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Posts tagged ‘boundaries in marriage’

Q&A: Are You Setting Boundaries Or Just Being Manipulative?

SOURCE:  Leslie Vernick

Question: Someone wrote: What’s the difference between setting clear boundaries with someone and being manipulative and/or controlling? It looks similar to me and my husband. When I set boundaries with him he says I’m being controlling and when I tell him how I feel, such as “this hurts me” he says I’m being manipulative.

Answer: Your question is timely and important. There could be some truth to your confusion. For example, if you try to set a boundary on your husband’s behavior – such as, “You can’t talk to me that way,” or “You can’t watch R rated movies” or “You have to go to church with me if you want to have sex” you are trying to control him. If he refuses to comply and you follow it up with “This hurts me” (when you won’t do what I want you to do), it can be seen as manipulative. He sees that you are trying to make him feel guilty for exercising his right to choose not to do what you want or deciding how he behaves and the kind of man he wants to be.

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If your husband tried to control how often you drove the car or talked with your sister on the telephone, or whether you could work, wouldn’t you see it as controlling? And if you protested and he said “That hurts me (that you won’t let me control you), would you not see that as manipulative?

When we try to control another person and use the phrase, “I’m setting a boundary on you,” we’re not defining it properly. What we are trying to do is control their negative behavior so we don’t get hurt or feel anxious. Boundaries are something we set for ourselves, not for the other person. Let me give an example:

If I told you that you could not smoke cigarettes in my presence, I’m trying to control you. If I say instead, if you choose to smoke around me, I will have to leave, that’s a boundary. I am not controlling you I’m taking care of me. I don’t want to breathe in smoke, it’s not good for my health and if you decide not to honor my needs, I will have to set a boundary that I can’t be around you when you smoke.

It can get confusing if I say, “You can’t smoke in my home.” I may be saying that because I want to protect me and my health, or the air in my home, which is being a good steward and taking responsibility for me. Or, I might say it because I don’t like you smoking and am trying to get you to stop and I’m attempting to take responsibility for you (your smoking habit). Then it is controlling. Sometimes boundary setting does feel fuzzy and isn’t crystal clear to both parties why you are doing what you are doing.

Boundaries are necessary for two primary reasons. The first is to define where your responsibility ends and someone else’s responsibility begins. For example, let’s think of property lines (whether they are formal with a fence or informal). My property line helps me know what grass is my responsibility to mow, what flowers are my responsibility to water, what weeds are my responsibility to pull, what snow is my responsibility so shovel or plow.

That doesn’t mean I might not offer to help my neighbor do these things in his own yard if he is ill, or away from home but they are not my responsibility. The boundary or property line defines or clarifies my yard from his yard and what I am to take care of and what he is to take care of.

In the same way, my physical body, my emotional well-being, my financial life, my thought life, my behavior patterns, and my spiritual life are my God-given responsibilities to steward. Once I become an adult, no one else is responsible for stewarding my life but me.

When I marry someone, that person promises to be responsible to me but not for me.  

Do you hear the difference? It is critical.

In the marital vows, my spouse promises to honor and to care about my feelings, my needs, and my overall well-being but he cannot be 100% responsible for it. If I choose to smoke, drink, overeat, take drugs, drive recklessly, my spouse can tell me how my actions impact him and our marriage, but he can’t take responsibility for my actions or choices. Only I can be responsible for me. Being responsible for our selves is one of the hallmarks of a healthy adult.

The second reason we need boundaries is that they help us communicate with people how we want to be treated or what we will accept or won’t accept. Most of the time, in healthy relationships we do not need rigid boundaries. For example, if I tell my kids when my bedroom door is closed, please don’t walk in, I hope they will respect my soft boundary. I’m teaching my children to respect my need for privacy by my closed door and my words. When they refuse, or ignore my soft boundary, then I will have to put a more rigid boundary in place (a lock on my door) or give them a consequence for refusing to respect my boundary.

Here’s another example. I had a client whose mother and father-in-law walked into her house whenever they felt like it. They lived in the same neighborhood and my client rarely kept her doors locked during the day because the kids would be in and out. Her in-laws’ behavior rattled her because she was not use to such familiarity. She tried to let it go but found herself getting more and more resentful. Her husband did not see this as a big deal. He was raised with loose boundaries and his parent’s behavior did not bother him, but it did her. What was she going to do?

First, instead of brooding and filling up with anger and resentment, she needed to communicate to her in-laws how she wanted to be treated. She said to them, “I know you mean well but it frightens me to walk into my kitchen and see you standing there. From now on, please call ahead before you stop over.” (She wasn’t crystal clear with her boundary here. She should have also said and knock on my door when you get here).

They repeatedly ignored her request, so she had to make a more rigid boundary. She started to lock her doors and if she wasn’t ready for a visit with them, she did not answer her door-bell when they dropped by unannounced. Eventually they got the message that she did not want drop in visits and she would not enable their behavior.

She might be accused of being controlling but she was not. Her in-laws were free to do what they pleased, but she was also free to be a good steward of her time and her energy and if she was not prepared to speak with them or have company, she did not have to answer the door.

If they said, “It hurts me that you won’t answer the door” she could be compassionate and say, “I’m sorry that you feel hurt, but sometimes I’m busy and not prepared for company. If you don’t call ahead to check, I can’t always accommodate you. I’ve asked you to please call me before stopping by to make sure it was a good time for a visit.”

She did not take responsibility for their feelings but she recognized she was responsible to care about their feelings. That didn’t mean she caved in and allowed them to continue their inconsiderate behavior towards her; but by practicing CORE strength, she stayed strong and compassionate.

One more thing: Sometimes when a wife starts to get stronger and speaks up for herself or sets some boundaries, her husband feels (or claims) he is the victim. Instead of looking at what his feelings are telling him (he feels threatened and anxious by her newfound independence), his strategy is to blame her or accuse her of being ungodly or controlling, hoping she will feel guilty and stop changing or having her own boundaries. He wants her to return to their familiar marital dance.

Don’t do it.

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Scripture Support For Separation From A Destructive Spouse

SOURCE:  Leslie Vernick

The Scripture that most people use to discuss grounds for Biblical separation is 1 Corinthians 7:10 where Paul writes, “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord), the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.”

Separation between a husband and wife should not be done for trivial reasons. It is a grave decision, but when necessary, there is biblical support.

When one spouse biblically separates from his/her spouse it is usually for one or two primary reasons:

1.  Separation as a consequence of serious unrepentant and/or repetitive sin: The spouse who chooses to separate does so for the purpose of waking her unrepentant destructive spouse up to the destructiveness of his ways. In most cases (with the exception of physical/sexual abuse or adultery) she has already had numerous conversations about his actions and attitudes that she find destructive and hurtful, with little change to their relationship. The destructive pattern continues. Separation is the only consequence she knows that has the power to jolt her spouse awake with the message that “I will not pretend that we can have a good, safe, or healthy marriage when you continue to ___________ .”

Where there is physical/sexual abuse or adultery, separation may be the first and immediate consequence in order to send a clear message to the offending spouse that his behavior is completely unacceptable and damaging to their marriage. In cases of physical/sexual abuse, in addition to separation, legal consequences should be implemented.

Biblical justification for implementing separation as a consequence.

Below are some examples from Scripture that supports the necessity of confronting serious sin (rather than forbearing) as well as implementing consequences.

1 Corinthians 5:9 “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindles, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler – not even to each with such a one…..Purge the evil person from among you.”

James 5:19  “If anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins. (is a wife to be an enabler of sin or a champion of truth and righteousness?”

Proverbs 1:30,31  They rejected my advice and paid no attention when I corrected them. Therefore, they must eat the bitter fruit of living their own way, choking on their own schemes.

Proverbs 6:26,27  For a prostitute will bring you to poverty, but sleeping with another man’s wife will cost you your life. Can a man scoop a flame into his lap and not have his clothes catch on fire? Can he walk on hot coals and not blister his feet?

Proverbs 18:21  “The tongue can bring death or life; those who love to talk will reap the consequences.”

Proverbs 19:3 “People ruin their lives by their own foolishness and then are angry at the Lord.”

Proverbs 19:19 “A man of great wrath will suffer punishment; for if you rescue him, you will have to do it again.” Consequences are the best teacher

Proverbs 20:4 “Those too lazy to plow in the right season will have no food at the harvest.” (You can’t expect the blessings of a good marriage if you’ve been too lazy to do the work of maintenance and repair).

Proverbs 29:1 “He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing.”

Jeremiah 4:18  “Your own conduct and actions have brought this upon you. This is your punishment. How bitter it is. How it pierces to the heart.”

Galatians 6:7  “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”

Ephesians 5:11 “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.”

Colossians 3:25  “But if you do what is wrong, you will be paid back for the wrong you have done. For God has no favorites.”

2.  Safety and Sanity as a reason for separation: The second reason a spouse may decide separation is necessary because to continue living in the home with her destructive spouse is unsafe and taking a serious toll on her (and/or her children’s) physical, emotional, mental, financial, relational, and spiritual health.

God values the sanctity of marriage but not more than the safety and sanity of the individuals in it.

Below are some examples from Scripture that support safety and sanity goals in the body of Christ and in relationship with one another.

Safety:

1 Samuel 18-31 For example, in spite of God’s general instructions to submit to the laws of the land and to higher authorities, when David feared for his life because of King Saul’s jealous rages, God didn’t instruct David to “submit to the King and trust me to take care of you.” Instead, David fled, always respecting the position of King Saul, but not allowing himself to be abused by him.

Matthew 2:13-15 When Jesus was born and King Herod sought to exterminate all the Jewish babies two years old and younger, God told Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt until it was safe to return.

Hebrews 11:31 When Rehab hid the Jewish spies, she lied to keep them safe and God commended her.

Luke 14:5 Jesus himself valued safety and said even the well-being of an ox was a higher value to God than legalistically keeping the Sabbath by not working.

Proverbs 27:12 teaches us, “The prudent see danger and take refuge.”

Safety is an important component of trust, especially in marriage. There can be no freedom or honest communication if someone feels afraid or is threatened, either physically and/or emotionally, or has a price to pay whenever they honestly share their thoughts and feelings.

Women (and sometimes men) fear taking measures to protect themselves because they’ve been taught it’s unbiblical or ungodly. They suffer endlessly with verbal battering, even physical abuse, believing that by doing so, they’re being godly martyrs.  Keeping the family together at all costs is seen as God’s highest value.

Psalm 12:6  “I will place him in the safety for which he longs.”

Psalm 120:1,2  “I took my troubles to the Lord; I cried out to him, and he answered my prayer. Rescue me, O Lord, from liars and from all deceitful people.”

Jeremiah 9:8  “Their tongue is a deadly arrow; it speaks deceitfully; with his mouth each speaks peace to his neighbor but in his heart he plans an ambush for him.”

Sanity:

The scriptures are clear. People influence and impact us, both for good and for evil. When we live with an abusive, destructive, manipulative, deceitful person, it definitely takes its toll on our mental, spiritual, emotional, physical and spiritual health. Often separation is not only good, it’s necessary for one’s emotional, physical and spiritual health.

Proverbs 2:12  “Wisdom will save you from evil people, from those whose words are twisted. These men turn from the right way to walk down dark paths, they take pleasure in doing wrong, and they enjoy the twisted ways of evil. Their actions are crooked and their ways are wrong.”

Proverbs 3:5,6,7  “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil. It will be healing for your flesh and refreshment to your bones.”

Proverbs 4:14,15  “Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of the evil. Avoid it, do not go on it, turn away from it and pass on it.”

Proverbs 4:23  “Keep your heart with all vigilance for from it flow the springs of life.”

Proverbs 12:4  “A worthy wife is a crown for her husband, but a disgraceful woman is like cancer in his bones.” (The same health consequences would be applicable to a wife’s bones when her husband is disgraceful).

Proverbs 12:5  “The plans of the godly are just; the advice of the wicked is treacherous.” (So how is a wife to submit to treacherous advice without serious harm to herself and her children?)

Proverbs 14:7  “Go from the presence of a foolish man, when you do not perceive in him the lips of knowledge.”

Proverbs 14:11 “The house of the wicked will be destroyed…”

Proverbs 16: 27-29  “A worthless man plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire. A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends. A man of violence entices his neighbor and leads him in a way that is not good.”

Proverbs 22:10 “Drive out a scoffer and strife will go out and quarreling and abuse will cease.”

Proverbs 22:24-25  “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man”

Proverbs 29:9  “If a wise man contends with a foolish man, whether the fool rages or laughs, there is no peace.”

Psalm 1:1  “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers.”

Psalm 26:4,5 “I do not sit with men of falsehood nor do I consort with hypocrites. I hate the assembly of evildoers and I will not sit with the wicked.”

Psalm 51:6 “Behold you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.”

Psalm 120: 6,7  “My soul has dwelt too long with one who hates peace. I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.”

Psalm 123:3,4  “Our soul is exceedingly filled with the scorn of those who are at ease with the contempt of the proud.”

Romans 16:13  Watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve.

1 Corinthians 15:33  “Do not be deceived: Bad company ruins good morals.”

2 Thessalonians 2:3  “Don’t let anyone deceive you.”

2 Peter 3:16  “…There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.”

2 Timothy 3:1-5  “For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self- control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.”

2 Thessalonians 3:6  “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.”

Titus 3:10  “As for the person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.”

When does reconciliation take place? A spouse may choose to stay separated from a destructive spouse when she sees no evidence of genuine change (in heart or in habit) despite the offender’s pleas to the contrary. John the Baptist said it best when he challenged the Pharisees “Prove by the way that you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God” (Luke 3:8).

Genesis 42-46  Joseph forgave his brothers before they ever came to Egypt seeking to buy bread. He was kind to them in meeting some of their needs for food, but he did not trust them nor did he reconcile with them until he tested their hearts to see if they had truly changed.

Proverbs 20:11 “Even children are known by the way they act, whether their conduct is pure and whether it is right.”

1 John 1:6  If we say that we have fellowship with Him and walk in darkness, we lie and do not PRACTICE the truth. (Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:22)

1 John 1:8  If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (Talk is cheap and deceiving)

1 John 2:3  Now by this we know that we know Him. If we keep His commandments. He who says, “I know Him, and does not keep His commands, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”

Jeremiah 7:4  Do not trust in deceptive words and say…If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien the fatherless or the widow and do not shed….THEN I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers….But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.

Jeremiah 9:4 “Let everyone beware of his neighbor and put no trust in any brother, for every brother is a deceiver and every neighbor goes about as a slanderer. Everyone deceives his neighbor, and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongue to speak lies; they weary themselves committing iniquity. Heaping oppression upon oppression, and deceit upon deceit, they refuse to know me, declares the Lord”

Jeremiah 12:6 “For even your brothers and the house of your father, even they have dealt treacherously with you; they are in full cry after you; do not believe them; though they speak friendly words to you.”

Psalm 55:19  “For my enemies refuse to change their ways, they do not fear God.”

Psalm 55:21  “His words are as smooth as butter, but in his heart is war. His words are as soothing as lotion, but underneath are daggers!”

Jeremiah 7  In numerous verse throughout this chapter we are told not to trust in deceptive words.

Marriage Q&A: Choosing To Live With A Very Difficult Spouse

SOURCE:  Taken from an article by Leslie Vernick

How Do I Live With A Basically Good Man Who Is A Tyrant?

QuestionMy husband is basically a good man.   He is a school teacher and the music director/organist of our Church.  He can be patient, kind, loving and always deeply spiritual.  He can also be demanding, tyrannical and irrational.

