I’m an enormous mountain of good with a few bad pebbles. My wife of almost 40 years only focuses on the pebbles. She throws tantrums, then hints at 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 God it isn’t a harder life. Any thoughts?
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 only that your wife feels contempt for you but that she also 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. 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. Jeffrey R. Holland reminded us that, “verbal abuse knows no gender” and 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.”
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.
You’ve not mentioned that this treatment of you is a marriage deal breaker. While I don’t minimize the seriousness of being treated with chronic contempt, it’s doesn’t appear that her poor treatment of you is enough for you to leave your her. 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 forward under these conditions. 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 expect 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.
Here are some ways you can do this:
- Pull her aside and share the impact her words and behaviors have on you.
- Remove yourself from any interaction where she speaks to you with contempt.
- Invite her to take personal accountability for why she insists on responding to you this way.
- Invite her to talk about what is underneath her resentment and contempt.
- Seek personal counseling for yourself to develop more specific strategies.
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. Since you’re choosing to stay, see if you can make the experience as positive as you can for the both of you. Focusing on any positive attributes you can see in her can help you stay out of bitterness and resentment. You don’t want to get pulled into seeing her as less than human.
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 married to your wife, so hopefully with a mixture of boundaries, personal advocacy, perseverance, rest and support you can carry forward in this relationship.
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