How do I detoxify my marriage?
October 19, 2017 7:12 AM   Subscribe

We have had a bad couple of years, both feel hopeless, and I want to give up. Partner doesn't. How do we climb out of the negative cycle to see if the marriage is salvageable?

Partner would say I'm too negative and critical. And needy. I would say partner isn't managing cognitive and financial problems well and it makes me anxious and fed up. I don't respect him. He doesn't respect me. He does not act like we are a team. We have a toddler. I try to shield the toddler from the disagreements but I'm not always successful.

Partner has an avoidant approach to conflict. I would say I began as a validator but after 4 years of avoidance I have developed a volatile style.

We have done marriage counseling and it made things worse. Now with a toddler, limited finances, opposing schedules, and limited people who will watch toddler for free, counseling is a cumbersome choice.

Partner was incredibly defensive no matter how I raised a problem. To the tune of hiding all day and refusing to talk about what bothered me to find solutions. This has been deeply painful and totally messed up my ability to be attached to him.

Most recently we had an argument because I invited him to join toddler and I for family dinner, and I was the only one talking. Earlier this week I expressed feeling a bit neglected because partner never seeks out my company when things are going well, doesn't generally initiate efforts to spend time together when things are going well, I discussed that like two days ago.

I made two lighthearted statements to that effect at dinner, that I was the only one trying to make conversation, and partner continued to just sit there. There's a history of him ignoring me frequently, so I struggle with being ignored when we are supposed to be building a positive space together. My two lighthearted efforts to address it didn't elicit a change so I got a little more frustrated and then the issue was me being too negative, making something small into a big deal, etc. I said ok fine you can fix it by initiating some conversation. I set a stopwatch on my phone. 17 minutes went by. Nothing.

I'm so exhausted. He makes everything my fault. He thinks it's my problem because I expect family dinner to mean eat and talk, not "sit at the same table and eat together in silence." He says he needed downtime after work, but failed to say so on the front end. He thinks the fact he said so after we had already gotten into a conflict was supposed to erase my hurt at once again feeling zero effort from him to maintain a connection.

There are a lot of other hurts and betrayals here, emotional labor issues etc., but this is enough to give you an idea.

I'm miserable. He's miserable. He thinks giving up is wrong. But I think he also expects me to put up with being neglected all the time and still be all sweetness and light, give him sex, and just not have any needs that are inconvenient. As long as I only have ego inflating things to say everything fine but if I have an issue with his behavior all hell breaks loose.

I don't even know how to "marriage" with this guy anymore. I have hurts upon hurts and his avoidant style means nothing ever gets resolved. I'm so over it, and no amount of throwing my hands up really elicits any consistent effort from him. I don't see anything left but separation and possibly collaborative divorce but he doesn't want that. He says he loves me. But he doesn't treat me like I'm loved. So I feel like a worthless POS.

We can't go one day without fighting. Working opposite schedules has been a blessing, because when we are around each other for very long and I mistakenly apply my expectations of partnered behavior it blows up in my face. He is the last person I want to tell about things happening in my life. There's lots and lots of rupture and little repair unless I do the repairing. Or unless I give the silent treatment for two days at which point he reluctantly makes noises toward resolution or acknowledging my hurts. I think he's horrifically immature and I didn't get married to grow up my partner. I wish I could trade him in for a mature version or give him to a camp where they do the growing up for me. I'm so over it.

I'm starved for emotional intimacy, and he doesn't bother to try to build any because he says I'm too negative. When I'm negative because I have had four years of my needs not being met, all my concerns met with defensiveness and stonewalling.

He doesn't bother to take initiative to learn how to communicate better, much less how to understand marriage with someone that values quality time and words of affirmation. He thinks a trip to the salvage store where he brings me some cheap crap is all he needs to do to express care. That, and follow directions for things I ask him to do. He can give me words of affirmation when he wants sex, and I stop the sex explaining I don't feel connected enough. He can do it then. But without sex on the table he can't be bothered.

I don't want a teenager for a husband. He doesn't understand how to meet my needs and doesn't seem to want to. He would say he does want to meet my needs but nothing is ever good enough.

I think pacing is a challenge. He needs a really long time to gather his thoughts. He doesn't do spontaneous well. But with the history of hiding for a day, waiting on him to gather his thoughts is hard for me. By the time he's ready to talk I've given up trying and have retreated behind a wall so his silence can't hurt me. He gets mad at me for not letting him get a word in edgewise, but I do give him plenty of pauses to use in conversation if he has something to say. He's just not keen to use them without really long pauses that seem unnatural to me.

I don't even know how to begin trying to make things work again. I don't particularly want to when I've got so many hurts that haven't been addressed well. And so hurts continue to build and it gets harder and harder to move in a good direction. Please help.
posted by What a Joke to Human Relations (39 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to read How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids. It is humorous, but more importantly gives some concrete ideas about household management/division of labor and communication. It isn't therapy but it might give you some ideas. HUGS.
posted by k8t at 7:25 AM on October 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

It sounds like you want to leave him. He does not have to agree for you to call it quits. You can't make him change; if this is not the marriage you want to be in, and he is showing no evidence of changing, then you get to leave if you want to.
posted by gideonfrog at 7:34 AM on October 19, 2017 [66 favorites]

You're basically done. The most telling thing to me is that he's the last person you want to share things with.

