Is Your Marriage Unhappy or Harmful?
I have a passion for helping struggling couples. Why? Because Carey and I were there ourselves for years, but we’re not anymore. And, I’ve witnessed some struggling couples who reached the other side of divorce, only to discover disappointment. Our marriage is restored and has become, dare I say, beautiful and deeply satisfying. I want this for you, too. But, I’m very much aware of the relational factors that make restoring a marriage possible in some cases but inappropriate or worse in others. That’s why I target my messages to couples in marriages that are unhappy, not harmful.
Maybe you find yourself in an unhappy marriage, which describes most couples I saw while practicing family law. Maybe you’re unhappy because you’ve drifted apart, you’ve lost the passion, or you’re stuck in what seems like endless conflict. Or maybe one of you have had an affair. For whatever reason, you’re desperately frustrated with your unhappiness.
A harmful marriage is different from an unhappy marriage. How? First, let’s talk about what a harmful marriage isn’t. When I was in practice, practically every client I spoke to said their spouse was emotionally abusive. In all the marriage conflicts I’ve seen, things get messy. People say things they don’t mean or intend to say. In many cases, the messiness of their conflict turned out to be more mutual than they could admit.
It’s common to be confused about where your emotional pain is coming from when you’re in a marriage that feels bad. I heard people say things like, My husband stores up all his anger from work and dumps it when he gets home. He’s always venting. Or, My wife gets exhausted being with the kids and starts drinking wine before dinner. Then she zones out and blows me off. Or, My spouse knows how worried I am about our finances, but goes out and spends anyway. In these cases, both spouses are dealing with pain. The line between unhappy and harmful is blurred. The causes get blurred. Is someone drinking or overspending because their partner is withdrawing love or avoiding intimacy? The root causes of both partners’ pain may be more intertwined than either person realizes. The words and actions that come from deep pain or brokenness may be labeled emotionally abusive at times by our spouses. And that’s how many unhappily married people talked to me about their spouse’s dysfunctional behavior. But I think applying “emotionally abusive” in this broad sense isn’t helpful.
Having said that, you and I need to be honest and take appropriate steps when a partner’s words and actions are not just leaving you with unhappiness but are objectively and consistently harmful to you or to your children. If your partner is behaving in ways that are violent or toxic, you need to protect yourself, and you need to reach out for help. Staying under the same roof with him or her may only cause you more harm. While that is a more clear-cut case, for some married people, the line between unhappy and harmful is not as easily defined. I strongly encourage you not to try to figure out the answer to that question on your own in isolation. If you’re not sure, please seek help from a professional therapist or counselor to uncover why your marriage makes you question whether it’s unhappy or actually harmful. At a minimum, talk to your doctor, a therapist, a pastor, or someone wise and objective whom you trust. Give that person full disclosure of the reasons for your concerns and take their advice seriously.
I know people who needed to leave a marriage that had become toxic and abusive. Here’s the point I’m underlining: in any of my messages, I’m not advocating that you stay in your marriage, at least living under the same roof, while you’re dealing with toxic, violent, or otherwise destructive behavior from your spouse. If this is your situation, get professional help to make a safety plan. If you or anyone else is in danger of harm, you can find help here.