My niece, Kristen and her husband Sam, are visiting us from Chicago. It’s been fun to hang out with them and have some fun.
Pray for me as I head to Dallas, Texas tomorrow to speak at First Friday. It’s an outreach ministry to about 500-1,000 women that takes place in a movie theatre at lunch time on Friday. Pray I help women understand The Emotionally Destructive Relationship and they find some hope and healing.
Today’s Question: Sometimes I get really confused when I look at our marriage and try to sort out the issues. How do I know if I am the one who is emotionally destructive?
We have been to counseling and my counselor says that he can see we both really care about the other person. However, we seem to always get lost in how to work out the issues that trouble our marriage. I thrive on talking and understanding each other… he seldom knows how he feels and would prefer to just not talk about the issues.
He says he is willing to go to counseling but waits for me to schedule it and keep it going. If we don't have any appointments for a few weeks he never asks about when the next one is. He just waits for me to tell him when we're going next.
When we try to talk by ourselves he says things always get out of control and wishes he could just talk to me without me getting angry. I think the way I respond to frustrations may be emotionally destructive… when I don't feel like I can gain his understanding I do escalate and get angry and it becomes a vicious cycle.
I eventually just shut down and withdraw after these episodes because I am ashamed of how I've responded. I always feel so frustrated that my good intentions of resolving issues just caused more problems. We have worked in counseling on how to communicate our feelings and listening to each others needs but I feel like when I try to express he just tries to explain why I shouldn't feel how I feel.
He says he loves me but I think he almost wishes we could be done with the marriage so that he didn't have to stay in this disconnected kind of marriage. I feel like he enjoys being with other people more than me. He says he just thinks I'm sad all the time. I try to explain that what he sees as sadness is my longing to connect more with him and my frustration that we can't seem to connect. I think all he sees is anger and sadness.
How do I get an honest look at whether I am actually the emotionally destructive one versus just a wife longing for connectedness?
Answer: I don’t think that your longing for connectedness is wrong, however what happens to you when you don’t get what you long for may be destructive. Your marriage is a good example of how a disappointing and difficult marriage can turn destructive.
You’re disappointed that your husband isn’t as verbal as you’d like. You’re disappointed that he likes to be more social and that feels threatening to you because your marriage is wobbly. You also seem to both have difficulties communicating constructively. Your family of origin may also have been very different in the ways you deal with conflict and problems. You’re much more aggressive, he’s much more avoidant. You’re more proactive, he’s more passive.
But your therapist obviously sees some good things going on between the two of you so at this point I would encourage you to take the test in chapter one of my book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage and see if you score yourself as destructive. If you don’t have the book, you can take the test on-line at www.emotionallydestructivemarriage.com.
This will show you the areas where your reactions to your disappointment, his passivity and his avoidant tendencies may be making things worse in your marriage.
So I would recommend that you begin to repair this by taking responsibility for your emotional outbursts, your volatile anger when you are hurt or disappointed and tell your husband that you are going to work hard on learning how to communicate your feelings in a more constructive way. You might find my last newsletter on The Four Lies About Anger helpful to you.
I think a good place to start is to implement safety by agreeing to temporary “timeouts” when things start to get heated. That will help him feel safe that the conversation or conflict isn’t going to escalate, and it will help you learn better self control when you are getting emotional. A timeout is a temporary break in talking about an issue until you can regroup to do it in a more constructive way. It can be anywhere from 15 minutes to 24 hours. But in order for a timeout to be effective, both parties must be willing to reengage to discuss the issue at a later time.
The second thing that it’s important for you to work on is for you to be able to express your needs and wants in a non-judgmental or non-accusatory way.
For example, “I miss talking with you.” Or, “I want to spend some time together this weekend doing something fun.” Is very different from, “You never have time for me.” Or, “You’re always putting your friends ahead of me.”
The former hopefully engenders a positive, problem-solving response like, “Okay what can we do together?” The latter creates a defensive response that will probably lead to more distancing and withdrawal, which then feels upsetting to you. You start pursuing and he continues to avoid, leaving you feeling more lonely and unloved.
If he tells you that you shouldn’t feel what you do, respond with this, “I know it’s hard for you to understand why I feel this way because that’s not how you would feel if you were me, but you’re not me and I am different than you are.”
Men aren’t always very astute at attending and being attuned to emotions – whether their own or someone else’s. Because they don’t feel those emotions, it’s hard for them to grasp how someone else could. By asserting yourself respectfully that you aren’t blaming him for not understanding, but you are asserting your right to have different feelings than he does it helps remind him that you are not him.
Then help him to know how he could best help you with these feelings. Such as, “I could use a hug right now.” Or, “I just need you to listen to me, you don’t have to give me any solutions.” When a basically caring man knows exactly what he could do to help you, he is usually willing to try because then he feels he won’t fail. If he’s shooting in the dark and has no idea what will help you, an avoidant man will flee to his man cave.
Third, from the tone of your question I’m sensing that you are a little too dependent on your spouse to meet all of your needs and are jealous that he has other people in his life that make him happy and that he enjoys. God has designed us to be totally dependent on Him and trust that he will use people to meet some of our needs, but it’s important that you understand that your husband will never meet all of your needs. I’d encourage you to develop stronger friendships with girlfriends that may meet some of those needs you have for long conversations and processing things through verbally. Your husband may not be able or willing to meet that need because of his own deficits, but that doesn’t mean he can’t meet other needs you may have.
Finally, the good news is that he longs for connection too and he’s willing to go for counseling with you. You wrote: “He says he loves me but I think he almost wishes we could be done with the marriage so that he didn't have to stay in this disconnected kind of marriage.” So you both want more in your marriage but now you both have to stop doing the things that tear down the positive progress you make in therapy. You might ask your therapist if it would be helpful for each of you to get some assertiveness training. For you so that you don’t overreact and then feel guilty, and for him so he doesn’t run away and get passive which I’m sure doesn’t make him feel very proud of himself as a man.
Friends, how have you come to see that your responses to your disappointment or difficulties in marriage have grown to be destructive?
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