Every Monday I like to post a Reader Question and take a stab at it! Today I want to tackle a really heavy one: what do you do when you’re in a loveless marriage, and you have little hope that it will ever get better?
I’ve received a number of heartbreaking emails in the last few days from women at the end of the proverbial marriage rope. They are so sad. Their husbands seem to be always hostile or distant. They’re dying from lack of affection. Their marriages are loveless. And they don’t know what to do. Here’s one:
It took me a long time to figure out why I was so angry at him for so many years. It felt like he was holding back love and affection from me and that he didn’t care about or for me. Even when I tell him I would like to be hugged or touched he could barely do it. I feel rejected from my husband. Being a Christian I do not believe in leaving and I really do not want to. I feel like a prisoner in this loveless marriage. I cannot leave for the commitment I made but I am dying inside with lack of affection. What am I to do? How much daily rejection can I keep taking. I touch him nicely on the shoulders or back and he acts like I am not even there. He has all sorts of “good” reasons to not be affectionate to me they all stem to something I said or did years ago.
And here’s another:
We’ve been married for three years, and he completely ignores me. He works all day, and comes home and barely acknowledges me. He checks out what I’ve made for dinner and if he doesn’t like it he orders in. Then he spends the rest of the night in front of the television. I feel trapped.
Both women are so sad because there seems to be no relationship left. It’s a completely loveless marriage–they don’t communicate, there’s only anger, and they feel trapped. And so today I’d like to talk to those of you who do feel alone in your marriage.
I know there are so many of you reading this blog that feel desperate. Your marriages don’t bring you joy. You almost feel like it’s a prison sentence. You’re sad all the time because he really seems like he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care if you’re sad. He doesn’t care if you’re exhausted. He’s hostile, and he’s angry, and he seems almost happy when you’re upset.
Now, in some cases you could be living with an emotionally abusive mate, and if you fear this is so, I really advise talking to a couple, or a counselor, who knows both of you in real life and getting their perspective. You may need to take steps to get yourself safe from abuse.
But from the emails I’ve read, it doesn’t look like that is the case. It looks like this is a longstanding relationship issue, and after years of unmet needs the relationship has deteriorated into something that feels like a virtually loveless marriage.
And now I’m about to tell you something that may be difficult to hear. I’m not trying to hurt anyone, but I want to be truly helpful, and saying, “I know it’s hard, and that’s really, really sad” isn’t always the most helpful thing.
It is extremely rare that only one person in the marriage feels as if they are not getting their needs met.
If you’re feeling like you’re living in a loveless marriage because you’re not getting your needs met–for affection, for love, for caring–the odds are almost 100% that he feels exactly the same way.
Here’s what happens: you both enter marriage needing essentially the same thing–you both want to feel cherished, connected, and loved. The problem is that the way that you experience these things is very different. So you’re both looking for very different things from each other. And the longer you go without getting your needs met, the more a negative cycle is born. She withdraws and gets sad. He feels angry at her for blaming him for being a bad husband, when she’s not accepting him either. So he may withdraw, or even get hostile. I don’t mean violent; I just mean that there’s this air in the house like he’s always angry, and she’s always on the verge of tears.
That’s not healthy.
Now, there are exceptions: you may be married to a true narcissist or you may be in an emotionally destructive marriage. But usually it’s simply that the relationship has deteriorated, not that someone is essentially bad.
So let’s ask ourselves some questions, and then I’ll point you to some resources that may help.
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1. If you feel like this is a completely loveless marriage, then ask: was there ever love there? When you married him, was the interaction this bad?
Look back to when you were first married. Did he ignore you? Did he fail to show you any affection? Was he angry all the time?
I highly doubt it, because few of us would marry someone who treated us this way.
Chances are when you were dating he did talk to you, and he did laugh with you, and you did love him (and he loved you). Otherwise why would you have married him?
When I read these emails sometimes, they paint a picture of such a BAD man. And yet, as I said, while it may be true in a few instances that someone is married to an antisocial personality, it’s not true in most cases. Instead, the interaction between you has caused these negative cycles to develop, and that has caused him to withdraw and become unaffectionate and angry.
It is not that he is bad; it is that the way that you treated each other was bad.
Certainly some men may be nicer before they are married, and then once they are married they don’t make as much of an effort. That’s true for women, too! But if this is truly a loveless marriage, not just a lazy marriage, there’s more going on here. And I believe that in most cases, it’s a history of treating each other badly, of hearts broken because needs have not been met, of choosing to withdraw or become angry, and reinforcing this dynamic.
