What If I Am the Abusive Spouse? Healthy Detachment Vs Harmful Detachment

Hello Friends! Spring is in full force and I am overjoyed! I hope you are able to see God in creation. I pray that you are delighted by His goodness.

Today’s Question: I've been reading through the blogs and they are all so helpful, but a terrifying thought is gripping me and won't let me go: What if I'm the abusive spouse? Some of the decisions I've made to allow myself emotional space to survive a husband who idolizes work and his talents more than me or the kids could be called “stonewalling”, “controlling”, or “the silent treatment.” Also, since I have worked so hard on this marriage for so long and multiple times asked my husband to let me know how I hurt him so I can change and we can stay close, he has denied I hurt him. He denied our need for help and would say “We're getting stronger, the best is yet to come.” I chose to believe that rather than push my case. I've drawn a boundary where if he wants to talk to me, I need him to first acknowledge how hurt and angry I am before we talk. This allows me to feel he is understanding me before I open myself up to conversation. Often this leads to him bringing up how it takes two to have a bad marriage and mentions how I've hurt him a lot as well. I shut down because in order for me to believe he wants to change and make amends, I need to see him putting the focus on me for the conversation. But is this me making it black and white (something he has accused me of multiple times): he's wrong/bad and I'm right/good? I'm just so exhausted by apologizing and changing through the years that I want to see him take responsibility. I fear my behavior could look like I'm the one with NPD. Perhaps I do? As you can see, I'm in a terrible mind cloud of confusion and condemnation. Any thoughts are greatly appreciated.

Susan’s Response: Thank you for your question. I first want to put your mind at ease; one of the hallmark signs of a person with narcissistic personality disorder is a lack of true empathy for how their actions affect others as well as a resistance to taking responsibility for their own emotions and decisions. Your deep concern over this tells me you likely do not fit the criteria. Your desire to ask for help to be healthy says a lot about your character.

I can imagine you have some intense feelings about your husband's choices to spend his time and focus on working and developing his talents. It is important to process those feelings and decide what you want to do about your loss of expectations for the marriage. It is possible to detach in a healthy way to create the emotional space you need. Let’s define the tactics of stonewalling, controlling behaviors, and silent treatment and take a closer look at their ineffectiveness in relationships. 

As renowned researcher and couples expert, John Gottman, defines it, stonewalling happens when a person becomes emotionally flooded to the point that the heart rate exceeds 100 beats per minute. Out of protection, that person closes themself off (like a stone wall) to stop the escalation of emotion. When this unhealthy form of detaching becomes a pattern in the relationship, growth, and connection are impeded. The ability to regulate emotions and self-soothe is a crucial skill to learn to have healthy relationships.

Controlling behaviors could stem from an anxious pressure to force connection or the prideful desire to prove yourself right. The strong attachment to your desire (“need”) to have your husband acknowledge your hurt and anger or understand you may be causing you to suffer when that desire is not met. It is natural to want your partner to validate your emotions and know you deeply. After all, God’s desire for marriage is true intimacy. What happens when that is not your reality? Can you accept it and still be the best version of yourself? Or do you work harder to make him do what you “need” him to do? That is not a healthy way to approach relationship connection. Healthy relationships require freedom. Letting go of the control over your desired outcome is what it means to detach in a healthy way.

The silent treatment is a tactic used to manipulate another person into doing or feeling what you want them to do or feel through the practice of intentionally ignoring them. The silent treatment sends a loud message that you want someone to change to meet your desires. It is used to exert power and control over someone else. This is not part of healthy detachment either. I will add that it is healthy, however, to take some time alone to reflect and regulate, which may look similar to the silent treatment initially. The difference is, that the issue is later addressed once regulation and reflection have taken place.

I understand the decision to create emotional space to better survive a relationship that lacks depth and connection. I can hear your desire for a relationship that feels more loving and caring. To what extent have you been able to make that happen on your own? You stated, “I want to see him take responsibility.” How attached are you to that ‘want’ of seeing him take responsibility and what behaviors have you engaged in to force that desire to be met? What if instead of going silent, you detached from your ‘want’ to see him take responsibility? 

