I’m Losing Respect for My Husband…

I have a marriage question. My perception is that often my husband prefers little fights and bringing up his irritations over peace in the relationship. It seems like a race of who gets first to the victim role. After reading your site I understand how trauma works yet despite being gracious and discussing such topic with him and going beyond the tantrums I feel he desires to see me as the enemy when he gets lost in that trauma vortex. I know in marriage we have to help each other, yet I lost it when he brought conveniently God in discussion as a shield for his refusal to open sincere communication lines, he perverted the situation so I said things that were very hurtful. My conundrum is the following, he always is closed and stays in victim mode after, waiting for me to open up communication lines with saying something like sorry etc, in name of Christianity I did it often. Now I don’t want to, even though I know I could say it because I said hurtful things too. I looked deeper why and see if it is my ego only. But I discovered it is beyond just my ego, I discovered something ugly, I cannot respect a man who can fume for days and be passive aggressive waiting for me to deactivate his ego through a “I am sorry” which can or cannot be sincere. I am terrified to be beside weak character man. I discovered I despise that for the fruits it creates even though big part of me still sympathizes with the trauma part of it.
What do I do? How do I behave when the tantrums arise? I feel I took the parent role in unpacking, now I feel I should answer ‘on the same level’ to see how it feels yet I am scared in falling down to his level and then I end up compromising my growth. I feel this situation could have great lessons for my relationship with God and with future kids yet I cannot figure out. Please help with some wisdom.

Ideally, I get you both on the phone and figure out what’s really going on here. When I do marriage counselling, my rule is to talk to each spouse individually in a private session, then talk to both together in a group call. What is shared in individual sessions is not shared in group sessions unless specific permission is given. Let me know if this is a possibility you want to pursue. Your husband would have to be agreeable to the idea.

I don’t believe that couples can be counselled effectively unless the counsellor first takes the time to understand each person’s unique perspective of the current tensions. As long as spouses are sitting together, a lot of important information will be left unshared and at least one of them will feel stifled.

Now people argue when they feel threatened. Often spouses accidentally trigger each other by saying or doing things that remind someone of unresolved pain. It would be helpful to review what you know about your husband’s own history of painful experiences in this world. There is a reason he is resisting being the first one to back down. Often backing down and apologizing feels too vulnerable and therefore dangerous for people who have a history of being emotionally stomped on. It’s also common for people with fragile self-images to be easily crushed by certain comments, and therefore sincerely believe that they are the victims, and that you are the evil bully.

Now you are correct to want to change the dynamic here. It’s not helping anything for you to keeping chasing him like this. It is also not helpful for you to take blame that you don’t feel you deserve, because that just adds deception and bitterness into the mix. In most cases, the fault lies on both sides, so shifting all blame onto one person is rarely reasonable. Even in cases where one person “started it,” the other person often exacerbates things by reacting unreasonably to what has been said or done. To resolve conflict well, everyone needs to be willing to identify and own up to their part in creating the mess. Once we get more honest about the fact that no one is perfect, apologizing and moving on becomes a lot easier because we can both admit we messed up, therefore one person isn’t trying to act superior to the other.

It’s fantastic that you’ve been able to connect with your core need to respect your husband. He has a core need to respect you, as well. Marriages are built on trust and respect. The erosion of either element puts the marriage in a serious crisis. In your case, you need your husband to help you regain respect for him by helping you understand his deeper logic for behaving the way he does. Without more information, you’re naturally going to default to viewing him like a pouty two-year-old. The important thing to understand here is that he does have logical reasons and legitimate fears driving his surface behaviours, and you would probably be able to respect those things if you knew what they were. He may or may not be self-aware enough to spell out his inner thinking to you, but it’s worth a shot.

I’d recommend sitting down with him at a time when neither of you are arguing and laying out the problem clearly. Men are naturally dialled into the importance of respect, and they also receive information best when you stay focused and give them the bottom line. This requires resisting your natural female instinct to use 1,000 words and talk at length about your own inner feelings. Torrents of words are counterproductive when you’re dealing with an agitated man. Less is more in these cases, yet it is important that you don’t minimize the problem, because an erosion of core respect is a serious crisis in a marriage. You might try saying something like this:

“I’m having a problem that only you can help me fix. Our style of arguing is starting to erode my respect for you, and that really upsets me because I want to respect you as my husband. But when you shutdown on me and don’t explain what you’re thinking, and when I have to chase and grovel before you’ll act normal again, I start feeling like I’m married to a child, not a man. I’m not your mother and I don’t want to be. We need to find a better, faster approach to resolving our conflicts. Neither of us is perfect. We both contribute to these messes, and I need us to start functioning more as a team. Can you help me understand why you go into your sulks? If I have a better understanding of what’s causing you to get stalled like that, perhaps we can identify some ways to help you not get stuck. I am done chasing you, and I’m done making apologies that I don’t mean just to get you over your huff. So help me out here, because something needs to change. I’m sure you have valid reasons for the way you’re behaving, but I can’t respect those reasons when you don’t share what they are. I feel this marriage is worth fighting for, but I can’t carry it alone because this is a team effort.”

