I hope you have been watching the new videos I’ve been posting each week on my home page. Are there any thoughts? Please leave your comments or questions on the YouTube response form. We’d love to hear whether they’re helpful and what topics you’d like to see me address in this format in the future.
In this week’s video, I’m talking about the importance of freedom for a healthy relationship to flourish. The freedom to be yourself, the freedom to choose what’s important to you, your values, what you will devote your time and energy to, and the freedom to be at ease with who you are in an intimate relationship. When someone tries to regularly limit another person’s choices, expressions, behaviors or thoughts, the relationship becomes unhealthy and often controlling.
This leads me to address in today’s blog a common accusation that women often hear from their husband’s when they start asking for changes, implementing consequences or setting boundaries on destructive attitudes and actions. Their husband turns things around and starts accusing them of being controlling. Let’s see how we can tackle this common twist.
Today’s Question: This is my second marriage. We have had a difficult marriage to say the least. We have separated three times and divorced this past separation, and then we remarried a year ago.
My husband has had three affairs, and they each about killed me. He promises to do certain things to change, but always has a reason why he does not follow through. We have had counseling, and I am currently in counseling for myself. My husband gets angry when I try to talk about the issues in our marriage. When I ask him not to cuss at me or talk sarcastically, he says I'm trying to control how he talks, and I get very confused. Am I controlling? Is it wrong to ask someone to stop doing something that hurts you?
Sadly, we are in the same place we were before when we divorced, only now it’s worse. I have implemented boundaries around his drinking. I am trying not to “fight back” but am not always successful. Another issue is his job. It often requires him to work 70 hours a week. When we remarried, we agreed he would get a different job that didn’t require him to work so many hours so that we could work on our marriage. He still has not even looked. I am forty and much stronger in my walk with God. I want to please God most of all. Am I being controlling?
Answer: Whenever you have two imperfect people who commit their lives together, there will always be differences that need to be discussed, negotiated and worked through. You will have problems that need to be solved, changes that need to be made, and hurts that need to be repaired and forgiven for the relationship to survive. This is not the exception but the standard hard work required for all marriages to thrive.
When these things don’t happen, the marriage may stay a legal entity, but the relationship between a husband and wife deteriorates. You asked, “Is it wrong to ask someone to stop doing something that hurts you?” The answer is no, not usually. In a healthy relationship, once you tell someone that something bothers you or hurts you, it generally elicits a response like, “Gee, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that. Of course I’ll stop.”
For example, if your husband allows his parents to walk into your marital home without knocking and you tell him it bothers you, you hope that he will let his parents know not to do that in the future.”
Or, if he tells you that when you roll your eyes at him during an argument it feels disrespectful and asks you to stop, I hope you will listen to that feedback and stop.
Couples have many of these kinds of discussions throughout the course of their marriage and together grow and change to adapt to one another’s differences and needs. The problem of manipulation and control surfaces when the person does not want to stop certain behaviors even if they’ve promised otherwise or they repeatedly use this phrase “I want you to stop doing this because it hurts me” to get the other person to do what they want them to do. (See this week’s video for examples of that kind of controlling manipulation.)
In your particular situation, your husband has had 3 affairs, curses at you, talks sarcastically, drinks heavily and will not make the effort to find new employment that enables him to work less. You’ve asked him to stop doing these things that are hurting you, and he now accuses you of being controlling.
Part of what confuses you is that he’s implied or previously promised that he WOULD change these things. We all know that talk is easy, change is hard, and so far he’s not willing to put in the hard work to change. As you grow, you’re reminding him of his promises to change, and he’s getting angry. Now he accuses you of trying to control him.
Here’s what you need to do:
1. Get clear: The only person you can work on changing is you. Accept you cannot change him. Only he can submit himself to God for change.
2. Get firm: Decide what you are willing to peacefully and graciously live with and what you are not willing to live with. For example, perhaps you can live with his long work hours but you can’t live with anymore affairs, drunkenness, and/or the cursing and sarcasm. No one can tell you what you can live with or must live with. Only you can make that choice, but you must decide if you want to get out of this circular dance.
3. Based on your decisions, now you’re ready to have a discussion or write a letter (if he won’t listen or participate in a discussion) to your husband. In it you might want to say something like this:
“When we decided to get remarried, I understood you to promise me that you would (insert what he said he’d do or change that he’s not doing). I do not want to be controlling, and you are absolutely free to be the man you want to be. If drinking, cursing, sarcasm and carousing (or whatever it is that you’ve asked him to stop) are the things that are important to you and you don’t want to change, then I will accept that even if I don’t like it. However, that means I cannot live (or stay in the same room) with you when you’re like that. It’s too painful to me.”
Before you conclude your discussion or letter, you will need to be specific. Decide if it means you have to separate for the time’s he’s acting out– for example if he’s on a weekend binge do you need to go somewhere else for the weekend–or do you need to separate more permanently?
Giving someone their freedom to be who they want to be causes them to press pause and think about who they really want to be. Most men I know, even those who have been really bad husbands, are not proud of themselves when they act in demeaning or disrespectful ways. Unfortunately for most of them, it is only through painful consequences that they are willing to take a hard look and do the work of change.
I’d encourage you not to shorten the pain part by believing empty words. We can make all kinds of promises to ourselves, God and others when we’re feeling the pain of our poor choices, but when the pressures off, we usually revert to our old ways unless we’ve really reached a point of understanding the folly and destructiveness of sin.
All of life is a set of choices and consequences. Your husband has choices to make and he ought to be free to make them, but so do you. When someone believes or lives like they can continue to act sinfully, irresponsibly, destructively, indifferently, deceitfully or abusively with no consequences, they are not living in the truth. That is not healthy for them or for you.