I’m dating a man who was left by his wife. He says he has moved on and that he wants to marry again, but all the signs show he hasn’t moved on. He is still bitter. Every time we argue he is ready to let everything go and often doesn’t try to make it work. I do all the fixing and every time we reconcile, he says he believes I’ll never come back. I feel like when we argue, he thinks of how his wife left and never came back and then he won’t try to fix the problem. What do I do? I feel bad because I also have feelings and they are hurt. I sometimes want him to try and help fix the problem. I love him so much and I would like to help him forget all the pain. What do I do?
Your boyfriend is clearly suffering from the impact of having his ex-wife walk out on him, but you will also suffer a similar fate if this dynamic doesn’t change in your relationship. In other words, the risk is high for him to keep doing to you what was done to him by his ex-wife. When he feels insecure about you leaving, he’s showing you that he’ll pull away and leave you. In order for you to have security with him, you’ll need to know that he won’t go anywhere when he’s fearful about your commitment.
First, you can’t always take full responsibility for all of the problems that arise in the marriage as a way to maintain your couple connection. This is a recipe for you to build resentment toward your boyfriend. In fact, it’s the complete opposite of actual connection. What you’re creating is a false intimacy that will eventually fall like a house of cards. Real connection is built on two people turning toward each other with respect and trust.
Of course, you’ll need to take responsibility for your mistakes in the relationship. You can also expect him to take responsibility for his contributions instead of expecting you to do all of the emotional heavy lifting by yourself. He can’t outsource his emotional work in this relationship and expect to have a satisfying relationship.
He has to be in charge of healing the bitterness he feels towards his ex-wife before he can fully give himself to this relationship. Otherwise, he’ll continue projecting all of his pain directly at you and then expect you to do something about it. Like you, I have compassion for the hurt he’s experiencing. It’s hard to see someone tortured by injuries from the past. However, you have to be clear about what you can and can’t do to help him heal.
You’ll recall that when Jesus healed the man at the pool of Bethesda, part of this man’s healing was for him to “Rise, take up [his] bed, and walk.”[i] Notice that even though Jesus performed a miracle to heal this man’s ailment, there was also an expectation of personal responsibility that propelled him forward in his renewed state. If your boyfriend rejects his own responsibility to be an active part of healing himself and his relationship with you, your own efforts will never be enough.
You can’t remove his bitterness toward his ex-wife, but you can extend compassion when he’s hurting. You can’t make him face your relationship struggles, but you can invite him to talk through them with you. You can’t singlehandedly fix all marriage problems, but you can take ownership of yours and patiently expect him to look at his part. You can’t make him come back when he disappears, but you can set healthy boundaries that protect you from his reactivity. You are not powerless to act in this relationship even though it will feel terribly uncomfortable to see him struggle.
You can either expect him to do his own personal work around healing his previous injuries from his ex-wife or you can keep carrying all of the pain from both relationships. The reason you can’t think of any options to remove his pain is because it’s not yours to remove. He has lots of options to work through his pain that can include seeking spiritual healing, talking to a therapist, or reading a self-help book.
When he disappears after an argument and expects you to chase him and take full responsibility for everything, recognize that he’s doing this so he doesn’t have to be vulnerable about his relationship fears. You can stand in your place and expect him to have a mature relationship conversation that involves two people willing to look at their individual contributions. If he doesn’t want to do this work, then this is important feedback about what kind of relationship he wants to have with you. You can invite him to a different place, but you can’t make him do his individual and relational work.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]
If you’ve broken trust with your spouse and want a structured approach to repairing the damage you’ve created, I’ve created the Trust Building Bootcamp, a 12-week online program designed to help you restore trust and become a trustworthy person. Visit www.trustbuildingacademy.com to learn more and enroll in the course.
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples, pornography/sexual addiction, betrayal trauma, and infidelity. He is the founder of LifeStar of St. George, Utah (www.lifestarstgeorge.com) and Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com). Geoff is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, the host of the Illuminate podcast, and creates online relationship courses available at www.trustbuildingacademy.com. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
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[i] John 5:8