Don't Ask, Don't Tell Your Family
Marriage on the brink? Be careful what you say.
Posted May 17, 2010
Your marriage is on the rocks. Your husband is emotionally unavailable and you strongly suspect he is having an affair. Your wife never wants to have sex. You are so miserable about your home life, you can't even concentrate at work. You're so desperate; divorce starts looking like a reasonable option. But you're just not sure what to do. So, you turn to your friends and family for a shoulder to lean on. You tell them about the problems in your marriage and how your spouse just doesn't understand you or your needs. You share the many ways in which your spouse is selfish, insensitive, deceitful, and controlling and how he or she is completely unwilling to change. Support and empathy is what you're after and you talk about your predicament to any friend or family member with a sympathetic ear. The advice you get feels right, "I can't believe your husband treats you that way. You shouldn't put up with it," or, "Your wife doesn't deserve you. You are so good to her and she is so self-absorbed." Vindicated and bolstered, you leave these conversations feeling better. You're right, your spouse is wrong. And that's all good.
Weeks turn into months or years and nothing changes in your marriage. With each passing day, you grow increasingly unhappy. Now, your marital beefs become your daily mantra; you've looped your loved ones in on the on-going saga of a marriage gone wrong. Soon, they start wondering, "What did that jerk do to you today?" Eventually, you're being urged to cut your losses and get out of your marriage. Your friends and family can't stand to see you hurt any longer. They want you to get on with your life. "Enough is enough," they say, and start offering suggestions about divorce attorneys. And as you're about to see, while it may feel comforting to know that there are people who love, support and understand you, relying on family and friends in this way can easily backfire.
For starters, when you discuss your marital issues with close friends and family, they hear only your side of the story, which by definition, is incomplete and skewed. But this doesn't stop your loved ones from diagnosing your spouse as the problem. Their loyalty to you blinds them from seeing or understanding the context in which the marital problems have developed over time. They fail to recognize how maybe, just maybe, your actions may have triggered your spouse to behave in undesirable ways. That's because you might be unaware of your own contribution to your relationship struggles as well. It's often hard to see the forest for the trees.
But beside the fact that your cronies may be shortsighted and biased in terms of your perspective on things, there is an even more problematic twist when it comes to turning to loved ones for support during marital strife. And here it is. You might change your mind about your spouse. If your spouse starts being kinder, more considerate, loving, involved, sexier, communicative, and so on, you're encouraged and can't wait to share your good news with your inner circle. But when you do, lo and behold, they're not impressed. They're not happy, far from it. They're skeptical or filled with contempt. They tell you, "Can't you see that he's just trying to manipulate you?" "She's on her best behavior, but it won't last." "Once a cheater/liar, always a cheater/liar." "You've been wanting to get out of your marriage and now you are being brainwashed to stay." They're frustrated and angry because you've leaned on them and basked in their emotional support, and now, you want to stay married and work things out!! It's simply unacceptable.
So, you try to explain that things are different now. You give examples of all the thoughtful things your spouse is doing to show s/he cares. But they won't budge. You just don't understand why they're so stubbornly clinging to their negative views of your mate. Why aren't they happy for you that your marriage has turned a corner? Why don't they see the changes in your spouse? And if they really loved you, regardless of what they think about your spouse, shouldn't they just want you to be happy, even if they don't agree with your decisions?
This week in my practice, I was deeply saddened by a situation much like the ones I have described above. A couple married for 10 years with two young children sought my help. The wife has been desperately unhappy because her husband, a workaholic, has been emotionally distant, uninvolved with the children, critical and demeaning. Because of her unhappiness, she spent extended periods of time with her parents and siblings who live out of town. Her husband felt neglected, lonely and unappreciated. Rather than discuss their feelings openly and honestly, they argued and retreated to separate quarters. Their relationship, rather than intimate partners, seemed more like toddlers engaging in parallel play.
To satisfy a deep void from within, the husband turned to sex outside the marriage—lots of it. He found himself in a web of sexually compulsive behavior. His wife, though emotionally detached, sensed something was not right and began sleuth work to entrap him. She solicited help from computer-savvy relatives and within a short period of time, got all the information she needed to make a decision about her marriage. She's wanted out. Her siblings cheered her on and the once adored husband, brother and son-in-law got slapped with the scarlet letter and was ostracized from a family he dearly loves.
The wife sought legal advice and announced her intentions to divorce her husband. He was crushed and begged her to come for a two-day intensive with me. As is often the case with these challenging but productive intensives, this couple decided to tackle the issues that led them astray and recommit to working on their marriage rather than to divorce. Though well aware that the road to recovery would be fraught with challenges and hard work, nonetheless, a feeling of optimism was palpable in my office.
Until they got home, that is.
Upon hearing the news of possible reconciliation, this woman's family was livid, outraged. Her brothers and sisters have vacillated between refusing to talk to her and non-stop harassing telephone calls. As weeks passed, in spite of the impressive, heartfelt, and profoundly life-transforming work these two individuals have been doing on themselves and their marriage, her family hasn't been swayed. As if her dealing with complicated and painful marital issues and the detailed disclosure about his sexually compulsive behavior weren't enough. Now, this.
Although I'm hopeful her family will eventually come around, my heart hurt for them when, through their tears, they told me about her family's reaction to her decision to try to work things out. But I was not surprised. I've seen this dynamic many times.
So, here's some advice.
If you are someone considering divorce, it's reasonable to assume that you will want to discuss your situation with people closest to you- good friends and relatives. Understand that when you do, they will naturally take your side. The more information you share about your spouse's "wrongdoings," the more your friends and family will object to his or her presence in your life. If you sense that your loved ones are becoming biased, it's wise to limit complaints about your marriage and consult with a therapist instead. (Make sure you hire a marriage-friendly therapist.) Don't expect your family to be able to readily switch gears about your spouse's potential to change just because you have. They may just need more time. And whatever you do, while they catch up to you, don't allow their pessimism to thwart your marriage-saving plans. As David Ben-Gurion once said, "Anyone who doesn't believe in miracles is not a realist."