How To Navigate Romantic Holidays With A Destructive Partner

Hello, friends! January hit hard with a flurry of snow and lots of shoveling in West Michigan. I am hoping for something different this month. We can't always know what is next in life, but we often have some ideas about what to anticipate. Whether or not Punxsutawney Phil is correct or not, I know God will bring a thaw in His timing and all things will flourish again. I know I can trust in His promises. 

For some, February is the month identified by love, candy hearts, and sappy expressions. For others, Saint Valentine brings loneliness, tears, and grief. This month, I invite you to find something to cherish about yourself and God’s goodness in your current season of life.   

Today’s Question: This may seem minor, but what do I do on anniversaries or Valentine’s day? My abusive spouse gets angry when I don't give him a card or celebrate. There's nothing to celebrate. He hasn't been committed in any of our 30 years.

Susan’s Response: Your question does not seem minor in the least, and I thank you for asking it. Romantic holidays can be very painful and confusing for many. Instead of feeling loved and adored, you may end up with feelings of loneliness and deep loss. Not only that, but it sounds like you are fearful of an abusive partner's anger. More importantly than asking how you can handle the holiday, how do you want to handle the problem of abuse? I would like to make it clear, safety is a primary concern. If you do not yet have a safety plan, please find help to create one. For those of you who are unsure if you are in a destructive relationship or need help defining it, access this link to gain clarity.

In the 30 years that you have been with this man, he has not been committed. If he has not made consistent strides toward change, I think you can look at that track record and know what to anticipate going forward. I am sorry that is your reality because it is a hard one. I would like to ask you to ponder, what has your track record been for the past 30 years with your husband? Have you let his anger control how you show up in the relationship? When he uses the threat of anger, do you typically give him what he wants, whether or not you desire to? I certainly would understand, if that were true, given you may be harmed if you don’t. However, if that is the case, is it wise to continue in a relationship with someone who causes you harm when you don’t do what he wants you to do?

It may be time to define your limits with yourself. What are you willing to do and what are you not willing to do in this relationship? What does it mean for you that your husband has not been committed to the relationship? Are those behaviors acceptable enough to you to keep you in the marriage? These are larger questions that you may be asking yourself already, and only you can decide. With a romantic holiday on the calendar this month, your thoughts may have shifted to a more specific, immediate concern.

It may be helpful to have a discussion about the relationship as a whole but for now perhaps just expectations for holidays. I would encourage you to use your voice to be clear. It may be helpful to practice before having that challenging conversation. I am not sure what your limits are exactly, but I can take some guesses for the sake of our conversation about these particular holidays. 

You may want to say something like, “In the past, you have seemed disappointed with how I chose to honor you on Valentine’s Day. We may have differing intentions for this year. Would you be willing to come up with a plan together so we can each know what to expect.” Or, “I would really like it if our relationship consisted of reciprocal gestures of love and appreciation. However overall, that has not been my experience in our relationship. I’m not planning to celebrate our anniversary this year. I wanted you to know so you know what to expect from me.” These statements may help you acknowledge your partner as well as honor your own limits of what you won't do.

Additionally, I invite you to consider what you are willing to commemorate on romantic holidays. Be intentional. I imagine you have endured and learned a lot in your relationship and that is worth celebrating. Perhaps you have seen God comfort you and give you strength through the hardships of marriage. Maybe you have worked hard to stay strong in your identity and self care. Or perhaps, you and your partner have built a home or family that is irreplaceable. In life, there is both good and bad. We can acknowledge each and still celebrate the good. God’s presence in our lives always gives us reason to worship Him and celebrate His goodness.

If you have an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, you have a reason to celebrate. Great is the Lord! The last psalm of David gives words to a song of praise. David knew hardship, fear, and suffering in his life and yet wrote Psalm 145. When we lift our eyes to the Lord even in hard times, our soul finds peace, rest and reason to rejoice. We may not be praising God for all things, but we can praise Him through all things.

As I am sure you already know, a card or a celebratory dinner will not make a destructive marriage all better. There seems to be something deep that needs to be repaired. Is he willing to explore that and make changes? Are you willing to take a stand for what is needed for your safety and wellbeing? To give you some imagery, if a houseboat has a large leak or many small leaks, it doesn’t make much sense to invest time and money into new upholstery or glamorous lighting. If the boat is taking on water and is not repaired, it will eventually sink. Although you could exhaust yourself trying to toss the leaked water overboard, you may not be able to keep it from sinking without repair. It is important to know your limits and to recognize the effects the damage is causing.

If you would like to learn more about personal limits and maintaining a sense of self while in a destructive marriage, join Leslie and the team for our upcoming workshop, I’m not okay if you’re not okay. 

Be Well!

Beloved reader, How have you navigated romantic relationships when there has been persistent and unrepaired relationship damage?

