How to Overcome an Abusive Marriage:
How to Win Back a Wife Who Has Fled to a Shelter
Dear Dr. Harley,
My wife took my two girls and left me a month ago to go to a shelter. She claimed that I was being abusive to her. A few days later I agreed to move out of the house so that she and the kids could move back in. I'm currently living at work without a car. I am trying to avoid pressuring her, but this arrangement is very hard on me.
I have never harmed my wife physically but after reading your books, Love Busters and Give & Take, I realize I have harmed her emotionally without realizing that I was being abusive. I would say and do abusive things to her that were in reaction to things she said and did to me. But I now know I was wrong to have done it.
I love my family dearly and want to be back with my wife and my girls. I have been reading your books and material on your web site and have given my wife one of your books to read while I read the other. I've also copied material from the web site in hopes that she will be more receptive to work things out. Am I doing the right things to win her back or is there something I am not doing or doing wrong? I would very much appreciate your thoughts on how to get both of us to the bargaining table so that we can constructively rebuild the marriage.
My wife seems very reluctant to talk to me, but says she does not want a divorce and wants us to eventually see a counselor. But she says that right now she needs time. I feel that the more time we're apart the more we'll drift apart and I don't want that to happen. What should I do?
You have made a very good start toward reconciliation, and from the sound of things, you should feel hopeful that your marriage can be restored. But make no mistake -- the reason your wife went to a shelter is to escape from you. So to avoid making matters worse, don't do or say anything that would make her feel you are forcing her back into the trap she was in before she left.
You are probably feeling that you are not the only one who needs to change. I'm sure that you feel your wife has contributed as much to your marital problems as you have. In fact, she may be just as abusive to you as you are to her. And her abuse of you may make it very difficult for you to overcome your abuse of her.
Almost everyone that accuses their spouse of abuse (and I've counseled literally thousands), are abusive themselves. That's not to say that they are at fault for the way they are abused, but it has a lot to do with why they choose a partner who is abusive, and why they tolerate it until the abuse gets dangerous. They are use to abusing others and being abused themselves.
Abuse is any behavior that punishes someone, disrespects them, or demands something of them. In general, abuse is anything you do that makes someone else suffer. It's what I refer to as the "Love Busters" you have been reading about in my books. You and your wife need to learn how to overcome these Love Busters at all costs.
In most marriages, abuse begins when a conflict is introduced. For example, your wife might say that you did not dry the dishes properly. That's a form of abuse, because she is making a disrespectful judgment about your dish drying behavior. For you, the drying was just fine, but for her it wasn't. What you have is a simple difference of opinion on the way dishes should be dried, and your wife should have said that she would prefer your drying them the way she wants them to be dried.
But even though she made an abusive remark, you can end the cycle of abuse before it begins if you don't accelerate negativity (that means, matching her abuse with abuse of your own). What you should do is ignore the abuse on her side, and in your own mind re-translate what she said to be "I would prefer it if you would dry the dishes this way, instead of the way you are drying them."
However, if you are offended by the comment she made, and most people are offended by abuse, then you will be very tempted to come back with, "fine, dry them yourself next time." That is abusive because it's a demand (you are telling her what to do). Or you might be tempted to say, "you don't dry them any better that I do." That's abusive because it's disrespectful (you are judging her dish washing behavior). Or you might be tempted to let her have it with, "What a stupid thing to say -- you sure are full of stupid comments today." That's an angry outburst because what you say is intended to punish her for the comment she made to you. As soon as you respond to your wife's abusive comment with an abusive comment of your own, you have created a cycle of abuse where you are both abusing each other.
Your wife might then respond to your abuse with more abuse. It may be a selfish demand, it may be a disrespectful judgment, or it may be an angry outburst. That will escalate negativity even more. Then you respond with more abuse, she responds again, and on and on. Every argument is abusive, and whenever you argue or fight, think to yourself, "we are being abusive to each other. I must somehow stop this cycle of abuse."
When you argue, it will be easy to see how the other person is being abusive, but it's very difficult to see how you are being abusive. However, if you actually argue with your wife, you are being just as abusive as she. You may not be able to stop your wife's abusive behavior, because only she can do that, but you can stop your abusive behavior, and that will end all of your arguments and fights. It doesn't mean you will stop talking to each other, it simply means you will not respond to her abuse with your own abuse.
