My efforts to grow feel useless since my husband doesn’t share them
My husband and I both come from difficult backgrounds. During our teen years, we each did hard inner work to become well adjusted and productive. When we met, in our early twenties, we bonded, recognizing in each other the core of strength that comes from introspection and striving toward growth.
The first decade of our marriage was idyllic. However, as our family grew, so did the problems and challenges. Raising kids, finances, school issues — the yoke of adulthood weighed us down, causing us to revert to the unhealthy patterns we saw in our childhood homes.
Finally, when I realized I was heading toward rock bottom, I reached out to a therapist and began working, struggling to get back to safer ground. It was a humbling experience. I had to relearn communication, life and coping skills, areas I thought I had down pat. But it’s been worth it; the results have been incredible. At least in my relationship with my children and my own sense of self.
My husband, however, hasn’t viewed these difficult situations as a wake-up call. He says he’s doing great; it’s “people” and “stuff” and “life” that are hitting him with bad luck. Whenever I suggest he may benefit from help, he explodes, insisting he’s fine and complaining that all I want to do is change him. The more I realize I’m a better, stronger person now, the more his attitude is pulling us apart.
I want so much to grow in life together, but my efforts seem useless if he isn’t interested in the same goal. Everyone says that even if just one spouse changes, a marriage can shift. But in my situation, the more I grow, the more distant I feel from my husband, who is mired in denial and anger. How do I keep our relationship strong when we have such different approaches to life’s challenges?
Rabbi Ilan D. Feldman has served as the rav of Beth Jacob of Atlanta since 1991.
As a person who has the strength and courage to look inward, you’re to be admired, especially as you do new work in areas where you thought you’d already mastered certain progress. Those people who meet the never-ending challenges of life successfully are those who never assume they’ve “made it.”
Chazal teach us that “A person’s yetzer grows strong every day and attempts to destroy him.” Thus, we must recognize that there’s never a time we can rest and desist from further accomplishments. This World isn’t designed for relaxation; it’s designed for growth, which requires work.
But we must be careful when we master this trait of growth, because it can become a liability when we subtly employ our success as a tool against others. Our yetzer never ceases to invent new ways to deprive us of our success in combating it. Self-righteousness is often the unwelcome partner to spiritual growth. “Look at me and what I’ve overcome,” it shouts. “Why won’t you join me in this realm of growth, rather than languish in the unproductive territory in which you’re wallowing?”
Obviously, we never articulate this so starkly, even internally. Nevertheless, it’s easy to slide into that perspective of others from the height of our own spiritual summit.
In your case, despite your climb and achievements, it’s a very lonely existence for you at the peak when your eternal partner seems to have veered off the path that was the foundation of your marriage. You entered marriage on a powerful impetus based on mutual appreciation of shared past and transcendent growth. But this advantage became a disadvantage for you, because you expected it to be the rule, not the exception.
The fact is, couples don’t always grow at the same time, the same way, or in the same areas. A key to a happy marriage is to grant permission to your spouse to be imperfect, to be unaccomplished in certain areas. Your willingness to confront your challenges in a creative and productive way must not become an indictment of your husband.
Rest assured that your husband is as familiar as you are with the virtues of growth. What you shared at the earlier stages of your marriage is still real for both of you. Having once acquired the keys to growth, he still has them and will find them again, in his time.
However, at present, he’s not ready to be creative in meeting these new challenges of life. As such, he’s doing what we all do when we avoid responsibility: We blame circumstances, people, life, and, most of all, our spouses.
You may unwittingly be providing him with an extra prop needed in his avoidance of personal responsibility — his wife, whom he feels has indicted him and causes him to feel inadequate. These feelings propel him to resist you instead of dealing with himself. I’m sure any comparison on your part between your own growth vs. his inertia is not done overtly, but as a wife, what bothers you internally is probably what he strongly feels emanating from you.
What he needs from you is a twofold gift. He needs a spouse who refuses to forfeit joy in life in favor of frustration. Living with such a person who can do this is very inspiring. And especially so when combined with the second gift — the gift of compassion, of acceptance for where he is now. Allowing him to be imperfect is an act of love and kindness, and will likely provide him the “space” to join you, once again, in shared growth.
I believe there can come a time in your marriage when he will thank you for granting him the right to grow on his schedule, not yours. In the meantime, continue to move forward yourself, ready to welcome him “home” whenever he’s ready.
Mordechai Weinberger LCSW has a weekly mental health call-in radio program in Lakewood, NJ. He has also authored three best-selling books: Alive!, Mastering Relationships, and Momentum.
First and foremost, I must commend you on your honesty and the self-awareness that has led you to this dilemma. In all human interactions, in order to see change, one has to realize there’s a need to change. Your willingness to actualize improvement is commendable as it involves courage and integrity.
Your question is one of the hardest that brings people through the therapy door: “I’m here to change my spouse/teenager/parent.” Even clients who aren’t coming to change their family member often want to change the world. “The world’s not fair since I can’t get a good job.” “The ‘system’ is skewed since my child can’t get into school.” They’re carrying a victim mentality, believing there’s nothing they can do to change what they didn’t deserve.
There’s an element of truth to these feelings. In your case, you’re investing a lot, yet your efforts are being stonewalled by the one person who could do the most to help you succeed. Marriage is a partnership in which every facet of yourself is invested. If your spouse isn’t investing his part, you’re feeling a lack, frustrated, empty.
