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Today’s Question: I am the mother of a son and four daughters. At some point when my daughters began blossoming into teens and my husband’s career was going badly he began to express a lot of anger toward me and eventually withdrew all physical affection from me. Instead, he would lavish physical affection on our daughters. They are now adults. This still goes on. I have chosen to remain in the marriage and to continue to have weekly sex with him, at my initiation, because I did not want to put him in the position of needing to go elsewhere for sexual intimacy and being tempted to go to his daughters for those needs. To have a loving father is a wonderful thing but the dynamic in this family still feels very unhealthy to me. I have gone on as if this does not bother me or is normal but I still feel like he is playing the daughters against me with all the sweetness and physical touch for them and total coldness toward me and no physical touch except for sex. Help?!
Answer: I’m sorry for what you’re going through. Sometimes this happens in an unhappy marriage. A father turns to his daughter or a mother turns to her son for the comfort and affection that is missing in the marriage. Instead of addressing his own unhappiness, your husband used his daughters as an emotional wife “surrogate” hopefully without the sexual component. That’s developed an unhealthy bond between them all and you feel ignored and left out.
But let's for a moment not focus on what he has done and look at you. You’re miserable. For years now, you have silently put up with this arrangement. You have serviced him sexually (seeing it as your duty to prevent his acting out towards your daughters) and behaved as if this is all normal and okay with you. Obviously, it is not. But as he solved his unhappiness by turning to his daughters, you’ve ignored your unhappiness by staying a silent victim of his indifference and coldness towards you. Now it’s unbearable. What’s next?
Let me ask you a question. What do you think you need to do to solve your problem of unhappiness? It’s not about blaming him or even confronting him at this point. You’ve colluded with this arrangement for years believing it was best. But you now see the fallout, especially on you. My advice would be to take some time to honestly reflect on why you have put up with this for so long. Why have you allowed yourself to be emotionally ignored, and yet sexually used by a man who has shown no genuine care for you as a person, a woman, or a wife? What’s happened with your own relationship with your four daughters and your son? Have you stayed in the background, more as a role (mom) than as a person? Did you grow up being ignored and used and this just feels normal and comfortable? Is it hard for you to stand up for yourself with other people and so your default mode is to simply go along with what is, rather than challenge things or change them? Is this what you’ve believed a good Christian wife does or allows to be done to her?
This can be a huge wake-up moment for you. Possibly for him too, but definitely for you. You don’t like doing life this way anymore. But to change your own pattern of passivity you will need to dig deep as to why you put up with it so long. You have some internal beliefs that you must recognize and confront in order to change things. Once you come up with some answers (and you may need some counseling or coaching help to do this), then it’s time for a conversation with your spouse. I’ll give an example of what this might look like, but ONLY after you have done your own work. This isn’t about confronting or blaming him, it’s about solving your problem.
What would possible solutions look like to you? Obviously, a restored marriage would be the best option. But if he’s unwilling to work with you then what? Your problem is your unhappiness, your loneliness, and possibly your anger or resentment.
But if you know that your marriage is going to stay the same, what would you need to change to feel happier inside? Would having a boundary against token sex with him help you? What about developing a good network of female friends? Perhaps get a job you love where you sense a real purpose for your life. Maybe divorce? Once you are clear on what you want and what you need and think through your possible options, then initiate a conversation with your husband. Here’s how it might go.
“I have a problem I’d like to discuss with you, when would be a good time?” (Do not go any further if he refuses to show care about your problem enough to give you time to talk about it. It shows you the level of his indifference towards you. To try to force him or guilt-trip him to care for you or see you is like casting your pearls before swine. It will only crush you. (See Jesus’ warning on this in Matthew 7:1-6)).
Scenario # 1. He’s willing to discuss “your problem”. Tell him it will take about 15-30 minutes of time for him to listen and possibly respond. (It might be less, so you put in how much time you need). Here’s an example of what you could say after you’ve done your own work.
“I’m not exactly sure when things started to go wrong between us, but I am not happy in our relationship and I know you aren’t either. I’m lonely, bored, hurt, and feel like we have zero connection. I initiate sex once a week, but even that feels flat. I’m not willing to continue our marriage like this anymore. I’ve done a great deal of soul searching and I think I entered this marriage thinking …..that everything would be easy and natural ….(Or whatever other insights about yourself you gained). I don’t believe God is honored by you and I pretending we have a marriage when we are like strangers, roommates who live together but have no relationship. I don’t know how you feel because we don’t talk but I’m interested in how you feel and what you want to do about our marriage going forward. I’m willing to try to work on things to make it better (if you are) but I’ve observed over the years you’re pretty checked out regarding us. So I want to put this on the table. Where do you want to go from here because I’m not willing to keep going like this anymore”. Then stop and invite his response. If he shares, listen respectfully.
Scenario # 2. He’s not willing to discuss “your problem”. If that’s the case, then the option of “us” working on making the marriage better is off the table because he won’t even give you any of his time to discuss your problem. So now you can say something like this:
“I accept you don’t want to talk about my problem. But to me, that means I don’t matter to you nor does our marriage matter to you. Therefore, I will no longer be available to you sexually and I will be giving some thought as to my next steps forward. THEN STOP, do not say another word. Do not beg, do not threaten, just walk away. Go have a good cry by yourself if you need to but understand that for now, he has closed the door for an honest conversation. You cannot make this relationship work all by yourself. Accepting it and moving on with taking care of yourself is your next right choice.
Depending on how things go you may also need to have a conversation with your daughters at some point. Do not blame them or disparage their father who they adore or you will look like the resentful bitter woman. You can simply say, “I’m so glad you have a good relationship with your dad. But I’m sure it’s obvious to you that dad and I do not have a good marriage. I’ve done what I can to see if we can repair that, but right now dad is not interested.”
Or, “I’ve talked with dad about my concerns and I’m not sure where it’s going but I have been deeply unhappy for many years and I believe it’s because I stayed silent with this situation for way too long. I thought that was what I was supposed to do as a godly woman. I don’t believe that anymore. I know your relationship with your dad is precious to you and I hope we can do more to build our relationship into something that feels good for both of us too.”
Dear one, I know this is painful for you. In your pain, it’s tempting to look at him as the cause and you can do that. But when you do that, there is nothing else you can do but blame and accuse. Which leaves you still hurt and angry even if right. I want to provide a way out of this miserable place for you by looking at you and what YOU can do to bring more joy and happiness into your life.
Friend, how about you? When you have faced something hard and realized that you played a part in allowing it to get to this place. What did you do to change your own dance steps to create a new outcome for yourself?