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My wife has a strong bond with her own family that I feel is much stronger than our 6-year marriage. We come from different cultures. By a stronger bond I mean, loyalty, friendship, secrets and so forth. We have differences in hobbies and activities that each of us likes to do, but we do have fun together. She asked me to make some changes with the Word of Wisdom, which I was willing to do. It was causing problems and even pushed us to the brink of divorce within the first few months of our marriage.
I have made several changes in order to make this marriage work and she still remains unchanged in that she will not give any loyalty to me. She is closer to her family than she is to me. At times I just feel like we are just roommates. She’d rather act like nothing is happening and kiss me in the morning and tell me she loves me before going to work. I just feel it is just a play so she can later say she does that every day. I feel betrayed and shammed out of this marriage. She keeps asking me to make changes, but won’t do a thing about my biggest complaint with her closeness to her family. I’m not even sure if I even want to stay married.
You’re in a lot of pain and it’s natural to want to jettison the marriage to end your misery. However, it sounds like there are still some redeeming qualities of your marriage that you may want to keep working with before you make your final decision. Every marriage (even when couples from the same backgrounds) experiences a clash of cultures. Every family has their own culture that we have to learn to understand and accept if we’re going to succeed in our marriages.
Please recognize that “accept” isn’t the same as “agree.” Obviously, her family culture is so difficult for you that it’s escalated to the level of contemplating divorce. It’s hard to agree with something that feels so hurtful. You don’t have to agree with it. In fact, I recommend you share your disagreement with your wife and invest in some heartfelt conversations about the impact her family culture is having on your marriage.
Acceptance happens when you stop fighting the fact that this is a family culture you’ll have to navigate for the rest of this marriage. In my experience, as long as you can continue to see openness and progress in your conversations and joint efforts, it’s worth staying in the marriage. Since every marriage brings it’s own culture, don’t assume that switching marriages will prevent you from having to experience these types of conversations.
Let’s talk about how you can address the dynamics you’re experiencing in the marriage. It’s important for you to clarify in your own mind why her relationship with her family is so painful to you. Instead of criticizing her behaviors, you’re going to have to show her some vulnerability and describe what it’s like for you to feel like you’re second place. Let her know what has changed in how you see her, yourself, and your marriage. Let her know you don’t know how to be more important in her life.
Don’t become defensive about changes you have made and start blaming. Instead, let her know how devastating it is to be in this position. This will feel risky to you, but this is part of trying everything you can before you walk away. You can’t change the pull her family culture exerts on her, but you can step up and use your voice more actively to let her know what’s happening to you.
Another consideration is for you to actively join her family culture and work to understand why this is so strong for her. Ask questions as nondefensively as possible to better understand why her family has been so difficult for her to leave. Stay curious and open as you ask questions to help reflect back the culture she may not even understand herself. If she senses that you’re willing to understand, she might be willing to make adjustments that are more loyal to your marriage.
If I were meeting with the two of you, I would want to understand why her family comes before you. It’s easier for me to ask those questions because it’s not my marriage that’s on the line. So, I recognize the position you’re in is more difficult and vulnerable. Hopefully she can hear how painful this is for you. Give her plenty of opportunities to hear you. It’s worth bringing up in as many different ways as possible.
I’m not asking you to do all of the changing. Your wife clearly needs to make some serious adjustments in her marital priorities. You’ve asked the question, so I’m giving you some places to start. Invite her to reflect on how her choices are affecting you and the marriage. Stay soft and vulnerable as you talk. That approach is more likely to touch her heart and move her to turn back to you and her marriage.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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.geoffsteurer.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. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.