So - detach. Don't look to him to be your partner, converse, go out with you, etc. Start preparing your exit ramp. You do not need his permission to divorce. I wouldn't divorce right now but I would put your energy to building up your network - make friends, connect with other moms, save as much money as you can, start consulting a lawyer. Set a timeframe for that.

Have sex if you want, don't if you don't. Get really good at managing things on your own. Don't do the pleading; don't do the silent treatment. Read a book to your toddler at dinner or whatever you like.

During that process he may come around once your cycle is broken (you can break a cycle of you trying to get his attention/him backing away on your own; just stop trying to get his attention.) You may find he wants to hang out with you and your toddler and you might be okay with that and you might end up stepping back down the ramp into your marriage.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:36 AM on October 19, 2017 [37 favorites]

I imagine you'll get a lot of Divorce advice, and frankly that's what looks like the most straight forward solution. This sounds like a terrible marriage with a terrible partner who's not even trying.

But How do I detoxify my marriage well, you can't on your own. But the step you can take is leaving for a while, taking a break. I think your patterns are too fucked up to work on from the inside. You need to be apart.

Apart he stands a chance of learning what it is to be an adult which is step 1 in being a decent husband. Being a solo functioning adult is bare minimum. I would recommend 45-60 days in separate living situations if possible, with a plan to reassess at the end of that.

Personally I'd just get a lawyer now and start down the road to a new and better life.
posted by French Fry at 7:49 AM on October 19, 2017 [7 favorites]

Psychologist John Gottman expands upon the work of famous microexpressions expert Phillip Ekman. He's become famous for noting that in recording married couples talking, when he captured expressions of contempt in either spouse, even in the tiniest microexpressions during ostensibly innocent conversation, the survival rate of those marriages approached zero. He didn't say those marriages would have more difficulty than other couples. He didn't say they had work to do or they needed therapy. He said they flat out do not make it. Contempt is a marriage killer.

I'm not trying to tell you I see contempt here, because you know yourself and your husband better than we do here and only you can be the judge of that.

But are you seeing contempt from him toward you? From you toward him? There is no coming back from that.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:56 AM on October 19, 2017 [11 favorites]

You can't do this on your own. From what you've said he isn't even trying, but wants you to fix everything. That's reason enough to want out. The rest of it just sounds awful. You sound burnt out. You sound like you've been trying on your own for a long time now and you're not getting anywhere. And you're right, he is not treating you like you're loved, he is wearing you down and this is guaranteed to make you feel terrible about yourself and unless his behavior changes, the only way to have a peaceful relationship with him is if you stub out all your own needs and wants and exist for his benefit. I almost wondered if you were married to my ex. I hated myself every day I was with him and not a day goes by now that I'm not grateful for managing to divorce him.
posted by Polychrome at 8:09 AM on October 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

It sounds to me like you are just done with this marriage. I would be too. But, if you want to keep trying, maybe check out this book: Hold Me Tight. It might be helpful in thinking about the ways you pursue and avoid each other.
posted by mcduff at 8:11 AM on October 19, 2017

How to detoxify a marriage?

I made two lighthearted statements to that effect at dinner, that I was the only one trying to make conversation, and partner continued to just sit there. There's a history of him ignoring me frequently, so I struggle with being ignored when we are supposed to be building a positive space together. My two lighthearted efforts to address it didn't elicit a change so I got a little more frustrated and then the issue was me being too negative, making something small into a big deal, etc. I said ok fine you can fix it by initiating some conversation. I set a stopwatch on my phone. 17 minutes went by. Nothing.

The scenario you describe is a LOT of pressure - on yourself and your husband. If there has been ongoing tension in the marriage with daily fights you cannot expect husband to change his mood just because you have lighthearted remarks. Commenting on his lack of conversation skills, lighthearted or not, is only going to make him more defensive and resentful. I've been married for almost 20 years and it is normal to have meals together where there is not much to say. This doesn't have to be a thing and setting a stopwatch is only going to make you more anxious and resentful. Let it be as it is. There more you accept what is, the more he will talk.

Best way to solve this problem is to reflect on why you got married, gratitude, and be your own best friend. Did he make conversation with you before kids? Why did you marry him? Is there some truth to your husband's statements of being critical and needy? I got a lot less needy (my complaints early in my marriage were that my husband didn't compliment me enough or initiate physical touch) when I finally understood that my emotional needs got met when I lightened up, concentrated on myself, practiced more acceptance, and stopped bringing it up. Who wants to show affection to a person who is always demanding it and complaining about it? It's a turnoff and too much pressure. If you wanted to be loved love yourself and be lovable.

