If you’re in a chronically unhappy marriage, you may feel trapped and hopeless. But transformational options exist for those in a stressful marriage.
“I feel trapped in marriage and broken, and there’s no way out.” Amanda’s* eyes filled with tears as she whispered her painful secret to her best friend. In the background, Amanda’s children laughed as they played in the fast-food restaurant’s climbing area.
“You’re seeing that new counselor tomorrow, right? Maybe she’ll have some ideas,” Lauren suggested.
“Maybe,” Amanda conceded, but her voice was hollow.
For years, Amanda had tried to cope in a hostile marriage devoid of love or kindness. But nothing had helped. She felt more depressed, hopeless and exhausted than ever before.
Some days she could barely get out of bed.
While we often praise people who learn how to adapt and cope in difficult circumstances, clinical psychologist David Hawkins paints a stark picture of what that can look like for a wife or a husband in a toxic marriage.
Dr. Hawkins is director of the Seattle-based Marriage Recovery Center and a leader in the field of treatment for narcissism and emotional abuse within relationships.
“I see many couples in chronically troubled marriages staying together because they’ve got kids, because they believe in marriage, for many different good and valid reasons,” he explains. “But when a woman feels unsafe because she’s criticized or belittled — and she can’t bring issues to her husband because he blames, shames, provokes or gaslights — the goodness of the relationship begins to evaporate. Women end up retreating from emotional or physical intimacy. They shrink. They lose their identity. They lose their self-concept and self-esteem. And they feel trapped, like there’s no relief in sight.”
Furthermore, women or men who feel oppressed over time can become reactively abusive themselves. Clients will often confess, “I’ve become like him. I’m angry. I’m irritable. I throw things now. I’m cussing. I’m becoming somebody I didn’t want to become. Please help me!”
Charlene Benson can testify to that kind of transformation. The daughter of a controlling father and passive mother, she married at 21 and found herself living out the same dysfunctional pattern as her unhappy parents.
About 10 years into her marriage, however, Benson realized that sometimes she “switched places” with her husband and became as controlling and manipulative as she perceived him to be.
Today she counsels couples who feel stuck in difficult marriages and says “switching places” is something many of her clients have experienced.
If you’re in a chronically unhappy marriage, you may retreat and shrink away from your spouse or you may become reactively abusive or even unfaithful. Those responses lead to intense emotional and often physical pain. You may think you have only two choices: remain miserable forever or get a divorce. But the surprising truth is that transformational options exist for those in a stressful marriage, if they’re willing to initiate change.
A stressful marriage can lead to physical stress
One day Dr. David Hawkins made a stunning observation: He realized that many of his clients had similar complaints about fatigue, physical pain and health issues.
Could their marriages be making them sick?
He broached the subject with his two sons — Tyson, an internist, and Joshua, a surgeon. He told them he’d noticed that many people in severely difficult marriages suffer from auto-immune disorders, headaches, sleep problems, chronic fatigue, Hashimoto’s disease, fibromyalgia and more. Then he asked his sons, “What do you think about that?”
“I see it all the time,” Dr. Tyson Hawkins told his father. “There is absolutely a connection between physical well-being or sickness and emotional functioning.”
For example, Charles, a patient of Dr. David Hawkins, chooses to bury his marital relationship pain by overeating and watching mindless television. The results are extreme weight gain and high blood pressure. The relationship stress is killing him, but he won’t admit to the connection.
And until recently, practitioners wouldn’t, either. It’s long been known that stress impacts our bodies. Understanding the extent that marriage stress in particular wreaks havoc on our health, however, is a new development. Dr. David Hawkins and his two sons wrote a book — In Sickness and in Health — chronicling their personal findings as well as detailing current research on the subject, offering hope to husbands and wives in toxic marriages.
When a person finds him- or herself in these kinds of dire circumstances, is there hope? What if a spouse won’t admit there’s a problem, doesn’t want to change or refuses counseling?
In their work in clinical settings and retreats, Dr. David Hawkins and Charlene Benson regularly see marriages transformed. Although it takes two people to build a happy marriage, these experts say it takes just one person to radically change an unhealthy relationship dynamic.
Here’s how to get started:
Take an honest look at your circumstances and your heart
The first step is to stop living in denial. Telling yourself you just need to try harder or that it’s all in your head won’t get you into a better place.
Dr. Tyson Hawkins believes that making the connection between a stressful marriage and health problems you may be experiencing can be a huge denial buster.
