| Family Reflections |

Crossing the Line

How to know when your marital challenges are abnormal

I know that marriage is supposed to be challenging. I read all the books and articles that warned that it takes hard work for husbands and wives to learn to get along,” says a woman. “I thought the emotional pain I felt was ‘normal.’ Only this past year, when my doctor asked me with concern and compassion if everything was okay at home, did I finally break down and realize this wasn’t normal.”

How does a person know whether their marriage is “normal”? It’s true that every marriage has its challenges, difficulties, disappointments and even heartache. Many people think that their own relationship is far worse than other people’s. Simply the fact that they’re hurting convinces them that their situation isn’t right. But when they learn from marriage experts that pain is part of the package, they try, try, and try again.

Usually, this is the right approach. It yields not only marital well-being, but also leads to tremendous personal growth. One who successfully learns to accept the foibles of one’s partner develops strength, compassion, patience, maturity, wisdom, and understanding.


When Things Aren’t Normal

But there are times when the person’s original suspicion is legitimate: They’re dealing with something that is, in fact, not normal. Their spouse’s behavior is completely unacceptable, dysfunctional, or otherwise beyond the pale. It might be abnormal in its frequency, intensity, or form of expression. For instance, it’s normal (though undesirable) for someone to lose their temper on occasion. Normal people will usually work on themselves to prevent even relatively rare outbursts, improving as the marriage goes along. But it’s not normal for a person to explode in rage several times a week or to have smaller fits of temper on a daily basis, and it’s certainly not normal for them to be unwilling or unable to do anything about it. It’s not normal to smash walls, throw objects, trash a room, or shout obscenities; it’s not normal to be physically threatening.

It’s normal for people to go through short periods of low mood and low productivity. It’s not normal for a spouse to stay in bed till noon — or longer — on a regular basis. It’s normal for people to make irresponsible financial decisions from time to time, poor choices that hurt the pocketbook. But it’s not normal to plunge the family into debt and despair time after time, or to otherwise create financial crisis or instability and then refuse to address it.


The Way Ahead

Many not-normal behaviors arise out of various mental health diagnoses, and some arise out of character flaws alone. However, only those who have studied the behavior of the population in general (such as psychologists and psychiatrists) would really be able to identify where on the bell curve of normal behavior a person is actually situated. Moreover, only highly trained mental health professionals (those licensed to provide diagnoses) are qualified to say whether a person is suffering from a genuine disorder or is functioning within the normal range. Therefore, when a person is wondering whether their spouse — and therefore their marital situation — is “normal,” they should consult the appropriate professionals.

However, unacceptable marital behaviors require treatment whether or not a formal diagnosis is produced. For instance, if a person is “normal” (according to the DSM-5) but badly behaved in an abnormal way, then professional help is still required. If treatment is indicated and embraced, it may be possible to continue to build a healthy and safe marriage. However, the input of a rav will help determine next steps.

“My husband would fly off the handle over the smallest thing and then sulk in silence for days on end,” says one wife. “I knew it wasn’t normal. I told him he needed to get a professional assessment if he wanted to stay married and thankfully, he agreed. However, the psychologist told us that there was nothing clinically wrong with him and that he just needed to learn better emotional regulation skills. So I told him if he wanted to stay married he’d better hire someone to teach him those skills — and he did! That was ten years ago, and we’ve been doing well ever since.”

There isn’t always a happy ending when a partner behaves outside the normal range of acceptable marital behavior. However, understanding that there is a place outside this range is important for all marital partners. There are lines that can’t be crossed.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 877)

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