Next week I’m going to Paris with my granddaughter for her 13th birthday. Each of my granddaughters get to pick where they would like to go for this special milestone. I thought we’d better do this at 13 years old instead of 18 because by 18 they may not want to hang out with their grandparents for a whole week. We have all kinds of fun things planned, riding to the top of the Eiffel Tower, a food tour in the Art District, making a purse from scratch, a baking class of French macaroons and lots of looking around. Pray for our safety and health. I’ll post a picture when we return.
Question: Thank you for what you do. I have read your book and listened to many of your videos. After years of counseling, reading, and praying, I cannot shake the belief that I am being selfish.
I’ve been married for 25 years. All 25 years I have worked to support our family. In the beginning, this was difficult for me, but I was willing to work toward my husband’s dream job. I worked while he built his business. I helped finance all his projects while he promised that he just needed another year to get going, etc. etc.
Here we are 25 years later in the same place only more expensive to accommodate his projects. Nearly all his profit goes right back into the business. There is no contribution to any household expenses. However, because the business is in the backyard, he sees it as helping with our “situation”.
I have trouble seeing it this way, so I become confused. Aside from the chronic financial stuff, he is short-tempered. He acts like a schoolyard bully that teases people for their flaws. He easily becomes angry if you show hurt feelings. He is loud, crude, entitled, and cocky. He shows an “I’ll hurt you before you hurt me” attitude. When he gets angry with me, he rages with insults and accusations about me, my family, my work, my hobbies, and sometimes our children. He gets angry when I spend time with my parents. Teases me if I go to church.
He tells me I’m “stepping out” when I take my mother to craft shows or go somewhere with a friend. He has disowned every member of his family. He hasn’t spoken to his own daughter from a previous marriage in nearly 10 years. He sleeps late in the day. He answers to nobody, with no responsibility to anyone or anything. If he doesn’t want to do something he just doesn’t do it. I feel sorry for him.
He is like a child that gets so hurt that he has turned into a hateful person as a defense. He’s been diagnosed with depression and OCD (intrusive thoughts), anxiety, and sleep apnea. He will go to doctors for a bit and then decide they don’t know what they are doing after he’s put little to no effort into treatment. He is very good at convincing me that he's doing anything different is impossible.
My question is this. If I know his behaviors are coming from past hurts and some mental issues and I leave him, does that make me a bad person?
Also, if I’ve enabled this behavior all these years, am I selfish and cruel to just abandon him now? I’ve become his parent. I’m responsible for his well-being. After all these years I feel taken advantage of, sad, defeated, and quite frankly…. Ticked. Yet, I can’t get away from the feelings of selfishness and guilt.
I’m also afraid that my kids will be angry especially if he turns to them for financial help and dependence. How can I stay well, or leave well when he isn’t well in either situation?
Leslie’s Answer: I’m so sorry for all you’ve had to experience in your marriage. Your husband sounds like a difficult man to live with. From what you wrote, it sounds as if you have been very compassionate towards him and have tried to understand where this might stem from. Yet, you’re the one who feels responsible for his well-being, not him. I doubt if he even thinks he has much of a problem to work on.
There are a lot of different angles here but let me tackle two in this short blog. The first is your nagging and chronic fear that you’re selfish and a bad person for wanting to be done, especially because you think you know the origins of some of his issues.
Let me ask you a question. Yes, your husband may have depression, some anxiety, and other mental health challenges. Yet most people who have these challenges, still go to work, support their family, make an effort to have positive interactions with their spouse and kids, apologize when they’ve messed up, go to the doctor, take their medication, and work on making changes in order to live more responsibly and create a better future.
From what you’ve written, your husband has not consistently followed through with anything, including earning a living or building his own business beyond a hobby. He’s also been angry, possessive, controlling and critical when you try to do some things to nurture your own self, like go to church, spend time with others, and enjoy an outing with your mother.
It seems to me the person who is being selfish is him not you. He expects your life to revolve around what he wants and needs. That is the mindset of an infant, not an adult. You are not selfish or mean to expect an adult to act like an adult. To expect a man to function like a man and not a child.
Yet, in your own unhealthiness, you’ve accepted that your role is to bend over backward and sacrifice yourself, to enable him to continue in this dysfunction. But is that what God calls you to? Or what God calls him to?
