I’ve relocated to our summer cabin. Since all my May speaking/travel schedule has been postponed until Fall, there was no reason not to move up to the mountains now. Phoenix heat has been near or at 100 degrees over the last ten days. It’s wonderful to enjoy 80 degrees, sunny, dry, beautiful days. Even the dog is happier without having to walk on the blazing hot pavement during our 10,000 daily steps. Here she’s anxious to go for our walks and I love sitting outside on our deck and enjoying God’s creation. Everything is closed up here too, but at least it’s a change of scenery.
Question: You’ve helped me understand boundaries and consequences these past few years and I’ve taken steps. I realized I’m stuck facing a new step. My husband has had ongoing problems with narcissistic behavior, anger, conflict issues, and avoidance. He’s taken small steps here and there but has not taken responsibility for the roots, patterns, impact, or addressed some strained relationships. It is not an open subject.
I want him to address this seriously. In the past few years, I keep feeling like I want some separation. I don’t want to bear all the responsibility for addressing this; it is hard. He has avoided knowing and seeing over the years. I wonder about the distinction between me being specific, and him taking responsibility to go after this. I don't want to be passive, neither do I want to be burdened by this and not trust God.
I feel like I currently have a window of opportunity and if I miss it, things will just slide on.
If I tell him this is serious, we need some separation, I need to see specific acknowledgment and action before we move on…what does a step like that look like? How do I prepare? I don't know what else to do to break through the avoidance. If the decision is to separate, we could not communicate toward a good resolution. I’m not sure how to navigate this; in house separation or one of us living elsewhere? Or, if there is another step that I am missing before that? I feel unsure of this step. Can you help me with clarity?
Answer: I hear you asking two different questions in your question so let me break them down for clarity.
First, from your perspective, your husband avoids “seeing” himself truthfully. That’s been his pattern over the years. He doesn’t want to hear from you, yet you want him to work harder on himself to change his selfishness, anger, and avoidance of conflict. Yes, there have been some small steps but you don’t think it’s enough. You’re struggling with your role here. Do your push for more? Is that your place? You don't want to be passive but you don’t want to take God’s place to wake him up or make him change.
Second, you have not liked the way things are between the two of you for a long time. You can’t talk to your husband about your feelings. He doesn’t want to hear. He avoids conflict like the plague yet you don’t want to pretend anymore. You don't want him to think that just because you don’t talk about the elephant in the room that it isn’t there. It’s a big deal for you even if it’s not a big deal for him. You don’t want to do pretend “marriage” if he doesn't take ownership of his stuff and work to change it. How do you broach the topic of separation and when you do, what does that look like?
Let me start by answering your first question. Your God-given role and responsibility in your husband’s life are to be his most trusted friend and advisor – his helpmate. That involves telling him the truth, not just stroking his ego. I know that goes against some Christian teaching that encourages wives to be encouraging and uplifting to their husbands (which is a good thing). However, this same teaching says when their husband is doing something wrong or dishonorable, a wife is to keep quiet and pray God will show him his mistake or sin. I disagree.
Remember the children’s story The Emperor’s New Clothes? Some fast talking tailors tricked the King into believing his newly woven robe was made from special threads that only the “wise” could see. Not wanting to look dumb, the King refused to see what he saw – that he was naked. All his trusted advisors did the same. They told him his new royal robe rocked, while they all saw the truth, he had no clothes on at all. They were too afraid to speak the truth to him. If you recall, it took the honesty of a child to wake people up to know what they knew and to speak the truth.
In truth-telling, it’s important that we are not harsh, demeaning, or shaming. Truth without love is like a noisy gong or clashing cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1). The hard truth is always given in love if we have our spouse’s best interests in mind. Just as you might whisper to your husband that his zipper is down or that his breath is bad so that that he could quickly make corrections, it’s important that you do him good by helping him see himself more accurately.
That said, the book of Proverbs instructs us about interacting with different kinds of people, especially the wise and the foolish. One of the most distinguishing features between them is that a wise person learns from his or her mistakes and listens to instruction and feedback from God and from wise others. A fool refuses correction, mocks those who try to give him feedback, and does not learn from his or her mistakes. When you are married to someone who consistently refuses to value your input or feedback, does not self-correct when he gets negative feedback from others, or does not learn from his mistakes, there comes a time when you have to face the truth. You are married to a fool who does not want to change. For you to continue to hold the light up to the darkness only infuriates the darkness. That takes us to your second question. Now what?
Separation may be the next step for you. The mechanics of how you do it is something you will have to decide based on your financial picture and whether or not you have children living in the home. But what I think what you might say to your husband is something like this:
“I accept that you don’t want to hear what I have to say. I accept that you don't want to change or deal with the issues that have troubled me in our marriage. I am no longer going to beg you to look at these things. If you are comfortable with the man you are and you don't want to change anything I will accept that even if I don’t like it.
But what that means for me is that I will no longer pretend we have a good marriage. I am not willing to function as husband and wife in a fake way when we cannot even have an honest or constructive conversation about the issues facing us. I’m going to separate myself from you….(and then you say what you’re going to do – move into another bedroom, or move out of the house) so that I am not continuously subjected to hurt and frustration by the way you treat me and our marriage. This is not done to punish you. I’m doing it because I cannot do marriage with you the way you are, and you do not want to change the way you are.”
You must be ready to take that specific action once you say these words. These are not threats. They are the consequences of his choices not to receive your feedback or learn from his mistakes. Let him feel what it feels like to have you removed from his life. It may be just fine with him and that’s where your own grief work will need to take place. You will need to let go of the dream that your marriage will change, the hope that in the end he does love you and cares that his behaviors have hurt you. But as I’ve said again and again, as painful as truth and reality are sometimes, healthy people live in truth and reality and not in fantasy. Once you accept that he doesn’t want to change, you are more clearly able to make good choices for yourself.
Friends, sometimes it takes more courage and faith to let go than to continue to hang on. What helped you finally let go of your hope for change?