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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My husband and I spent the first 35 years of our marriage with him out of touch with his heart; he didn’t know what his own emotions were, much less what to do with mine. He came from a family that dismissed emotions as a nuisance; they thought I was “too sensitive.”
I have good news for anyone who reads this. At the 35 year point, I became involved in an emotional health group which led me to see my inability to speak the truth in love. I started to change the dance between us. Then he became involved and got in touch with his heart.
This man I married is a different person! The last five years of our marriage have been the best! People can change. Our marriage is fantastic now and I am so thankful.
Would you have any info about an emotional health group? I know I struggle with speaking the truth in love. I come from a very judgmental family that wasn’t so kind. I’d love to learn how to do that. Thank you.
There are various Christian 12 step groups that can help you learn how to speak the truth in love. You may want to try Celebrate Recovery. Also John Townsend and Henry Cloud have many on-line resources available to learn new life skills, some audio, video classes, and one week intensives. You may want to check them out at http://www.cloudtownsend.com
The ministry my husband and I became involved in was Open Hearts based in Muskegon, Michigan. There are local groups meeting in churches around the country and even the world. The website is http://www.ohmin.org/
I also wanted to add, that if it were not for Leslie’s Biblical, honest, time worn and tested work here, I would have stayed, been in then a physically abusive relationship, hoping beyond hope that God was proud of me for staying.
And, that leaving doesn’t solve a lot of things, nor is it an easy choice or road. But it does allow for peace and sometimes that peace is what we need to hear from God again. But no, it’s not the road that was my first choice… we were separated before.
I just wanted to share this… I’ve been an angry wife. I’ve been a wife who is set off at every turn. It’s caused a lot of havoc and confusion even for me. Was I responding to something or instigating it with anger?
So I worked very hard on moving past my anger without expecting him to understand, or change.
I just used everything I learned and then some I’m going to share this in all honesty.
For three years, I accepted responsibility for as absolutely much as I could. If it hurt him, if he thought it hurt him, if something bothered him – I didn’t just say “my fault”. I read 5 Languages of Apology by Dr. Jen Thomas and really learned the art of it. I wanted to make amends, to build bridges and to offer change.
I didn’t do it perfectly, but I worked really really hard on the following self-awareness things:
With great counseling,
I stopped considering myself a victim.
I did not respond back in anger.
I chose at every point to see his side and extend ways to work with him on things.
I stopped saying “You” and gave “I feel”
I extended “I would love for you to…” and he either berated me or said he already did.
I had and deepened many solid friendships.
I went to counseling, got my hormones checked, worked for his business and ran the house.
By co-laboring with God and by His grace, I owned so much of my faults that in 6 months time he asked me what I was doing. What I was on. What was this newfound thing I was doing. I told him everything – I was letting go of my ego because I wanted to see God work. I said to myself at every turn, “I can be right or I can see God”. I chose God.
He wanted no part of it to change himself. But I believed if I hung in there our marriage would shift.
I stayed as long as I could until my health began to decline and since my divorce is not final, I don’t want to say anything against him- partly out of fear, and partly out of respect.
I believe we need to move past anger for our own healing, regardless of the marriage. If we get over anger so that ____ (insert outcome here) it’s manipulation. Just let’s all work on anger because God wants to grow us, love us, and use us in this world.
What I can tell you in the past nine months of separation is that I am the person (on the other side of anger) that I really want to be. My heart and soul are quiet. I can communicate without anger and there is a steadfastness I feel.
It’s possible to move past and be “perfect” and the marriage still fail. The goal, as Leslie always says is for each person to be who they need to be, not that the marriage is more important than we are.
I want everyone who reads this to know that our anger is holy, and responding to something that’s frustrating, hurting, etc, and for us to honor it and find whatever means we need to find for help, it’s life giving.
Thank you for reading this.
Thank you Vikki for your honesty. It sounds so similar and I appreciate your insightful words.
Thank you much for your post. It gave me a lot of encouragement. I to have been married a long time for 32 yrs. and have dealt with much anger, toward my husband , God and my life circumstances. My husband started out physically abusing me to, but it stopped the first several years. But the undercurrent and fear and other abuses still continues. I applaud you for having the courage to change and be who God wants you to be, no matter what your husband is in his life or his part or lack of part of your marriage. You have been such an encouragement . I have been wanting to change and be who God wants me to be…. to stop reacting and being angry at my husband and at my disappointing marriage. My health is really bad from stress, I have lots of health issues, but maybe I can work on changing myself with the help of this book. Believe me,,,, if I would improve and be a better person in anyway, it would cause huge amt. of chaos in my life,,,, my husband would be so flipped out and angry at the change in me, I feel my situation would be worse. That is what has help me back from trying anything to improve myself. I had always felt I was protecting my kids from him picking on them and being unreasonable with them, by me just not being ok. When I’m acting happy is my most fearful time,,, he doesnt’ like it when me and the kids are happy, he has to bring us down. So I understand what happened and how things can take a turn for the worse, when a women gets strong and content…… Thanks again
I think I am starting to realize what a fixer I am and continued worrying that there must be something more I can do to change him or get his attention! After 3 years of pursuing, I think I may finally get it that I need to just be concerned with fixing me. If he doesn’t repent or get interested in our marriage, I can’t make him and I don’t want him if he is so disinterested or not genuinely repentant. He is a grown man, a professing believer, he can go after what he wants without my prodding. I hate to think about divorce and starting over but God hates abuse and hippocracy more than divorce. He didn’t intend for us to live as roommates and fake it to the world. I can’t pretend any longer. This blog is very strengthening and revealing. It is such a blessing to the weak and broken hearted!
It is much easier to work on fixing someone else than it is to work on ourselves. We also have to give up the fantasy that if we change for the better – get healthier, that our spouse will want to do likewise. Remember, the darkness HATES the light and so when we begin to shine brighter and have more light, often they escalate to try to snuff it out. Don’t let them.
Thank you for this comment Leslie. I have struggled with accepting and agreeing with my counselor’s advice that if I just change more in me, if I just let her continue to treat me this way and accept blame for everything even when it’s clearly untrue, she will undoubtedly be drawn back to me. It seems my confidence and strengths have been diminished by her and as such I am not interesting or desirable anymore. Based on my experiences and the changes I’ve made over time, although sometimes reverting back after almost a year, because I don’t see the fruit he indicates will be there, I struggle to believe him. I have seen more clearly now that I must change me for me and for the benefit of my relationship with God with no expectations on her. What she chooses is up to her and I have no control over her or the outcome but will survive.
Thank you for this hard hitting message. I have asked myself this many times lately if I am destructive. Your test helped and I am getting a lot out of the new book.