My husband of 18 years has slowly become more and more withdrawn since we have been married. We met in active and adventurous circumstances, had big dreams and plans to make them happen, and I thought that was part of the foundation of our relationship (even though his family doesn’t value that). As time has gone on, he sleeps significantly more, has gained nearly 100 pounds, and lacks interest in going out and doing much more than dinner and movies.
His “withdrawal” has been more than his lack of physical activity. He at times just seems depressed and has no interest in talking to anyone and wants to stay home if we are invited to be with people. Invitations are happening less and less as he/we tend to stay home more. When I ask him about it he just smiles and says he likes things the way they are and we don’t really need to discuss it. I have been to therapy for my own depression and have suggested a number of times that he go and he simply won’t.
This is also trickling over to our children, and my oldest has gotten to the same point where she just wants to stay home and veg all the time. I have to force her into getting involved in social activities and a sport. I can’t stand it and don’t want the home life of being lazy and giving up that this has created. Any change I try to make feels like I’m doing everything on my own with both my husband and children resisting my efforts, and when it’s all said and done no change happens.
Quite frankly, I have gotten to a point where I am ready to just go do my own thing and live my life, but I love and really miss my husband and dream of times when we would go do things together. I worry about the potential health problems he will likely develop and how I am going to take care of him. This is affecting my marriage much more than he wants to admit and I really think that he feels that if I would just be okay with this, our marriage would be everything we ever wanted. I have run out of ways to discuss this with him. Sometimes I gently ask for change and other times I do so much more bluntly, which of course turns him completely silent and the conversation ends. But nothing will change it.
What do I do, when no amount of conversation will change anything? Do I just withdraw from him and go do everything by myself? How do I influence my kids to be positive, active, ambitious, etc. when they are getting a strong opposite example at home?
Your husband’s descent into this unmotivated and complacent state can be the result of several factors. Regardless of the cause, there are things you can do to save yourself and your sanity. Although it’s not your personal responsibility to solve this for him, you can still take action to send a clear message that living like this isn’t the only option.
Your husband could have anxiety or depression. He could have an addiction to substances (food, drugs, or alcohol) or behaviors (pornography, video games, gambling, etc.). He could be suffering from unresolved childhood trauma. He could simply be following the example of what he believes is normal from his family of origin. I don’t know the cause, but I can tell you that gaining that much weight, going into social isolation, and checking out of the marriage are symptoms of a much deeper problem that won’t self-correct.
While I don’t know what to call his behavior, I do think it’s helpful to approach this from an addiction recovery framework. He is living in a numbed out state and denies that he needs help. You feel powerless and are looking for ways to pull him out of this slump. These patterns are common in marriages where one person (or both, in some cases) has compulsive behaviors.
Instead of trying to cajole him into changing, start by getting help for yourself. I’m glad you’ve started attending counseling. I also recommend you begin attending a family support group through the Church’s Addiction Recovery Program (http://arp.lds.org). You can visit their website and locate an in-person or online meeting option. They have a free family support guide that will help you begin learning principles of dealing with a family member who is stuck in compulsive patterns.
The opening pages of this manual include a powerful invitation:
“Often we focus our most desperate efforts on trying to help those we love. However, we also need the Lord’s help, and He beckons us to come unto Him and be healed (see 3 Nephi 9:13). Our priority must be to personally draw closer to the Lord. We must place our burdens at His feet, rely on His enabling power, and patiently wait upon Him. As we do so, He will succor us, and we will experience His light and hope in our lives. This will place us in a better position to support our loved ones. No matter what they may choose to do, the peace and hope of the Savior can be with us.”[i]
You will not think as clearly and make healthy decisions until you feel the peace and security that only God can offer you. It’s common to seek peace by getting your loved one to behave a certain way. Your ultimate peace won’t come from how your husband behaves. It will come with an assurance that you are on the right path and doing exactly what is in the best interest of yourself and those you love. And, what may be in their best interest may be uncomfortable for them.
For example, you may be directed to set certain limits with your children, even though their father isn’t living the same way. You may decide to remove all junk food from your house to support a healthy lifestyle. You may set up physically active family outings or vacations with your children that may not interest your husband. As you seek clarity about your situation, I am confident you will be guided to set healthy boundaries for yourself and your family. This will keep you feel feeling resentment if your husband doesn’t participate.
There is nothing wrong with teaching your children about the need to be active, ambitious, and proactive in their lives. If they bring up their father’s example, you don’t need to make excuses for him. You can speak respectfully, but honestly, to them about agency. You can teach them that they can choose for themselves, but you’re going to set up regular expectations and experiences that will encourage healthy living. Just because your husband is playing small in his life doesn’t mean you have to descend to that level and let your children miss out on the joys of active living.
Seek help and support so you don’t feel so powerless in your own life. Share that light with your children so they can see the difference between a shrinking life and an expansive life. Your children will have to choose their own way and they have two very different examples in their own home. Yes, this will make it difficult to connect to your husband, as he’s choosing to disconnect from you and from life. You will receive clarity and answers on how to respond to him in your marriage as you do your own personal healing work. Study the family support guide and continue to meet with qualified professionals and spiritual leaders who can help you sort out boundaries and healthy responses.
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.geoffsteurer.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. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.