He blames everyone and anyone for any problems that arise. It is a knee-jerk reaction to even the slightest, most inconsequential of events. If one of our children falls down, his first reaction is to scream an “I told you so” at them- never is his first reaction one of concern for their well-being or safety.  He expects our older children- living away from our home with lives of their own- to always be at his beck and call.  If he wants them to do something for him, it does not matter that they have jobs, plans, etc.  He refuses to be told no.  And, everyone cow-tows to him just to keep him on an even keel and avoid the rants and literal rages that he has demonstrated.

While he is a school teacher, his passion is the piano and he is an accomplished pianist and composer- just not as revered and accomplished as he would like to be.  Whose fault is that?  His parents. His father for having a health crisis when he was younger or his mother for not knowing or doing enough to promote his career.  The children and I are also to blame because he has to work a “meaningless” job to put food on the table.

He takes no responsibility for any failure, real or imagined, in his life.  He doesn’t seem to have any concept that not everyone’s life revolves around him and that people are allowed their own lives and opinions.  He is negative in all aspects of his life- except, of course, if it relates to music.   While I could write pages about this aspect of his personality, suffice it to say that he will always see the dark cloud around the silver lining.   He is also very vocal about his negative thoughts and when he’s challenged, he plays the victim and accuses the challenger of attacking him.  It’s to the point where conversation with him is seldom initiated because we all know what his reaction will be.  Want his opinion?  Just think of the most irrational response, and go with that.

He is like a petulant two-year-old who demands his own way and nothing is ever right for him.  Even if you do something considerate to try and make life easier for him or take care of something that he hadn’t time to do, his reaction is never one of gratitude- there is always, always, always a negative reaction.  Things are still done or taken care of for him, but it’s never brought up to him and, if he does notice, it’s never mentioned.

While we all love him, he is driving a wide and very deep wedge between himself and the rest of our family.  It is very difficult to live with someone when you are walking on eggshells at all times.  I am not looking to leave him or my marriage.  I am looking for help in how to live with him and how to help my children live with him.  I do not want my children to grow up like their father.

Answer:  I feel a little confused. You say that your husband is basically a good man, patient, kind, loving and always deeply spiritual.  Then you go on for several paragraphs listing all the ways he is not patient, loving, good or spiritual.  Perhaps what you mean is that your husband can be charming and act loving when everything is going his way and everyone meets his needs and expectations in exactly the way he wants.  When that doesn’t happen, (which is real life) watch out!

Now your question, how do you live with someone like that and how do you help your children live with someone like that?  The best answer I can offer you is you can only live with this (if you choose to) with a good support system and lots of grace and truth, with no expectations of a meaningful relationship or mutual give and take.

I am reluctant to put a label on anyone but your description of your husband’s behavior is typical of someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  A craving for admiration, an attitude of entitlement and lack of empathy for anyone else’s needs are usually the big red flags.   You can google it and read more information on it if you want to see if it fits.

Let’s start with grace. In order to live with someone like this you will need to learn to lean hard into God’s loving grace, knowing that when your husband doesn’t treat you well or love you like you wished he did, you are still deeply loved and valued by God.  You will need God’s grace to continually forgive your husband and keep a clean slate of the wrongs he does against you so that you don’t become hardened by bitterness and resentment. Your husband will never apologize or take responsibility for the wrong’s he’s done which makes it that much harder to forgive and let things go so your strength must come from outside yourself. It can only be from God.

You will need God’s grace to biblically love your husband when you feel like screaming at him and grace to not repay evil for evil. Jesus calls us to love our enemies but we rarely have to live with our enemies day in and day out.  To live in a relatively conflict-free relationship with your husband you will need to accept that you will always be more the giver. God sees how much you give whether or not your husband notices or appreciates it.  You will need His eternal perspective on your marital loneliness and suffering because you will feel unheard, unloved and unvalued much of the time, which may tempt you to seek other male companionship.

You will need grace to not judge your husband and have contempt for him as a man or as a person, even though truth tells you his attitudes and actions are sinful.  Grace keeps us humble, reminding us that we too are sinful and have our own brokenness.  Grace keeps us mindful of the logs in our own eyes before trying to remove the speck in our spouse’s.

You will also need to stay focused on God’s truth to stay healthy emotionally, spiritually and mentally.  Your husband blames and shames everyone around him and it’s tempting to believe his harsh words.  Don’t do it. Listen to what God says about who you are and not your husband’s words.  You will need God’s truth to explain to yourself and even your children that sometimes their father acts selfishly and it’s not wrong of them to say “no” or to ask him to consider their needs, and not just think of his own (Philippians 2:4).

Truth will help you know when boundaries are important and how to set them. For example, when he begins his angry tirade you might stop talking, turn around and walk away. If he continues, leave the house.  When you return you can say something like, “I can’t listen to you when you scream at me. You would do the same if I talked to you that way”  Keep it short and simple.  Or “I don’t want to feel angry and hateful toward you so I’m leaving until you can cool down.”  Then do it.

You will also need truth to guide you when to confront your husband’s sinful behavior and how.  There may be a strategic or teachable moment where you could say something that may cause him to press pause and think about his actions and you want to look for those moments and ask God to give you an anointed tongue.

We are to speak the truth in love to one another but it’s tempting to either to placate this kind of person or eventually get sick of it and blow up, only to later feel guilty, regretting your reaction which only adds more fuel to his fire.  Wear truth as a necklace and she will teach you when the time is right to speak. Hard words need not be harsh words.

