My husband grew up in a very unloving and dysfunctional home with an alcoholic father. He lived a homosexual lifestyle for years and then eventually found the Gospel and wanted marriage and a family. He had no understanding of what marriage would require. I have struggled to be his wife, not his mother. In so many ways he is still a little boy and wants/needs to be taken care of. He is in his seventies and we have been married more than thirty years. I have been going to LDS 12-step meetings for more than five years and while I understand the co-dependence thing, I still don’t know how to set boundaries so I can be his wife.
While it’s important for spouses to care for one another, sometimes the imbalanced needs of one partner can create a confusing weight on the other that isn’t easy to resolve. Your husband’s need to be cared for wasn’t met in his home, so he’s longing for secure attachment in his marriage. While a good marriage can heal many of the unmet emotional needs from our families of origin, sometimes the other well-meaning spouse can run himself or herself ragged trying to fill the hole that was created from serious childhood neglect or abuse.
The longing for an equal marriage partner often drives one spouse to push, plead, and enable the less engaged spouse. When the frustration builds, it’s common for the more engaged spouse to raise the intensity or give up out of complete desperation because they can’t create the marriage they always envisioned.
Before your husband can “leave father and mother and…cleave to his wife”, he needs to be connected to a mother and father. Otherwise, he has nothing to offer you as a partner. Obviously, his days of being parented have long passed, but it’s not too late for him to be “fathered by God.”
Sometimes we become so desperate to help our loved ones out of their pit of despair that we get in the way of the Savior and set ourselves as the ones that can save them. In those sincere efforts we can unintentionally cross the line into controlling and coercive behaviors. Elder Larry W. Wilson taught the following:
“We lose our right to the Lord’s Spirit…when we exercise control over another person in an unrighteous manner. We may think such methods are for the good of the one being controlled.’ But anytime we try to compel someone to righteousness who can and should be exercising his or her own moral agency, we are acting unrighteously.”
Setting boundaries isn’t about punishing your husband. It’s about respecting your own limits as a fellow human and wounded traveler who can’t re-parent your husband into being the man and husband he needs to be. Honor your limits by stepping out of the way so he can build a relationship with Heavenly Father and the Savior.
I don’t know exactly how that will look for you. This is where getting the help of “reputable people with certified training, professional skills, and good values” can be invaluable. I recommend you review the recent general conference counsel Elder Holland gave to caregivers of those suffering from mental and emotional disorders.
Setting boundaries isn’t about controlling what your partner will do. It’s about deciding where you will stop so you don’t burn yourself out, enable dysfunctional patterns, and do for him what he needs to do for himself.
He needs to learn to be a husband as much as you need him to be a husband. He is living beneath his privilege as a son of God. As you prayerfully counsel with God and with professionals on how to best structure these loving boundaries in your marriage, you will free yourself from the impossible task of changing your husband’s relationship to you and God. The only way he’ll be healthy enough to be your husband is when he is connected to God and can offer you the strength and love he’s received in his relationship with his Heavenly Father.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic and currently serves on the high council of the St. George, Utah young single adult second stake. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children. You can connect with him at: