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Do people who can’t make themselves do things have an emotional problem or do they just lack self-control? This person can’t make himself get up in the morning or go to bed at night. He is late for everything. He has no concept of time. He can’t make himself get to work, so his wife has to earn all the money. He makes it hard for her to get to work. He is very controlling. He doesn’t like to work, but he loves to play. He always wants to be off doing something fun with the family instead of working. He sets goals, but never follows through. He verbally abuses anyone who suggests that he needs to change. Is it possible for him to change?
First of all, yes, this guy can change. He clearly has no reason to change right now because it sounds like everyone is organizing around his unhealthy patterns. You asked what might be causing his under-functioning mess of a life. Well, that’s a more difficult question to answer.
Even though the cause might be difficult to pinpoint, he can always begin with personal accountability. He’s never going to have a satisfying life until he takes full responsibility for the life he’s created. I have no idea if he has some mental disorder, a rough upbringing, or is just plain lazy and entitled. He is still responsible for the way his life looks.
Elder Robert D. Hales taught that the same agency we use to create our problems is the same agency we use to get out of our problems. In his October 2010 General Conference address, he shared metaphor based on a personal experience that shows how we can activate our agency when we’re stuck.
One day my father assigned me to varnish a wooden floor. I made the choice to begin at the door and work my way into the room. When I was almost finished, I realized I had left myself no way to get out. There was no window or door on the other side. I had literally painted myself into a corner. I had no place to go. I was stuck.
Whenever we disobey, we spiritually paint ourselves into a corner and are captive to our choices. Though we are spiritually stuck, there is always a way back. Like repentance, turning around and walking across a newly varnished floor means more work—a lot of resanding and refinishing!
For those who find themselves captive to past unrighteous choices, stuck in a dark corner, without all the blessings available by the righteous exercise of agency, we love you. Come back! Come out of the dark corner and into the light. Even if you have to walk across a newly varnished floor, it is worth it.[i]
I once heard someone say, “It may not be your fault, but it is your responsibility.” They said this to a loved one who had grown up in a terribly abusive family and, as a result, started out life with tremendous disadvantage. I appreciated the fact that they could delineate what was out of his control and what was within his control.
This man you’re describing can do something about his life, even if he has mental or emotional problems. It wouldn’t surprise me if he is struggling with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Depression (in men, depression looks exactly like this, by the way), a hidden addiction, a history of trauma, or other psychological issues. These are all very serious issues and need further assessment. However, regardless of the cause, he can do something about it. All of the conditions I listed above are treatable.
The challenge is to find out what will motivate him to change. Most of us don’t change until we have to. I don’t know what consequences need to pile up in his life so he’s motivated to take a hard look at the damage he’s created. The biggest source of motivation for most people is the risk of losing their family.
If you have any influence at all, I recommend you encourage his wife to get some help for herself so she can recover her voice and her strength. Living with a person who makes excuses and refuses to improve their situation can diminish her in ways she may not even realize. She may begin to believe things about herself and her role that will transmit the dysfunction to the next generation. She doesn’t have to continue living this way.
She doesn’t have to make threats or create a full-scale crisis so he’ll change. We don’t know if he will do anything different. The point is that she needs support from living with a blaming, reactive, and under-functioning husband. She might decide to confront him and invite him to get help for his issues, she might create distance and change the way she relates to him, or she may decide to enlist the help of others. Regardless of her path, she needs to know she’s not a passive victim of his choices.
Encourage her to begin attending the family support group sponsored by the LDS Church. You can locate local groups at arp.lds.org. These groups aren’t only for family members of addicts. These groups teach family members how to cope with feelings of powerlessness and recognize how to respond in helpful and healthy ways.
It’s amazing what happens when one person in a family begins to change the rules of how they respond. Even slight changes in how she talks to him, what she agrees to, or how she lives her life can begin a chain reaction that can effect change in her family life. Granted, it will likely raise the intensity, but nothing will stay the same. These are the conditions that generally create positive changes in families. The challenge is to see it through and get the proper professional and social support to make sure it doesn’t go back to the old patterns.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]gmarriage.com
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic and currently serves as the primary chorister. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.