For example, when he’s inconsiderate of your needs or your schedule, you could say, “I know this is important to you, but this is important to me so I have to do this first.”  Your goal in this kind of statement is to remind him that you are a separate PERSON with your own needs, feelings and thoughts.  You are not just a slave or a robot or a “wife” but a person and even if he doesn’t value you, you are going to value yourself.

You said you don’t’ want your children growing up to be like their father.  Children do learn a lot from their parents, but their father isn’t their only influencer.  You have a huge impact on your children and the way you interact with their father will say a lot to them about not only who he is, but who you are.  If you act as if he’s right and he’s entitled to act this way, they get the picture that men (fathers, husbands) get to have their way all the time that’s “normal”.  Therefore it’s important to speak truthfully to your children about things such as, “I think sometimes your father can be self-absorbed and not realize that you have your own plans. It’s okay to remind him that you can’t always accommodate him and stick to what you need to do for yourself.”

You say your husband is deeply spiritual. Galatians 5:16-26 speaks about the person who lives in the spirit and one who lives in the flesh.  Perhaps in a moment when your husband seems open or more in tune with God, you could ask him which one he inhabits most often?  Or when he is most negative or critical say, “You don’t seem to experience God’s joy or peace very much.  Why do you think that is?”  Your words will have little impact on him but God tells us that His words are powerful and don’t return void. They have the power to cut right to the heart (Hebrews 4:12). Ask God to use His Word, even those in the lyrics of the music he plays each week at church, to cause him to see the truth about why he is so critical, so miserable and so unhappy.

Lastly, don’t forget you do need good relationships, even if it’s not in your marriage. Seek out healthy girlfriends that can encourage you, love on you, pray for you and hold you accountable to be the kind of person you want to be while living in this difficult marriage.

Q&A: What Is Disrespect?

SOURCE:  Leslie Vernick

Question:    My husband says that he is put into a kind of uncontrollable rage when I disrespect him. He says it’s his God given right as the husband to be respected.  Last night I told my husband who has physically struck me in the past that I felt unsafe in our marriage and that I thought it was necessary that we lay some ground rules and boundaries specifically to be enforced during our times of arguing and fighting so that we can keep each other accountable.

He resisted in agreeing boundaries were the issue but finally agreed. I told him that a universal boundary should be absolutely no physical striking or threats of physically hurting of any kind toward one another.  Then he said that his boundary was that there was to be  “no disrespect or raising my voice to him.” He said that when he is disrespected, he feels he is being verbally abused by me. For him it feels as terrible as I feel when he slaps me on the arm/leg/head.

In theory this sounds “right”. He says that I am making a double standard when I put a boundary on his behavior but that he cannot put one on me.  And yet, something does not seem right at all about what he is saying.  I agree that disrespecting your husband is as sinful as physically striking your spouse in anger. Is it biblical to see these exactly the same in terms of setting “off limit” boundaries in disagreements?

Answer:  Your struggle to think clearly in this muddle is common to women who live with abusive men.  I want to help clarify some important truths.

First, your husband’s rage and subsequent acts of violence toward you are not uncontrollable.  His behavior is always his choice.  I’m sure he has experienced disrespect from other people in his life – his employer, a rude driver, your children, a friend, an enemy.  People sin against us all the time in many ways and sometimes we do get angry. However, that doesn’t mean we hit them. In fact, isn’t that what we teach our children NOT to do when someone takes their toy or makes them mad?  We don’t hit people when we’re mad.  Period!

Let me ask you a question. Does your husband hit other people in the arm/leg/head when he feels disrespected?  What do you imagine a police officer would say if your husband used that as his excuse when he hit someone who disrespected him in traffic or at the mall?

Hear this important truth. Your husband hits you when he is mad because he chooses to and you have continued to enable him by not enforcing legal consequences that would protect you from this kind of abusive behavior.

He says that it is his God-given right to be respected. It’s also your God given right to be loved and cherished.  When he fails to love and cherish you and you feel hurt or angry, do you hit him?

The second truth I want you be crystal clear on is that you will fail your spouse and he will fail you. Sometimes these failures are big but often they occur in little ways.  He doesn’t love you like you’d like or you don’t respect him like he wants you to.  The truth is, our spouse doesn’t always give us what we want even if what we want is a good and godly thing.  Hurt and disappointment occur in every marriage and we can feel angry, hurt and disrespected.

But is the right answer to treat our spouse with abusive behavior or abusive speech when they don’t give us what we want?  Jesus says “Never!” The Bible labels that kind of behavior sin and selfishness and it is never justified.

The truth is no one gets everything he or she wants all of the time. Part of growing up and maturing is learning how to handle ourselves in a godly, mature way when we are disappointed, angry and hurt when we don’t get what we want.

Your husband’s entitlement thinking has deceived him into believing that since he’s entitled to be respected, he’s entitled to hit you when you’re not complying with what he wants.  That is absolutely not true.  How do other men handle being disrespected by their wives?  They might pray for their wife. They might talk with their wife. They might get counseling as a couple.

A much healthier response to his disappointment or hurt when you don’t respect him is for him to say, “Honey, that hurts me when you talk to me that way. Would you please stop?”  Or even, “When you talk to me that way, I can’t hear you. I’m ending the conversation.”

As far as boundaries – you’re right, you will never feel safe to have a conversation with your husband let alone disagree if you fear for your safety.  In the same way, if your husband fears your tongue and being disrespected, it’s hard for him to share his honest thoughts and feelings with you.