Gratitude flips things. Instead of concentrating on the negative, you focus on the positive and life becomes a lot happier and easier.
posted by loveandhappiness at 8:19 AM on October 19, 2017 [9 favorites]

If you stay, your needs will continue not being met. And your partner will continue being able to avoid the conflict of divorce because this unhappy but frozen state can last for years.
posted by A hidden well at 8:23 AM on October 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

You seem really self aware and you do a really good job here of describing the incredibly toxic cycles plaguing your marriage. Could they be fixed, if both people work to fix them? Possibly.

But here's the thing... even if they were eventually fixed, it's entirely possible (maybe even probable) that the damage done in the meantime is too severe to salvage the relationship. Can you even imagine the possibility of ever falling in love with your spouse again? When you say you don't respect each other, and that he's the last person you want to share things with, and when your best attempts at reaching out / building a bridge are met with silence or scorn... it sounds like the answer to that might be no.

I'm speculating here obviously, but based on what you describe, I don't personally see how you would ever be able to repair the situation you describe to the point of having a healthy, functional, loving relationship again. Like, maybe with enough therapy, you could build the frame of a perfectly nice metaphorical house, but if the foundation (respect) has crumbled away in the meantime, well, that's not a house you'd want to live in. And at this point, to torture the metaphor, it sound's like he's not even showing up with lumber for the frame, let alone the concrete you'd need to rebuild the foundation.

I know the stay or leave question is especially fraught with a kid in the mix, but I'll also point out, as many have said in previous AskMe divorce threads, that growing up in a toxic married family dynamic is NOT necessarily better than growing up in a divorced family (especially with amicable coparents). I'll actually go one step further to say that I think demonstrating to your child that it's okay to leave an unhealthy relationship is actually a valuable life lesson for them in the long run. Additionally, ending the marriage can create the space for you and your spouse to be better and healthier coparents than you could be as desperately unhappy spouses. You will be amazed at the emotional energy that is freed up when you are no longer drowning in the toxicity. And that's all loving energy that you can turn on to your child and yourself as you heal.

Whatever you decide, there's a long and difficult journey ahead. I want you to know that you can do it, and that you deserve to be happy. I wish you peace.
posted by somanyamys at 8:26 AM on October 19, 2017 [10 favorites]

He says he loves me. But he doesn't treat me like I'm loved. So I feel like a worthless POS.

This is what really stood out to me in your post. You should focus on what's going on right here, with laser-sharp focus. While I understand that someone treating you poorly can have a devastating effect on your self-esteem, there is no circumstance under which your partner's treatment (even if it is unloving) should make you feel like a worthless piece of shit.

Think about it. There is something you are telling yourself about his treatment towards you and what it means about you and your worth. Can you identify what those statements are?

Your self-esteem and sense of worth should not be dependent on him or his behavior. Although it is very human to look for validation from others, you have to decide to provide that validation for yourself, first. You can't "detoxify" your marriage on your own, as others have already pointed out. But you can certainly work on detoxifying your sense of self-worth, your self-esteem, your happiness and wellbeing and build up a support network and feeling of independence. You can do all of this whether you leave him or not -- and even if you do go ahead and get that divorce, you're still going to have to do this core, fundamental work either on your own (single) or in your next partnered relationship. So, you might as well start doing that personal work now and then see what happens with the marriage.
posted by Gray Skies at 8:27 AM on October 19, 2017 [11 favorites]

Straight up was going to suggest French Fry's solution. This is not something you can fix by yourself. You need space, he needs to figure out how to be an adult. Being separated will help you breathe. If you can't afford to move out, maybe sleep somewhere else in the house or stay at a friend's for a bit.
Also, if you're not getting your emotional needs met, you will not be able to be happy. That's normal. Do you have any close friends that could satisfy your need for companionship? It would take a bit of the pressure off both you and your husband. Reach out to other moms and make play dates. Join a book club. Everyone needs a social life.
And if you do decide to divorce, you'll want friends to lean on.
posted by domo at 8:44 AM on October 19, 2017

You sound uncannily like me and my ex, minus the toddler.

I got the silent wall 90% of the time, and sweetness and light 10% of the time. I stayed too long because those stretches of happiness kept me going through the hostile silence.

He didn't want to split up, either, but he didn't want to do any kind of work on our marriage and he couldn't even talk about the things that were festering under the surface. I was incredibly tense all the time, anticipating what he would be like.

It sounds like you're done, and I don't blame you at all. I believe you just know when it's not worth putting in all the effort anymore.

I'm sorry to say that I don't see this as salvageable unless he makes a heroic attempt to deal with his issues (remoteness, man-childness, failing to treat you as a partner). It could happen, and it's not impossible -- but it doesn't sound like he wants to do more than pay lip service to all the things you're dealing with. My ex made all the right noises about therapy, connecting better, talking about things rather than festering, but never followed through.

