Ask Dr. David: When Only One Spouse Owns the Problem

Dear Dr. David,

The information you have shared about those struggling with a responsibility disorder was so timely for me.  I want to thank you for this as having the information and being able to call something by name makes a difference!

I have been married for twenty years to a husband who fits the description.  It's a second marriage for both of us and we are sixty years old. The marriage has been disappointing in many ways and yet we’re still together.

I lived many years as an enabler and contributed to the chaos of our relationship.  The more my husband disappeared emotionally, the more I tried to hold on.  A counselor encouraged me to drop my 'end of the rope' and I finally faced my fears and did just that. 

Just as I feared, my husband did not pick up his end of the rope and so, there it lay.  I am the only one working on the relationship, and that hurts. I have had to face the painful rejection of this and slowly made changes that have been good for me.  My husband has remained distant and that is another pain I have simply had to learn to keep taking to God.  I considered leaving, but didn't feel that that was God's best for me.

Another painful aspect of our marriage is my husband’s withholding sexual intimacy from me. Of course, I cannot talk about this problem with many people, further increasing my isolation.

I know that I could leave my husband, but that doesn’t feel right to me. God has given me the strength and courage to stay, and that is what I will do. I am so appreciative of God's grace!  I continue to pray Isaiah 54, telling me that God is my husband. Tears fill my eyes as I write this because I am reminded of how difficult this relationship is.  So, I was encouraged by your remarks to consistently, and calmly confront, every time there is an emotional infraction.  However, I am at a point where I am simply weary. If you have any other advice for me, I would sincerely appreciate it. ~ Weary

Dear Weary,

Your words echo those I’ve heard so many times from women across the country—women tired of carrying the emotional and spiritual responsibility for their marriage. It has become a national epidemic, with nearly two out of three marriages ending after being initiated by women tiring of men who disappear emotionally and sexually.

To be completely fair, however, disappearing men, emotionally and sexually, is often not simply a result of not wanting to be close. Men often close down as a way to cope with their inner pain. There are thousands of men who are addicts of one kind or another, or simply depressed, leading them to lives of isolation. I talk about this issue at length in my book, Does Your Man Have the Blues? This is something to consider.

You indicate that you have been an enabler—this is also true for many women. While many complain about having so many responsibilities, too often they have enabled men to be under-responsible. I am challenging women to stop enabling men to be emotionally checked out, under-involved, and relationally ignorant. I have spoken out about this horrific problem in my books, When Trying To Change Him is Hurting You, and When Pleasing Others is Hurting You.

It is crucial that you review all the ways you may be making it easy for your husband to withdraw. Understand that I’m not blaming you for this, but simply asking you to inspect the situation with new eyes. Do you hold him accountable for his behavior? Are you perfectly clear with him about your needs and desires, or do you share them and then withdraw angrily? Are you consistent in sharing your concerns? Addressing the issue from a detached perspective, understanding that he is probably in pain, often helps. Guard against criticism, as that undoubtedly does not help.

You give no indication as to whether or not your husband is a Christian, or if you have pursued counseling. Is your husband willing to listen to your pastor or meet with a counselor to address these issues? The scriptures are replete with examples about mutual submission, not simply one submitting to the other. (Ephesians 5: 21) The Apostle Paul indicated that we are not to withhold physical affection from one another, knowing this to be painful and possibly punitive. We are to pursue peace and mutual edification. (Romans 12: 19)

While it is encouraging that this difficulty has caused you to nestle into the loving arms of Father God, be careful about giving up on your marriage. Be careful about isolating, though these topics are hard to talk about. There is a healthy balance in-between nagging and settling for a most disappointing relationship—loving confrontation and enlisting him in improving your marriage. I hope you will continue to insist on professional help, letting him know that you expect, and God desires, more from him and your marriage. 

Dear Dr. David,

I have been struggling with marital issues for twenty-five years--as long as I've been married.  I have been encouraged by you and your discussion about “character disordered people.”  I sense that God has helped me break free and heal from my upbringing (an ongoing work) and over a year ago He opened my eyes to see that I was not the only one in our relationship that had work to do.  God showed me a year ago that my husband has a character disorder (thanks for this term) which obviously I was responding to in a codependent way. 

I appreciate your advice that I address an issue with him every time -calmly, clearly and prayed up.  I see how I do give up, run out of steam, feel hopeless, lose heart, get confused and begin to doubt myself.  I have prayed for my husband for several years since welcoming the Lord into my life, myself and our marriage.  I do believe in miracles and that is why I did not leave a year ago when I felt that was what I was to do to fulfill God's calling on my life.  I prayed and heard Him say 'Wait'.  I know God hates divorce but I also know He hates it when we walk around dead. He hates abandonment and abuse in marriage.

I admit I am not, and never have been, perfect.  It can't have been easy living with me.  I have always taken responsibility for the dysfunction in our relationship which I see now took the heat off my husband, crippling him more. God showed me that my husband is a very anxious person who has found ways to cope with his disorder and is good at making himself look like the good guy to our kids, friends and family.  I see he needs to grow up and take responsibility, but I know I cannot change him.  I am simply going to continue to trust the Lord for my growth, hold him accountable for his issues and honestly face mine. ~ Bonnie

Dear Bonnie,

I am impressed at how much insight you have developed over the years of your struggle.  I am printing your letter as an encouragement to others.

As I read your letter I see that you have begun to understand codependency—the tendency to ignore or give into, and thereby enable, the weakness of others. It is easy to become tired, frustrated and angry, and then to cave in to another’s manipulations.

Pleasing others, and carrying the weight of responsibility for a relationship, is hard work. We have all done this at one time or another. However, through the support of others, reading good material on the issue, and of course, staying immersed in the scriptures and trusting the Lord, we can be clear, calm and consistent when confronting others. When we are “prayed up,” we go into challenges with a powerful ally—Jesus, who reminds us “in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” (Romans 8: 37)

May God continue to encourage you as you win the battle of codependency, and move into healthier relating with your husband and others in your life. 

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

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 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.