12 Comments

  1. Connie on February 8, 2024 at 1:24 pm

    I’ve learned that that is one of the first questions to ask when a woman is concerned about her marriage: how does he do birthdays and anniversaries? I usually get some form of gaslighting. A month or two ahead, he pretends to not be sure what day it is, “When is your birthday again?” And then he’guesses’ a day or so off. Then on the day, he pretends to forget till later in the day. And makes a very little deal of it. But his birthday ? You’d better be on top of it! He talks about it for weeks before. Every time I read here, “You might say to him…” I cringe. For my situation , those are always at best useless, but most likely dangerous things to say. I accept that for now. This is not a marriage, it’s an arrangement, and I’m not the only person who has had it less than ideal.
    How do I handle it? This year was a big one. I just told him I was off to visit the kids by myself. They were happy to party with me. Some years I bake myself a cake, make up a picnic, and call a friend or two, pick them up. I buy myself something. One time when I was still sadder about it, I closed my eyes and asked Jesus what he thought of my birthday. He gave me a little vision of himself ripping off the sheet that the nurses had tied around my mom’s legs to keep the baby from coming before the dr was there. Then he caught the baby and did a happy dance. It was so joyful! Let God be true and every man a liar!

    • Lisa S on February 9, 2024 at 2:20 pm

      Connie, I love the vision you were given of Jesus celebrating your birth!! Yes, how they do birthdays and anniversaries is very telling!!

      For myself, I had a huge “aha” moment regarding doing things that would most likely make him angry (like not giving him a card). I realized he was often angry anyway, no matter what I did! I don’t think I ever gave him a gift he didn’t complain about. I now do what *I* want to do for birthdays, holidays, etc. and sometimes it will include a card and sometimes it will include him, but it doesn’t always.

      • Susan K on February 11, 2024 at 12:02 pm

        Awesome, Lisa! Thanks for sharing!

    • Susan K on February 11, 2024 at 12:00 pm

      I love this, Connie! Thanks for sharing!

  2. L on February 8, 2024 at 4:19 pm

    I can identify with this. My 30+ year marriage has a destructive pattern—he gets upset over anything (usually because I found out about something he did, but could even be a problem with the house that needs fixing), blows up, then buys me a gift and ask to start afresh. Then—later—I would be told I don’t appreciate his generosity (referring to the gifts). This pattern should not repeat. I asked him years ago to stop buying me gifts—there is nothing he could buy to make up for what he has done. Recently I found out that he has been telling lies about me—basically anything he has done, he tells people I was the one. It’s not a healthy way to live.

    Ultimately you have to consider what is safe for you to do. That might mean accepting the gift or that might be rejecting any more gifts. The real gift would be for him to admit his wrongs and live in an honest and authentic way going forward.

    I’m sorry so many are experience this—this is not a marriage. To outsiders, it/he may look to be great, but who outsiders see is a guy hiding behind a mask/image he wants to uphold. He doesn’t want the wife to tell anyone what really happens, so he escalates. On top of that, he has others fooled so that they do not believe me.

    • Susan K on February 11, 2024 at 12:06 pm

      I am sorry you are experiencing this kind of relationship too, L. You are correct, ultimately each person has to decide what is safe to do or not do. May God be with you!

  3. Carole Storch on February 9, 2024 at 8:36 am

    I am always striving to be myself. I am a giving joyful person and I love our Lord. For his birthdays , Valentine Day, Christmas I give a card …. Candy bar. Small gift. Because this is who I am!!!! He can receive my gifts however he chooses. I seldom receive anything from him. He only gives inappropriate gifts. I walk around his history and remain myself. I am at a place after 40 years of emotional abuse where I am not allowing him to steal my joy!!!

    • Susan K on February 11, 2024 at 12:08 pm

      Such strength is your words, Carole! Thank you. Keep showing up as your best self!

  4. Lisa S on February 9, 2024 at 10:20 pm

    I submitted a reply earlier today that isn’t showing here and I am just wondering why.
    Could you please tell me?

    • Leslie Vernick on February 11, 2024 at 11:57 am

      Lisa I don’t see any reply from you other than the one you just posted. Perhaps it didn’t actually get on?

  5. Winona on February 13, 2024 at 11:40 am

    How do I navigate? I’m taking baby steps and starting to speak up (not quietly accepting–because he insists–and hating every minute). I say (again) that I don’t enjoy surprise parties–I really don’t like being the center of attention.
    I asked him to unplan my surprise party. He was angry and demanded I tell him who had leaked that he was planning an event. I would not. I asked him to respect that I always been clear about not enjoying being the center of attention. He tried to convince me that I really do like it, or would like it, or whatever. In other words, he could not or would not accept my no, thank-you. His not accepting who and how I am makes me feel very unloved by him, but it has been so for always.
    I was able to tell him I don’t enjoy it, and never have, and I’ve told him that–so it should be no surprise to me. I did not apologize for how I am. I also did not sugar-coat it with pleasantries or false gratitude, like “but thank you for your effort/thoughtfulness…”–because I really did not appreciate it, so it would not be honest, and it would change focus to him (which is really NOT the matter at hand).

    • Susan K on February 15, 2024 at 8:09 am

      Winona, I think you are navigating it by speaking up. Assertive communication doesn’t always result in the other person listening or respecting what was said. That is hard and I am sorry you are dealing with that. You may want to ask him what thats about. For example, “I noticed when I told you I don’t like surprises and didn’t want a party, you didn’t take me seriously. You seem to have a hard time hearing my no. What do you think that is about for you?” Beyond that, you will have to decide your own boundaries of how you will or wont participate in his plans. I pray God will help you as you navigate this difficulty!

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