My best wishes to you, and my MeMail is open if you need to talk.
posted by vickyverky at 8:55 AM on October 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

You hate him. He may be particularly hateable, but that's really besides the point. What matters is that you hate him. Can you can see a path towards not hating him?
posted by 256 at 9:01 AM on October 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

This reminds me a lot of how my relationship was with my ex. He was avoidant and blamed and punished me for making any complaints or voicing any concerns, he showed contempt in various ways (I did too, and I didn't respect him), we were miserable. He wouldn't do counselling until I was out the door and counselling consisted of his excuses for his behavior and trying to paint me as a depressed crazy person (which by that point I was).
Three years out co-parenting is hard, shared custody is hard, my son sometimes expresses the wish that we could be together, but it's so much better than it was. Continuing to try to make the relationship work was poisoning me, as soon as I was out I felt nothing but relief and that was my answer. In a new relationship I'm still a bit surprised that I can share how I'm feeling without getting jumped on, ask for things and receive them, be myself (even if tired, grumpy, etc.), and not have it start a fight.

I agree with separation so you have a chance to see how you really feel, and he has a chance to make some effort without this dynamic continuing. It's hard because your husband really will for whatever reason put up with being miserable if it means staying together but probably won't do the things you've been asking him to do.
posted by lafemma at 9:32 AM on October 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

The time of life you're in is more overwhelming for men than is often acknowledged. But my quick reading of your post, "hate" or "contempt" did not jump out. He should get therapy. Talk to someone other than you.

It's very easy for some folks (guys) to "shut down" with too many options, vastly simplify, do one element at a time. Try a very short written list. Like no more than 3 items. Not high immediate pressure but perhaps just the written question 'is this the right order".

Is dinner conversation about problems or could it start with a topic of his that relaxes?

Help define the post work quiet time, say a defined 30 minutes in the workshop or hobby or reading then a gentile habit of a single question, a dozen things shuts down.

Do you have someone to vent with?

This place has a very justifiable direction on these threads, very very, on this I see there may be room to as the question, is there direct abuse here or is there someone that needs help. Not saying no to separation and trying really hard not to do victim blaming. But it sounds like a pattern, if you want, try changing the pattern.
posted by sammyo at 9:38 AM on October 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Most people here are saying DTMFA. which is one option. Do you want to save the marriage, or do you just want him to change and always act the way you want him to act? Having financial issues and a toddler sounds pretty stressful even for the best of marriages. Remember that not everyone acts the same way towards stress, and that you can’t control people’s behavior, only your reaction to the behavior. Perhaps try reading the often-recommended “Five Love Languages”; also, make sure you’re not acting like this woman.

Best of luck to you. This is such a hard situation.
posted by Melismata at 10:17 AM on October 19, 2017

You're basically done. The most telling thing to me is that he's the last person you want to share things with.

Yup, that's the point at which reading through, I thought, "this is over".
posted by so fucking future at 10:43 AM on October 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

The dynamic in my marriage is very similar -- although we don't have sex so one less thing to worry about?

Anyway, we've been to a psychiatrist together. He asked us to set time aside each day and week to just be together, no talking about kids or logistics. We haven't done that because I'm pretty over the relationship, like you, and part of my challenge was to get him to take some stewardship of the relationship, and him being in charge of making sure this dedicated time happened would, to me, demonstrate that.

Things became a lot less contentious last year when I realized that there was no possible way that I could continue to live like this for the rest of my life. The stakes for conflicts stopped being so high, and that actually made things between us happier. I overcame my absorbed avoidant tendencies because the worst possible outcome -- separation and divorce -- was already on the table. That's helped.

The other thing I've been working on is taking a real deep soul-searching of what my ideal life looks like: relationship, family, household, long-term financial goals, friendships, community involvement, wellness, lifestyle, etc. The gravitational pull of my husband's inertia and unwillingness to work toward a happy life have caused me to give up a lot. Doing some reflection, both unhappiness- and age-inspired, is really helping me determine if I can create something I want out of the existing pieces of my life. I also seek support outside my marriage, from friends or family. I am thankfully in the financial position to pay for massages to address a need for physical touch. What are your emotional needs and can you get them met outside your husband? Yes, he is supposed to help with that but he isn't.

One more thing, if you wait longer than 24 hours to come back together after taking a break during an argument, that counts as stonewalling. It is right to take a break after being flooded by emotion; but you also have to both agree on a time to come back together and finish the conversation.
posted by emkelley at 11:47 AM on October 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

Two questions to consider:
If you could get an instant divorce tomorrow, and walk away without repurcussions, would you want that?

If you could fall back in love with him, and he showed you the same romance he did when you were dating, would you want that?

If your answers are "yes" and "no," it's over: get yourself a separate bank account if you don't have one; stop trying to connect with him; research cost-of-living alone with a toddler; check your support network for what kind of help will be available - and when you've gotten as ready as you can, file for divorce.

You could change your mind if his actions change after you stop seeking his attention, but keep checking the answers to those questions. You don't have to hate him, or think that he's evil, to want a divorce - you just have to not want to spend the rest of your life with him.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:05 PM on October 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

I too lived in a dynamic like this for far too long. My divorce was finalized a little over a year ago and it is so much better for everyone, including the kids.

