When to Call It Quits
(Part 2)

By Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D.

Click here for Part 3


Last week, I addressed one of the problems that unconditional love can create -- neglect. Many of those who believe that love should be unconditional in marriage feel justified in failing to meet their spouses' emotional needs. I described what spouses usually do when faced with neglect -- they end up having affairs or getting divorced. Those who stay married usually remain unfulfilled for the rest of their lives.

Then, I explained what spouses should do when they've been emotionally neglected. It begins with an effort to respectfully persuade a spouse to meet important emotional needs. But when that doesn't work, I recommend the very controversial step of separation until the most important emotional needs are met.

I help couples avoid calling it quits, not by teaching them how to endure disappointment and suffering, but by encouraging them to insist on having a mutually fulfilling marriage. My approach to the topic of neglect may seem radical to many, because they don't see marital neglect as a serious enough problem to warrant separation. But the alternative for many is to eventually call it quits when an earlier separation would have saved their marriage.

This week, however, my advice to separate will be easier to accept because it involves another serious problem that unconditional love can create -- abuse. In this case, you may feel that separation is too risky, that divorce should be the answer. But as you'll see, even in cases of physical abuse, I don't recommend throwing in the towel until an abusive spouse has been given plenty of opportunity to reform. Towel-throwing should take place only after reasonable efforts to reconcile have been exhausted.

As I mentioned last week, I've come to the conclusion that 80% of all divorces are caused by neglect -- important emotional needs are not being met. You'd think that abuse would be the major contributor, but it's not. In fact, physical abuse accounts for only about 2 1/2 percent of divorces. So while the wife who wrote last week about neglect appears to be in a reasonably safe and normal marriage, she's far more likely to call it quits than the writer of today's letter who is the victim of physical abuse.

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Dear Dr. Harley,

I loved your article on unconditional love, and I completely agree with you. I am, however one of the stupid ones that has tried to love my husband unconditionally. I always seem to find some sort of hope, even when there shouldn't be any.

My husband is physically and emotionally abusive to me. He's more than twice my size with a very bad temper. During his temper tantrums he will sometimes rip off his shirt and hit himself in the head while I wonder if I'll be next.

Right now he is on a 1 month deployment to Afghanistan. The other night I told him that I missed him. He got mad at me and asked why. When I said that I couldn't wait for him to hold me again, he said that he wasn't in the "family mood" and he wouldn't be very approachable when he returned. I thought he needed to hear that I loved him unconditionally. It backfired.

I hope that you continue to write on this topic as I feel I am the prime subject for this kind of article. I do truly believe that loving unconditionally has been my greatest downfall.

Thanks for all the great insight you give. Sometimes your emails are the only thing that keeps me from feeling like I'm nothing, and I can see how things are supposed to be.

E.W.

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Dear E.W.

In a way, it's understandable that the problems facing soldiers in Afghanistan might take some of them out of the "family mood." I have witnessed many who come back very depressed after a deployment. The Army and Marines are trying very hard to help returning soldiers deal with the emotional fallout of their tour of duty.

You may feel that your husband may be a victim of the harsh conditions of the battlefield. Unconditional love sometimes seems to be the most appropriate response to someone like your husband. Maybe your love will lift him out of the depression he experiences, and may eventually help him overcome his abusive behavior. By telling your husband that you miss him and that you can't wait for him to hold you, you may feel that it will raise his spirits. He will appreciate your warmth, and respond with a similarly warm reaction.

But you're sending the wrong message. He is being led to assume that it's his response of "so what?" that makes you love him. After all, when he is abusive, you keep loving him. You are rewarding bad behavior. His cold response to your effort to love him unconditionally is proof that it's misguided.

Whenever a spouse becomes physically abusive, even when it's not even close to being life-threatening, it's time to pack your bags. My standard advice for even the mildest forms of physical abuse is separation until the abuser completes a course in anger management, and takes personal responsibility for all forms of abuse, physical or verbal. If you take that important step in response to his abuse, you send the right message -- you will not tolerate abusive behavior.

Many abused wives find my advice to be impractical because they're too dependent on their husbands. It's like walking out of a lion's cage and off a cliff. Would you rather take your chances with the lion than suffer a fatal fall? Separation, of course, isn't really a fall off a cliff, but for many abused women it seems that way.

To further complicate the matter, an abusive spouse usually measures his or her abuse so it's not quite enough to warrant separation. And those who occasionally cross the line usually offer sincere apologies after an attack. An appeal for forgiveness often settles the matter and almost guarantees yet another abusive incident.

Some abused wives have lost so much confidence in themselves that they feel that they deserve some of their husband's abuse. What if you separate and your husband refuses to take responsibility for his abuse? Would you blame yourself?

Since dependency is often at the root of an abusive relationship, when you find yourself being physically or even verbally abused, your highest priority should be to end the dependency as quickly as possible so that you can separate. In last week's newsletter on the topic of neglect, I offered an example of how a wife can go about preparing for separation -- getting a higher paying job, saving money, and looking for a comfortable apartment. When neglect is the problem, she can take her time to make the separation comfortable for her.

But abuse is a different matter. In many cases I've witnessed, taking too much time has led to permanent injury and even death. So you should put your plans to separate on the fast track.

During the 1960s and 1970s, feminists warned women to avoid the "trap" of marriage. By becoming financially dependent on a husband, a woman risked losing her identity and failing to reach her potential in life. For many women, especially those married to abusive husbands, they were right.

But today, wives are not nearly as financially dependent on their husbands as they were 50 years ago. And there are many more programs to help abused wives become self-supporting. So when a wife finds herself married to an abusive husband, she is not really trapped. There are many escape routes.

I strongly advise you to talk with a chaplain in your husband's base immediately, and explain how your husband has been treating you. I don't know all the facts regarding your situation, and there may be some aspects of my advice that would be inappropriate. The chaplain would be able to sort it all out, and come to a decision that guarantees your safety while also taking into account the fallout from your husband's battlefield experiences. He or she will have already heard your story from many other wives of soldiers who have been deployed, and will probably have some good advice for you. If you bring your husband's problem into the open, especially in the army, it will encourage your husband to do something about it.

Tell the chaplain or counselor he or she recommends that you plan to separate when your husband returns, primarily because of his abuse. But make it clear that you don't want to upset your husband while deployed, or make his depression even worse when he returns by separating from him. The chaplain might be able to help you separate in a way that gives your husband encouragement while he guides him in treatment for his anger.

When I counsel wives of abusive husbands who are not in the armed services, and don't have the resources to break their dependence, I recommend help from women's shelters. They provide counseling, employment opportunities, housing, legal services, and many other forms of support that help break the dependency that makes these women so vulnerable to abuse. But I usually give a word of caution: Most women's shelters don't try to help an abused wife repair her marriage. They're great when it comes to providing her safety, but not so great in giving the abusive husband help in overcoming his angry outbursts and restoring his marriage.

You have one month to plan your escape, and you'll have plenty of help from the armed services. Your biggest obstacle will be self-doubt -- wondering if you're doing the right thing. But if you remind yourself that abusive marriages, especially those with even the slightest amount of physical abuse, are so dangerous that they should never be tolerated, you'll have confidence that you must separate. If your husband is given professional help in learning to control his temper, and he proves to you that he can handle frustration intelligently instead of emotionally, you can then live together in peace.

In the meantime, don't tell your husband again that you miss him or can't wait for him to hold you. Instead, while he's deployed keep your conversation fact-oriented. If he asks what's wrong with you, tell him that you are going though a period of soul-searching.

Your husband's angry outbursts demonstrate a fact that I've expressed for years -- it's temporary insanity. You have no idea what he's capable of doing to you when he's angry. When your husband rips off his shirt and hits his head in anger, he's not in control of himself. His safety and yours are at risk.

The first step in overcoming angry outbursts is to recognize that they are not controlled by others -- we control our own angry outbursts. Granted, others may frustrate us, and our experiences, such as being deployed in Afghanistan, may make us feel angry. But an angry outburst is entirely our own responsibility. Once your husband accepts that fact, he can then learn how to control his emotional reaction to frustration and solve his problems intelligently.

Anger management training for your husband will not only save your marriage, but it will also improve your husband's potential in the future. It will make him a happier and more successful person.

Best wishes,
Willard F. Harley, Jr.

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