When I was married the first time, I was the word that rhymes with witch. I really wish I could come up with a better word, but that sums it up. Now, not all of the time, of course. But I was controlling. I was a nag. I was a codependent enabler who both lived in denial and laid out guidelines that I didn’t enforce. My predominant emotions – in my then-husband’s presence – were deep sadness, loud anger, profound disappointment and utter disapproval. (I was a joy to be around, you can imagine.)
Had you asked me while in my marriage if that were the case, I would not have agreed with that assessment. Because I was in pain. And pain tends to skew our perceptions.
But I wonder, do you think about your marriage and your husband or soon-to-be-ex-husband and what he’s doing to you often? And by often, I mean, all the time? More than anything else? When you’re falling asleep, in the middle of the night, when you’re in the shower, when you’re putting on make-up, when you’re running errands, when you’re driving? If so, there is a chance that you are obsessed with your hard marriage or your ex-husband and you have made it (or him) an idol.
So, this is a gentle warning to those of you who are living in the daily stress of a difficult marriage and to those of you who are newly separated or freshly divorced.
Shift your perspective. Your entire life is not defined by your marriage or your divorce. It shouldn’t be. Just like your entire life shouldn’t be defined by your job or by being a parent, it shouldn’t be defined by one role or one circumstance, though I completely understand the tendency to do so as you’re trying to untangle your marriage knots (all on your own, more than likely) and as you’re trying to grieve and recover, and it can be all-consuming.
Be grateful for the good things in your life. There are good things in your life. You woke up today. Every day may not be a good day, but every single day is a gift. Tell God specifically what you are grateful for, every day.
Own your part. There are people who over-own their problems – “Everything is my fault!” “I’m a horrible person!” – and there are people who under-own their problems – “He did this to me!” “I’m only in this situation, this amount of pain, because of her!”. I see much more of under-owning syndrome in my work, I’m sad to say. But the healthy place is a balance of realizing that others have done things to us, that we have done things to ourselves, and that we have done things to others too (thanks, Mike Foster, for crystallizing this concept). We want to be people who fully realize that where we’re at in life is in part due to others and ourselves, not solely one or the other. And one of the greatest things I can share with you is that when I finally began to look at my part in the downfall in my marriage, my healing truly began.
This may be difficult to swallow but you must, and I mean MUST, stop blaming your husband or ex-husband (EVEN if he is an abuser; EVEN if he is an addict; EVEN if he is an adulterer; EVEN if he is an abandoner). Your husband or ex-husband may be hurting you, deeply, on a regular basis, and I get that. (Oh my lands, I GET THAT and I am so very sorry.) But he is not 100% to blame for the state of your marriage or the post-marriage circumstances you find yourself in. There are two of you. And you are a grown woman.
So do the hard work of looking at your own heart and your own actions. Are there things you can change in yourself? Are there phrases you can stop saying that you know set off your husband? Are their actions you can tweak? Is there a support group or a counselor you can try?
(I am not trying to be harsh with your fragile heart. If your marriage just recently imploded, I am not suggesting you dive into figuring out everything you did wrong this very minute. Being mad and sad and shocked and even a bit stuck in your pain is all part of the process of grieving and healing. I, of course, want and need you to show yourself grace during this season. But if your marriage has been in your rearview mirror for months – or even years – and you have yet to take a look at your role in its demise, it’s more than time for you to do so.)
I hear hard stories all day every day about women in marriages that are soul-crushing and heart-consuming. I used to be in one just like that, so they resonate with me deeply. And I believe these women. And I know that their pain is very, very real. So when I say what I’m saying, I am saying it from a place of being there.
But a lot of times I hear one complaint after another. And the fingers are almost always pointing outward. Every husband or ex-husband is the bad guy (and not just the bad guy, but a jerk, an idiot, a #$!); and every wife is the victim. But that just isn’t reality. It can’t possibly be reality. God didn’t create men to be hurtful idiots and women to be doormat-y martyrs across the board. Being a hurt-er is not gender specific.
Listen, I understand that you are hurting. I understand that you may be doing everything you can think of to fix your marriage or to heal through your divorce. I even understand that you may feel trapped, or hopeless, or think there is nothing more you can do, that you are doing everything right, and that feel your husband or ex-husband is just evil or sick or what-have-you.
I know. So I say this as gently as I know how to say it: you and your husband own equal shares in your marriage. And you and your ex-husband own equal shares in your divorce.
