This past weekend I had the opportunity to speak at a Good Boundaries and Goodbyes intensive with Lysa Terkeurst and her team. It was a wonderful weekend, seeing women come in feeling hopeless and depleted and leave feeling deeply connected to God, connected to other women, and connected to themselves. I love seeing God at work reviving the soul and giving wisdom and hope to those who sit in the darkness of confusion and pain.
I hope to join your Conquer program this spring. Presently I am struggling with trying to move forward in my relationship with my husband. He has had alcohol, spending, and porn addictions in the past to self-medicate.
I am to believe this is over however, he still feels that he has to protect himself from conflict rather than be truthful about things with me. He very rarely talks at all about his needs, concerns, or anything personal or non-personal in his life.
I keep discovering things that he still feels unsafe to tell me. I do understand his fear of conflict however, I cannot see our marriage ever improving if he cannot tell me things and accept that I may be disappointed but that is not as bad as destroying any chance of me being able to trust him and feel safe in the relationship. I am trying to get to a place to talk calmly when disappointed. Unfortunately, when I voice my concerns or needs my husband feels criticized by me just asking for things to be done differently. That is when he throws at me that I don't allow him to talk, I talk over him, and I do not want to hear what he has to say. I just want to blame him. Etc.
I will admit that the reason I want to join Conquer is that when he accuses me of this I raise my voice and try to get back to the topic at hand. However, the topic then just changes to how badly I treat him as I get angry. I know my getting upset does not help the situation. I need to find ways for me not to be triggered and respond in a Godly manner. I have been on this vicious cycle for about 20 years. Kept believing untruths and having broken promises. Prior to Conquer happening can you give me pointers on how for me not to be reactive when the tables are turned onto me?
Answer: You’ve been through a lot in your 20 years of marriage. You say you believe his addiction problems are over, but what makes you think that? A 20-year addiction to multiple self-medicating strategies (alcohol, porn, spending, lying) is rarely changed without serious accountability, support, tools, and a strategy for pitfalls and temptations. And, if he is beginning his journey of facing his addictions and working on sobriety, his long-standing patterns of avoiding conflict with you are probably not the first thing he’s going to tackle. He may still rely on some of his unhealthy protective patterns, even though they continue to cause you to feel devalued and unable to trust him.
Your desire to work hard to repair broken trust and build a better bond with him is admirable. Does he want that too? If so, can you both agree that he needs time and space to work on his sobriety as the first step in his getting healthy? That may mean that he still isn’t capable/ready to dig deep into a vulnerable constructive conversation with you about tough or painful topics. He may not even know how to understand his own feelings yet, let alone put them into words to help you understand. But where does that leave you and your hope for a better marriage?
Sometimes a woman who has been married to an addict for a long time believes there is nothing she can do but wait for him to get better. But that’s not true. Please do not hear me saying that is your fault for any of his addictions or problems. But you can work on some of your own inner healing and growth while hopefully, he continues to work on maintaining his sobriety and healing growth.
You are on the right track when you asked how you can work on better handling your triggers by not reacting in negative and angry ways. You have no control over his healing journey but you do have a say on your own. Here are two important questions to ask yourself. Are my reactions doing more harm than good toward my long-term desire for a restored marriage? Do I regret my behavior (or words) after I calm down or am I proud of myself? Even if your marriage doesn’t make it and you no longer live with your spouse, you always live with yourself. Therefore, you want to learn to handle yourself in ways that align with your best self.
Reacting is not always the wrong response. There are times it’s the absolute best response. For example, if someone is trying to harm you, your reactive flight or fight response is the way God designed your body to get safe fast. On the other hand, regularly becoming negatively triggered when you’re trying to get your husband to talk to you is creating more negativity in him, in you, and in your marriage.
Here are a few tips on how to stop defaulting into reactive mode when he shuts down and starts to accuse or attack you. First, you must learn to press pause. Victor Frankl, the famous Jewish psychiatrist who was in the concentration camp during World War 2 wrote, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
You must give yourself a moment to have that space. To notice what’s happening before you open your mouth with a negative reaction. In that pause, pay attention to what’s happening both internally and externally. For example, externally you notice he’s becoming critical and accusing. Internally you are feeling tense, frustrated, scared, devalued, and misunderstood. In this pause, where you notice you are being triggered is where you are going to learn to make a different choice.
For example, instead of trying to argue with him or defend yourself, you are going to attend to you. You might ask yourself, “What do I need to do right now to calm myself down before I blow?” It might mean you leave the conversation or even leave the room. It might mean that you vomit out all of your negative words and feelings into a journal so that you feel better, but not at the expense of negatively reacting toward him.
How might it play out differently with your husband if you didn’t argue or demand he engage with you when he’s resisting? If you said instead, “When you’re ready I’m open to hearing what you have to say.” And if he does start to talk, what might be different if you just listened and didn’t disagree or argue or defend or question anything? You just said, “thanks for sharing how you feel or what you think or want.”
That doesn’t mean you like what he said or agreed with it. But if you are going to start changing the conversation style between you, it probably will have to start with you. If you listened without challenging him or arguing with him he might feel safer having more conversations. You don’t have to pretend you agree. You can just say, “Thanks for sharing, and let me think about what you said.”
One of the most important ingredients in rebuilding trust in any relationship is safety. Emotional and psychological safety as well as physical safety. If you or he feel afraid it’s very hard to be open and vulnerable. You may not be doing anything to create his fear, but he has his own inner work to do to accept his own humanity. For example, he will disappoint you or fail you. But when you want to talk about it, he’s afraid to face that so he shuts down. As you grow and focus on your work instead of his, he might feel less threatened, and then again, he might not.
In CONQUER we have a phrase we use, #do your own work. From what you’ve said, you’ve focused all your efforts on repairing your marriage and getting it to the way you’d like it to be. Yet, he’s resisting you and that’s painful and scary. I wonder if you could let go of that goal right now and just work on you getting as healthy and strong as you can. I think many Christian women have mistakenly believed that their marriage and man are to be their #1 priority. But God calls you to be a God-centered woman not a husband/marriage-centered woman. If you put God first, trust him with the outcome of your marriage, and #do your own work to become the woman God designed you to become, I believe you will have fewer regrets and a clearer path forward.
Friend, share your process for learning to stop reacting and instead respond to situations that you don’t like in a way that makes you feel good about yourself, even if the outcome was not what you wanted.
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