He is showing you in the clearest possible way that he doesn't care about what you think and feel.

When he says he loves you and wants to stay married, it's reflecting other things going on with him (familiarity, fear of financial repercussions of divorce, fear of loss of face/status upon divorce) than, like, a deep concern for the well-being of the other.

If that is what you are wishing for most deeply--if that's what you're hoping he really means when he says he loves you--I think you need to bear in mind that his actions are telling you something totally different.

I recommend Steven Stosny all over the place and I'll do it here too, for getting over the idea that his poor treatment of you is in any way a reflection of your inherent value.

Take care.
posted by Sublimity at 2:05 PM on October 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

You say your partner is not handling cognitive and financial issues well and it makes you feel anxious.
What are you doing to decrease your anxious response? What are you doing to protect yourself financially?
How do you get to the point where you forgive him for the financial problems? Is it safe for him to admit that he messed up? Is he caught up in his own sense of shame over these failures?
Can you stop making “light hearted” comments for ninety days?
posted by SyraCarol at 4:31 PM on October 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Your spouse sounds very much like my ex-husband. I am so much happier now that I'm divorced. You are in a toxic environment, living with a person who literally ignores your existence when you attempt to have a conversation. I've been there, and it destroys your soul in a way you don't fully realize until you are living on your own and can breathe easy. I highly recommend you just cut your losses and get divorced. It will suck at first, and then it will be amazing.
posted by a strong female character at 5:04 PM on October 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

These responses are all very helpful. Thank you. For additional context, this isn't his first child, so he adjusted to fatherhood previously, and is a pretty egalitarian parent I have to say.

Also, I kind of DO hate him. My love has transformed into hate and once I give that up and become indifferent there really will be nothing left. There's a lot I haven't said in this post. My primary struggle is different approaches to conflict, poor communication, and feeling that my partner isn't available to meet my needs whether emotional or practical. I certainly have vented my anxiety more than I probably should. I certainly have been more interested in stability and vitality for my family than in caretaking for his shame issues. I've over-talked problems leaving my partner feeling saturated. I have used harsh start ups and at times been emotionally abusive out of desperation to feel heard.

I did feel contempt the other day, after he ignored my desire to talk through a financial situation with big consequences for us (it wasn't the first time). That day I grieved deeply with an awareness that my marriage may be irreparably dead. I don't know how to stay in that context. I don't know how to bide my time.

I feel like I've worked hard to be patient while I've explained the issues over and over and he isn't hearing me, and I'm tired of waiting.

But at the same time I hate him BECAUSE I still love him. And then I think I'm an idiot for loving someone that's been such a poor partner. I wish I knew if we could fix things, or if he's hopelessly self-absorbed and will forever deflect onto me. Like, is it possible to have a partner that isn't selfish and entitled? Is that a sexist question? I feel like if I accepted my role as his servant-cheerleader all would be well. Is that what marriage is? Will I run into that anywhere? I don't know what's normal and what isn't. Where do you draw the line between being overly demanding and just having normal levels of expectations that the particular partner has decided are too much, because so much of it does not occur to them? My therapist tells me that my desires are reasonable but I also pay her to align with me so, meh.
posted by What a Joke at 5:09 PM on October 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

Like, is it possible to have a partner that isn't selfish and entitled?
Yes. Also, having NO partner is better than that.

I feel like if I accepted my role as his servant-cheerleader all would be well. Is that what marriage is?

No fucking way. There is literally no reason why you should try to accept this state of things. You're miserable!

Your relationship is not normal, and your desire to be respected and have a partner who wants to work with you, instead of avoiding everything at all costs, is completely reasonable. Divorce is extremely difficult, but worth it. Our culture instills a lot of horrible lies in women's brains, among them the idea that being in a relationship where the woman does all the emotional labor is normal and fine, and also that being in any relationship is better than being "alone". These things just aren't true. Being single and free is fucking awesome, and men exist who actually willingly do emotional labor and don't have to be cajoled into it.
posted by a strong female character at 5:17 PM on October 19, 2017 [17 favorites]

To keep in mind - his shitty qualities will not go away if you divorce him. If he can't talk about a big financial decision now, if you go down the divorce road, work with a parenting plan consultant and maybe a financial consultant to work out a system for managing your collective child-related costs and other decision making.
In some ways his shitty traits will be more tolerable from a far but you'll probably also be doing some remote household management (buying clothes for kid to wear at dad's house, being nearly exclusively responsible for paying field trip fees, RSVPing to birthday parties), which can be frustrating.
This isn't meant to be discouraging but rather encouraging you to make efforts toward managing those issues as a collective and as an unwilling participant. If you end up in different homes, you'll be better prepared.

