I’m headed back to Pennsylvania and will be on the road all week. I’d appreciate your prayers for safe travels. We’ve had a great time and will miss our sweet granddaughters. It’s been great having this time to get to know them more and vice versa.
This week’s question: I have felt awkward and isolated in various ways in my relationships and not known how to communicate in the midst of my husband’s destructive patterns and denial. I have been married 26 years and have three children. In August, I acknowledged that he does not want to know his own destructive patterns.
My question is, how do I live clearly when my husband avoids knowing, understanding, and taking responsibility for his destructive behaviors? I have struggled with knowing what to say to the children, friends, family, church, and others. I am learning that I need more truth to avoid isolation and also so things are not misconstrued by others and my children.
What can I say, how can I approach relationships when he is in denial? I wonder how to say things if he is around or if he will find out what I said. If I make an observation and he is there, will he let it pass or minimize it or distort it?
I need to reestablish some relationships with friends and extended family after feeling isolated for the last eleven years. Do I go forward as though nothing happened or make a statement?
I started doing phone calls in the bedroom related to what was happening but did not explain to the children that he had a crisis eleven years ago as I gave him space to change. This did not teach transparency and truth though I did need privacy. In general I minimized and tried to keep things together.
My kids know I have been seeking outside counsel. I have not openly displayed books or information I’m looking at. I have not openly told them when I have a counseling appointment or discussed them. I feel the best thing would be transparency but I feel uncertain how to do that when my husband has strong avoidance patterns.
I have been slowly getting stronger and taking steps to share that certain behaviors are not normal or acceptable and discuss healthier alternatives to the children. The relationship with my twenty three year old is hardest; he has actually used the words, “I don’t want to know” (possibly scared to learn about his dad?).
I don’t want to be abused by his desire not to know or for that to keep needed truth from the family.
Answer: Your dilemma of living with someone who is denial, who does not want to face reality is not uncommon and it’s very tough to navigate through in a healthy way for you and for your children, especially if you want to preserve some form of family life and stay well.
First, healthy people live in truth and reality. They don’t live in a make believe land or wishful thinking land. Therefore it’s imperative that you not lie to yourself or to your children. That doesn’t mean full disclosure of all the sordid details about what’s going on at home or with your husband but if they ask a question about what’s wrong, don’t make up a story. As much as possible tell them the truth so that they learn to trust their own perceptions.
For example, if your husband has an alcohol problem and he was stumbling around, slurring his words and your kids asked “what’s wrong with dad?” You wouldn’t cover for him and say, “Oh he doesn’t feel well.” You would tell them the truth. “Dad drank too much alcohol tonight.”
Kids intuitively know when something is wrong even if they don’t say it. They know when there are problems at home and it is a kindness to put the correct labels on what’s happening when possible. Doing so confirms that they were “thinking” correctly or “perceiving” rightly which reinforces their own need to live in truth. (I teach more ways to love but speak truth in our Walking In CORE Strength Course. More information here).
Telling the truth doesn’t mean that you overwhelm your children or other family members with all the details. It doesn’t mean that you degrade your husband’s character to the kids or family and say “he’s a sloppy drunk and doesn’t’ care about us.” Tell the factual truth – he’s slurring his words and stumbling because he drank too much alcohol. Period.
Your husband may be in denial about what he does that’s abusive or destructive to the family. Usually people like this are experts not only at lying to others, but also to themselves. (Tweet this)
To acknowledge the truth about one’s self– whether it is I drink too much, I eat too much, or I treated someone abusively, requires us to face some things that we may not want to face. It’s easier to pretend, make excuses, blame others, and refuse to listen to feedback about how our actions (or lack of actions) impact others.
If you recall in the New Testament, Jesus continually tried to get the Pharisee’s to see themselves more clearly. He told them they were blind guides, that they were hypocrites and that they weren’t truly religious leaders but children of the devil (Matthew 15 and Matthew 22). Those are hard words yet the Pharisees didn’t want to see themselves. They didn’t want to know the truth. The more Jesus told them, the more they wanted to kill him.
I say this to encourage you that you may be doing everything you can to invite your husband to look at his behaviors and he still may chose not to. The more you press him, the more he may retaliate against you as the religious leaders did with Jesus.
Therefore I think your real question is how do I stay well and in the truth you know even if your husband doesn’t want to hear what you have to say?
First, you will have to accept (not just acknowledge) that you marriage will never heal or become what you’d like as long as your husband refuses to look at himself. Jesus longed for a better relationship with the Pharisees, but they couldn’t come to him because they refused to acknowledge him. By accept I don’t mean you have to like the way things are, but you must emotionally learn to accept his choice to stay in denial and be blind. Not brood, not resent, and not retaliate. It’s the same process we use when we accept that someone has died or our spouse wants a divorce or our mother doesn’t want to be involved with our children. We don’t like it but until we come to emotionally accept their choice and let go of the hurt and bitterness we feel, we are not able to live well in the present.
Second, when your husband lies or does something destructive to you or the children, simply state, “I don’t like it when you…” For example:
“I don’t like it when you raise your voice”
“I don’t like it when you curse at me or call me names”
“I don’t like it when you don’t tell me where you are going.”
If the children overhear they are old enough to know what he’s doing is questionable.
When you put words to it, they see you speaking the truth in love and not covering up deeds of darkness. If his behavior is more covert and subtle, it’s much harder to put it into words. It may sound like you’re “picking on dad” or a critical person.
However, when you need to, you can describe your marriage truthfully such as, “from my perspective, dad and I are not doing well. I don’t like that he doesn’t speak to me for two weeks when he’s mad at me. When he does that. we can’t move forward or resolve anything” or “Dad and I are not doing well in our marriage. I’ve tried talking with him about it but he’s not willing to address it.”
These would be the same kinds of things you may have to say to family and close friends so that they aren’t left with the impression that things are great at your house when indeed they are not. You don’t need to go into great detail unless you are documenting evidence to separate or initiate a confrontation (See chapters 10 and 11 in my book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage).
If your boldness at refusing to pretend riles your husband and he makes a remark about what you’ve done, respond with, “I’ve invited you to talk about what’s wrong in our marriage and I’ve accepted you’d rather not. That does not mean I’m going to pretend or go along with your denial or unwillingness to see what’s wrong. It’s like I’m watching our marriage die from a cancerous tumor and you refuse to go to the doctor or admit it’s dying. I’m not going to pretend that somehow our marriage is thriving when it is not.”
The key to staying well is your ability to accept where he is, without resentment. Remember, you are not speaking the truth to get him to change. You’ve accepted he doesn’t want to know or hear it. You are speaking the truth so that you hear it (sanity) and your children hear it (clarity) so they do not think that this behavior constitutes a healthy marriage.
I hope that there are also some good components to your marriage and family life, such as “Dad is a good provider”, or “Dad takes really good care of our house”. Or perhaps good moments like “Hey we had a fun night tonight playing board games as a family.” Or “I enjoyed going to that movie tonight.” These are small moments and they certainly don’t make up for a marriage missing the core components of mutuality, reciprocity and freedom. But if you can acknowledge whatever is good, it will help your children see that you aren’t totally “against” their father and that you can still appreciate the things he does do even if you don’t have a good marriage.
Friends, how do you speak truth and love in a difficult situation?