If you feel like your marriage is the same as it was a year ago or five years ago, or its getting worse, then you need to make some changes. If you feel like you’re just not getting over your divorce, you don’t have to stay stuck forever. And it can start with this: stop blaming, because blaming never, ever made anything better. And then ask God what’s next. Ask God what you can do. And ask God to remind you who you are: loved.
If you need more help in this area, Surviving in a Difficult Christian Marriage is a very practical guide to walk through the day-to-day in integrity, and Unraveling: Hanging onto Faith through the End of Your Christian Marriage can help you navigate your every divorce emotion.
Another SPOT ON post!! It’s taking me four years post divorce to understand this, but it makes ALL the difference in the WORLD when it comes to healing from this horrific event!
Love you much!!
I sincerely struggle with this post. I understand the theory, that marriage is a dance and it takes two to tango. But my story is that I was married for 32 years to a man that led a double-life. He told me he no longer loved me, and he wanted a divorce. He refused marriage counseling. I saw alI the signs of a make mid-life crisis, from his weight loss, interest in clothing, etc. I suspected there was another woman, but I didn’t see the evidence of an affair. I discovered the “real” story when the husband of the other woman called me….. Here my husband had been having an affair for 4 years with a stripper in another state. Only upon looking closely at the credit cards he used for travel did I see his addiction to strip clubs. When he traveled for work, he visited the clubs and he spent over $35k dollars in a 10 year span. Years prior to this stripper, I discovered a $1000 jewelry gift he admitted had gone to another woman. He stole $48k from my child’s college fund to support his stripper/girlfriend and through the divorce discovery process, I saw he had given her $40k in one year after we were separated. I never knew he had this proclivity. He never seemed that interested in sex once we had children, but I blamed that on his smoking, his job stress, etc. But now I see that I was no match for the fake boobs and stilletos of these women. My children are shocked, and my son is in therapy– pretty hard to swallow that your father gave money set aside by grandparents and gave that to support a stripper!
I think my failure in this marriage was that I allowed him to be a bully and controlling. He controlled the money and had a fit if I spent $$ on a purchase that he hadn’t budgeted. Now I know why he always acted as if we were poor and I cut coupons like a champ.
But my ex was one person at home, and obviously a different person when he traveled. I beat myself up that I am an average size 12, 56-year old woman, but even in my skinny days in my 20’s, I could have never competed with the women at a strip club! Nor would I want to!!
But he his his double-life very, very well. He did not subscribe to Playboy, we didn’t watch adult movies….., he even lied to his attorney when asked if there was another woman. So I struggle with the lies, deceit, huge sums of money which were spent on this pursuit but I never checked his business credit card statements because I trusted him. He comes across like this wholesome family guy.
I completely agree with Lynn. Elisabeth, as I recall, your hard marriage experience was with an overt abuser. A covert abuser is an entirely different animal and experience, and adding guilt to the surreal sorting of fact from fiction adds a huge weight to the healing process. I take full responsibility for pushing red flags away when church counselors said to do so and to focus on praying for him and trying to become more adventurous and alluring so he would Want to be with me. Trust me, many of us have raked ourselves over the coals for years praying and trying to become a better Christian wife with the wise, gracious heart and attitude God wanted us to have. We worked at not being overly critical, negative and disappointed or setting high goals for our spouse. In so doing, we enabled the double and hidden life. Those of us in this boat need to become more sensitive to red flags, less people pleasing and learn to set hard boundaries. Those are the areas we need to change. The rest is the kind of guilt a covert abuser tries to dump on us personally or through triangulation, and it really doesn’t fit many of the covert abuse hard marriages.
Oh, Ann… You stated this so clearly for me! Thank you for understanding.
I struggled with it too, Lynn. I know this is well meant, but the pain I felt reading “Of course it is, dear” was ripping. That is the type of syrupy-fake phrasing my now estranged spouse would use to me and my kids in his more overt belittling of our intelligence responses. We learned after awhile to say very little. Belittling in any form is a huge trigger for most abused women. Your posting was very helpful for me as well. Thank you.
Lynn & Ann,
I had no intention of adding to anyone’s pain.
I edited the title after reading your comments.
I am keeping the body of the post the same for a couple reasons. First, the abuse I lived with was both overt and covert, so I believe I can write this from a place of resonance.
Secondly, I am hoping I have always been very clear that I am not saying abuse, addiction or adultery is ever the victim’s fault. However, I perpetuated abuse and addiction for fifteen years, and I shamed, and I yelled, and I handled much of my marriage – in my pain – poorly. And when all was said and done, I needed to own my part, make amends as I could, and learn from my mistakes so I wouldn’t repeat them.