Also, go and chat with a family lawyer. Unfortunately the information out there about divorce tends to be wrong (or context specific or misunderstood or the laws changed or TV dramatized something) and knowing approximately what your financial and shared parenting relationship will look like will better help you visualize leaving. You also can probably get some ideas about preparing yourself legally and financially. Take everything specific that people say about divorce with a grain of salt.
posted by k8t at 5:21 PM on October 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think you're spot-on that shame underlies the behavior he's showing. But here's the thing: you cannot get him out of that. You cannot caretake him enough to solve that problem. It is his problem and only he can heal and grow out of it.

If you have explained things over and over again, and have not received a kind and collaborative response, rest assured that the block is not that he does not understand what's the problem is. He simply doesn't care. Or, worse--as was the case with my ex-husband--because he can't handle confrontation, he deliberately doesn't act on what you tearfully ask of him, specifically because he knows that it hurts you, and he derives a vengeful sense of power from that.

You are asking questions about whether this dynamic is inevitable in marriage. It think it is not; I know friend who have lovely, collaborative, supportive marriages, the kind I would have liked to have had. That said, if you end this marriage (and I think you would be much better off out of it), the work for you becomes figuring out what was tolerable to you in the early stages of this dynamic, that you need to identify and no longer tolerate in future relationships to prevent the same outcome.
posted by Sublimity at 7:03 PM on October 19, 2017 [7 favorites]

This guy sounds awful and like he's dumping all of the emotional labor on you. He blames you for everything, you feel terrible, he won't work on anything and won't act like you're a team while it sounds like you've been doing tons of work to try to salvage things.

You can't do all the work to change something that should be a shared responsibility. He's already made clear that he won't do any, let alone 50%. I don't think this is salvageable, and I definitely think that if he wanted to salvage it he should be making some kind of effort. That he's not and just keeps blaming you is telling.
posted by bile and syntax at 7:33 PM on October 19, 2017

I had an avoidant husband once. I tried harder than I've ever tried at anything - to fix things. I left before we hated each other - because I didn't want to waste any more time or become embittered. I just needed someone to give me permission to go. To me, it sounds a bit like you're asking for permission to go. If you have tried and tried and have no more hope, just go. You have our permission, if you want it. Better yet, you have Cheryl Strayed's.

Go, even though you once said you would stay.

Go, even though you’re afraid of being alone.

Go, even though you’re sure no one will ever love you as well as he does.

Go, even though there is nowhere to go.

Go, even though you don’t know exactly why you can’t stay.

Go, because you want to.

Because wanting to leave is enough.
posted by egeanin at 9:07 PM on October 19, 2017 [8 favorites]

Ah man, this sounds so painful. If you want to give up, I support you in that. If not...

The one thing I'd consider is that right now, you're not dealing with him at his best, but with the him that has received your behavior including the behavior you describe as emotionally abusive.

I'm not criticizing you; I can totally imagine how infuriated you must feel. And if you're totally done, you are. It's not on you to do this emotional labor. (And also, it's possible that I'm misreading part of your post, so apologies if I'm off base in what I'm about to say.)

But if you did want to try something, I might start with trying to create more space in the situation, along the lines of "I feel like we've fallen into a really bad dynamic, and I don't know how to get out of it, but I just want to acknowledge that fact, and to offer that I'm going to try to do less to demand responses from you that you're not in the mood to give. I want to respect your space and your freedom of choice about how and when to engage." And or "i just want you to know I'd be interested in any ideas you have about how we can start to shift this dynamic, but if you don't have any ideas, that's ok too. I just want to name that I think we're in a tough cycle that keeps making things worse, and I don't know what to do but am going to try to step back from it a little myself." I think if he feels less like you're trying to break down his door, he might open it on his own. Maybe...

I'm not saying that it's your "fault" he's shut it, just that whatever instincts cause him to shut his emotional door are probably continuing to get triggered, probably increasingly so as your frustration grows. And then he's more shut down, so you're more visibly frustrated, so he gets more shut down, etc. Maybe declaring that you're trying to stop that could let him at least stop actively nailing boards across his metaphorical door.

And I know this probably goes without saying and yet is also really frustrating to hear, but it's important to remember that fundamentally, you're not entitled to responses or positive dinner conversation from him. You're absolutely entitled to leave (the marriage, or just the table) if it's too painful not being responded to. But none of us can force another to do something. Part of finding respect for him again (and also, part of getting unhooked from a relationship that isn't working) I think, is relinquishing the sense of entitlement that can sometimes creep into long term relationships, relinquishing that ability to more or less demand things by saying "if you don't do this I'm going to get angry at you," and instead accept that you're powerless. He's a mystery. It's all under his control. He's shut down for his own reasons.

That said, I am very very sorry to you for how avoidant and shut down he is. I've had a little experience with how frustrating and painful that can be. I do want to say, I'm sure he came by it honestly, as they say in therapy -- that at one point in his life, it was a coping skill that helped and protected him. Unlearning the habits that at this point are probably ingrained at a nervous system level is not impossible, but will require some conscious effort.

And with how things are escalating, I'd guess things are going in the wrong direction. It's possible that in his mind, he's casting you in the same role as whoever used to act volatile around him and gave him the shame.

