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Carrie Askin LCSW

How to Begin Saving Your Marriage in Five Steps

It really doesn't take two to start the change

Timothy Kolczak/
Source: Timothy Kolczak/

Joe, a man in one of our treatment groups, recently told us he finally understood that his chronic emotional withholding from his wife Sarah has been a punishment that he has levied against her for years.

He’s been with us for a couple of months and every week he comes to group struggling with himself and us. He knows he’s been mean to Sarah, he has insulted and humiliated her, screamed in her face and called her terrible names, grabbed and pushed her. “But,” he always begins, “she should be here too.”

By here Joe means she should be in our therapy program for emotionally and/or physically abusive partners. The story Joe has told himself is that Sarah is just as bad if not worse than he is and that their relationship will not change unless she gets help to change what he thinks of as her abusive behavior.

Joe has fallen in a mental trap, one that catches many people in his situation. He has convinced himself that change will not occur in their relationship unless both are simultaneously working on the same thing. Unfortunately this belief, instead of moving him in the direction of change, is actually keeping him from taking the concrete steps needed to begin the true change process. The belief keeps reinforcing his feeling of being injured by her. It hardens his understanding of who she is and seduces him away from maintaining his attention and effort on his own problems.

Joe’s work in treatment is partly about learning to understand the ways in which he argues himself into inaction.

The week before Joe’s big announcement he heard from some of the men in the room that they go home after group and talk with their partners about what they learned and how they felt. He realized that despite often feeling quite moved by what happened in group, he never shared any of what he discovered with his wife. In fact, he shared almost nothing with her, from what happened in his day to what time she could expect him home from work. And when Sarah, in turn, did not take the initiative to ask him about his day, or about what was happening in group, he took that as confirmation that she was cold and uncaring.

This week the group challenged him to share with her some of what he was learning, namely that he’d hurt her and that he was starting to understand his role in the troubles between them.

“That makes me so anxious,” he blurted out. “She could reject me.”

Joe’s relationship is at a critical point. It is badly damaged and can’t yet safely support vulnerable sharing, but without vulnerable sharing there is little chance of repair.

Joe and his wife Sarah met in their twenties. They were young professionals who fell quickly in love, married and had kids. In the beginning it was exciting but also stressful, chasing toddlers, renovating an old house and working hard to establish themselves in their careers. Their initial conflicts were infrequent but when they happened, intense and terrifying.

Sarah came from a home where her parents stewed and fed grudges, but did so silently - everyone afraid of saying or hearing what couldn’t be unsaid. Joe’s father, in contrast, exploded in rages that his mother had long since given up trying to protect anyone from. Instead she avoided him, busying herself with an immaculate home and immersing herself in her work. Joe, an awkward boy, bore the brunt of his father’s abuse until finally he grew big enough to fight back.

When Sarah shut down in arguments, Joel interpreted that not as a result of her terrible anxiety and lack of skill but as coldness and abandonment. Sarah found Joe’s outbursts terrifying and over time felt less and less willing to risk them. She withdrew from him and made the children and her job the focus of her emotional life. He would have periods in which his guilt and longing would drive him to try to re-engage with her. But when he would allow himself in those moments to become aware once again of the distance between them, he would tell himself it was because she was cold and mean-spirited, feel humiliated by his effort and scream at her.

Sarah is hurt and angry and has good reason not to trust Joe. When he comes home and starts sharing his feelings with her, she is not likely to throw open her arms to him. This isn’t the first time he’s attempted repair. When he has done this before, his remorse and ability to tolerate hurt and discomfort have never lasted.

The test is not whether he can go home and be open with her, it’s whether he can take what feels like a rejection without punishing her. We are working with Joe to develop a practice that can help him to be decent, respectful, and loving when his feelings are hurt.

1. Noticing feelings

When Joe encounters Sarah he is often feeling hurt and anxious. Tonight as Joe drives home from work with the intention to make an emotional connection with Sarah, he will become increasingly anxious as he approaches the house. He is filled with longing for her but also with anxiety, and guilt and shame. These are feeling states that can be hard for people to tolerate for long without launching a defense, which often takes the form of blame, denial, or disengagement. If Joe can notice that he’s feeling all of these things, he has a chance to do something that may give him a shot at being decent.

2. Self-soothing

Anxiety is circular. Joe worries that his wife will be angry when he gets home so his body starts to react to the anxiety as though he is in danger. Joe’s heart begins to race and his body pumps adrenaline which his mind interprets as proof that something really is wrong and he needs to be prepared to fight or flee.

Joe need to know that he’s just scared right now. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Being anxious should be a cue for Joe to take a deep breath and to tell himself that he is safe. It’s true that his wife may push him away when he gets home but he will survive that. It may hurt but he will be okay.

3. Telling a different story

Joe has been telling himself a story about Sarah for years. She’s cold and punishing and doesn’t care about him at all. For years, he’s been telling himself that her silence represents her total indifference to him and his needs. If he wants to be more decent with her, he’s going to have to tell himself a different story: her silence represents her hurt and disappointment. That’s all. She’s not a demon or a monster. She’s just a person who is sad and angry and has an inner-life just like he does.

4. Accepting that change takes time

Quite often here, men will go home from group excited to try out a new tactic like talking about their feelings. The following week, they will return to group and say, “I tried to do what you said and it didn’t work.” “I tried telling my partner that I was sad and she’s told me to stop being such a crybaby” “I tried apologizing to my partner and she told me that she was sick of my apologies”

In the beginning, before any safety is established, Sarah isn’t going to want to be vulnerable with Joe. And she probably shouldn’t; he hasn’t established himself as being able to safely handle her vulnerability. She isn’t likely to cry with him or tell him how scared she is. She is going to look distant and angry. If Joe wants to have a chance at a long-term shift in his thinking about her, he’s going to have imagine that underneath, she’s sad and scared and he’s going to have to respond to her as such, with softness and kindness. Not just once or twice.

5. Asking for the right kind of help

Joe’s habit is to defend himself against his discomfort by telling himself a distorted and dehumanizing story about Sarah. If Joe wants to do something different, he will need the support of people around him who can help him to notice when he is in the middle of a distortion.

All people have positive and negative qualities. Sarah can, like everyone else, be hurtful and difficult. The idea is not that Joe has to think of Sarah as perfect, rather that as her partner he should hold her with generosity and a willingness to empathize. Joe needs people around him, either a treatment program or a community that won’t support his distortions. Joe needs people who can warmly push him to hold Sarah in his heart as we should all hold our partners, with a loving and generous spirit.


About the Author

Carrie Askin, LCSW, is the Co-Director of Menergy, LLC, one of the oldest treatment programs for abusive partners in the country.