However, I’m not sure of his definition of disrespect.  You were very clear with your definition of what you want stopped, no physical threats or physical violence.  His definition was fuzzy – “No disrespect or raising your voice”.   Does that mean that when you feel strongly about something or disagree, you can’t speak with an elevated voice without him feeling disrespected?  Does that mean that you cannot argue because he will feel you don’t respect his opinion?  Does that mean you have to agree with everything he thinks because not to will feel disrespectful to him?

You need to ask him to define for you the behavior that feels disrespectful to him.  Is it calling him names?  Is it swearing at him?  Is it rolling your eyes?  If you know what it is specifically, then you can decide whether or not you can agree to stop or change it.  If you don’t know what it is, then the rules always change and he can feel disrespected just because you open your mouth in protest.

Finally, a first step boundary or safety plan for both of you might be that when either one of you feels unsafe, the one who feels unsafe can stop the conversation and the other person will respect that boundary and stop talking.

If it continues to be unsafe to have difficult discussions together and you have important things that need to be decided, then you will agree together to engage the help of a counselor to help you learn to speak safely and respectfully with one another and to handle your disappointments in a more godly way.

Marriage Q&A: How Do I Stay Distant Without Being Cold Hearted?

SOURCE:  Leslie Vernick/Kim Caloca

How Do I Stay Distant Without Being Cold Hearted?

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.

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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:

– Committed to honesty – no pretending

– Open to the Holy Spirit and wise others to help you grow

– Responsible for yourself and your own responses and respectful towards others without dishonoring yourself

– 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.

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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.

Q&A: My Husband is Draining Our Finances With His Addiction. I Don’t Know What to Do.

SOURCE:  Adapted from an article by Leslie Vernick

Question: I need help as to what to do with my marriage. We have been married 25 years and, in that time, I have dealt with my husband being an alcoholic with two DUI’S and then his arrest for prescription fraud.

He stopped drinking, but then put pills in its place. He takes hydrocodone and soma for back problems, but he doesn’t just take the 2 per day as prescribed. He takes a lot more. When he ran out, he started buying more from other people and now also buys Xanax. He tells me that he doesn’t buy anything from other people, but I know he is lying. He writes a check for gas everyday which I know he uses to get cash back to do who knows what with.

Because of all this mess, we filed bankruptcy but still can’t get ahead. We are 3 months behind on house payments and just about 2 months behind on regular utility bills. I’ve dealt with all this for a long time. I have told him what I don’t like about it, but he says that all I do is get on him about everything. I know I do, but after so long of just holding things inside, I let it out on him.

I know I shouldn’t constantly tell him what he is doing wrong, but he has put us in a financial mess, and now I’m not sure what to do about staying married. Please help! I’m lost as to what to do and how to handle things.

I love my husband and want my marriage to work, but he is making it very difficult for me to love as I once did. I have a lot of bitterness, anger and even hatred in my heart for all that has happened. I’m constantly repenting for my feelings and don’t want to feel that way. He says he will take pills for his pain till the day he dies, and that I need to just deal with it. And, after about 13 years of not drinking, he has started to drink again. It’s only a couple a day, but an alcoholic shouldn’t go back to drinking should they? I also recently found a joint in his truck. I flushed it, and he got furious at me. He said it helped relieve his pain and said no one understands the amount of pain he is in. I just don’t know what to do anymore. He keeps spending money like crazy and doesn’t leave enough for me to pay bills.

He spends more money than we have in our checkbook, so then we have to catch up and pay NSF fees. I don’t want to lose my marriage or house, etc., but I have also been doing a lot of praying and soul searching as to whether I want to live the rest of my life like this. Thank you so much for your time and any help you can give me.

Answer: One of the most important things you must do if you want help is first distinguish the difference between your husband’s problem and your problem.

Your husband is an addict and is self-medicating to deal with his pain. That’s his problem, and he’s chosen to go outside the boundaries of his doctor or a pain management specialist to cope with this pain problem. You may have some influence in how he deals with his problem, but whether or not he changes or gets the help he needs will be up to him. You cannot fix or solve his problem as much as you want to or as much as you love him.

However your problem is that you don’t like living this way. You don’t like the financial havoc and chronic deceitfulness you live with every day. You don’t like the anger he displays when you try to express your concerns. You struggle with bitterness, hatred and resentment because of all this chaos. That is your problem.

When you can clarify the difference between his problem (which you apparently have zero influence over right now) and your problem, then you can work on your problem.

First, what do you need to do to get more financial stability? For example, do you work? Do you need to put your paycheck into a separate bank account that he does not have access to? Does he work? If not, where is he getting his access to money to buy drugs and write checks every day? If you are enabling that, you can choose to stop doing that by separating your money and not giving him access to it.

Will that make him angry? Yes, but it will help with your financial problems. However that doesn’t solve the marital problems. His sole focus is on himself right now which is true of anyone who is an addict. He’s not thinking of anything other than getting his drugs. Whether or not he’s in as much pain as he claims, we don’t know. Certainly pain is difficult to live with, and you can have compassion for his struggle with pain. But instead of trying to solve his problems in a healthy way, he is resorting to his own ways.

