I recently worked intensively with a young couple, Stu and Carrie, who are separated and trying to repair their marriage. After years of conflict, with little resolution, Carrie decided she finally had to leave Stu. I listened as she shared why she had left. Stu sat quietly, appearing sad and withdrawn as she told her story.
“I’m exhausted from living with Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde,” she said coldly. “I never know who I’m going to meet when I come home from work at night, and just couldn’t take it anymore. So I left.”
“Do you know what she’s talking about?” I said to Stu.
He shook his head, looking blankly at me, and then back at Carrie. Carrie responded by shrugging her shoulders in obvious disgust.
“The smallest thing can set him off,” Carrie continued. “A few weeks ago he flew into a rage because he couldn’t find his car keys. He started swearing, accusing me of taking his keys. It’s crazy and I can’t take it. Why does he treat me this way? I’d never think of treating my worst enemy this way.”
Stu sat quietly for a few more moments, staring at Carrie as she stared back. I pressed in.
“Why do you treat her that way, Stu? She says you become angry over the smallest things, and then blame her for anything. What’s up with that?”
Still Stu sat silent. He seemed to not have a ready answer for our piercing questions. I decided to see if I could help him.
“We’ve talked before Stu, about how you are like your father was when you were growing up, living what you learned. As you described him, he sounds a lot like you. When something goes wrong, blow up. When you are frustrated, find someone to attack. Instead of taking responsibility, blame problems on someone else. Does this sound familiar?”
Carrie nodded her head vigorously.
“It’s always someone else’s fault,” Carrie said. Then she turned to me, appearing sad and discouraged. “But why did I stay so long, letting him abuse me? That’s not right.”
“It can be like the frog in the kettle,” I explained, “where you’re always hoping things will get better, but they don’t and you boil to death. You tell yourself you can fix things, but you can’t. We delude ourselves in many ways.”
“I want to stick and fix things,” Carrie said. “Yeah, that’s it. I want to stick it out and try to fix things. I’m naturally a fixer, and it’s killing me.”
Carrie was like so many other women I’ve worked with over the years. Bright, energetic, enthusiastic, always wanting to make things work. Her story was similar to an email I received recently.
Dear Dr. David,
I’m married to a wonderful man, but someone who can turn on me in a minute. His moods are killing me. I walk on eggshells around him. I never know when he’s going to go into one of his moods, and I do everything—and I mean everything, to make sure everything runs smoothly around the house. In the meantime, I wonder what’s happening to me. And, he’s not getting any better. What should I do when he loses his temper? What should I do when he blames me for problems? Aren’t I supposed to love him unconditionally? What should a good Christian woman do when her husband isn’t acting like a good Christian man? Please help.
Both these women have been caught up in what one describes as stick and fix—meaning, they’re entire married life is taken up with sticking out a troubling situation and doing everything they can possibly do to fix things. Carrie decided she could no longer live this way, and doing so would be unfair to herself, the children and even her husband.
What are the issues needing consideration?
First, be careful not to enable wrong behavior. Often we believe we’re doing good when in fact we’re enabling troubling behavior. God never intended for us to suffer needlessly. He is a God of order and of consequences. Scripture tells us that “we reap what we sow.” (Galatians 6: 7-8) To stick and fix is a recipe for disaster, enabling very destructive behavior.
Second, not only is destructive behavior enabled, but growth cannot occur in these circumstances. When we enable destructive behavior, we also effectively limit growth. In both of these cases, the men have never had to face the consequences of their controlling, angry temperament. They’ve never had to grow up and learn to treat their mates with dignity and respect.
Third, within this codependent relationship, your growth is also stifled. By tiptoeing you don’t learn to speak your truth. By guarding yourself and maintaining your focus on your husband, you don’t learn to listen for ways God wants you to grow and change.
Fourth, by keeping a focus on your husband you maintain the illusion that you can fix him, when you can’t. You live in a fantasy world of grandiosity. His problems are beyond your ability to change, and your denial about this stifles your growth.
Finally, allowing him to face the consequences of your actions, (a separation) you open yourself to an opportunity for growth. Sometimes it takes creating a crisis for change. Change rarely comes in times of peace and contentment, but rather in struggle and challenge. Taking definite steps of actions against indignity and disrespect offers the opportunity of real change and saving your marriage.
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Share your feedback or send a confidential note to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on my Web site, www.marriagerecoverycenter.com and yourrelationshipdoctor.com. You’ll find videos and podcasts on saving a troubled marriage, codependency, rejection by your mate, and affair-proofing your marriage.