Married to an Emotionally Unavailable Man
- 2007 14 Nov
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.
Dear Dr. David,
My husband has never ever opened up emotionally to me. He has damaged relationships with all our children as well due to the control and emotional unavailability. I played the role of the buffer between the two. He has pushed them all away unfortunately. Anyway, you mentioned in your book, When The Man in Your Life Won’t Commit that someone who is not emotionally available is someone who is not really committed. You also said that a marriage without emotional intimacy is no marriage at all. That is exactly how I have felt for years. Like I have been living and sleeping with a stranger. He admittedly says he doesn't trust people including me. He admittedly says he can't forgive. He is very proud and concerned with image at all costs. I've been told by Christian counselors that he is emotionally crippled and childlike and unless he is willing to allow God to heal him, he will always operate this way. That leaves a dismal prognosis as far as I can see Dr. David. ~ Discouraged
You certainly have a right to be discouraged. Being married to someone who will not commit themselves fully to the marriage can be like living with a stranger. When this continues year after year, the relationship shrivels and eventually dies. A marriage is like a delicate flower needing constant attention and nutrients. Without those nutrients, we can exist but not thrive.
Your note lists several issues with your husband. Your husband cannot trust people and can’t forgive. Your husband is living in a self-imposed prison. In fact, rather than accepting the fact that he can’t trust, it is more realistic to say that he won’t trust. Having had his trust broken at some point, he’s undoubtedly created a series of rationalizations for not trusting others. Of course he can work on trust, even if simply starting with a desire to trust. By accepting the false reality that he cannot trust, he limits any opportunities to change.
The same principles apply to his belief that he cannot forgive. Of course he can forgive, but, like you and me, has to be willing to forgive. Again, undoubtedly having been hurt, he’s created a wall of rationalization, justifications and excuses for never forgiving certain people. These are, however, excuses. We never need to live in emotional isolation because of being wounded sometime in our past. We’ve all been hurt and disappointed in relationships—it comes with the territory—but we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and use our good judgment about whom to trust in the future.
I probably don’t need to tell you that the Scriptures implore us to forgive. As challenging as it is, God knew that a heart filled with distrust and unforgiveness hurts us more than the person toward whom we hold the grudge. Your husband sounds miserable, and lonely. As others have said, he’s emotionally crippled.
Now, what about you? It sounds extremely painful to live in a loveless, lifeless marriage. You must now look closely at how you’ve responded to this emotional abandonment. You must determine if you’re enabling your marriage to disintegrate in any way. While you are not responsible for his actions, you are for your own. Here are a few questions to consider:
- When he withdraws, are there certain triggers which partially involve you? If so, can you react differently?
- Are there times (vacations/ outings) when he removes some of the bricks in the wall? If so, do you seize those opportunities for contact?
- Have you talked candidly to him about this distance to see if he might be interested in more contact? Have you been clear that such behavior is intolerable?
- Is he still willing to go to church with you? If so, these might be opportunities for contact?
- What are you like to live with? Have you considered there might be behaviors of yours that add to the problem?
- Do you withdraw when he withdraws?
- Have you insisted on couples counseling?
These questions are designed to encourage you to think about your role in the marriage dance. Often we focus on our mate, and what they’re doing wrong, and forget to look at our part in the equation. We spend too much time complaining rather than using our creative energies to find solutions. I’m not at all suggesting that you are responsible for his emotional distance. What I’m saying is that you have undoubtedly developed a patterned, predictable response to his behavior—and this is worth critically exploring.
We must talk about boundaries. Having explored your behavior, and worked on behaving as effectively as possible, you must also make it clear to him that you cannot endure emotional distance indefinitely. There are times, in extreme marriage crises, when one partner needs to temporarily separate from the other for a time of prayer, consideration and to break the endless, destructive cycles.
Finally, consider creating a crisis. Yes, I said to create a crisis. I work with couples in my Emergency Marriage Intensives to strategically create a crisis where healthy change is more likely to happen. It often takes a breakdown of our way of doing things before there can be a breakthrough, allowing God to work in our lives. This is a definitive way to stop enabling destructive, “childlike” behavior. You may be at that point. It is very unlikely that your husband would want a separation, but must understand that marriage requires ongoing work. There is no coasting allowed. So, start with yourself, making sure you are prayed up, and then create a crisis where change is more likely to occur. Don’t settle for less than the best God has for you.
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.