To let go of resentment and anger involves having compassion for a person who is so lost and desperate that he (or she) would do things that have such detrimental consequences, just to get a high–or get rid of pain–whether it is physical and/or emotional pain. However, being compassionate does not mean you have to cooperate or enable his dysfunction to continue to impact your life in detrimental ways. If you can cut off the funding for his drug use, perhaps that will motivate him to seek appropriate help for his pain as well as his addiction.

To get healthy, you will need to create some distance from him financially, emotionally as well as perhaps physically, so that the consequences of his foolishness don’t keep landing at your feet. He’s had two DUI’s and an arrest for prescription fraud. Now he’s buying drugs on the street. How does he drive with two DUI’S? Does he have a valid driver’s license or is he just driving without one? Why does he have access to a vehicle when he is taking drugs and now drinking alcohol much of the time? Who is paying for the upkeep of the car insurance, gasoline, repairs, etc.? Are you? If so, you must stop. If you can’t stop, you need to get help for yourself to be strong enough to set and keep good boundaries. Otherwise you are enabling him to continue to do what he does.

I’m asking you tough questions not to make you feel bad, but for you to recognize that you do not have to continue being a victim and enabler of your spouse’s foolishness. In the Bible, we learn about Abigail who was married to a surly and foolish man. When he made a bad decision, she overruled it and did the right thing (1 Samuel 25). I understand that for many women it’s hard to stand strong, create boundaries and still stay compassionate. If you’re having trouble doing that, get some help for yourself. Go to Celebrate Recovery, attend Al-Anon meetings or seek a counselor to give you the support you need.

Improve Your Marriage by Being Worse Parents

SOURCE:  Jim Keller/Family Life

Parents often put their marriage relationship on the back burner. These four principles will help you balance working on your marriage while attempting to raise children.

There was no question about it: The situation was serious. Greg, a 17-year-old junior in high school was found by his mother passed out on his bed after overdosing on his father’s pain medication. He was rushed to the hospital, stabilized, and then admitted to the psychiatric unit for observation. After two days of psychological assessment and prescribed medications, Greg was released with the recommendation that he receive counseling to help deal with his emotional and relational health.

When I met with Greg, he seemed like a normal, emotionally engaged young man who had simply been going through some academic and relational difficulties. We talked through the struggles he was dealing with at present and came up with a treatment plan that I felt would address these issues and hopefully make him more resilient to deal with any problems that might arise. It was a good first session and my prognosis was that Greg simply needed some space to talk about some of his internal stress and develop some new coping strategies.

Then I met with the parents …

Greg’s mother and father were appropriately concerned following the revelation that Greg had been abusing drugs, particularly after his overdose. The more I talked to them, however, the more I became concerned about them. They weren’t just worried about Greg’s emotional health; they were worried about his GPA, his sports performance, his “questionable” relationships, his Christian testimony, his reputation, and his ability to be accepted to the college of his choice. And secretly worried, I think, about how their reputation as parents would be sullied if word got out that Greg had a “drug problem.” While these concerns were legitimate, they didn’t get to the real heart of the issue.

During the next session, I asked Greg about his parents’ marriage. He described it as “fine,” but when asked to elaborate he revealed some important dynamics.

“Are you closer to your mother or father?” I asked. Without hesitation he answered he was closer to his mother.

“Who aggravates you more?” I followed up.

“She does.”

“Do you feel close to your father?”

“No, not really,” he said.

Greg also talked about his general experience at home. “I feel as if I’m under a microscope and that if I don’t perform up to expectations, the whole family will fall apart.”

“Are they good parents?” I asked.

I’ll never forget his answer: “They’re too good! I feel as if it all hinges on me—how the family is doing, what the mood is at the house, and whether we’re going to have a good time or not.”paren

In Greg’s family, the husband and wife were too devoted to their parenting and not focused enough on their own relationship. Greg’s parents had every right to be concerned.  But the key issue besides stabilizing Greg’s behavior had nothing to do directly with him. It had to do with his parents. Our culture is kid-centric. It is hyper-focused on raising great kids. Not average kids, not “C” students, but above-average, excelling children who will somehow validate the family and make every parental sacrifice worthwhile.

The problem with this focus however, is the fact that many times marriages and the relationships between the parents themselves are put on the back burner in the name of being more effective and loving parents. This is usually not a conscious decision, but one that takes place over years of family growth and child development.

Here are four principles that can help balance working on your marriage while attempting to raise children:

Principle #1: The marriage comes first—spousal love covers a multitude of parental sins. Many of my clients, both adult and children, have experienced tremendous anguish because of marital conflict in their past or present home. One of my most distressing times as a therapist was working with a 9-year-old first-born child, who was experiencing debilitating headaches that consumed his life. In tears he would tell me of the emotional pain that his parents’ fighting would cause him; he couldn’t escape the anguish that the conflict between his parents created in him. When I tried to intervene in this boy’s parents’ marriage, his mother and father told me that the subject was moot because the marriage was ending in divorce. Needless to say the headaches continued.

Principle #2: Parenting is a team effort. Children know instinctively how to divide and conquer. And if there is disagreement as to how a child should be directed or disciplined, the family is set up for potential chaos and the marriage is weakened. Marital discord creates a chaos where children will be in charge. A divided marriage not only brings discord to the house, but many times the husband and wife will seek to curry the favor of their children instead of their spouse, validating their feelings through their children rather than their spouse.

