This is the fifth in a series of posts in which Chris Taylor (of Forgiven Wife) and I dialogue about ideas and issues brought up in her post, A Wife’s Heart. (Here are the links to part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 6, part 7 and part 8.) Chris and I have chosen colors to help with reading clarity in trying to incorporate our comments into her original text; my comments are in blue and Chris’s in purple.
In her original post, A Wife’s Heart, Chris shared eight recommendations for helping a wife in the process of healing her heart. In our last colloquy, we discussed the first four of her suggestions, and it was our intention to discuss the second set of four suggestions. However, as we got into them, we realized we has too much to say for one post, and so we’re dividing our discussions into smaller, more ‘bite-sized’ posts. (Chris’s recommendations are highlighted with bold text.)
Do not withhold affection. (This directly contradicts what CSL has said in one of his posts.) I realize that it is deeply painful to give your wife a non-sexual hug when you are sexually starving. However, the withholding of affection sends a message that the only time you care for her is when you are having sex. If your wife’s heart already hurts, this will make it worse, not better.
To be honest, Chris, this one scares me. 🙂
I’m torn over whether to discuss this with you or to skip it and write five blog posts addressing all manner of implications. But I’ll jump in with an opening ante:
All this while, we are discussing the pain and hurt of the wife. As you know well, having written about so eloquently and have read from your emails, wives aren’t the only ones in pain.
I’m not willing to fault hurting Hubs for needing to protect themselves, nor distancing themselves from pain-filled behaviors.
Here is a part that I left out of the original post:
At the same time, I think it is fair for you to say to her, “Sweetheart, I want so much to be connected with you. It is hard for me to hold you without thinking about how much I want to make love.” Don’t withhold affection—but also, don’t withhold the challenges you face in being affectionate with her. Subtract points for saying something like, “If you had sex with me more often, it would be easier for me to give you a foot rub every night.” While it may be true, the wording makes it sound like you are placing all the blame on her shoulders—and if she is deeply hurting from something that has happened between the two of you, she may feel dismissed or valued only for sex.
I left it out because I was trying to stay focused on what wives need when they’ve experienced relational hurt in their marriages. When both spouses are hurting and withhold what the other needs (usually as a result of the fact that the experience of giving brings more pain, but sometimes as a punishment), a marriage can escalate from bad to worse. I don’t fault a husband for withholding affection, either. But husbands should be aware that the withholding has consequences—just as I try to make wives aware that withholding sex has consequences.
But there is more than enough anecdotal support for a climb-down. We both know of a couple stories in which backing off of contact worked. In both cases, husbands lived with their wives as roommates, and in both cases, change resulted. One was counselor-imposed and the other was a husband’s decision.
I think that the inclusion of the excised paragraph makes this suggestion more even-handed, and therefore palatable. While trying to stay focused on “what wives need” is laudable, not acknowledging the realities of the other’s suffering invites an “Aw, come on, be real!” reaction.
I don’t recall that relational hurt was at the root of the sexual refusal in these marriages. If it is, then I think withholding affection adds even more relational injury.
There’s a flip side of this that comes to mind, too. Sometimes a relational hurt stems from something where the husband committed a big-time sin against his wife; physical or emotional infidelity, seeking porn for sexual release rather than his wife, or lying about finances comes to mind. Some men withhold affection because they think they themselves don’t deserve it. They know they messed up, and withholding affection is a self-inflicted punishment. In many cases, though, affection may be the very thing that is needed to help restore and heal their breach.
“But husbands should be aware that the withholding has consequences” I think, throughout my posts, I have tried to make that abundantly clear; after all, I believe I’ve mentioned WWIII and Armageddon as probably reactions. 🙂
All my suggestions come with the warning of angry reactions. But as I see it, WWIII is preferable to meekly accepting subjugation.
Accepting subjugation is not okay in marriage. (Neither is expecting it, for that matter.) Sometimes, allowing a war to unfold may be the only thing left to try. It just shouldn’t be the first thing to try.
