Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family?  Dr. David will address two questions from Crosswalk readers in each weekly column. Submit your question to him at TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com.

Dear Dr. David,

I have been married for almost 13 years.  I can't remember many happy times during this time period.  My husband is controlling.  When he tells me something I should change, I try and do this, except it is never good enough or once that situation is fixed, he will start in on something else.  I feel he will always find something wrong with me. 

Our son is nine years old and has picked up on the treatment of my husband to me.  He gets mad at his father and asks him why does he have to be so mean to his mom all the time.  My husband never has an answer but feels he is doing nothing wrong.  It's all me and my behaviors. I have now gained weight because of all the stress and unhappiness in the marriage.  He told me recently I could leave if I wanted to---then at least he wouldn't have to deal with my weight gain and me not doing anything about it. 

I used to be very independent and happy but feel that the person I was has been destroyed and now I don't know who I am or how I am supposed to act.  I can't take the unhappiness, loneliness and controlling behavior any longer.  I am so angry now I feel like I am going to explode.  I want nothing to do with my husband and my family has said I can move back home.  They see how he is destroying me.  How do you stay with someone that no matter what you do is not good enough? Should I stay or should I go?  ~ Suffocating

Dear Suffocating,

Your email speaks to thousands of women, and men, who feel controlled in their marriage. As you suggest, when you’re in a controlling relationship, there is often nothing you can do to win complete approval. Thus, you’re on a vicious treadmill, forever trying to gain approval that never comes, all the while losing self-esteem and the person God has created you to be.

However, the picture is not as simple as it appears. While we never appreciate someone controlling us, often we unwittingly play into this destructive pattern by trying to win the other’s approval, thereby feeding into the vicious cycle. This appears to be the case in your marriage.

Let’s take a step back and see how this works.

Your husband wants his way. He has a vision for how things “should” be, moralizes about it to himself and you, thereby making you feel ashamed for not living up to his expectations. Your weight may be an example of this. He can make you feel guilty for being over weight. Feeling guilty and ashamed, you try to please him—but you can never do this. If you lose the “right” amount of weight, according to him, there will some other issue, because, it’s not really all about the weight. It’s about control, expectations and demands.

But, you cater to his demands, thereby reinforcing his dysfunctional behavior. You enable him to remain controlling, only increasing his power and control issues, and create a lack of self-respect as well. Additionally, both you and your husband model destructive behavior for your children.

So, the problem is murkier than we might believe at first. Both of you need to change. His insecurities lead him to demand perfection out of you, and possibly even the children, and you struggle to try to keep him happy. You both participate in a destructive dance, and, thankfully, if even one of you changes it, the entire dance routine is likely to change.

In my book, When Pleasing Others is Hurting You, I talk about the insecurities that can lead to, and stem from, seeking the approval of others. I share insights from Scripture about finding our true identity in our relationship to Jesus Christ, as opposed to our mates. It is critical that you stop trying to please your husband, and instead focus on Jesus, “the author and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12: 2) Spending time in Scripture, and getting counsel and support from healthy friends will help you stop trying to gain his complete approval.

You mention your increasing anger. Anger and resentment are usually indicators that we are not setting firm boundaries. Having weak boundaries, we then resent those who violate them, rather than taking full responsibility for being firm with others. Is it possible that you are dancing so fast, trying to meet your husbands unreasonable standards, that you have developed a bitter attitude? You may need to shore up your boundaries so that you feel better equipped to find the loveable qualities in your husband again.

Does this mean we never try to please our mate? Of course not. We are taught to “live a life of love,” which includes esteeming and delighting in one another. (Ephesians 5: 2) Loving your husband will, however, at times include saying “no,” and setting healthy boundaries. It involves disagreeing with him, and not getting embroiled in arguing, debating or explaining. A healthy marriage involves confronting one another at times and agreeing to disagree. It involves breaking free from being addicted to approval and codependency.

The bottom line is that each of us needs to give up our need to control others, as well as giving up our need to always please others. We are really only responsible to God for our true source of identity. While we called to meet appropriate needs in marriage, not unhealthy, dysfunctional ones. There is a fine balance, but once we find it, we are much happier, healthier and more capable of mature love in marriage.  


David Hawkins, Pd.D., has worked with couples and families to improve the quality of their lives by resolving personal issues for the last 30 years. He is the author of over 18 books, including Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage   Saying It So He'll Listen, and  When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You. His newest books are titled  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt.  Dr. Hawkins also conducts Marriage Intensives for couples in crisis seeking immediate, intensive counseling.

 

Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.