This principle is violated with such frequency that I sometimes shake my head in amazement. A few years ago I counseled a couple that was working through some extremely difficult issues. They had two pre-adolescent children and were at loggerheads over what type of parenting style was appropriate. The wife claimed her husband was a severe and unreasonable disciplinarian; the husband claimed his wife spoiled the children to a “ridiculous degree.”  As the marriage disintegrated, the husband shied away from his draconian parenting style and began relating with his boys in a way that he had never done—he spent one-on-one time with them, and began to listen more closely to not just what they were doing but how they were doing. Instead of the wife being pleased, she became more and more agitated, convinced her husband was turning the children against her.  The conclusion is obvious: If the marriage is suffering, parenting will also suffer or at best be extremely challenging.

Principle #3: Let your children make mistakes. A couple came to see me to deal with a variety of issues both marital and familial, but their central focus causing the most consternation was their teenage daughter’s interest in a boy who was, in their eyes, less than stellar. They told her she could not date this boy any longer because she was making a “serious mistake.”

Kristi feigned agreement, but secretly kept seeing her boyfriend until her disobedience was discovered. This continued back and forth for another two months and then ensued what I call the “take-away game.” Kristi’s privileges were stripped one by one, until she basically went to school, came home, had dinner, and went to her room. Her computer was gone, her phone was confiscated, and she was isolated from any item that would cause her the smallest bit of pleasure in her home.

“How’s this working out for you?” I asked Kristi’s parents with a smile. The smile was not returned. I tried a different approach, “How is this affecting your marriage?” This question caught them a bit off guard, but they both admitted that their relationship was strained at best. Their daughter was a huge distraction and they had found themselves bickering about what direction to go and what disciplinary steps to take next. The time and energy that they were concentrating on their daughter was seriously interfering with their marriage. They asked me what direction they should take.

“First, give her everything back,” I said.

“Won’t that validate her behavior?” the mother asked.

“No, it will just let her know that you recognize that what you’re doing is not effective and that you are rescinding the punishment. Then,” I said, “sit her down, express your desires, and review the boundaries that you have set for her. After that, pause, look her in the eye, and say, ‘We have taught and hopefully modeled for you what good decision-making looks like. But we cannot control your life and we cannot keep you from making what we think are serious mistakes. So we’ll continue to set family boundaries which we expect you to honor, but we will not micro-manage your life any longer.'”

The mother looked on in horror as I suggested this. “Do you know the bad decisions she could make?”

“I do, and I hope she doesn’t. But the price that you’re paying as a couple and as a family is too great. You cannot let your daughter dictate the environment of your family.”

Kristi didn’t get better right away, and she did make some mistakes, but she no longer controlled the family by her behavior. I am certainly not encouraging negligent parenting and I’m also not saying that parents shouldn’t intervene when their children are making life-threatening decisions, but mistakes are potentially life’s instructors—we all learn the hard way! Kristi’s parents’ marriage was strengthened, and that produced a healing effect not only in their relationship but in their family as well.

Principle #4: Let your children reap their own consequences. One of Jesus’ most fascinating parables is the story of the prodigal son. That one story is so loaded with lessons that you could spend a decade studying it and still not plumb its depths.  As we know, the son goes off, squanders his inheritance, and returns home destitute and humbled. One of the great lessons of this story is the fact that the father allowed his son to reap the consequences of his own decisions. He did not intervene or bail his son out of trouble or out of debt. He only prayed, awaiting his son’s return.

Of all the responsibilities that come with parenting, I believe allowing children to reap their own consequences is by far the most difficult. Any loving parent doesn’t want his or her child to suffer the results of poor decision-making.

I am regularly asked to counsel adolescents who are described by the parents as “under-achievers,” which I’ve finally determined is a fancy word for lazy. “John just isn’t getting the grades he’s capable of,” said one mother who recently came into my office.

John was in a prep school and was pulling in B’s and C’s. As I talked with John it was evident that he himself knew he wasn’t performing up to the level to which he was capable.

“What’s the deal with school?” I asked.

“Oh, I just don’t care that much and don’t want to do all the work they want me to do to get A’s. B’s and C’s are okay.”

I talked with the mother at the end of the session and told her that I thought John was a fine young man and that he was doing well.

“But what about his grades?” his mother asked, “He won’t be able to get in to the colleges that he wants to with grades like that.”

“Have you told him this?” I responded, but I confess that I already knew the answer.

“From the time he was in middle school—he knows what he needs to do.”

“Then let him reap what he has sown,” I said.

John knew that his behavior had consequences, but he hadn’t quite reaped them yet. His parents needed to allow that to transpire, even if his path was not totally to their liking. John got into a middle-tier college and went on to do quite well in his early adulthood. I had a conversation with him five years later and he said to me, “You know, I know I could have gone to a better college if I had worked harder in high school. I realize what my parents were trying to get me to understand.”

“Could they have done anything different to change your behavior?” I asked.

“No, I just had to learn for myself,” was his sage reply.

Parenting, the great distracter

Parenting is a great responsibility and a great joy, but it can also be a great distracter. Our lives are so inextricably linked with our children that it sometimes can be overwhelming emotionally. My most emotional moments and the majority of my tears were engendered by my kids. But my children eventually left home—can you imagine?! And my wife and I were the ones that remained. And the really interesting thing to me is that our relationship is still the backbone of our now-extended family. Don’t focus so much on your parenting that you forget that the most important relationship in your family is your marriage to your spouse.

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Adapted from The Upside Down Marriage ©2012 by James Mark Keller.

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