A Little Fear Goes a Long Way in Marriage
- 2008 14 Apr
April 14, 2008
Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family? Dr. David will address questions from Crosswalk readers in each weekly column. Submit your question to him at TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com.
If I placed a thimble full of sewage into a glass of pure water, would you drink it? Of course not. How about if I placed a millimeter of raw sewage into an otherwise pristine glass of water? Would you then drink it? Again, your answer is a resounding “No!”
The question is ridiculous, isn’t it? No one would voluntarily subject themselves to the chance of contamination. Yet, we do this routinely when we subject ourselves to abusive, controlling and angry people.
Angry, controlling people impact our safety. They create a threatening world where we do not grow or feel safe. In some cases, we literally become frozen as a way to cope with this trauma.
Why do we subject ourselves to these situations? That answer is rarely an easy one. It’s not that controlling people are always angry or controlling. Were that the case, we’d find ways to stay away from them. Rather, what is more often the case is where one partner is excessively angry on occasion, or even randomly. We never know what will set them off. This makes the situation all the more unpredictable.
The following letter is typical of many I receive on this subject. In what appears to be an otherwise healthy relationship, there is the unpredictable and terribly destructive element of explosive anger. Not knowing when or where her husband will erupt, this woman walks around on eggshells.
Let’s consider her situation.
Dear Dr. David. My husband and I have been married for 17 month’s; this is a second marriage for me and a first for him. I have a son, 15, and a daughter, 11. My concern is that my husband is very controlling and he has issues with anger. We’ve had some counseling, but nothing long term. We have been given advice on how to handle issues with the children and each other when it comes to disagreements, however my husband does not apply any of the advice.
Wherever there is a disagreement he will become threatening. Thank God he has not hit me, however I fear for the day he does. We are both Christians and attend church on a weekly basis. I want our relationship to work, when he is not in one of his fits he says that he wants it to work as well. I’m lost, I want to honor God, and do the right thing especially since this is a second marriage, but I don’t know what to do. I feel like I’m at end of my rope. When he becomes threatening I leave, but I can’t continue to leave, I have two children, and of course he won’t leave. What do I do?
Your letter reveals a number of reasons why you are still so frustrated. Let’s look at them, one at a time.
First, your husband appears to have significant character problems. Excessive control and anger are often by-products of character problems. Episodic anger, appropriately expressed, is one thing. Excessive anger and control reveal immaturity. Fits of anger and threatening behaviors are traits of domestic violence, and exhibit not only a lack of self-control, but illustrate his attempt to have total control. He shows an inability to tolerate frustration or engage in effective problem-solving. These are serious issues.
Second, you say you have engaged in counseling, but nothing long-term. I’ve said repeatedly, “a little change is not enough.” You need significant intervention. Rather than assistance with symptoms (his relationship with your children,) you need to work with someone who will tackle the root of the problem—his insecure, angry and controlling nature.
Third, you seem to still be struggling with guilt. You say you want to honor God, since this is your second marriage. Hopefully, you want to honor God because that is the right thing to do. You need not remain in an abusive situation as a way to honor God. God loves you and does not honor your husband when he is abusive.
Fourth, you are right to leave when he becomes threatening, but you’re not doing enough. He obviously knows that he can push you so far. He knows you will leave, but also knows you’ll return. You must set a boundary with him about his behavior. Make it clear that fits, tantrums, threats and name-calling are intolerable. They simply cannot exist in a healthy marriage.
Finally, understand you cannot change this situation on your own. Though he is likely to resist change—which is part of a character problem—you must press forward. You need in-depth counseling and the complete absence of controlling or violent behavior. He must take responsibility for his behavior, with no excuses, and make plans for rectifying his troubling behavior. You must have a no tolerance policy. Anything less will only enable his destructive behavior.
So, in summary, you must turn up the heat. Stop enabling his abusive behavior. Get support for yourself for what are likely to be very difficult decisions. Be clear, calm and convicting as well as consistent. Insist that he participate in couples counseling for an extended period of time, where you work together on his anger and control issues, as well as his own individual/ group therapy with men who have anger/ control issues. Please also get a copy of my book, Nine Critical Mistakes Most Couples Make and work through it with him and remember, a little change is not enough. Even a small dose of fear destroys the sanctity of a marriage.
Please let me know what you
think. What would you demand of this man? What should this
woman do? Send me your comments.
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David Hawkins, Ph.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 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.