Question

I’m an enormous mountain of good with a few bad pebbles. My wife of almost 40 years only focuses on the pebbles. She tantrums, then hints of divorce instead of working toward companionship. She clearly has contempt for me… and believes everything is my fault. 

I’ve accepted husband abuse just happens to be my trial, thanking Heavenly Father it isn’t a harder mortal education. Any thoughts?

Answer

I can feel the unrelenting pain and resignation you’re experiencing in the few words you’ve shared about your marriage. Forty years is a long time to feel contempt from your spouse. Although I have additional questions about your situation that would influence the way I respond to you, I will still share some thoughts to help you consider different ways to respond to your wife.

I think the most challenging aspect of your situation isn’t just that your wife feels contempt for you, but that she refuses to work toward resolution and rebuilding closeness with you. It’s not uncommon for even the healthiest marriages to experience transitory feelings of resentment. However, allowing those feelings to build over the years without addressing them creates the contempt you’re experiencing. Marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman identified contempt as the most powerful predictor for divorce in over 93% of the couples he studied.[i]

You mentioned the phrase “husband abuse” to describe your experience. I recognize this is often a dynamic that gets ridiculed or dismissed by those who believe women can’t inflict the kind of abuse a man can inflict on a woman. While it is true that women don’t generally physically intimidate men (unless she has a weapon), women are just as capable of abusing men in other ways. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland reminded us that, “the sin of verbal abuse knows no gender.” He then continued with a warning that, “A woman’s words can be more piercing than any dagger ever forged, and they can drive the people they love to retreat beyond a barrier more distant than anyone in the beginning of that exchange could ever have imagined.”[ii]

All of us are capable of emotionally abusing those we love through criticism, silent treatment, name calling, gossip, and countless other ways to tear someone down. Emotional abuse is often harder to define than physical or sexual abuse, as the lines aren’t always as clear. However, I believe that anytime we dehumanize someone by diminishing their reality and existence, we are abusing them. In other words, when we treat someone as if they have no right to their own feelings, needs, or desires, we are treating them as less than human.

You’re wondering how to respond to your wife’s contempt and unwillingness to treat you like a person and a partner. Regardless of how you respond, I caution you to watch out for developing the same contempt toward your wife that she’s exhibited toward you. This doesn’t mean we can’t protect ourselves and set limits from the harmful actions of others. As we protect ourselves, we also work to discipline ourselves and protect their humanity. We don’t want to lose touch with our humanity by diminishing theirs. I believe this is what the Savior meant when he commanded us to, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you”[iii]

You’ve not mentioned that this treatment of you is a marriage dealbreaker. While I don’t minimize the seriousness of being treated with chronic contempt, you don’t seem to think it is enough for you to leave your wife. I understand that your reasons for staying in your marriage are complex and varied. Since you’re choosing to stay with your wife, perhaps I can share some thoughts on how to make your way through your lonely marriage wilderness.

I don’t know why your wife has these difficult feelings toward you. The reasons could certainly include a rough upbringing, previous unresolved betrayals from you or others, mental illness, health and hormone imbalances, among other possibilities. Regardless of the reasons she may be struggling, it’s still appropriate to ask her to be more considerate of the impact her actions have toward you and the relationship. It’s important to advocate for healthy conditions in the marriage, as it degrades everyone. 

Of course, I encourage you to complete your own searching inventory of your past and present actions toward her that could have injured your relationship. If you have found areas where you could have damaged her trust and respect for you, I hope you’ve already asked her forgiveness and invited her to share the impact these experiences have had on her wellbeing.

In your effort to avoid becoming resentful and full of contempt, you can also expand your view of her and your marriage covenants. I love reading Amy Hardison’s perspective on marriage and how our focus on our partner’s strengths can help us endure their less desirable traits:

“’Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’ is an interesting phrase. It is used five times in the Old Testament, and each time it refers to a permanent relationship. Some scholars suggest it is a covenant and pledge of loyalty. As such it serves as a biblical counterpart to the modern marriage ceremony. Since bones are a symbol of strength and flesh a symbol of weakness and frailty, this becomes a ritual pledge to be bound in the best of circumstances as well as in the worst—much like ‘for better or worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health.’ Moreover, ‘bones and flesh’ serves as a merism indicating the entire spectrum of human characteristics from strong to weak. Since both the man and the woman possess this fullness of traits, almost all couples will find there are things about their partner that they absolutely adore and things that drive them crazy. But when we marry, we marry the whole person, flesh and bone. Notably, it is the bones, not the flesh, that survive decay after death. Could it be that in the next life, the strengths in our relationships will endure and our differences and troubles will decompose?”[iv]

Your ability to see her as a whole person will not only allow you to see her strengths, but it will also give you confidence that the way she’s treating you isn’t her best self. You can approach her with kindness and confidence instead of silently gritting your teeth and enduring her tantrums and remarks about divorce.

Perhaps you could let her know how important she is to you and that you want to be close to her. Let her know you want to understand what makes this marriage so painful for her. Share with her that you believe your marriage is capable of so much more. Invite her to join you in healing, repairing, building, and committing to something better.

I’ve shared a variety of thoughts that may have some encouragement and ideas to support you in your marital dilemma. I don’t pretend any of this is easy or has simple answers. You are choosing to stay in covenant with your wife and God even though she refuses to join you in healing your partnership. Thankfully, as Cheryl Brown shared in her 1994 BYU Women’s Conference address, “The covenants we make on this earth are designed to lead us through our complexities and help us decide what to do when we do not understand, or when demands press upon us, or when we feel as if we cannot hold on one second longer…they are sure sources of guidance and strength.”[v]

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

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.

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


[i] https://reallifecounseling.us/predict-divorce-gottman/

[ii] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2007/04/the-tongue-of-angels?lang=eng

[iii] Matthew 5:43–44

[iv] Hardison, Amy. (2016). Understanding the Symbols, Covenants, and Ordinances of the Temple. Covenant. pp. 67-68

[v] Cheryl Brown, “Complexities, Covenants, and Christ,” To Rejoice as Women: Talks from the 1994 Women’s Conference, eds. Susette Fletcher Green and Dawn Hall Anderson (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1995), 148.