My husband and I have been married for 17 years (second marriage for both of us – no children in the home). From the beginning, I have felt like the wife on the shelf – he takes me down whenever he wants something, such as going on a date, being intimate, helping him with something, etc. Otherwise, I am on the bottom of his priority list, with his hobbies, his job, his incessant internet surfing, etc., being much more important than I. He also lets me know how much he knows and how little I know and how right he is and how wrong I am. We argue often, with him raising his voice, not sticking to the subject, always being right and very seldom solving the issue. I have been on an emotional and mental rollercoaster for our entire marriage. Some time ago, I decided I couldn’t take it any longer, so I basically stepped away from the relationship. I talk to him only when absolutely necessary (thereby avoiding being yelled at). I turn down all invitations to do anything, when they do come about. I felt that I needed to protect myself from the emotional, verbal and mental abuse. I wasn’t sure at the time what it would accomplish.
A short time ago, my friend was describing her narcissistic husband, and I realized that she was also describing my husband. I looked up the definition and the traits of a narcissist, and my husband indeed fits about 90% of the grandiose narcissist traits.
For now, I would like to try to continue to live with him. I have been protecting myself from his outbursts and other behaviors, but I am not happy at home. I am not being nice to him. I am not living the gospel. How do I do that while still protecting myself?
First of all, I’m grateful you’ve had the clarity to disengage from this abusive treatment until you can figure out your next move. I respect your desire to be non-reactive and consider your options as you contemplate the future of your marriage. It’s difficult to protect yourself and think clearly when you’re constantly in the line of fire.
Please recognize that protecting yourself from abuse isn’t incongruent with living the gospel. Setting limits with individuals who engage in destructive patterns is essential to our very emotional, physical, and spiritual survival. For example, Heavenly Father set parameters around Lucifer both in the pre-existence and in the Garden of Eden. The Father’s rationale, based in the logic of cause and effect, clearly states, “Because thou hast done this thou shalt be cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life; And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, between thy seed and her seed; and he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”[i]
Of course, I’m not suggesting that your husband is on par with Satan and his followers, but I am clarifying that you don’t need to feel guilty for rejecting the darkness of abuse and setting appropriate boundaries. This God-given enmity toward destructive patterns is an important reflex that helps protect us from harm. As you know, enmity means “deep-seated ill-will”, “hostility”, and “opposition.”[ii] When this enmity is directed at thoses thing that would destroy us, it keeps us alert and protected. Even though you are trying to figure out how to live in peace with your husband, you still can have a natural opposition toward his harmful treatment of you.
How did you determine that you’re not being nice to him? Is he the one telling you that? Is this coming from his frustration that you’re unwilling to engage with him when he’s aggressive? Or, is it coming from your own sense that you’re not being the best version of yourself? You can be kind to him even though you have disengaged from these harsh interactions. Kindness can take many forms. In fact, not allowing him to treat you this way is one of the kindest things you can do for him. He damages himself every time he abuses you, so creating distance under those conditions is good for both of you. This distance opens an opportunity for him to choose to step out of the damaging patterns he has with you. He can use this space as an opportunity to change these patterns or he can stay in blame and resentment.
Our Savior modeled how to set healthy boundaries with everyone. He not only had boundaries with those who hurt him, but he also had healthy limits with those who followed him. Even though he had clear boundaries with what spoke, when he spoke, and who he spoke to, he maintained his peace and kindness toward others. Boundaries are what allow us to have compassion because they help us preserve our peace and safety, thus making it easier to offer kindness to others both near and far.
Choosing to stay in this relationship doesn’t mean you also choose to allow him to abuse you. And, as you’re discovering, this can make for some lonely days and nights as you create a safe working distance to shield you from his outbursts. If you feel good about the amount of self-protective distance you’ve created, then this should allow you to feel more peace on a daily basis. However, if you’re still regularly agitated, defensive, and feel like you can’t be the best version of yourself, you might want to reevaluate the boundaries you’ve set with him. Boundaries are only useful if they allow us to have inner peace. If they’re too weak or too strong, we can’t feel settled. Once you have the right amount of distance, you’ll notice that your anger and resentment will decrease, making it easier to know how to respond to him.
You’ve chosen to stay in this relationship and that will come with the ongoing challenge of maintaining boundaries with him. Peace in marriage is knowing that your partner is the harbor in the storm. However, when your partner is the storm, you have to wear protective layers and seek shelter until conditions are safe. If you don’t feel safe moving closer to him, you can continue making sure you are living these core values from a distance both in this relationship and in all of your other relationships.
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. You can receive 15% off by entering the code MERIDIAN at checkout. 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] Moses 4:20-21