We often become angry and hostile towards others who mistreat us. We often feel helpless to end chaotic relationships, believing we are at the mercy of their actions.
It is one thing to feel hurt and angry by what is taking place in your marriage, but there is added pain if you feel helpless to stop your suffering. But, are you really helpless? Must your suffering continue?
Psychologists study behavior and evaluate whether we feel a sense of empowerment or more specifically, whether we have an internal or external locus of control. We watch and listen to see how a person will respond to a particular situation, or whether they feel controlled and manipulated by someone else. In the former situation, we would say they have an internal locus of control; in the latter an external locus of control.
Of course, the person who feels they impact, more or less, what happens to them, how they want to respond to situations and the direction they want their life to move, will be happier. Those who feel a sense of helplessness over their lives and what happens to them often feel depressed and discouraged.
Sadly, many complain about their life circumstances, taking on a victim mentality. Passively they react to negative people, bite on barbed hooks of abusive people, and feel out of control of their lives. Living from this helpless position, they see few options for change.
Listen to this recent email and watch for their passivity:
Dear Dr. David,
My husband acts irrationally and I can’t stand it. I know he is unhappy, but when I ask him what is wrong, he says nothing. Then, a few minutes later he barks at me or our kids. Again, if I ask him what is the matter, he gets angry; then denies he is angry.
He is also sarcastic with me. He treats me with disrespect even though I try very hard to keep treating him with respect. I keep trying to love him into acting nice to me, but that doesn’t seem to be working. Sometimes I bite back, which makes him even angrier.
I am at a loss as to what to do. I hate his moodiness and the way he treats me and our kids, but confronting him only makes him mad and I’m trying to avoid that at all costs. I’m all out of ideas. Do you have any suggestions?
--Feeling Helpless in Marriage
Many of us have felt the way this woman feels. Caught in a swirl of unpredictability and chaos, she feels helpless to change anything. Her locus of control is external. This must change for her to feel healthy.
Let’s consider her situation and what she might do to gain a measure of effectiveness over her circumstances.
First, she must stand back and evaluate her situation. In order for us not to be reactive, we must step back and gain perspective. What is happening in her marriage that she dislikes? How does she tend to respond and how might she respond differently? What is she doing that reinforces and perpetuates her difficulties?
We can see that she is frightened of her husband’s anger and tries to avoid it at all costs. This is a hallmark of codependency: seeing the weakness in another, avoiding it and thereby reinforcing it. These avoidances, while understandable, keep us a prisoner to a destructive process. While we are to “bear with the failings of the weak,” (Romans 15:1) we are not to enable their destructive actions.
Second, courageous action combats helpless. While we can certainly understanding feeling helpless, she is not helpless. We can understand feeling fear, but remember that FEAR stands for False Evidence Appearing Real. There are steps she can take, such as gathering support around her, attending counseling, seeking the spiritual advice from her pastor. Taking even a few action steps will encourage her to take more.
Third, she must not tolerate abuse or chaos. Townsend and Cloud, in their book Boundaries in Marriage, suggest that ungodly suffering comes from failing to take the right action or taking the wrong action. Thankfully, we can impact change. We can make choices that will change our situations for the better. In my book, When Pleasing Others is Hurting You, I note the many forms of codependency and the importance of using our God-given wisdom to take courageous steps to set boundaries on intolerable behavior.
Fourth, start small. You don’t have completely change your personality or your marriage to feel like you are making progress. Here are a few simple steps to take to get yourself moving in the right direction:
Finally, remember God gives courage to those who seek Him. Scripture tells us, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (II Timothy 1:7).Ridding ourselves of feelings of helplessness is accomplished by asking God for strength and courage. He will be faithful to help us take action.
- Share your feelings when you are hurt or angry;
- Share specifically the behaviors that impact you and what you’d like to see changed;
- Stop reacting to provocations—refuse to get caught up in cycles of debate, arguing, and defending yourself;
- Get support/counseling—don’t try to cope in isolation;
- Read good books on learning to “speak the truth in love” and healthy assertiveness;
- Practice impacting change in other areas of your life, making a special note when you are successful.
Please also feel free to contact me for further advice on this issue, or for information on Marriage Intensives at The Marriage Recovery Center. Please see more about my work at www.marriagerecoverycenter.com and www.yourrelationshipdoctor.com, sharing your concerns and insights at firstname.lastname@example.org.