2. If the loveless marriage is less a personality issue and more a relationship issue, then you have the power to do something about it.
If the problems in your marriage are not because your husband doesn’t love you, but more because you’ve settled into this awful way of relating to each other, then you also have the power to do something about it. If the way that you treated each other caused you both to become entrenched into this way of seeing each other, then choosing to start acting differently can also start changing it as well.
I’m not saying that you can fix everything; nobody can fix everything on their own. But by taking that first step, by being the “peacemaker” that Jesus talked about in Matthew 5, you can start getting your marriage on better footing.
3. Work first on Showing Kindness
And what should that first step be in starting to heal a marriage where love has gone? How about simply showing kindness to him? When you have this cycle of negativity, he senses the anger and disappointment that you have in him, and it likely makes him angry, too. So how do you break that? Just be kind, and you may start to break down that wall, brick by brick. We show kindness to strangers even if they don’t return it, but somehow when it comes to marriage, we start to ask, “does he deserve this?”, or say, “he never does it for me, so why should I do it for him?” Yet this kind of tit for tat only makes everything worse.
Someone has to be the first one to do the right thing, even if that right thing isn’t reciprocated.
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You do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing, not because it will magically fix everything.
So do little things. If you want some ideas, check out these posts:
4. Work next on Your Friendship
Start doing little things everyday to be kind. Look for ways to be kind. Hopefully that will start to wear down some of the tension in the marriage. Once you’ve done that, work at trying to do things together.
Often when we feel like we’re in a completely loveless marriage, we want to start with tackling the big issues: you don’t show me affection, you’re always angry, you never talk to me. But you can’t start dealing with issues until you’ve built some goodwill up. Think of this like the “Love Bank”. Every time you deal with a problem you’re making a withdrawal, because that takes a toll on a person. But you’re not allowed to go into debt in the Love Bank. So if you have no balance–if you feel totally negative towards each other, as if it’s a totally loveless marriage–then you can’t start making withdrawals. There’s nothing there to work with.
So you have to make those deposits first, by spending a few weeks just being kind, and now by trying to work on your friendship.
I’ve got some articles on how to do that, but let me say that I’m not talking about doing everything together. I just mean finding some things, even if they’re quick things, that you can do without animosity. Maybe it’s taking a walk with him after dinner, or joining him in jogging, or helping him figure out the bills, or watching his favourite TV show with him and getting him a cup of coffee when you do. It doesn’t matter what it is; just spend some time doing something together.
Here are some articles that can help with that:
5. Then Tackle the Big Things
Once you’re showing kindness and laughing more, you can start tackling the big things. That likely will mean taking some responsibility for your sex life, and trying to throw yourself into it, if you’ve been neglecting it. Often when we women start to feel as if our husbands don’t love us, we withdraw sexually, which makes everything worse, and which is also wrong, in and of itself. If you have no idea where to start, suggest to him that you try 31 Days to Great Sex. It will get you talking and laughing again, and that’s probably most of your problem!
And you may have to tackle some other hard issues, too. I’ve got lots of articles on this blog for specific issues; you can check out a partial list of the most common marriage problems here. But let me leave you with some big picture articles:
Final Thoughts To Fix a Loveless Marriage
If you’re in that negative cycle right now, feeling as if he doesn’t appreciate you, doesn’t care about you, and doesn’t love you, can you take a step back for a moment and realize that your husband probably feels the same way? And instead of giving up on the relationship, can you realize that your best chance for lifelong happiness is to invest now in your marriage. It’s to get over these feelings of helplessness, and start to DO love until you FEEL love. Do the right thing. Change that dynamic. Start learning to have fun with him again instead of always feeling hurt and like you’re going to cry.
I know it’s hard. I know you feel paralyzed. But you simply must make a decision to DO something about it. There is nothing magical I can tell you that can make him change; but I do know that he is likely hurting, too. So if you can change the way you think about your marriage, you’ll likely be able to break that negative cycle. And your marriage may not seem so loveless anymore.
I write all about how to do this in my book 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage. It helps you get honest with yourself about how your ways of thinking may be jeopardizing your marital happiness. But then it helps you confront your husband and deal with his issues, too. It can help you navigate these waters as you try to rebuild the relationship you really want!