Is it biblical to sacrifice yourself to enable someone else’s sinful dysfunction to flourish? Let’s be practical here. Proverbs 6 for example, specifically warns you not to co-sign on a loan for someone who has been financially irresponsible. Why not? Because you are not to sacrifice your financial safety and well-being to enable someone else’s irresponsibility to continue. And, it also says if you’re already done this, stop it, speak up, and release yourself from this burden. And Proverbs does not say that is selfish, it says that is wise and good stewardship of you. …and hopefully good for the other person too.
This nagging feeling of selfishness and meanness must come from an underlying belief that you have that is a lie. The belief might be: “I’m to always sacrifice myself to help someone.” Even if that help is not truly helping, but actually enabling bad or irresponsible/immature behavior to continue without consequence.
That brings me to the second area which is related to this belief. If you have enabled his self-centered and irresponsible behavior all these years, is it cruel of you to now withdraw your support by stopping, or even leaving?
Some of my answer depends on how continuing to carry him impacts you. Any caregiver knows that being responsible to fully care for another adult’s needs can be exhausting and burdensome even when they are totally unable to care for themselves. I remember when my mother-in-law was caring for my father-in-law who had ALS. There came a time when she just couldn’t anymore. It wasn’t an issue of being selfish, it became an issue of stewardship.
Taking care of him was killing her and her body and spirit were breaking down. She needed to place him in a facility that could better care for his physical needs and she then also got a break from his negativity over his illness.
Right now you are struggling with negative emotions, resentment, anger, contempt and perhaps even disgust. These are normal emotions you feel when you are being perpetually taken advantage of, disrespected, demeaned, mocked, and bullied.
Your emotions are telling you that something is wrong. Pay attention. The problem is not just with him or your marriage, but also with you. Most people when they start to fill up with negative emotions towards someone realize that they need to make some changes for themselves.
The changes can be drastic like ending the relationship, but they can also be less drastic or final by you having better boundaries for yourself. For example, saying “no” to new requests for money, or having better boundaries around what you will listen to and what you won’t listen to when he gets negative and critical.
It also might mean establishing some excellent self-care routines and not allowing him to bully you or badger you into giving up things you want to do or doing things you don’t want to do.
Here’s an analogy for you to ponder. If you were repeatedly getting your foot stomped on by dancing with your husband, the pain in your foot is telling you something is wrong. Ouch! At first, you might try telling your spouse that he needs to stop stomping on your foot. But when nothing changes and he keeps stopping on your toe, is it selfish for you to take care of your foot?
No! And the only way you can take care of your foot if he won’t stop stomping on it is to stop dancing with your partner. It doesn’t always mean you have to leave the dance entirely, but you have to stop your part of the dance so your foot doesn’t continue to get stepped on.
Therefore, you might say, “I won’t slow dance with you anymore.” Or “I won’t dance with you where you hold me close because you continue to stomp on my foot and it hurts me. I won’t dance like that anymore.”
Empathy and compassion for your husband are good qualities, but this strength of yours, (like all strengths) becomes a weakness when it blinds you into taking more responsibility for his well-being and care than is wise or needed.
The Bible says that we are to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:4-6), which means we are to be unselfish when we see someone struggling beneath a heavy load. But it also says, each one should carry his own load and be responsible for one’s own well-being.
From what you say, your husband has never had to bear his own load earning a living to sustain himself let alone support a family. He doesn’t bear his own load relationally. He just cuts people out of his life if they ask too much from him. He’s done that with his daughter and his biological family. I suspect he keeps you around because you give so much and require nothing in return, not even a modicum of respect or appreciation. Your relationship is not mutual or reciprocal. Nor do you have the freedom to make good choices for yourself like going to church or visiting your parents without a receiving heap of contempt from him.
So, I’d like you to answer this question. Why do you think it’s selfish for you to say “no more” to a grown-up man who is functioning as a 12-year-old boy? Maybe it’s time for him to face his own self and be invited to grow up through some tough consequences. Maybe it’s time to stop taking the mother role and let the chips fall where they may. Perhaps only then will he pick up his own load to do the hard work he has to move himself into adulthood instead of staying in selfish pre-adolescence.
I encourage you to do your own work of understanding what your fears and obstacles are that stop you from having better boundaries with a man who continually hurts and demeans you. My guess is he’s a lot more resourceful than you know or even he knows. Maybe he’s never had to discover what he’s capable of because he’s always leaned on you.
Friend, what helped you let go of the guilt that you were a bad person when you stopped enabling or over-functioning for someone who should be carrying his or her own load?
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