How do you know when your husband has done something that’s the last straw in marriage?
Yesterday I told you the story of the Heather, who had done everything for the family, cleaning up after them, pouring out her life for them–until a car accident meant that she shouldn’t move. Her husband didn’t act like anything had changed, though, and still expected her to make dinner.
So the question was, what should Heather do?
I then pointed you to an article by Gary Thomas explaining why some men just don’t change, even when their wives beg them to address an issue. Here’s the problem in a nutshell:
Some people are motivated only by their own pain. They want to stop pain. When you have a difficult conversation with them, that causes them pain, so their aim is to get the conversation over with so the pain will end. They are not motivated by your pain at all. So the only way to bring change is to have the pain that they feel when they don’t change be more than the pain they will feel by changing. It is not about convincing them they have to change; that won’t work. It is about having them start to feel some of the pain that you are feeling.
– Gary Thomas
So with that said, let’s go back to Heather.
What should she do? She’s ready to leave him. She’s thinking, “If I leave him, at least I won’t have to clean up after him and endure his selfishness. I’ll be able to organize my life and try to get control of things. He never helps, and I’m basically alone anyway. What’s the point?“
I understand. And I have seen several women in Heather’s situation leave. And their husbands are always so blindsided, and often rather pitiful. Usually there’s a much better way. You may feel like it’s the last straw–but what if you’re not seeing the whole picture?
Understand the Dynamic in the Family
Here’s what Heather needs to see: Bill is motivated only by his own pain. He wants to avoid it. So why isn’t Bill helping more? Because he doesn’t feel the need. He’s not in pain. This does not necessarily mean that he is a “bad” person, by the way. He could simply be immature. He may have developed coping mechanisms as a child where he tried to avoid pain. He may have had emotional trauma as a child. It doesn’t mean he’s evil; it simply means that his natural inclination is self-preservation, not empathy and helping others.
Heather, on the other hand, is too motivated by other people’s pain. She’s a people pleaser, and if Bill is unhappy, or her kids are unhappy, or if she feels as if she is making demands on them that will make their lives a little more difficult, she feels tremendous guilt.
You have a situation, then, where Heather is in a perfect situation to be completely taken advantage of by both her husband and her kids. And it is totally natural that they should do that, because Heather is allowing it.
Understand the Spiritual Dynamic in the Family
When Heather “rescues” people, by doing things for them that they should be rightfully doing for themselves, and by downplaying her own needs, she is denying them the opportunity to act in a Christlike manner. She is denying them the opportunity to grow selfless. She is denying them the opportunity to develop empathy.
When it comes to her children, she is denying them the opportunity to learn responsibility and basic life skills.
She feels as if she is being nice, but she is actually being the opposite. She is raising kids who will feel entitled, and she is enabling her husband to close off his heart to her needs.
Change the Dynamic
When Heather thinks this is the last straw in marriage, and says, “shouldn’t I have the right to leave, because I’ve done everything for years in this marriage, and nothing has changed!”, I have to pause then, and say, “But you haven’t done everything.”
That stuns people like Heather, because they will start to list off all of the things they have done–the laundry, the meals, the cleaning, the chauffeuring, the enduring the lack of intimacy and lack of conversation. They have done a lot.
But they have done a lot of the wrong thing.
As I share in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, if you want to find happiness in your marriage, you won’t find it by being giving and nice enough. You will usually only find it by being good—by doing the things that God asks of you, and by helping your family do the things that God asks of them. Being good and being nice are two very different things. Many of us excel at nice, but then our families suffer, because we aren’t truly good.
It’s time to be good.
Are you GOOD or are you NICE?
Actions Speak Louder than Words
One of the big reasons Heather feels hurt is that she has shared with Bill for years how she feels alone and taken advantage of, yet every time they talk, nothing changes. In fact, Bill tries to cut off the conversation, as if he doesn’t really care.
Talking doesn’t help.
In fact, talking like this will often hurt Heather more, because she is expressing her hurt and giving Bill the opportunity for empathy, and he’s shoving it back in her face. She feels more alone than ever.
Yesterday, a woman left this very insightful comment:
My husband and I went through exactly what Gary Thomas describes. When my husband ignored my requests to address our lack of sex life, I took it to mean that he didn’t care about me.
That wasn’t exactly it, though. He cared about me and my pain, just not as much as he cared about his own feelings of fear and awkwardness at addressing a topic that was painful to him.
It wasn’t until I stopped talking and wringing my hands, and drew a line in the sand that he finally was willing to change. Change takes more than talk. It takes action.
Exactly! It’s not about talking more. It’s about taking action. And, in fact, action can be taken with a minimum of talking. It could simply look like this:
Heather gets the family around her and says this, “I’m physically unable to make dinner or clean the house for the foreseeable future. So here’s a schedule for cleaning and cooking. Why don’t you all split up the chores and figure it out?”
And then she sits back and does nothing.
That’s the hardest part. If the laundry doesn’t get done, she mustn’t rescue the people who were supposed to do the laundry. If the meals don’t get made, she mustn’t rescue anybody. She should simply have some snacks on hand that are healthy (like almonds and fruit and vegetables or something) that she can munch on in a crisis, but everybody else will have to fend for themselves.
She can say something like, “If we continue to order out for every meal, we will quickly go into debt. That’s unsustainable. So why don’t you all figure out a solution? If you’d like to know some easy meals to make I’d be happy to tell you, but I’m sure you can figure it out.“
The hardest part for Heather will be to not rescue anybody. She has to let her family step up to the plate. And that may mean that her family doesn’t have as much time for fun or for their own hobbies as they used to. It may mean that her kids are less happy. Her husband may seem grumpy. But that’s okay. Heather’s job on this earth is not to make anybody’s life happy and easy, and if their lives are no longer happy and easy, it is not Heather’s fault. If, on the other hand, Heather physically hurts herself by trying to do too much, then that is Heather’s fault. It is not Bill’s, and it is not the kids’. It is Heather’s. She’s the one who has to draw the boundaries.
People will treat Heather the way that Heather shows she deserves to be treated. If she sacrifices her physical and emotional health so that everybody else has an easy life, then they will ignore her needs and walk all over her.
Many women do this for years until they finally snap in anger and say, “I can’t do this anymore!” How much better if they never set up that dynamic in the first place? How much better if women drew boundaries and simply said, “I can do this, but I can’t do anymore than that, so the rest will be up to you.”
When we hear that you can’t change anyone else, you can only change yourself, we often interpret it the wrong way.
We think it means we must be more giving, more forgiving, more selfless.
But if what you’ve been doing hasn’t been working, doing more of it won’t work either. And God does not ask us to be pushovers; God asks us to be good. And those are not the same thing.
So let me ask you: Are you Heather? Are you bending over backwards trying to make everyone else’s life smooth and easy, while feeling as if nobody cares about your feelings? Do you try to talk to your husband about issues only to have him shut you down every single time? Do you feel as if no one truly cares?
Don’t talk. Just change how you act.
And if you’re stuck, I wrote 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage in a large part for people like you. If you’re Heather, this book will help you see God’s calling on your role in your marriage in a completely different way. You’ll see how being nice actually works against God’s purposes in your marriage. And you’ll see how being good often looks very different than being nice–with tons of practical examples. So pick it up today, and learn how to change that dynamic!