So what can you do? There are several stages here.
As someone familiar with past therapy success, you were under the impression that there were several interim years that appeared ideal. However, I’d like to venture that what’s more likely is that “ideal” was an external level of functionality, but internally there was still a morass of unresolved issues.
Let’s compare therapy with exercise. In training, one increases stamina until they reach their goal. However, if they then cease to exercise, their newly developed muscles will atrophy. Therapy is about building life muscles. The harder the challenge, the more one needs to work.
When you began careening in your downward spiral, you recognized the need to take action.
Congratulate yourself for grabbing the lifesaver of therapy. But extend the same compassion to your husband that you had to yourself while you were sinking. Although you may have been approaching rock bottom, your husband may not have reached that point. Change occurs due to individual revelations. Pushing someone to wake up won’t work and can backfire.
How so? All interactions in This World are based on the premise of give and take. Let’s take a situation like buying a house. A buyer should never upset the balance with effusive enthusiasm, because then the seller has the advantage and will raise the price. This is natural psychological warfare that Hashem has created in all relationships. The more your husband senses your pressure for him to change, the less likely he’ll be agreeable to change. This isn’t cruelty; it’s simply human nature now that he has the upper hand.
Perhaps he’ll decide on his own to reach out. But, unless you were supporting him unconditionally, not challenging him, he may not reach out to you.
So what can you do to improve your situation? If your spouse will never change, does that mean you’re doomed to a lifetime of unhappiness? Not at all.
There are three types of relationships within marriage. One is a couple where each is completely independent of the other. He lives his life, and she lives hers.
Conversely, there’s the dependent dynamic, where each spouse is only happy if the other one is happy. That may work until one partner has an unhappiness that the other cannot fill. Then both are drawn downward.
The ideal is the interdependent model. Interdependence is a balance where you genuinely care about your spouse and try to work things through together. However, if he’s going through a challenge, you can still be happy in your relationship together because you’re strong enough in your own happiness.
Once you come to that acceptance, you’re no longer a victim or a martyr. You’ve become a beacon for maintaining happiness in your home. A woman who’s fulfilled has a unique feminine energy that draws her family up, as opposed to being dragged down. You’re now on the road to promoting true change simply by modeling that change with simchah. You’re now on the road to seeing success.
Sheryl Solomon MSW is a certified individual, marital, and family therapist and maintains a private clinic in Jerusalem. She currently teaches at the Path Center.
The question you pose is a painful one. I feel for you and your perceived imbalance in your relationship. Now’s the time to ask yourself if you’re committed to make this relationship work — remember, this is the guy you were excited to marry not so many years ago.
In a therapeutic process one needs to focus on the individual’s pain, as well as the pain of changing relationships, and the family unit as a whole.
Firstly, and this is essential, you must validate your own pain. You’re grieving here, mourning the loss of what was and the loss of a dream not fulfilled. Allow yourself the space to acknowledge that this loss is fraught with pain.
Within any situation that demands change, we need the two Cs: compassion and curiosity. Compassion to yourself gives you the self-support to assess the situation and then look for methods to proceed. And there’s an innate curiosity within each of us that’s actively seeking more knowledge and better understanding of our difficulties and how to live with them.
Based on this curiosity, I’d like to ask you some questions that can help guide you as you proceed:
If you’re able to have compassion for your own struggle, are you able to have compassion for your spouse?
Can you recognize that while you’ve been able to do your own work here, perhaps your husband may not have the recourses or headspace to do inner work at this time?
Do you have a sense of what he wants right now? Have you asked him? Does he have an idea of where he wants your marriage to be heading? Is he happy with your marriage now?
Do you invite him to be closer or do you push him away? Are you pressuring him or assisting him? It’s essential to be conscious of the critical parts of us that tend to rear up and sabotage change.
Can you think of times and stages within your marriage where you both worked through things at different paces and in different ways? How do those situations compare or contrast to this one?
In the past, when you were not in sync with your husband, was it as devastating? Were you able to resolve it together? How?
What would be the best possible outcome of therapy? For you, him, and the marriage? Any other ways to attain parts of this?
What about your relationship is going well right now? Are there ways to enrich the things that are going right? Can you focus on the strengths in your marriage to foster strength?
There are always changes in the course of marriage. Was this a gradual change? Abrupt? Can you put your finger on what was the catalyst?
Can you reminisce about the good times when you did work well together? Are you able to bring them up in a positive light? Do these memories make it more enticing to go back to that kind of equilibrium, to work together as you once did?
Are there overt gender differences here in your level of emotional expression? How do these play out in a general sense in your marriage?
Focus on your backgrounds. How did your husband grow up? How did you? What kind of messages did you each get from your family of origin in the areas of vulnerability and acceptance of self?
The ultimate goal, as difficult as it is, is to have compassion for both of you, and thereby be able to accept and let go. Now, there’ll be a greater window of opportunity to bring emotional closeness.
One way to promote this is to spend time together with the goal of enjoying each other’s company and build up that closeness you had at the beginning of your relationship. Set ground rules in order to avoid confrontation and instead share time and space in a friendly manner with shared interests. There’s been so much time and investment in your relationship, see how you can rekindle that flame.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 729)
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