Julie knew she was in a difficult marriage but she couldn’t quite put her finger on why. Whenever she tried to assert herself, especially around money issues, it never went well. Sam earned the majority of the family income and insisted Julie keep a strict accounting of all her spending. Each week Sam collected her receipts and then critiqued her spending choices item by item. After a while, Julie began to doubt her own judgment. She grew exhausted listening to Sam’s weekly lectures about how wasteful and extravagant she was. When she protested, Sam informed her that from now on he would do all of the family shopping.
Julie was in a destructive marriage, but didn’t know it. All she knew was that she felt small, stupid, and insecure despite having an MBA and holding a management-level job before her children were born.
Below are five warning signs that your marriage might be destructive:
1. You feel controlled: Like Julie, instead of being an adult partner in your marriage, you have been demoted to the status of a child or slave. Your husband has all the power and makes most of the significant decisions. You have little or no freedom to make independent choices, to dissent or to disagree. If you do, the conflict that ensues isn’t worth it.
Does your spouse squash your perspective on things? Does he refuse to work with you as a partner and share power in decision making?
2. You feel afraid: Obviously whenever there is any kind of physical or verbal abuse, your marriage is destructive. Julie wasn’t physically abused, but she felt afraid to put her food down and challenge Sam’s new shopping edict. Her self-esteem and worth were constantly diminished by Sam’s overbearing personality, and she felt afraid she was losing who she was within her marriage.
Does your spouse bully you, threaten you, humiliate you, intimidate you, or force or coerce you to do things you don’t want to do?
3. You feel confused: When Danielle tried to explain to her husband why it was important for her that he call her if he was going to be late, he agreed. When he didn’t do it and she confronted him, he got angry and twisted things around and accused her of being controlling and trying to change him.
Does your spouse mislead you, deny things that you know are true, lie about things, or get you to blame yourself or other people when he messes up?
4. You feel dismissed: Your perspective, feelings, desires and needs are regularly ignored or minimized. Linda tried explaining again and again why she was uncomfortable with her husband’s friendship with his female co-worker, but he always had the uncanny ability to make her feel like she was overreacting, hyper-sensitive and paranoid.
Does your spouse ignore your feelings and act indifferently to you and your needs?
5. You feel objectified: Karen’s husband worked long hours and spent little time interacting with her other than when he wanted to be sexual. Tired of being ignored, one night she wired up her courage and said, “Stan, I know you want me to be more sexual with you and enjoy our physical relationship, but the way you treat me much of the time makes me feel angry and hurt. I just can’t manufacture warm feelings when you want to be intimate. Wouldn’t you rather have sex with a wife who enjoys being with you instead of just simply doing her duty?”
Stan’s response stung her to her core. “Of course I would,” he said, “but if wifely duty is all I can get, I’ll settle for that.” Stan’s indifference made her feel like an object he used, not a wife he loved.
Does your spouse act as if your sole purpose is to meet his needs and make him happy? Does he get angry when you ask him to do something for you if there is nothing in it for him?
There is no perfect husband or perfect marriage but a healthy marriage demonstrates mutual caring where each individual in the relationship gives and receives. Power and responsibility are shared and there is freedom to be yourself, make decisions and express your disagreements without fear.
If you recognize that your marriage may be destructive, don’t close your eyes, but face the truth and begin to take some action and get some support. Educate yourself about the dynamics of destructive marriages so you know what you can do to make the changes that may save your relationship.
My new book, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage: How to Find Your Voice and Reclaim Your Hope will be released September 17th.