When we get attached to our desires, we can begin to struggle internally as well as externally to get those desires met. James 4:1-3 NIV says, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but you do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do have it because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” The ability to hold our desires loosely and yet invite God into those can bring peace as well as depth. Each of us has God-given yearnings. God works to meet those deep yearnings within us and He helps us see what it is we really need. 

It only takes one person to create destruction in a marriage, however, it takes two healthy people to have a healthy marriage. It takes two people who know how to tango to dance the tango beautifully. It only takes one to make a mess of the dance steps. Protection from someone else’s messy dance steps means accepting where they are in their skill level, desire, and training and therefore, no longer expecting them to dance the way you want them to. Similarly in relationships, you can kindly and respectfully decide for yourself how to get your need for connection met with girlfriends or family members who are capable and available to join you in that desire for deep connection.  

Healthy detachment means letting go of the outcome, not separating or silencing yourself to control the outcome to be what you want it to be. Healthy detachment means caring enough about others to allow them freedom and the opportunity to learn from their mistakes through natural consequences. It also means being responsible for your safety and well-being and making decisions without using tactics to control others. It means compassionately allowing others to be different from you, to be responsible for themself, and to allow them the right to design their own life.

Romans 8:1-4 NIV reminds us, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.  For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.  And so He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

What would it be like to let go of the condemnation of him and yourself? Holding on to the idea that reality should be different than it is, is likely what is maintaining your confusion. What would be different if you attached yourself to the truth of reality? Two things are true; It is healthy to notice the disconnection between the two of you; and you can not force connection. Sadly, some people never decide to take responsibility for their harmfulness. There will be grief in allowing this realization; but once you move through the grief, acceptance and healthy detachment will begin to appear. 

Be Well!

Beloved Reader, how have stonewalling, controlling behaviors, and the silent treatment negatively affected your relationships? What have you done to create emotional safety by detaching in a healthy way?

20 Comments

  1. Norma Torres on May 16, 2024 at 9:01 am

    So beautiful and wise words. It took me time to detached but I’m finally into it. Thanks Leslie

  2. Kären on May 16, 2024 at 9:12 am

    Thank you Susan for your wisdom in responding to my confusion! I submitted this question a few months ago and have since joined CORE and Conquer and have come to understand how I can not change my husband. It is my work to let go of my desires for him to change and then guarding my heart since he is showing himself unwilling to change. I am in a grieving process now as I let go of my dreams and hopes of this marriage. He moved out 3 weeks ago and it has been healing to have so much space. But sad as I see no change in him at all.

    • Ann on May 16, 2024 at 11:37 am

      How do you “guard your heart?” What does that look like practically? I feel like the only way I know how to do that with my husband is to distance myself from him as much as possible but then that seems like the silent treatment. What does a healthy version of “guarding your heart” look like?

      • Susan K on May 18, 2024 at 11:45 am

        Great question, Ann! Let’s dive into this topic next month. Stay tuned for more on guarding your heart. I will combine your question with another on this thread in my next blog post.

    • Susan on May 16, 2024 at 3:48 pm

      Thank you Karen for sharing your question with the rest of us. I’m grateful Susan was able to answer your question and submit it for the rest of us. I hope your days forward are blessed.

    • Susan K on May 17, 2024 at 12:45 pm

      Thank you for submitting your question; I am glad you are surrounding yourself with supportive people to help you in your growth and grieving process. It is so hard to let go of something that could be so good and God honoring. Keep working on your healing!

  3. Lauren on May 16, 2024 at 9:12 am

    This resonates with what God is doing in me. It can be a tough pill to swallow but the reward is greater and leads to true Peace. Thank you for truth filled advice!

    • Susan K on May 18, 2024 at 10:39 am

      Thanks for sharing your comments here, Lauren! Grieving over the loss of expectations is so difficult. I am glad to see that you are seeing blessings as you move through it.

  4. Colleen on May 16, 2024 at 10:06 am

    Thank you Susan for your wisdom, this was very helpful to me as well because I have wondered the same thing about myself. I have finally detached after 45 years of the same dance and getting nowhere….insanity right? I have come to the realization that my husband is incapable of taking accountability for so many things in the past and therefore resolution was never possible. His answer: “deal with the present not the past!” Problem if past hurts never get resolved you find a huge hump Unser your carpet and finally one day you trip over it and say enough is enough. It isn’t easy letting go but it’s worth not becoming a bitter and angry person.

    • Susan K on May 17, 2024 at 12:47 pm

      It sounds like you are doing some really meaningful work, Colleen! Thanks for your comment.

  5. Jennifer on May 16, 2024 at 10:06 am

    This is exactly where I am at. I would love to see more on this topic.

  6. Laura on May 16, 2024 at 11:31 am

    Question – I understand that stonewalling is detrimental to a relationship – but honestly, I found it necessary 🤷‍♀️. When my H would criticize me, or yell at me the only way I could keep myself from responding in kind was to “stonewall” or emotionally detach from what was happening. I thought I was controlling my anger so that it wouldn’t be destructive to the relationship. What’s the alternative?

    • Susan K on May 18, 2024 at 10:56 am

      Thanks for your question, Laura. It seems that this topic on emotional detachment is resonating with many women. I will answer your question more in depth in my June post. The sort answer is: train yourself in emotional regulation skills, allow yourself time to process and self reflect, and show up to the relationship assertively as your best self, all the while guarding your heart with good boundaries : ) That is a simple answer and I know it is really challenging to carry it out. I will write more in June…. stay tuned.

  7. Connie on May 16, 2024 at 12:29 pm

    The silent treatment was a puzzle to me for a long time. Proverbs tells us to not engage with an angry man, or a fool. So, when a conversation turned nasty and circular, I would withdraw from it because I knew he was just crazy -making. He will counter what I say even when I agree with him. Then I was accused of giving him the silent treatment, and I would feel guilty. I finally realised that when he went silent, it was to confuse, control, and punish me but my silence was for my safety. There’s a counterfeit to everything.

    • Susan K on May 17, 2024 at 12:50 pm

      So true, Connie! Choosing to be silent in order to stop destructive patterns is wise.

  8. Vicki on May 16, 2024 at 12:42 pm

    This was beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your insight. This is something I’ve been dealing with for many years. Slowly I have learned that I have to be okay with myself, let go of my desire for a great marriage, and accept the reality of how it really is. I doubt I would have been able to read this even 2 years ago and accept the wisdom given. I’m still a work in progress. But as I grieve what could have been and accept what is, then maybe I’ll get to a better place eventually.

    • Susan K on May 17, 2024 at 12:52 pm

      May God be with you in your grief, Vicki, and help you move forward with your own health and purpose. Stay strong!

  9. vanessa on May 19, 2024 at 12:52 am

    Sadly silent treatment is my weapon of choice 🙁
    I find it incredibly difficult to emotionally detach without it.
    I have had a mostly silent marriage with H which drives me insane & yet I do the same.
    I would love to hear more on this topic.
    Thanks for your wise words

    • Susan K on May 21, 2024 at 7:55 am

      Thanks for your honest comment, Vanessa. You are right, the silent treatment is a weapon that is use against someone else. Choosing to stop talking about vulnerable aspects of life with someone who is destructive is good selfcare. The goal and the heart attitude are between these are different. Next month I will be writing more about guarding your heart and detaching from a destructive person.

Leave a Comment





Ask Your Question

Have a blog question you'd like to submit?

Read More

My husband’s anger and chronic complaining Part 2

Q. This is my last blog before the New Year so I thought I’d do something a little different. Instead of answering a new question, I want to continue to respond to the issue presented last week. This past week I’ve received some reader responses as well as a follow up question from Diane regarding…

Read More...

Does Biblical Love Call Me To Share My Financial Assets?

Q. I am searching for Biblical truths in regards to an emotionally devastating situation in my marriage of 14 years. In short, my wife has called our marriage to an end if I do not include her name on all assets that I and my forefathers have worked for for the last 100 years. We…

Read More...

Stay Well, Leave Well

Morning Friends, It’s hard to believe we’re nearing the end of 2013 and Christmas will be here in a few short days. I hope you’re not getting all crazy busy and not giving yourself some moments to pause, reflect and enjoy the music and beauty of the season. Today’s Question: In the 24 hours since…

Read More...