Question

My wife and I have been married for many years, and we have a large and loving family. However, our relationship has always been somewhat distant and shallow, even as newlyweds since we dated and married fairly quickly. I have taken responsibility for this, as I’ve never been good at relationships and have always defaulted to sulking and victimhood when things got hard.

Last year she strongly expressed her discontent with our marriage, and since then I have sought help and worked very hard to learn and correct my deficiencies and finally become the emotionally solid type of man that can sustain a healthy marital relationship. The problem is, while our marriage has stabilized, it has fallen low on her priority list with the hustle and bustle of raising children and she seems to have checked out emotionally at times. We are both covenant-keeping members of the church and are completely devoted to our family, and also each other. However, I feel at times like an object, a paycheck, without valid emotions or hopes or dreams. I’m lonelier than ever, I want love, excitement, and connection but it seems we’ve missed each other’s timing by several years.  

Answer

You’re a good man for recognizing where you’ve fallen short in your marriage and committing to stepping up to heal your relationship with your wife. This is the only way things will ever improve. Leading with your own personal accountability will establish conditions where a better version of your marriage can bloom. However, your impatience with the process could sabotage your great intentions. Let’s talk about how you can stay the course while your marriage heals.

While I don’t know the full story of your marriage, it sounds like your wife carried the bulk of the emotional work in your relationship. If that’s the case, years of carrying the responsibility for creating connection in the relationship likely burned out her desire to continue in that pattern. In fact, Dr. Sue Johnson has described this phenomenon as a “burned out pursuer.”[i] She found that when one partner pursues connection with no reciprocity from their partner, the result is an unwillingness to continue in the pursuer role out of a desire to self-protect.

This change doesn’t happen overnight which means it won’t be repaired immediately now that you’re more engaged. When a pursuer burns out, it’s common for the other partner to take on the role of the pursuer. This switch in the dynamic doesn’t automatically stabilize the relationship. Instead, the new pursuer usually badgers the burned out partner to engage, which then creates more tension.

It’s important to slow down and have compassion, even gratitude, for all of the years your wife tried to engage you in the relationship. If you failed to show up as an active participant in the marriage, she needs to see you carry the hope and connection in the marriage for a time. This isn’t a punishment, but, rather a natural way for her to experience you showing up in the marriage. If you become impatient and demand that she engages, it’s highly unlikely this will win her heart back. You have to bring her heart back to life one day at a time by showing an awareness and interest in her and in your relationship.

For example, look for opportunities to join her in whatever she’s doing. If she’s reading working on a project or doing something around the house, ask to join her and allow her to connect with you on whatever level interests her. She may not want you that close, but when you err on the side of closeness, she’ll know you’re engaged and accessible. As a burned out pursuer, it’s easier for her to create more space if you’re close than it is for her to go looking for you. Your job is to make connection as easy as possible for her right now.

You have to remember that you mattered so much to her all of these years that she burned herself out trying to connect to you. Now that she’s hurt, tired, and skeptical about how much she matters to you, it’s your turn to protect your fragile relationship with patience and perspective. You might even ask her if she feels burned out from all of the years of trying to engage you in the relationship. Listen to her and see what you can learn about her experience living with someone who wasn’t giving his all.

Lead out with setting up date nights, courting her, and letting her know she’s your number one priority. She needs to experience you in this new dynamic for longer than a year to truly know that you’re going to be there for her long-term. It will feel one-sided for a while, but you can breathe new life and hope into this relationship as you compassionately nurture her and the marriage back to life.

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.

You can connect with him at:

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[i] https://www.gottman.com/blog/breaking-pursue-withdraw-pattern-interview-scott-r-woolley-ph-d/