The Doc's Answers 41


April 16, 2010

Dr. Irene,

I have been married for 6 years (together for 10) and realized about a year ago that I was in a relationship that has many verbally and emotionally abusive characteristics. I have felt like things were "off" in our relationship for a long time, but didn"t know what it was about and just figured that we loved each other and we would figure it out. Those thoughts are not uncommon!

Well, now I know that I had many co-dependent tendencies which enabled my husband"s behavior to continue for far too long. I have been going to therapy for about a year, have read several books on the subject and found your website (thank you for this website! :D ). I am feeling much better about myself now that I can make sense of what has happened. Yes!!!

I have tried to talk to my husband ad nauseum about why I am unhappy and that I want him to respect me and act like it, not just say it; and I want to feel safe in the relationship and I want him to take responsibility for his part. We went to couples therapy for about 6 months (this was before I knew there was such a thing as verbal abuse) and the therapist told us to keep focusing on the positive. Couples therapy didn"t work very well for us. My husband thinks I am just focusing on the negative, does not think he"s abusive, and thinks that I think he is a horrible person since I think he is abusive.

Some examples:

I told him that I was afraid he might get physical with me and he was offended that I thought that might happen and how could I possibly think that? No respect for your feelings. If it doesn't make sense to him, it can't be!

He read my journal without my permission because he thought I was hiding something from him and what did I expect him to do if I wasn"t going to tell him what was in there? Poor boundaries and control issues. If he knows what you're thinking, he can "fix" it.

Afraid of what other people would think about him if someone else (i.e., our son, who is 3!) read my journal. Yes, let's consipire to hide the truth. More control.

Says he"s supportive of me working on my own mental health but is suspicious about my therapy sessions (thinks they"re about bashing him) and thinks the books I read are negative influences (he thinks I pick apart everything he says now because of what I"ve read). Because they don't reinforce his ideas. Even more control.

We are sleeping in separate rooms (his idea) because he says it hurts too much to sleep in same bed with me if I don"t want him (every night!). My way or the highway... Manipulative and controlling.

There are many more, but you get the idea" Sadly, I do.

I have been disengaging from his behaviors as you suggest and his reaction so far has been to say that I"ve left the relationship and I haven"t been trying; I haven"t been giving him what he needs for a long time; you need to come back to me, etc.  Sometimes I feel better about myself for not letting myself be drawn in to "the dance", but sometimes I feel cold-hearted for having no reaction to his behaviors and walking away. What can I do about this? Accept that these are your feelings. Why shouldn't you feel coldhearted? You are an individual who enjoys giving; of course it doesn't feel good to walk away! Yet, what is being asked of you can no longer be given freely - because you are out of your denial. By the way, he is right. You used to give him what he wanted because you made excuses for the "dance," thinking in time you would adjust to each other. You used to stand by him because you blindly believed in him. He didn't change; you did!

I want to give him what he wants, but I"m afraid that if I give an inch, he"ll take a mile at my expense as has been the pattern up until about a year ago since he has not taken responsibility for (or even recognized) his part. I"ve tried talking to him, writing him letters, giving him a copy of Love Without Hurt by Steven Stosny and nothing is getting through and the reaction from him most of the time is defensive. You're working awfully hard to change him...

Of course you want him to take responsibility for his part! But, you have no control over how he thinks. You do however have a choice regarding whether or not you accept what is: his inability/refusal to take responsibility, which may or may not change, but is what it is. It feels like we"re both pretty entrenched in our positions and we"re both at the end of our ropes. Is there anything I can do to encourage movement from either of us? You can't influence him. You can only change yourself, for yourself. If you change, he may change, or he may not.Or does he need to take the first step because I feel like I"ve done all I can? It would be nice if he did, but I wouldn't hold my breath...  Any feedback you can provide would be much appreciated. Allison

You want your husband to think and act in a healthier way by taking responsibility for himself. Who wouldn't want that? Then he could begin to work on himself! But - and this is a BIG BUT: you don't have the power to influence his internal self!  Your attempts at educating him are met with strong opposition. This approach is not working.

What, instead, if you were to accept what is?  What if you were to fully accept his inability/refusal to take responsibility for himself, and continue in his ways? "Fully accept" does not mean that you like or condone it. Just that you accept that it simply is - as you accept that the sun rises every morning. I doubt that you have a big emotional reaction to sun's rising; you likely simply accept that it rises.

"What is" is not storybook. Acceptance will put you on a collision course with your own issues, such as: why is it so important that he take responsibility for himself? Yes, we all know the answer to that, but really, for you, what emotional stuff comes up when he won't? Anger? Rage? Sorrow? Emptyness? And why? What emotional stuff comes up when you have to walk away from him? Sadness that he doesn't see what he's got? Rage that he will only accept the version of you he wants you to be? Disappointment that he's not a partner? Sorry for yourself because he is not who you hoped for? Whatever comes up is legitimate. Deal with it.

Ask yourself: why is it, knowing how he is, that you can't you accept him the way he is - as you would accept an imperfect child, or that dysfunctional friend or relative? How is it that a naughty child or nutty friend would not evoke the same reaction? What are your expectations of him? How has he failed? How does it feel that he failed? Why does it matter so much?

Identify your feelings, and allow yourself to have them, really feel your feelings. Equally important, learn how to let them pass. You don't want to remain stuck in these bad feelings any more than you want to avoid feeling them.

Keep in mind, there are no right or wrong, good or bad answers. The objective is not to be easier on him, but rather to help you understand - and deal with - your own emotional reactions to him. Your emotional reactions to him have nothing to do with him; they are all about you. As a species, we want to run away from pain. Don't. Instead, develop self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-control through this pain.

The choices we make are influenced by many factors, such as our upbringing, our culture, etc. all of which are a part of us. (For example, the devout Christian is more likely to look for a way to make the marriage work, while the women's rights activist may be more inclined to divorce.)

Emotional baggage can also influence what choices we make. As we develop internally, we are freed from the bondage of making choices dictated by our emotional baggage. Translation: it becomes OK to feel icky when walking away from him.

 In sum, there are no easy answers. You've come quite a way, and the more you've dispelled your illusions, the more he has objected. The more you have tried to educate him to change, the more he has dug in his heels. Guiding him, or expecting any particular reaction from him is not working because he is not biting (his personal choice). So let go, otherwise be accused of being controlling as well! But you can change yourself. Stay with your individual therapy. Focus on you; not him.

 Good luck Allison! Dr. Irene