I am sorry, though, for hurting you both.
Elizabeth–my ex was also guilty of lies and adultery. For many years and even after my moving out and our divorce, I solely blamed him. But looking back I realized that I ALLOWED so many, many poor behaviors for many, many years. And if I’m really honest, I ignored it to some extent because I was happy to be home with my kids and a fairly comfortable lifestyle. There were plenty of red flags that I could (and maybe should?) have confronted much sooner than I did. But on the other hand I’m so very grateful that I didn’t find out about the affair that ended our marriage, until our youngest had graduated. Would I have left him if our kids had still been at home? I do not know, and I”m thankful to God for not forcing me to make that choice. But again on the other hand, my kids are making some choices that I wish they were making differently…and maybe if I’d have confronted the situation sooner that would be different. Every situation is different and I made what I thought were the best choices at the time. However, I realized that I do need to be honest with myself of what my role was, even if that role was just letting things slide.
One of the biggest things this whole experience has taught me is the importance of complete and total honesty in a relationship, no matter how difficult things are to talk about. I am getting married in a few weeks (insert HUGE smiley face!!). We’ve known each other for 35 years, reconnected a little over a year ago, started dating 11 months ago. We never intended to have any sort of “relationship”–neither of us wanted it. God, however, had different plans!
From the beginning, we have not been shy about asking each other the very difficult questions and giving honest answers no matter how uncomfortable to give or to hear. We have been possibly hyper-alert to any sort of red flag–and we have talked about any potential red flag. I (and later, we) have asked God to open our eyes to any warning signs, everything we need to talk about, and so on.
I hope sharing my experience will encourage others…thank you for again putting into words a very difficult topic.
Yes, I too missed the red flags or closed my eyes to them. I just tried to live the motto to “Keep calm and carry on”, but it allowed my spouse to continue his belittling and distancing. And I too am thankful that the discovery of his strip club addiction came when my children were older; although it is still very difficult for them to realize how very debased their father is. I heard an interesting quote, ” you are as sick as your secrets”. When I look at my husband’s secrets, I realize he is a very sick man. When we allow the portals of our minds to be filled with filth, it allows Satan a foothold into our psyche.
Thank you, Shelly, Elizabeth and Ann, for your support and understanding.
Thank you, Elisabeth. It always helps hugely to be heard. NLoce your heart and the extra mile you always go to help. Blessings.
Elisabeth, would you please elaborate on this: “you and your husband own equal shares in your marriage. And you and your ex-husband own equal shares in your divorce.”?
Every person is one hundred percent responsible for how she lives out her marriage and one hundred percent responsible for how she lives out her divorce, no matter what someone is doing or saying to her.
Thanks for the clarification. I agree with you.
As always, VERY wise words, even if not easy to read. My ex and his parents made an idol out of addictions and my ex-MIL made an idol of her difficult marriage and my ex made an idol out of his difficult relationship with his dad. And I, too much, made an idol out of living in a difficult family.
I just have one suggestion to add to how to cope in that situation–turn to your faith and the Lord. Spend the time you would spend fretting/angry/raging/planning what to say with the Lord, in prayer or in His Word.
I do own my part of our marriage break-up, and realizing that my words and actions has, I pray, made me a better person to be in a relationship with. I’m so much more aware of my words and actions and how words and actions can be so hurtful.
Lynn and Ann, I along with you have a problem with this post, no offense Elisabeth. In my first book, A Journey through Emotional Abuse, I ask the spouse of the abuser to carefully consider how her actions might be making the abuser’s abuser worse. I agree this can happen. However, even if she does respond badly to his abuse, she did not CAUSE his abuse. So, no, I can’t agree with the statement that they each own equal shares in the divorce.
Lynn, Ann, Caroline, others,
I’m sorry if this post caused you further pain.
To clarify what I meant: Every person is one hundred percent responsible for how she lives out her marriage and one hundred percent responsible for how she lives out her divorce, no matter what someone is doing or saying to her.
I’m not saying that a victim of abuse, addiction or adultery is to blame.
Thanks Elisabeth, and thank you for posting the follow up blog :).
I can honestly say that I have and still do own my part in the screwing up of my marriage. I dont; however, believe my part is equal to his. No rational-thinking person would, if they knew our story. But I do agree with the main message of this. That we all need to own up to whatever we did wrong. If we’re being real with ourselves and God, it can’t be any other way.