My Marriage Has Come to a Complete Stop

Reader’s Question

I am at a complete stop in my marriage, and I am unsure about what to do. I have been married for six years. I am twenty-four with two young children. My marriage has constantly been ups and downs. There has been verbal abuse, emotional abuse, and some physical abuse (pushing, shoving) in the past. Recently I have just felt nothing for my husband. He is trying and is changing for the better, but there are still things I just get annoyed by. We grew up very differently. He had an abusive up-bringing and I had the typical ‘Brady Bunch’ family values. I see that he is trying, but I just feel so distant from him. I cannot seem to let myself get close, and the thought of him kissing me or anything else makes my stomache hurt. I know he loves me very much and is wanting to change for me and the children, but will our marriage work? I know that I play a big part in saving our marriage, but I am unsure about what I could accept, without changing who I am.

Right now he is trying, but he say’s I am giving nothing back so it’s frustrating. I just feel so much pressure I cannot think straight…I don’t know what I want. He won’t go to counseling (it’s not even an option), and a separation feels like preventing the inevitable. I feel so alone in all of this…please help…

Psychologist’s Reply

Your situation is very common in relationships. With each episode of verbal/emotional abuse, intimidation, aggression, and physical aggression, both of you make Emotional Memories — memories that contain both the details of the incident and the feelings experienced at the time. For your husband, his memories are of temper outbursts and the emotional part of the memory contains anger, frustration, and agitation. For the victim of abusive behavior, it’s a totally different memory. After six years, you now have hundreds of Emotional Memories that contain fear, intimidation, panic, helplessness, sadness, and hopelessness. Those same emotions resurface each time he tries to talk to you — because that’s the scene that typically started those abusive incidents. For many, once you’ve had a needle injection for example, no matter how friendly the physician may be, you have a sense of fear, worrying about what might be coming next.

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Over time, due to abusive incidents and the Emotional Memories, the victim becomes emotionally exhausted. In self-defense, your feelings become numb. Your softer, loving feelings are replaced with a hard I-don’t-care-anymore attitude. You become not only socially withdrawn, but socially detached as well — seldom speaking, not smiling, and showing no emotional response to your partner.

As you describe, abusive individuals often have abusive backgrounds and for that reason, have a sense that their temper has always been there and is not a major issue — only something they need to control. Some families actually brag about how “hot temper” is inherited in their family line. While he understands that he needs to control it, he may have little understanding about what the outbursts and abusiveness have done to you. Sadly, he may be willing to change his behavior, but you may be too emotionally exhausted to participate. Some thoughts:

  • Emotional exhaustion and depression are chemically similar. Review depression articles on this website and complete the depression screening tests. If you are depressed, seeking treatment for your depression is important and may involve an antidepressant medication and counseling. If you elect to participate in any marital repair, you’ll need to be emotionally healthy.
  • Read the article on Emotional Memory. It will describe how you are now tormented by memories of those abusive episodes. It may also provide techniques to manage those memories.
  • Your current marital situation is extremely tense — so tense in fact that each evening probably feels like you’re sitting on a time bomb. The tension must be reduced by: 1) Selecting one hour two nights a week to discuss issues — no more, no less. 2) If sexual activity is a pressure, select a “whoopie night” as well. As odd as that may sound, having an agreed-upon night greatly reduces the nightly tension regarding that issue. 3) Try to date — go to the movies, dinner, etc. Right now, every “couple” memory is not very good. This may help make some new ones.
  • You’ll need to decide if you want to work on the marriage. You’ll make your best decisions if you are not emotionally exhausted. If you treat your depression/stress, agree to place the relationship on probation for several months with the understanding that nothing will happen, then reconsider the issues with more emotional strength.
  • Counseling would be very beneficial for both of you. As you describe, coming from two different family backgrounds may have a significant influence on the way each person understands the relationship and their behavior.

You will be required to change who you are — but that’s not a bad thing. If the marriage is to work, you both must change and make a new relationship — a customized marriage that protects you and the children from abuse and aggression in the home. As you customize the marriage, you can include changes that are good for the marriage, the family and you.

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