Since your current style of arguing/resolving is not working, you’ll both need to change your behaviours to shore up these issues. Long-term funks are something you definitely want to avoid as much as possible in a marriage, yet often the person who gets in one feels incapable of getting themselves out alone. Introducing some new strategic behaviours (such as inserting compliments and/or physical embraces after the main argument is over) can help the funk-prone spouse avoid getting sucked into the vortex of their own agitated feelings. You’re usually dealing with a subconscious that has gone on “red alert” in these cases. The goal is to cue it that it is safe to come back down off of that emergency mode. While trauma causes a lot of psychological triggers, it also invariably develops intense psychological cravings from core needs that have gone unmet. Easing one of those cravings (for example, by providing affirming words or touch) after the main emotional tension has passed can help a subconscious dial back into the fact that you are a friend, not an enemy, and therefore it does not need to feel so defensive around you. Now be clear on this: I’m not talking about grovelling. I’m talking about soothing wounds that flare up and cause your husband to want to hide behind a stone wall. At this point there will be specific fears getting triggered for him during your arguments. If you can directly calm those fears using well-chosen words, it will help him separate the experience of clashing with you from other fears that he might have, such as you thinking he’s an idiot, or you being on the verge of abandoning him, or whatever is really going on in his mind. There are always looming fears in trauma causes, but there are usually also very powerful calming phrases that you could use to help everyone feel better if you knew what they were.

To help your husband dialogue about this issue, you might try using some of these prompts:

I’m assuming that you shutdown after a fight because you feel threatened. Is that correct?

(If he says yes) Can you tell me what it is that you’re afraid of? Maybe I can help you realize that whatever it is won’t happen?

(If he says no) Alright, then what kinds of thoughts go through your head when you withdraw? Are you focusing more on yourself or me?

If he makes a request that you’re uncomfortable with, because you feel like it puts you back in a grovelling position, then say something like this:

I hear what you’re saying, but that idea doesn’t work for me because it makes me feel too____. I need my feelings to be validated as well. If I do ___ for you, I will need you to do ___ for me.

Don’t agree to do anything that you feel will increase your resentment/disgust because that will be counterproductive. To keep this balanced, you should think of specific things he can do to help you feel better after arguments as well–the focus shouldn’t be solely on him.

In cases of extreme verbal roadblocks, it’s time to get out the physical props. For example, you can get some nice piece of décor that you place on your coffee table or bookshelf. It needs to be something that can be turned upside down, like a cup or block. When your husband gets stalled in one of his funks, the item gets turned upside down to be a visual acknowledgement that there is currently tension between you. When your husband feels like his mind has calmed down, he can turn the item right side up again.

This kind of exercise is worth trying in cases where your husband feels he can’t stop himself from going into a funk, and that his only option is to wait for the storm to pass. The purpose of using the item is to stop you from chasing him with the apology. You definitely need to get out of that role, but your husband might need a chance to ride out his internal turmoil without being accused of “being a brat.” When he turns the object right side up again, he communicates that he has resettled internally and you both move forward, you don’t rehash the argument.

All marriages hit roadblocks, but those moments provide opportunities for spouses to work together. Working through the negative stuff is what makes marriages much stronger, but communication is vital here, so you definitely need to have a focused, sit down conversation about this issue.

Be aware that there is a difference between acting gracious and acting dysfunctional. Christians often confuse these two concepts. I do not believe insincerity is ever healthy in a marriage (even though it is often necessary in other kinds of relationships). Compliments and apologies should always be sincere, and if they can’t be sincere, they shouldn’t be said. Trust needs to be protected, and when spouses realize that they are falling into a habit of lying to each other, trust is eroded.

Now if your husband is making little digs at you during the day, that usually indicates he is harbouring resentment towards you because he feels you are treating him negatively in some way. Common issues here would be he feels you are pressuring him to behave in ways that make him uncomfortable, or you are intentionally withholding things that he needs from you. Whatever the cause, signs of ongoing bitterness also need to be addressed asap. You might say something like this:

I feel like you frequently criticize me or make complaints about little details. I don’t understand why you are focusing on the negative like this, but it’s really starting to make me feel resentful towards you. No one is perfect, and I feel we’d be a lot happier if we both tried to focus more on what is right than on what is wrong. If you’re sniping at me because you’re holding some kind of grudge against me, I can’t help you with that unless you communicate and tell me what is bugging you.

I’m not taking on long-term clients right now, but if your husband is agreeable, I think it would be very helpful for the three of us to try to get to the bottom of this, which shouldn’t take more than a few conversations. It’s often easier for spouses to talk to a neutral third party than it is to talk to each other once a lot of tension builds up. If you are able to get somewhere talking to him directly, that would be ideal. But if he is open to talking to me one-on-one (and this is a non-negotiable requirement), then I should be able to help you two sort out the underlying issues and come up with some new tactics to try.

This post was written in response to Olivia.