I had a very disconcerting conversation with a man today. I don’t know the man and will likely not talk to him again. The man sought my advice because of lingering emotional pain he experienced in what seemed to be a very unhealthy marriage.
“My wife is a very angry woman,” he shared. “She yells at me when she is unhappy. She rants and raves at myself and our children. We all walk on eggshells around her, never sure when we are going to do something to bring on her wrath.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “Something certainly is bothering her that she expresses in very unhealthy ways.”
“Yes,” he said. “I can’t live like this anymore.”
“I can certainly understand why you would say that,” I continued.
“She’s got to get help,” he said. “But, she won’t go to counseling.”
“How do you know that?” I asked, having heard that complaint so many times before.
“Oh, I’ve asked her dozens of times to get help, with or without me.”
“But, what have you done to insist on her getting help?” I asked.
“I’ve asked, begged and pleaded with her to get help many times,” he said. “She always says ‘no.’ There is nothing more I can do.”
“That isn’t true,” I said. “You can disrupt her life in such a way to enhance the likelihood of her getting help.”
What happened next is something that happens in myriad conversations with those saying they want change. He began back peddling and offering excuses for not changing his situation.
“She won’t get help,” he reasserted. “I can’t make her get help.”
“No, you can’t make her get help,” I said. “However, you can disrupt her life in such a way as to increase the likelihood greatly of her getting help.”
“Are you saying I have to divorce her?” he asked incredulously and with a sharp tone. I could sense him beginning to get tense.
“Of course not,” I said. “I would not do that. However, you have a lot of power to disrupt her life and that power can be used in a healthy way. A disrupted life is a life more ready for change.”
There was silence on the line and then came the resistance that I often hear when proposing disruption.
“We have two little girls,” he began. “Plus we are active in our church. We have a wonderful home and life. I don’t want to disrupt any of that. I don’t want to risk her leaving and our lives being turned upside down.”
“Well, you have to decide how bad you want change,” I said. “There is real power in disruption. I sense you don’t want anything to change. Change is never easy. But, disruption of the status quo is often the only way to bring about lasting and definite change.”
He stiffened at these words.
“I’m not going to risk losing everything I’ve worked so hard for,” he said.
I spoke softly, but firmly to him.
“I can sense your fear. Whatever boundary we agree upon is not likely to lead to the ending of the marriage. I’m sure neither of you want that. However, what is necessary for change is disruption of the status quo. You must let your wife know that you will not tolerate her angry outbursts and are insisting on counseling to learn healthier ways of sharing feelings and needs. Were she to refuse you would institute a graduating level of changes and interventions, beginning with an disruption of fellowship with her and leading ultimately to a possible temporary separation.”
“She would be furious with me for doing anything like that,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “I can imagine that at first she would be quite upset. You are disrupting her world. She doesn’t seem to see herself as having a problem. You would need to stand firm, and share your need in a loving and kind way, being clear you have no desire to be mean-spirited.”
“Well, thank you,” he said abruptly. “I’ll think about it. Thank you for your help.”
With that he ended our conversation. Like many others, this man faced the prospect of significant change and froze. While he wants change, he doesn’t want to have to pay the price to get it. While he wants his wife to stop her tirades, he doesn’t want to disrupt his life to get it.
This man’s plight sounds eerily similar to the Biblical account of the man by the pool of Bethesda. This is a story of a man who had an infirmity for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there he asked, “Do you want to be made well?’ The sick man answered and said ‘Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk.’” (John 5: 7-8)
While this is certainly a story of Jesus’ compassion and healing, it is also a story of a man with myriad excuses for not availing himself of help. It is also a challenge to us with a question, “Do we really want to be healed?” While we quickly say we want our situation to change, many of us, like the man I spoke with on the phone, expend much energy maintaining the status quo. Change is often difficult and requires something from us.
If you are paralyzed as you look into your future, consider these action steps:
First, be candid and clear about the changes you want. Consider your life and why it is that you want change. What exactly do you want changed? How much lies within your power and how much depends on someone else? Wanting change is certainly the first steps toward seeing a new and brighter future. Taking responsibility for change is critical.
Second, explore whether there are hidden benefits to NOT changing. For as much as you might want change, disruptive change is, well disruptive. Consider the hidden benefits you may be embracing that enable changes not to occur. Be honest with yourself about those secondary gains for not changing.
Third, count the cost of change. When you lay out the boundaries you will need to enforce, consider the full impact of this change. Acknowledge that your life will at the least change temporarily. You cannot keep doing what you’ve always done without getting what you’ve always gotten, and some of what you get with change will be disruptive. This, however, is the path needed for positive change.
Fourth, lay out a disruptive plan. Be specific as you consider what boundaries you will enforce. Map out a graduated plan, beginning with the most benign and leading ultimately to significantly disruptive actions. Others are not likely to take us seriously if we don’t take ourselves, and our plan, seriously.
Fifth, gather support. Disruptive change is easier done when we have gathered others around us to support and encourage us. Others can often see what we cannot see. If asked, they will help us devise a disruptive plan that can lead to lasting, positive change.
Finally, pray earnestly for courage and positive change. Disruptive change and the enforcing of healthy boundaries is not for the faint of heart. Bathe your plans in prayer, seeking support and seek courage to follow through with plans that will likely be resisted by your mate. Be prepared for resistance, knowing it is a natural part of the change process. Maintain your focus and courage.
Do you really want to be healed? You must take action, confront old thinking patterns and courageously lean into change. We’d love to hear from you. What has worked in your marriage to restore connection? Please send responses to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can reach us by phone for more information about our programs at 206.219.0145. You can also learn more about The Marriage Recovery Center here on our website. You’ll find videos and additional articles on emotionally destructive marriages, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage.