Confronting the Irresponsible Spouse
- Dr. David B. Hawkins The Marriage Recovery Center
- 2012 2 Feb
Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family? Dr. David Hawkins, director of the Marriage Recovery Center, will address questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question to TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com.
Resentment can be a very informative emotion. Resentment tells us about our core expectations, and can also enlighten us as to what is taking place, and what isn’t, in our relationships.
I receive many emails from women who are resentful of their husbands for giving too little. Harriet Lerner, in her book The Dance of Anger, talks about women who are “overfunctioners.” In fact, she notes that women overfunction “with a vengeance while complaining all the way.”
I see this pattern occurring in many marriages: women who complain about how much they have to do, while enabling men to be emotionally, spiritually and sometimes even physically absent. The problem is that women unintentionally reinforce this pattern of men being emotionally absent while growing increasingly resentful.
Consider this recent email from an angry woman.
Dear Dr. David. I am hoping you can advise me on my marriage. My husband is thirty and I am twenty-seven. We have been together for five years and married for almost four.
My main problem is that my husband is very irresponsible. I saw this pattern beginning when we were dating but thought things would change when we got married. I have always been the one to work while my husband is in and out of jobs. He promises to go to work, but ends up hanging out with friends, relaxing and avoiding finding a job. Every day he has a new excuse for not working.
I have always done well at work. Because I work hard, I’m given promotions. I’ve always done well, graduating from college near the top of my class. My husband barely made it through college and has not held a full-time job since graduating.
I have always taken my role as a wife very seriously. While I focus on my marriage, my husband focuses on himself. I was all about being the best wife every day and he was completely interested in himself. I did everything that needed done, working full time, cooking, cleaning, cars, bills, etc.. he did nothing. I would ask him to help but it never happened.
I’m not sure what to do now. He has excuses for everything, and I carry the responsibility for our income, paying the bills and caring for our home and two children. How can I get my husband to take more responsibility in our home?
First, there is no excuse for your husband’s irresponsibility. He must be held responsible for his role as a provider for the family. Your note indicates a severe problem with immaturity on his part, which suggests a character issue as opposed to a temporary, situational problem.
Second, you must make it clear that this irresponsibility will not be tolerated. This is a message to give to him clearly, calmly and with conviction. You will be setting a boundary, one that you must indicate he cannot violate. Scripture makes it clear that such irresponsibility is a form of unfaithfulness and cannot exist in a marriage.
When you tell him that he must carry his load in this marriage, you will need to be specific about what that means. Your conversation will need to include discussion of finances, care for the children as well as tasks around the house. Your marriage needs to be transformed, from responsible/ irresponsible to mutually responsible.
Your husband must turn his attention away from himself and his selfish pursuits to that of the marriage. As Eugene Peterson says, “Marriage involves you in all the nuts and bolts of domestic life and in wanting to please your spouse, leading to so many more demands on your attention.” (I Corinthians 7: 33-34)
Third, you must guard against what Harriet Lerner calls an “overfunctioner.” You may have chosen to be with someone who under-functions in part because of this tendency on your part. It is critical that you explore your motives to ensure that you are willing to give up some of the responsibility you attract. As you let go of responsibility there may be times when you live with uncertainty. When you let go, will he pick up? When you cut back, will he step up to accept responsibility? When you set a boundary, will you back it up?
In my book When Pleasing Others is Hurting You I explain how healthy marriages are built, in large part, on mutual respect. That seems to be lacking in your marriage and other marriages where irresponsibility is paramount. Love cannot thrive where there is irresponsibility. I encourage you to take a tough stand, make firm agreements and then hold one another accountable for those agreements. This is a path for a marriage free from resentment.
Have you been an over-functioner? What has been the result? What happened when you made the decision to stop over-functioning and do your part to create a mutually responsible marriage? Practice some of these tools and let me know how they work for you. I’d like to hear your experiences with narcissism in marriage. Please send your responses to TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com and visit my website at www.TheMarriageRecoveryCenter.com.
Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recovery Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and When Pleasing Others is Hurting You. 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. You can also find Dr. Hawkins on Facebook and Twitter.