Facing your fears can also help. According to Tim Sanford, clinical director of Counseling Services at Focus on the Family, the following fears keep many embattled spouses from moving toward personal or marital health and healing:
- “I’m afraid that if I’m honest, I may have to admit to myself ways that I’m contributing to the problem.”
- “I’m afraid that if I set boundaries, he may leave me and then I’ll be alone.”
- “I’m afraid that if he improves, I won’t have anyone to fix.”
Admitting your fears to yourself — and then to someone you trust — can help you move forward.
Surround yourself with good support
Identify counselors and friends who are equipped to help you. Avoid friends who think you’re overreacting, and retreat from friends who paint an enticing picture of divorce.
In addition, look for spiritual support in a church setting such as a Bible study or prayer group, possibly one not connected to your home church. Above all, rely on God. He’s with you on this journey.
Commit to self-care
You may need to be kinder to yourself so that you can become healthy enough to make changes and stop feeling trapped in marriage.
That means finding ways to exercise, eat right, reduce stress and get enough sleep. It means taking time to nurture your soul by spending time with God in prayer and reading Scripture and faith-building devotionals.
Robert Paul, vice president of Focus Marriage Institute — which provides an intensive counseling program for couples in crisis called Hope Restored — often asks women, “If you were to care for your children like you care for yourself physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually … what would that look like?”
Almost all the women respond with a horrified look on their face and say, “That would be terrible!”
Paul nods and says, “Right. So what you’re doing is contrary to what God is calling you to do, because He said to care for others in the same way you care for yourself” (Luke 10:27).
Set better boundaries
People mistakenly think that setting a boundary means getting someone to stop doing something you don’t want him or her to do.
But as Paul points out, we don’t have that kind of power over others unless we resort to control and manipulation. “And trying to manipulate and control someone else — even as a means of coping — is a lose-lose proposition. That’s not where God’s calling you.” Paul suggests instead that spouses may first attempt to request that something stop, but if that doesn’t work, they should retreat to a safe place rather than wait for their hostile spouse to change.
While we can’t control the behavior of others, what we can control is the gift of our personhood, choosing not to fellowship with someone who treats us badly until that person agrees to seek help.
And one way to do that is to pull away from the relationship for a short time with the goal of reconciliation.
Dr. David Hawkins strongly urges a zero-tolerance policy for physical abuse, so if that is occurring in your marriage, get yourself (and any children) to safety immediately and seek professional help.
But if physical abuse is not present, you may have more options than you think. Hawkins explains, “If staying put and coping with toxic behavior is a one and divorce is a 10, there are lots of steps in between.”
He coaches clients on how to stage a strategic intervention, like this conversation one of his clients had with her husband: “I love you, but I’m done. I’m done begging you to go to counseling or read marriage books. You can call [a local counseling center] and participate in a group for emotionally abusive men, or I’m going to temporarily separate from you. I love you. I want this marriage. But I will not live like this anymore. If you decide not to do this, that’s your choice, but I’m going to leave for three days to let you think it over.”
According to Hawkins, plenty of people will tell you that emotionally abusive men can’t change. Don’t believe it, he says. “Men won’t change until they must. But when they must, they will change.”
Reclaim power by taking responsibility
Convinced that her husband was the sole problem — and the sole person who had to fix their marriage — Benson asked him to go to counseling with her. When he refused, she started going by herself.
Unexpectedly, the counselor homed in on several significant losses during Benson’s childhood that were influencing how she responded to her husband.
It was the first domino to fall in a cascade of events, insights and milestones. Today, Benson and her husband have learned new ways of interacting with each other and are enjoying a relationship that has been transformed in many ways.
Benson assures husbands and wives who feel trapped in marriage that it really is possible to end up in a healthy relationship.
“The changes in my marriage began with me getting help for me,” she says. “And once I changed, he had to change, as well, because I was no longer responding or acting the same way. You don’t have to wait on your spouse. If he won’t go to counseling, go yourself and start making better and healthier choices on your own.”
If you’re convinced that your spouse is both the problem and solution to your marriage struggles, you’ve given him or her all the power.
Changing toxic patterns in a chronically troubled marriage isn’t easy, and it takes time. It may eventually require changes on the part of both spouses, but that’s not the place where healing usually begins.
It begins with one.
*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.
© 2020 Karen Scalf Bouchard. All rights reserved. Used with permission. This article first appeared in the April/May 2020 issue of Focus on the Family magazine.