Stay calm in the face of her emotional storm. If your wife is an emotional person, there may probably will be times when she reacts emotionally or overreacts. Be a stable and calming presence to show her that you can be trusted with her strong emotions—even if those emotions are directed at you. I once was able to tell my husband, “A hug is never the wrong response.” So he learned that silence with an embrace usually was the thing that helped me settle down the most.
This is true. In one of my Addressing the Sexless Marriage posts, I cite Shannon Etheridge, who, on a Sexy Marriage Radio podcast, told the listeners that the tone of any discussion at its beginning will likely be the tone with which it ends. Begin with accusations and vituperation, end with bitterness, anger and entrenched positions.
Chris, I do have one question that I wish you would elaborate on. You say that the guy is to be “stable and calm”. But what about truly stinkin’ stuff? One of the most common pieces of advice that we will receive is to “establish boundaries”, and not participate in discussions/arguments in which these boundaries are crossed. It might be recommended that when facing a boundary violation, that the ‘wronged’ spouse leave, go to the park or the gym; in essence, remove him/herself from the argument. If the boundary recommendations are valid, how do we reconcile that image with staying there and being “stable and calm”, despite the vituperation?
In the face of really awful stuff, being stable and calm might mean leaving the house without yelling. I am a (mostly) reformed over-reactor. I don’t handle surprises well, and when something happens that I’m not prepared for, I have a tendency to freak out for a few minutes. After my initial panic, I settle down and can deal with whatever is going on. This even includes my husband’s sexual advances.
[Rabbit-trail warning] – how often, would you estimate, is ‘over-reacting’ an intentional tactic?
I don’t know. For some women, it may be the case most of the time. For other women, it may never be intentional even though it appears that way. I suspect that even women who do it on purpose aren’t always aware of it. They know that they want to push their husbands away so they can avoid having to deal with sex for a while and maintain some control in their marriages. Neither of these things is okay.
For me, what appeared as over-reacting was primarily during the last year of my refusal. God was working on my heart and I was starting to feel my emotional walls weaken. I didn’t see what I was doing as over-reacting. My intention was to let out all my rage and hurt and stop pretending to be nice. In some ways, it was the most authentic I’d ever been with my husband. I intentionally removed all my filters and unleashed all of my internal chaos loose in his direction. I feel horrible that he had to suffer through all that—yet that fact that he did—and stayed with me—is part of how I’ve come to realize how much he truly loves me.
[Chris continues from above]This was immature on my part. I have learned to take deep breaths and try to think before saying anything—but it takes lots of intention and force of will. When my husband responds to my initial over-reaction with an emotional reaction of his own (such as arguing, yelling, or telling me I’m overreacting), my panic tends to escalate rather than subside. I’m already dealing with one thing, and then he’s giving me something else to deal with.
When my husband can control his response to me, it helps me calm down. Five years after I began to grow up in my marriage, I am now able to see him as a source of support in dealing with something. When I face something unexpected, I immediately want to feel his arms around me because I know that will help me calm down more quickly. When he reacts with negative emotion, I see him as my enemy. When he is calm, he is my hero.
If there is a history of horrible over-reactions (such as when the reaction is filled with name-calling or accusations), I think it makes sense for a husband to find a way to bring up the subject either in conversation or in a letter and say, “I love you. When you start to call me a jerk or tell me I’m good for nothing, it hurts me. I think it also hurts you and our marriage. From now on, my response to those kinds of words will be to leave the room or the house and be away from you for at least an hour. If you want to cry and scream about your feelings without attacking me, I am here for you.”
Thank you for clearing that up. We agree that calm discussion is what is needed, but you don’t have to take abuse.
That’s our fifth discussion on Chris’s original article, A Wife’s Heart, and truth be told, it went far better than I feared it might. After all, the first suggestion above, as Chris correctly pointed out, “directly contradicts” one of my suggestions on dealing with a sexless marriage. But the paragraph that Chris added, that did not appear in her first post, while not completely mitigating her comment, acknowledges the pain that continued “required” affection inflicts, and more importantly, communicates that to the wife.
In our next installment, Chris and I will discuss her seventh suggestion, “Acknowledge progress and effort”. I was surprised by how much we had to say about this seemingly innocuous concept.