That idea might make you infuriated, as probably would the idea of having to try yet another thing to getting him to open up. I'm sorry for how much you're suffering as a result of this, and I wish my ideas were easy ones. (The "easy" one is to find an amazing couples counselor who can hear and validate your feelings, help communicate them to him, help him feel safe and seen, and create a context in which it's clear that you two are waiting outside his door for him to open it but are respectful and non-shaming people whose knock he should answer (unlike the original person who caused him to develop these approaches). If you're in the SF Bay area, memail me for a recommendation.)

You might pick up Thich Nhat Hahn's book.
on ways to deescalate conflict unilaterally even while feeling angry yourself.

Good luck. I wish you strength, clarity, compassion for yourself and him, and peace. (If that's not too cheesy to say.) I know I focused on things you can do, which widens the emotional labor divide. But you're the one who is asking. And I don't know what kind of feelings he's going through and therefore what he's capable of doing. Since he's shutting you out and since you're sick of doing the work, I do think therapy would be ideal, but yeah, good therapy is hard to find, and bad therapy doesn't help. Man, my heart goes out to you guys, I hope things ease soon.
posted by salvia at 10:24 PM on October 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

I had (have?) an avoidant husband. I told him I wanted him to seek therapy, and he did. Things got worse before they got better. At our darkest, when I told him that I wanted to leave him, he found a marriage counselor, took time off work, and did everything he could to improve things. It didn’t happen overnight, and it took me a year to get over the situation that precipitated the crisis, but we are rebuilding and it feels like we’re on this together.

This relationship is pushing you into being your worst self. You deserve better than that, and so does your child. If you want to save it, you are going to need a neutral third party and for him to want to save it too.

If separating seems too big a step, can you start by separating in the home? Tell him that this marriage isn’t working for you, and you need space. Move into a different bedroom, stop sharing meals with him, focus on taking care of yourself and your child. Don’t let him draw you into conflict, and only discuss the marriage in therapy. Make the appointment and tell him to be there. I know this sounds drastic, but I don’t think your marriage will survive unless you give things a big shake.
posted by snickerdoodle at 4:39 AM on October 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

I dated a guy like this. He genuinely loved me, but he couldn't converse over dinner without unnaturally long pauses, he gave me teenager-ish presents, and if I gave him any feedback no matter how gentle about how the relationship could be better for me, he would spend days in silence mentally beating himself up for messing up the relationship.

The best times were when someone else was around; him and me hanging out with another friend or two. This would fill my need for conversation while taking most of the conversational pressure off of him. But it was also too exhausting to do all the time (as introverts), and we couldn't address private problems in front of others.

He was on the spectrum, and while he had gotten help as a teen with navigating school and friendships, he hadn't gotten help as an adult navigating work and relationships. He was also severely depressed, and had severe ADHD. When he finally got a good combination of a helpful therapist and the right meds for him, things got a lot better. But by then, I was so frustrated, I was completely done, and we broke up. It took me one year, so I can only imagine how you feel after four.

My current boyfriend does all kinds of emotional labor without being asked. He's not perfect, but the difference is like night and day.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 4:49 AM on October 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

But if you did want to try something, I might start with trying to create more space in the situation

I would actually like to try this, but do not know how. He is in charge of buying groceries from a list before the weekend. This morning I see where he bought one non-food thing, and some video games. This is going on about 6-7 weeks that grocery-buying before the weekend is his responsibility. I suspect he bought the video games for us to play together but he knows I'm stressed about money and having too much stuff. And we have lots of other items in our home already that we can use together for recreation so it is hard not to feel that this is also an acting out purchase that he can claim was for my benefit.

So when patterns like this happen on a daily or near-daily basis, what do I do? Just say nothing and seethe? And try to not let my anger seep out in another conversation? How do I relax when he's messing things up all the time in ways that make more work for me? And ignoring the priorities I've requested in a much nicer way over and over? Do I just pretend I don't notice, dump all my anger in a journal and see what happens next?
posted by What a Joke at 5:37 AM on October 20, 2017

when patterns like this happen on a daily or near-daily basis, what do I do? Just say nothing and seethe? And try to not let my anger seep out in another conversation? How do I relax when he's messing things up all the time in ways that make more work for me? And ignoring the priorities I've requested in a much nicer way over and over? Do I just pretend I don't notice, dump all my anger in a journal and see what happens next?

This is why some physical space might be useful. You are emotionally spent right now and you need to replenish your reserves. Otherwise you're just digging a deeper and more painful hole.

It is not healthy or productive for you to bottle up your feelings in the name of "creating space" for him (that's just causing more resentment and exhaustion, and that's not the path to success). Instead, I'd argue that you need to find an arrangement where those feelings aren't being triggered 24/7. Once you have some time and space to yourself, you can breathe, journal, meditate, read self help books -- whatever gives you clarity. There is no clarity to be had when you are living in the trenches.

