally, as a sulker, I've tried desperately to get out of it. I've made a cup of tea and given it to my partner. But more often than not, all you hear is a jeering and cruel remark on the lines of: "Oh, you've decided to be nice to me, have you?"

What Ian must do is ask his wife, when she's in a non-sulking mood, how he can best deal with it. I remember once, when I was in the middle of a deep sulk, my partner went round the corner to the supermarket and bought a packet of lemon sherbets. He sat down beside me, put his arm round me and started feeding them to me one by one. I snapped out of it at once. It was so incredibly kind and touching, and I felt so grateful to him for giving me the means to escape.

Usually a sulker feels like a completely abandoned baby. It's a dreadful, childish state to get into. You're ashamed of yourself. You need help, not fury. Ian has far more power than he imagines. He may have to burst into tears to get his wife out of her mood; he may have to apologise until he feels like a grovelling worm.

But as long as he sees these purely as tactics rather than something meant, he will feel in control. And his wife may suddenly emerge from her room with the sun shining. Ian must remember his goals, which are not to get an equal score or to vent his anger on her, but to stop her sulking. And if she's treated as she wants to be treated only two or three times, Ian may find that her sulking moods become rarer.


This could be down to PMS

Are these fights, and the consequent sulks, cyclical? Your wife could be suffering from pre-menstrual syndrome.

PMS can cause mood swings and irritability, and I have found nutritional advice to be a great help, which involves eating a low-fat and low-sugar snack every three hours between meals, and before going to bed. This ensures that blood sugar levels do not rise too high or plummet too low, which is what seems to cause the problem for some women. It worked for me!



Share your experiences

I've found that sulkers sulk for six main reasons: to punish someone; because they believe they lack words to argue their case; because it's a habit; to protect themselves from getting involved in family (or work) life; because they feel powerless in their living situation; to make someone else feel guilty.

If readers would like to share experiences of sulking or living with sulkers for a book I'm writing on the subject, please write to me c/o Virginia.



Never give in to a sulker

When I was a child, our whole family life revolved around our father's sulks. Following our mother's lead, we children went to great lengths to avoid triggering these sulks, which could last for three weeks. In hindsight, that method was never going to work, as sulking is a mechanism for being the centre of attention and the whole situation escalates. Please don't fall into the same trap - you will affect your entire family's life for always. It could become a pattern for your children, too; some of my siblings are sulkers. It is not normal behaviour. I suggest that you ignore the sulker as far as you can and get on with living. Your wife really needs help from a counsellor as she may be suffering from depression or other problems, but getting her to admit that may be difficult. Standing up to the moods is a first step.

JG, Edinburgh

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I am fed up with feeling used. How is it that I'm not unassertive, but still can't get what I want? For instance, I was at an airport and they said four passengers wouldn't fit on the plane. I said they weren't fulfilling their side of the contract, and I would report them, but it made no difference. The girl said: `If I were in your position, I'd feel upset, too.' Eventually I shut up. There's just no answer to an apology. The result was that I was left, yet but somehow one man got on the flight and another was put on another plane in business class. What was their secret? Does anyone have any tips for getting your own way?

Yours sincerely, Jean.

Anyone with advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from . Send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182; e-mail dilemmas@independent.co. uk, giving a postal address for a bouquet

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