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As a marriage therapist, people often ask questions like, “What is the biggest challenge to a marriage” or “What can we do to keep our marriage strong?” These are great questions, but I often struggle to answer them. This is not because no thoughts come to mind, but instead because a flood of ideas come pouring in and I am left trying to sort out, what does a couple really need to know. Even better, what do I need to know in my own marriage?

The best way I know of to address such important, far-reaching questions, is to break the answers down into manageable pieces people can relate to and then apply, where necessary, to their relationship. With that in mind, here is one common struggle in how husband’s and wives position themselves in conflict. Don’t worry, at the end, there’s a solution!

Victims

Husbands often position themselves as victims in marital conflict when they are discouraged, distressed, or otherwise struggling to be successful. It may come as a surprise that men would respond this way given our tendency to present as strong and capable, but it is quite common. To put it simply, men want to win. It’s how God has wired us. Men have a drive to go out, do, and succeed. It is a masculine ideal to be able to see and achieve. Men want to know the rules of the game, make great plays, and hear the cheers of the crowd. When a man is married, he approaches his wife with the same mindset. He thinks “I am going to rock this husband thing! I am going to figure out what she likes and do that. I will figure out what she does not like and I will not do that. In the event I cannot figure out what she wants or what she does not want I will ask and she will tell me. After all, who better to go to? She will be so pleased and we will have a great marriage!” You can insert the laugh track here.

Applying the Theory

Shortly into the marriage, this theory is applied with poor results, because this way of operating can have a shadow side. He notices his wife is upset because she is not talking to him or looking at him. This, however, does not deter our resolute man. He is going to figure out what she wants and make the marriage great, earning his wife’s praise and admiration along the way. He asks his wife what is wrong. She tells him about his having paid very little attention to her at a social gathering the other evening. His wife expresses enjoying and feeling valued when he shows tactful affection to her in such settings. The man lights up. He knows what to do. From now on when they are out together he is going to be sure to touch and hug her more. Problem solved! Unfortunately, the next social event is for her work and involves time around her new boss. The eager husband attempts to offer touch at a moment when more discretion is advised. On the drive home, his wife expresses frustration with his behavior to a confused and angry husband.

Trying to Get it Right

As time goes on he continues to apply the tactic of trying to “get it right” with marginal results. Like a once idealistic and aspiring athlete, the man gradually begins to become a hardened, cynical veteran. This woman is too difficult to please and does not recognize how hard he is trying. This husband has compiled a lengthy list of do’s and don’ts with too many possible variations to count. He compares himself to other men who he knows are much more difficult to live with than he, admonishing his wife in his thoughts to realize how blessed she is. Years go by and his fire for attempting to please his wife is just a small ember under a pile of ashes. He scarcely remembers what it felt like to want to pursue her and she laments over the ashes where he passion for her used to be.

You Are Not the Victim

The man came into the marriage with a mindset that served him well growing up. It serves him well in his career. It is utterly impotent, however, in the marriage that mindset is that there are rules to this game of marriage and if he does well, his wife’s emotions will follow suit. As time progresses and he can’t “make her happy,” he gets discouraged. To men like this, I want to teach them one thing: YOU ARE NOT A VICTIM. When I use the “v” word in session with men, they instantly look at me saying I am confusing them with another kind of man. After all, they tell me, they are a hard worker, good provider, responsibility taker, and achiever. They don’t believe in quitting and have little to no tolerance for those who do. Unfortunately, in real life, issues like victim thinking seldom present like the cartoon versions we see on the newscast or latest reality television show.

Martyrs

Wives often view the marriage and their role in it differently. God has designed women with a wonderful ability to nurture and be attentive to others. It is a blessing to having this gift as a part of marriage. I often thank God for my wife’s feminine quality, as it is what works to turn our house into a home. There is a shadow to this gift for many wives. Here’s how it plays out.

A great wife and mother preps her children each morning for school. She makes sure teeth are brushed, lunches are packed, and hugs are given. She is thankful for her husband. He works hard and is loving with the children. As time goes by, he is rewarded at work for his effort and offered more responsibility in exchange for more compensation. The family is blessed financially, but the cost is more of husband’s time. His wife continues to support the household and do her best to encourage him. Many times, at the end of the night, she feels lonely and ignored, but life is not perfect and she needs to stay tough. Years go by, and the husband is confused to see the cheerful, bright flower he took to be his bride appearing wilted. His schedule has continued to be demanding and the children still need from her. Her parents are getting older too and she is responsible for looking out for them. In her own mind, she is struggling with discouraging thoughts.

  • “When is there going to be time for me?”
  • “My needs never get met.”
  • “I can’t say no.”
  • “I can’t talk about what I need, that’s selfish.”

The Result

It’s a terrible place to be, and if left unchecked will have this once vibrant woman being the emotional equivalent of a children’s juice box that has been sucked dry. She begins to take this struggle to her husband, looking at him as being the chief culprit in ignoring her as a person. The children and her parents’ needs are viewed differently. “It’s not their fault, but you should know better.” He becomes the focal point of her anger and hurt. Years of struggling with giving herself a voice and having boundaries are now laid at his feet. If he loved her, he would fix all this hurt. It’s just like him to be confused and not understand what he did. If he loves her, he will also take the time to figure out what is wrong and how to fix it . . . without her help.

Solution

Can you imagine if these two were married to each other? Maybe you are reading this and saying “we are married to each other, HELP!” As promised, Let’s talk about how we can solve this problem. First, I want you to say to yourself:

I am not a victim/martyr.

That’s right, you are not. Notice, for some of you, there is anger when I ask you to put that identity down. You may be thinking of all your reasons you are what I just asked you to say you are not. Marital thinking of this kind is toxic because it sabotages taking personal responsibility and keeps a couple from addressing real heart issues going on between them. Instead, both spouse’s look to the other one, either to be a gauge of success or to take care of them. Imagine, in the case of the husband, if early on the in marriage, he was able to tell his wife, “You know, when you said that bothered me, I really felt some failure and inadequacy. I know this was not your intent, it’s whats going on inside of me. Can I talk to you about it?” Or, in the case of the wife if she had been able to say “I am really feeling disconnected and alone. It’s really not selfish for me to notice this and I really need to talk.”

In either case, we are starting a meaningful dialogue between these two which will allow them to care for one another rather than having the task of taking care of one another. The end result will be a couple more connected and enjoying life’s adventure together.

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