"Be the bigger person" (my interpretation of what you describe above) is emphatically NOT a viable long term solution. You are *both* hurting, and what you describe is the emotional version of death by a thousand cuts. If there's any chance of healing, you've got to get away from the knives. Then and only then can you stop the bleeding and really know whether there is a viable path forward for you two together.
posted by somanyamys at 6:16 AM on October 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Are you in individual therapy?

If not, I highly recommend it to get yourself some space and discussion time that's just for you. The Psychology Today therapist finder is a good place to start.

I love my therapist. Therapy is both time for me to work on myself as well as time that is completely independent of my personal life so it's all about me. I don't have to worry about what my listener will think or how it'll affect the situation going forward. She's completely neutral and uninvolved in my life outside of the office.

Individual therapy wouldn't have the same logistical challenges as couples therapy, and most US insurances have a fairly low copay. It's also coming up on healthcare and FSA (flexible spending account) enrollment periods, so you could have it withheld pre-tax to save money.
posted by bookdragoness at 7:18 AM on October 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

And to add - there is no way for you to detoxify a relationship by yourself.

You've been doing an admirable job and a really difficult one. You've learned over time that anger is the only way for you to get any response from him, much less one even approximating anything positive.

It's time to focus on yourself and on your needs. You're already focusing on your toddler, and he isn't reciprocating enough reasonable behavior to deserve your acrobatic contortions.

Marriage as an institution is not like this and you don't have to live this way.
posted by bookdragoness at 7:22 AM on October 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

My marriage isn't always great either, so I say this with much empathy: I'm pretty sure what you consider "lighthearted statements" (as at the dinner table) are anything but.

The only person you can control is yourself. The way to make space in your relationship is to stop engaging with him. So, if he's not buying the appropriate groceries, go buy them yourself. If he's not talking at dinner, go have dinner with other people. I know it sucks. But if you get divorced, you're going to have to do that anyway. I would start living like he was already out.

At least then you remove all the aggravation of trying to manage a relationship with someone who doesn't seem all that interested in holding up their end of the bargain.
posted by lyssabee at 7:55 AM on October 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

So when patterns like this happen on a daily or near-daily basis, what do I do?

You disengage. You buy groceries, for you and your child only. Make dinner for just yourself, eat it with your friends or while watching Netflix, stop worrying about his shame or feelings. Put that effort into yourself. Treat him like a roommate, and tell him you'll only discuss it in therapy. Otherwise your resentment will just keep growing until it's too late to salvage even a co-parenting relationship.
posted by snickerdoodle at 9:09 AM on October 20, 2017 [8 favorites]

How do I relax when he's messing things up all the time in ways that make more work for me? And ignoring the priorities I've requested in a much nicer way over and over?

This is classic passive aggression. I mean that not in the sense that pop culture presents it (a la, anonymous notes left on the fridge in the break room at work.) I mean that in the sense of the clinical definition of passive aggression, the relationship equivalent of a sit-down strike.

He's angry at you. He can't tell you he's angry at you, because he thinks only bad people express anger. You've expressed anger at him, hence you're a bad person. He thinks he's morally superior because he's not saying and doing confrontational things. Since he can't or won't confront you directly about the things that bother him, he's taking it out on you indirectly, by "messing up" everyday, simple, totally normal tasks that any halfway competent adult could do with ease--particularly when he knows it will be extremely irritating or painful to you.

You mention a lot of tightly defined requirements around the grocery buying (it's been his job for 6-7 weeks, there's a list, it needs to be done at a specific time). This comes across as controlling. I am going to guess that you have become more and more specific in your demands because he has become more and more unreliable. That's part of the pattern too. If you have become more and more specific in your demands as a result of feeling more and more frantic--as your desperate question and follow up suggests--I have a recommendation for you.

I advocate the Steven Stosny books everywhere on MeFi, but let me dive into it a little bit more at this point. When I was in a bad pattern so very similar to what you describe, Stosny's book Love Without Hurt led me to realize how much fear and anxiety was driving my side of the dynamic. It gave me concrete tools for addressing those things directly, to heal them myself and become more strong, because the situation in my marriage absolutely would not provide safety and reassurance--indeed, my ex-husband's motivation was to do the exact opposite. This book also helped me regard my now-ex husband with more compassion--I do believe he has deep and awful wounds at the base of his shame--but more importantly, it led me to heal enough to be able to get out of that dynamic for good. I can't recommend it highly enough for you. For that matter, it is written for both partners in the bad dynamic, and you may ask your husband to read a copy too. This was one of the very few relationship books that actually had an appreciable positive impact on my ex.

I really feel for you. It's really, really hard. You can make your way through it to something better, though--possibly with him, but probably without.

Bottom line for me was, life was just too short to spend it with a partner who somehow wanted to stay married while treating me like shit. Life ain't perfect for me now, but it is so, so much better now that I don't have to live with cruelty and betrayal in my home It can be better for you too.
posted by Sublimity at 11:24 AM on October 20, 2017 [11 favorites]

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