SOURCE: Leslie Vernick/Kim Caloca
by Kim Caloca
Question: This is a follow up question from the blog two weeks ago on Four Ways To Create Emotional Distance in a Destructive Relationship.
She asks: How do you detach or distance without becoming cold or hard-hearted? It seems the more I pull away, the tighter my husband tries to hold on. It is so exhausting, playing this tug of war.
Also, how do I differentiate between acts of kindness that are the shaky beginnings of real change and being fooled by token acts of kindness that are deflections from working on the real issues? My husband has also told me that I don’t ever give him the benefit of the doubt or acknowledge his changes. I try but sometimes I just don’t see it or it doesn’t seem to last. Then it’s my fault because I wouldn’t give him a break. I also really liked the “Stay Well, not bitterly” advice. Very wise and encouraging but can you give me a few more tips on how to do it?
Answer: First I want to take the pressure off. Not everyone can stay well and that’s why we must not dictate an identical biblical path of change that every person in a destructive marriage must walk. As I said in last weeks’ blog, living with a destructive and angry individual can take a huge toll on you physically, mentally, emotionally, relationally and spiritually.
I’ve worked with women who could barely get out of bed due to severe autoimmune disease like fibromyalgia and when they finally had the opportunity , support, or resources to leave their spouse, their body began to heal.
Sometimes the price is too high to stay, or it is not possible for you or your children to stay well. Your body is breaking down. Your spirit feels depressed or suicidal. You are given no freedom to be separate, to grow, or to thrive on your own. Perhaps you’re drinking too much or popping pills just to be able to live in the same house with a destructive person. In those situations for your own safety and sanity and that of your children, you may need to consider your other healthy option — to leave well.
For many people in destructive marriages, how much they can handle and how bad is it are not easily discerned. Therefore most people’s first choice is to try to stay well, but your question is how to do it? You also asked how do you emotionally distance yourself from your spouse without becoming hard-hearted or cold? That is the essential component of being able to stay well.
Many women do not use their words and body language effectively to communicate clear and consistent boundaries. They’re uncomfortable using their voice or when they’ve tried, they’re dismissed, mocked, or overruled. Sometimes when they speak up for themselves they’re told they’re being mean, selfish, or sinful.
When this happens again and again we feel angry and it’s tempting to stop talking, shut down and become resentful and bitter. Our heart gets cold and hard. We no longer use words, but our body language communicates loud and clear, “Don’t’ mess with me!”
The other problem a woman experiences when she doesn’t express strong negative body language is that often her husband starts to think everything is better between them. He tries to get affectionate, expects sex, and can’t understand what’s wrong? Why have you pulled away?
Therefore if you want to stay well, AND not get stuck in bitterness and hard heartedness yet you do want to emotionally distance yourself, you will need to practice living from your CORE – so that you are:
C – Committed to honesty – no pretending
O – Open to the Holy Spirit and wise others to help you grow
R – Responsible for yourself and your own responses and respectful towards others without dishonoring yourself
E – Empathetic and compassionate (where appropriate) without enabling destructive behavior to continue.
To do that successfully you will need to continue to use your words to communicate why things aren’t better between the two of you. You will need to use your words when you don’t’ want to engage and why you have emotionally distanced yourself. I know – this grows tiring because he’s used to ignoring your words or discounting them. It may feel easier just to look angry and get cold and resentful.
To not do that you will need to stay focused on your CORE, no pretending, responsible for yourself, respectful towards others, and empathetic and compassionate without enabling. Here’s an example of what you might say with your words.
“I understand you are hurt that I don’t want to have sexual relations with you right now. That would be hurtful to anyone who is married (E- Empathetic without enabling). The reason I cannot return to our bedroom is because I feel distant from you. I talk and you don’t hear me. I tell you what hurts me and what bothers me and you don’t care and you don’t stop it. I am a person too. Why would I want to be with a man who clearly shows he doesn’t care about me? If I say yes to you, I dishonor myself and end up feeling like an object that is used rather than a wife that is loved.” (No pretending).”
You can deliver those words in a neutral voice tone with polite body language. That is emotionally and physically distancing yourself without having to be hard hearted or cold or bitter.
When he approaches you again for something wifely, you can say something similar, “I don’t know how to meet that need of yours without pretending and lying to myself and that is something I refuse to do anymore. Nothing has changed in our relationship and I am more than willing to do my part, but I cannot do your part.”
Boundaries and consequences will show him much more clearly what the problem is between you instead of a cold and hard heart.
The second part of your question is how do I handle it if he shows acts of kindness? Do I believe that these are small efforts toward real change or manipulative tactics to make me back down and dance to the same old dance?
Most of the time you won’t know for sure. I would encourage you to give your spouse the benefit of the doubt and reciprocate to the measure of their effort. So if your spouse brings you flowers, smile and say “thank you.” That was nice of you to think of me.
Being kind towards him or even grateful he did something wonderful doesn’t mean everything is better or that there are no more problems in your marriage, or you don’t’ have to go to counseling anymore. It just means you acknowledge that he is making an effort to think of you and you acknowledge or appreciate that effort. Only time will tell whether his efforts continue, especially if he expects his beginning efforts to be nicer to make huge differences in your relationship with him. Flowers, dinner and a movie, or cleaning the toilets are wonderful gestures but they alone don’t heal years of deceit, abuse or infidelity.
In Chapter 11 of my book, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage, I talk more about how to stay well or leave well. You may also want to view my short videos Why Consequences Are an Important Wake Up Call for Destructive Spouses and What to Do when There is No Change.