Question

My husband and I have been married for 34 years. Our relationship has been rocky over the years. I say it is like a rollercoaster…good times are great but bad times are ugly. Over the years the coaster is not so steep but up and down constantly. I have been staying with my daughter for about six months going home only occasionally. I can’t seem to ever get my voice heard with him. Every time I try it always comes back to everything that’s wrong with me and how I don’t do this or that. He says he understands why because he tells me I am tired, I’m obese, and I’m out of shape. I am 5’5″ and weigh 150 pounds and wear a size 6 or 8. He told me the other day that he had calculated my body fat and if he had that much, he would weigh 300 pounds.

He can also be so sweet and kind. He will cook dinner and even bring it to me. He will praise me for being a good artist and being creative but then put me down because I am such a princess, and I don’t want to learn anything. I have lost my confidence and am so afraid of being alone. I think I have finally had all I can take but I still want him. What’s wrong with me?

Answer

I see how confusing and overwhelming it is for you to experience the ups and downs of living with someone who tears you down, builds you up, and then tears you down again. This cycle has clearly taken a toll on you and left you wondering how to move forward. Nothing is wrong with your response to all of this. It’s difficult to know how to respond when you’re treated this way. However, you’re likely writing because you’re ready to do something different. You have some important decisions to make to preserve your mental and physical health.

Even though I’ve never worked with you or your husband, I’ll comment directly on what I’m hearing you describe in your question to me. I imagine that the distance you’re taking from your husband right now is giving you some relief right now. Six months is a long time to stay separated, so perhaps it’s important to stay with your sense that something serious needs to change for you to return home.

Are you clear on what needs to be different before you’ll recommit to permanently returning? You’ve described a punishing pattern of criticism, blame, and control that would undermine any marriage. Dr. John Gottman’s research clearly identified that divorce is more likely to happen in marriages where there are patterns of criticism, defensiveness, contempt, stonewalling, and belligerence. The damage created by these harmful patterns far outweighs the benefits of occasional kindness from your husband. In fact, Dr. Gottman found that it takes at least ten positive interactions to undo the impact of one negative interaction.

The negative interactions you’re describing in your marriage aren’t just standard squabbles common to all marriages. These patterns you’re describing are verbally abuse and will absolutely kill your confidence and security in the relationship. When people treat others like this, it’s usually about gaining power in the relationship. One common way people gain power over their partners is by making them feel worse about themselves. When your attention is turned to your flaws and imperfections, it makes it difficult to see the harmful dynamics happening right in front of you.

This kind of domination can also create isolation, which leaves you more trapped in these harmful cycles. With your confidence at an all-time low, it’s more likely for you to blame yourself for his criticism instead of expecting him to treat you with respect. When you’re afraid to make waves in your relationship because of his reactivity, you’ll stay silent and become further isolated. This can lead to increased anxiety, depression, and phobias. Notice if these patterns seem to improve when you’re not living with him and experiencing these abusive patterns.

You deserve to experience respect, peace, and kindness in your marriage. This is a minimum requirement when we give voluntarily give ourselves to another person. Not only should you have safety and peace in your marriage, you should also have an equal voice about your needs and preferences. One common pattern of abusers is to make their partners feel less confident so that they’re less likely to speak up and draw boundaries. This creates a dynamic of unhealthy dependency where the worse you feel, the more you rely on them for self-esteem. This makes it tough to leave the relationship because you’re convinced you can’t make it without him.

Many people assume that physical abuse is somehow worse than emotional abuse. The truth is that all abuse is physical. When our soul is assaulted by another person’s words, silence, and control, our bodies immediately respond by going into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn states. These states are only intended to last as long as it takes to get to safety. However, if we’re living with the person who is hurting us, our bodies won’t shut off these reactions and we begin to break down. It’s common for people in verbally abusive relationships to develop serious physical health problems.

In our most recent General Conference, President Russell M. Nelson spoke clearly about the seriousness of abuse:

Let me be perfectly clear: any kind of abuse of women, children, or anyone is an abomination to the Lord. He grieves and I grieve whenever anyone is harmed. He mourns and we all mourn for each person who has fallen victim to abuse of any kind. Those who perpetrate these hideous acts are not only accountable to the laws of man but will also face the wrath of Almighty God.[i]

I encourage you to speak with a therapist or professional who understands abuse. It’s also important for you seek education about abusive patterns so you can recognize them a respond (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/get-help/abuse?lang=eng) It can be difficult to admit that you’re in an abusive relationship because no one is all bad all the time. However, recognize that even though abuse isn’t happening every minute, the fear of future abuse is controlling you every minute. Slow this down and get the right kind of support so you don’t have to return to these dynamics. While I don’t know if your marriage needs to end, I do know that these patterns in your marriage have to end if you’re going to stay safe and thrive.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]  

Download Geoff’s FREE guide to help you quickly end arguments with your spouse: https://www.geoffsteurer.com/3-steps-to-end-your-marriage-argument

You can connect with him at:
Website: www.geoffsteurer.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT
Instagram: @geoffsteurer
Twitter: @geoffsteurer

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. 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.

The advice offered through Geoff Steurer’s column is educational and informational in nature and is provided only as general information. It is not meant to establish a therapist-patient relationship or offer therapeutic advice, opinion, diagnosis treatment or to establish a standard of care. Although Geoff Steurer is a trained psychotherapist, he is not functioning in the role of a licensed therapist by writing this column, but rather using his training to inform these responses. Thus, the content is not intended to replace independent professional judgment. The content is not intended to solicit clients and should not be relied upon as medical or psychological advice of any kind or nature whatsoever. The information provided through this content should not be used for diagnosing or treating a mental health problem or disease. The information contained in these communications is not comprehensive and does not include all the potential information regarding the subject matter, but is merely intended to serve as one resource for general and educational purposes.

[i] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2022/10/19nelson?lang=eng