I’ve been in Chicago visiting my sweet parents and siblings. Each year we all gather together for one weekend and go to dinner and a play. This is our parent’s Christmas present to us all and it’s wonderful to have time set apart to connect. In our busy lives sometimes connecting is tough to prioritize.
Study after study shows that healthy and loving relationships are the number one factor in living a happy life. Therefore it’s important that we learn how to “do” relationships well and recognize the things we do or what other people do to hinder and harm our relationships from flourishing. – Click To Tweet
Check out this article from the Harvard Gazette – Good genes are nice, but joy is better
Today’s Question: I've been married for 25 years and our relationship is becoming increasingly toxic. My husband and I fight frequently about everything, from our young adult children to finances. My husband is a Christian with many good qualities and is never physically abusive, but our relationship has become destructive because we cannot communicate.
There are two predominant patterns: when we argue, he will go silent, sometimes for days. I almost always break the ice by trying to initiate conversation and even then at the risk of another blow-up. He occasionally apologizes, but rarely with any real sense of sorrow. The other pattern is that when I bring up a concern about something he has done – or not done – (I'm careful to use “I” messages and speak calmly), he becomes extremely defensive, gets loud and turns the tables – attacking me as a person (accusing me of being selfish, immature, negative, miserable, a chronic complainer and on and on). So if I raise a concern about his actions, he attacks me as a person.
Also, if I confess something about myself that I'm not proud of (for example, being jealous of a friend), he quotes Bible verses at me and then uses my confession against me in future arguments. So I'm not inclined to share much anymore.
I've suggested counseling on numerous occasions and his reaction is visceral – doesn't want to go because he's “not a big believer in counseling.” He has suggested we try to do things on our own like take a trip or go through a book and pray together now and then, but will not seek help from a third party. He also says he has “given up trying to change me.”
His most recent outburst/accusations were withering, and I'm so depressed I've spent much of the last two days in bed.(I've had ongoing struggles with depression/anxiety and much of it is related to my marriage). I don't want to leave, but I'm not sure how much longer I can handle the fighting and the personal attacks. When we're not arguing, he's a very jovial person, but we're never far away from the next fight. I'm walking on eggshells, and always wondering what mental notes/criticisms he is making about me for use in the next argument. Please help! Thank you.
Answer: There is a lot going on with your question, but I have a few questions of my own to clarify things. You say that your marriage is growing increasingly destructive. What’s different now or in the last few years that was not present earlier in your marriage when it wasn’t as contentious or destructive?
Did you communicate better? Were there things you disagreed on back then? If so how did you handle it differently than you are now?
You say that your relationship is destructive because you cannot communicate.
It’s important to note that it’s not arguing that makes a marriage destructive. There are couples who argue frequently about all kinds of things but are not destructive. What makes a marriage destructive is how an individual or couple argues (or doesn’t argue). It’s also how a couple reconciles an argument or not that determines whether or not their marriage is destructive.
You mentioned he cannot hear criticism. He is accusatory and shaming towards you. And, when you try to speak into his life about something, it’s always flipped back towards you. Has it always been this way? Or have you noticed new patterns over the last few years?
You also mention that your husband shuts down, goes silent and avoids. You attempt to break the ice but that doesn’t always go well. When you try to bring something up, you do use “I” statements and stay calm that that doesn’t go well either. Has that always been true or are these new behaviors?
The reason I ask these questions is that you’ve been married 25 years. If your marriage felt happy, loving and safe for a long while and then began sliding downhill, we have to look for what’s going on. Sexual addiction might be one thing. A hidden affair might be another or built up resentment. A brain problem or chemical disorder could be impacting his mood or thoughts. Or even a mental health issue like depression. For depressed men, anger and shame are often present where, before getting depressed, they were not issues.
On the other hand, maybe he’s always been that way and what has changed is you. You’ve grown tired of dancing around his moods and catering to his emotional temperature. You’re tired of being the “good submissive” wife and losing your voice or choice in family decisions. You’re tired of being beaten down and silenced and you’re waking up to the amount of control your husband exercises over you. And your change is creating more conflict and stress than when you just stayed silent and gave in. This often happens when a woman begins to wake up to the destruction in her marriage. But now what?
You mentioned that you’re struggling with anxiety and depression. Tired of constantly walking on eggshells. So much so that you’re in bed for two days after this last debilitating episode with your spouse.
Even if he won’t go for help around your marriage, help me understand why you haven’t gone for some help for yourself? I think this is the best place where you need to start making a change.
Your marriage is in trouble, but so are you. You’re spending a ton of energy trying to get your husband to “see,” to hear you and to change. It’s not working. It’s time to redirect. For now, you are going to have to focus on you so that you get stronger. What changes do you need to make in order to get yourself healthy mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually?
Here is where many women get and stay stuck. They think they NEED their spouse to change in order for them to be okay. And so they try in every which way to get him to see it. To get help. To stop it. To change it. And when that doesn't happen, they start to go downhill into a pit of despair.
I wish I could give you some magic words to say that would wake your husband up to his destructive behavior but the words that you’ve already tried are the ones that have the best shot. “I” statements. Nonshaming language. You’ve done that. Even Jesus couldn’t get through to some people. Like Judas, like the rich young ruler, Jesus let them go.
You might not be able to influence your husband to change but what do you need to change in order for you to be okay and not be stuck in bed overwhelmed with depression? It might mean you need to separate to get some clarity, safety, and space to heal, as you are not staying well. But even if you do get away, it also might mean that you need to work on you for a season to get stronger so that his cruel words do not suck the very life out of you. You are a precious daughter of God. Don’t let your husband be an identity thief and rob you of who you are.
So let’s go back to your next step. If your marriage used to be happy and safe, then I would confront him on the changes that are going on in him that are threatening to break apart your relationship. Is he having an affair? Does he have a secret life you don’t know about? Are there resentments he’s not talked about but stuffed and stuffed and stuffed? Does he have something medical going on?
On the other hand, if he’s always been this way but you are no longer willing to live like this then you need to make some hard choices. You don’t know what’s going on with your husband but you do know that you aren’t doing well. It’s time for you to change your dance steps, starting with you. As you get stronger you will need to formulate healthy boundaries including possibly separating, so that he cannot knock the wind out of you as he is doing now.
The Bible tells us that reckless words pierce like a sword (Proverbs 12:18). If your husband was repeatedly stabbing you, would you plead for him to stop or make a plan to get away? After lying in your bed for two days bleeding and wounded, would you stay and wait for the next time? Or would you decide enough is enough and that your mental, emotional and physical well-being takes priority right now?
Friends, let’s share our collective wisdom. If you were her, what next step would you take?