Quite frankly, if only one of you avoids abuse -- you, for example -- it will make it much easier for the other to avoid it. Take the dish washing incident. When your wife makes the abusive comment, "you don't dry the dishes right," you should interpret it to mean, "I would like it if you would dry the dishes some other way." You should then say, "I don't like the way you said that, but I will try to dry them in a way you prefer next time. Show me what you want me to do." Or, you could say, "I was offended by your comment, but I will try to do a better job next time." You could even say, "I don't like to be criticized," and leave it at that. My point is that there is nothing wrong with expressing your own feelings as long as they are not accompanied by the Love Busters angry outbursts, disrespectful judgments or selfish demands.
Learn to stop arguing and fighting now, while you still have a marriage. I'm happy to hear that your wife is reading my books, because it will introduce her to Love Busters and the Policy of Joint Agreement in decision-making. But don't expect your wife to get on board right away. She may continue to be abusive for quite some time, and that may make your job of reconciliation much more difficult.
When your wife does something that hurts you, instead of escalating abuse, stop the cycle before it starts. Learn how to avoid fighting with her, and let her know that her abusive behavior hurts you, without being abusive yourself.
How to Return to Your Home
I commend you for moving out of your home to let your wife return with your girls. That was a very caring and appropriate first step on your part. But now that she is at home, respect her privacy as if it were not your home anymore. Visit your wife only when she has invited you -- do not visit her unannounced. And when you do visit, be sure she is comfortable having you there. In advance of your visit, ask your wife to set a time limit so that she will know when you will be leaving, and stick to it. If she becomes uncomfortable before the time is over, and asks you to leave earlier than planned, leave graciously and immediately.
Right now, your wife has very mixed feelings about you. She remembers what it was you did that caused her to leave you, and is still afraid that you will continue to do it. Let her take whatever time she needs to gain her trust in you.
You have taken the first step toward reconciliation by trying to make your wife's life more comfortable, even though you had to move out to make that possible. The next step is to discover what you have been doing that has made her life so miserable. So I would try to get as much information from her as possible about what she considers to be abuse on your part. Whatever she thinks is abuse, learn to stop doing it.
The safer your wife feels, the more likely she will be to invite you back home to live with her again. But don't put pressure on her. Instead, return only when and how she wants you to return.
In most cases like yours, a wife will suggest staying overnight as a first step toward moving back home. And the husband does not necessarily sleep in his own bed with his wife. She often feels more comfortable with him sleeping in another room. If he resists her terms for the one-night stay, it may be quite a while before there is a second invitation. Then after being comfortable with his staying over one night, a weekend stay is tried. Eventually he is back in his own bed with her every night of the week.
But don't give up your alternate home for a while. Even if your wife feels comfortable enough with you to invite you back permanently, if your bad habits begin to return, you should go back to living at work until you can completely guarantee your wife's safety.
It's often hard for a man to accept the idea that he is not free to come and go in his own home. But under these conditions, it's not his home yet. It's only his home again when his wife feels like sharing it with him. Unless a man accepts that reality, reconciliation is much more difficult than it needs to be.
You have come face-to-face with a very important reality about marriage. Even though you and your wife are married, have children and own your home together, you live with your wife by invitation only. That's technically true about all marriages. You don't own her and she doesn't own you. There is a sense in which you are guests of each other throughout life, and you must respect each other if your mutual invitation to live together is to survive.
It will take a while to get rid of your bad habits and replace them with good habits. Knowing what to do, and getting into the habit of doing it, are two entirely different steps. You may already know what you should do, but it may take you three to six months of concerted effort to rid yourself of the habits that drove your wife from your house. And then, when you return to her, you may find some of those bad habits creeping back into your behavior again. Monitor your behavior very carefully so that you can keep Love Busters out of your marriage for the rest of your life. That way your wife will never again feel obligated to leave her own home just to feel safe.
Your example of avoiding abuse, even when your wife is abusive to you, will go a long way toward showing her how spouses should treat each other. At first, she will not see her contribution to creating an abusive marriage, but eventually, as you learn to follow the Policy of Joint Agreement and avoid Love Busters, she will see the importance of doing the same.
Your wife wants you to be home with her and your daughters. But she also wants to feel comfortable with you living there. In most cases like yours, a wife invites her husband back home too soon, before he has had time to prove his ability to protect her from his bad habits. Don't worry about her waiting too long to ask you to return. It's more likely that she will ask you to return before you are ready. So use the time that you are living away from your wife wisely, eliminating the habits that drove her away from you, and mastering the new habits that will make her life more enjoyable. I'm sure that without any encouragement from you at all, you will be living with her again very soon. And when you return, your wife and your daughters will welcome a man who has learned to protect them all from his abusive habits.