When to Call It Quits
By Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D.
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The concept of unconditional love in marriage usually refers to a spouse's lifelong commitment to care for the other spouse regardless of what the other spouse does. I'm in favor of a lifelong commitment to care regardless of unfavorable circumstances (health problems, financial setbacks, and other factors outside a couple's control that can negatively impact a marriage). But I'm opposed to a lifelong commitment to care for a spouse when that spouse makes marriage-wrecking choices. It tends to give such people unrealistic expectations of entitlement -- that they should be cared for, regardless of their willingness to care in return. Neglect and abuse characterize many marriages based on unconditional love.
In this article, I'll feature a letter I received from a spouse who was told to love unconditionally. Her husband has failed to meet her emotional needs, and is unwilling to do anything about it. Next, I'll feature a letter from a wife whose husband has been physically and emotionally abusive. Both of these women want to know when enough is enough. When should they call it quits?
On the subject of neglect, I've chosen to feature a marriage that isn't all that bad from most people's perspective, but isn't good either. L.R.'s husband hasn't abandoned her physically, leaving her to fend for herself. Instead, he's only abandoned her emotionally. They probably even have a friendship of sorts. It's cases like these that leave a wife struggling to know what to do.
As it turns out, most of these women divorce their husbands. In fact, research I've personally conducted in the archives of government statistics on the causes of divorce lead me to believe that as many as 80% of all divorces initiated by women are caused by neglect. Women like L.R. suddenly call it quits with little warning, leaving her husband, family and friends scratching their heads wondering what's wrong with her.
In this Q&A column, I describe what spouses usually do when faced with neglect, and then I explain what spouses should do. My approach is radical, and very controversial. But keep in mind the point I've just made-80% of divorces initiated by women are caused by neglect. Astonishingly, there seems to be a much higher risk of divorce in marriages where spouses are not meeting each other's emotional needs than there is in all the marriages that suffer from physical and verbal abuse, chemical dependency, unemployment, and all other causes combined.
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Dear Dr. Harley,
I just want to say thank you for your column on unconditional love. It explains a lot and eliminates a lot of confusion for me personally. Additionally, I will tell you that all you said bears witness with my experience in 20 years of marriage thus far. So....as I read all you said, my marriage experience lines up with it. You're right.
We have half of the recipe for being in love. My husband does nothing to hurt me. But he also does nothing to meet any of my important emotional needs. When I tell him that I want more from him emotionally, he tells me that he believes in unconditional love. I am not to require more of him emotionally because he doesn't know how to give it, and he doesn't want to learn. So I live emotionally disconnected from him. All my efforts over our 20 years together to grow together have failed because he believes in unconditional love.
It is a great relief for me to have you explain all of this, but what can I do about it? Am I stuck with a man who doesn't hurt me, but also doesn't meet any of my emotional needs?
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Dear L. R.
You've witnessed my greatest objection to the concept of unconditional love: It makes people think they shouldn't have to do anything to be loved. When you complain about your husband's failure to meet important emotional needs, he says, "So what! You should love me regardless of what I do."
Countless marriages face the same problem. One or both spouses feel that they're entitled to love, so they do what they please, which usually ruins their marriage. What can be done about it? Here are the options.
First, I'll tell you what most people do, and then I'll explain what you might want to consider doing. In my experience, the plan that I am suggesting has worked very well for most of those I've counseled. But it does come with risks that I will explain to you toward the end of my response.
The most common first response to a spouse's neglect is to complain: "I'd like it if you'd be more affectionate." A complaint is an effort to communicate a problem without being demanding, disrespectful, or angry. It's a notification there's an opportunity to make deposits (or avoid withdrawals) from the Love Bank. There's nothing wrong with that initial approach to the problem of neglect since it's simply communicating a need. In fact, I believe that its the very best way to approach the problem.
But when that doesn't produce results, mistakes usually follow. The first mistake is to criticize: "Why do you ignore me? What's wrong with you?" A criticism adds demands, disrespect, and/or anger to the complaint. The message of an unmet emotional need is buried under layers of abuse. Instead of creating a cooperative partner, it creates an adversary.
When criticism fails, and it almost always does, the next step is usually to stop meeting the other spouse's emotional needs: "If you won't meet my emotional needs, I won't meet yours." And that usually means sex. It seems fair at the time, but as with criticism it usually doesn't work and leads to a steady deterioration of the relationship. Spouses start living independent lives, sleeping in different rooms, going on separate vacations, having separate friends, separate checking accounts, separate recreational activities - they become ships passing in the night.
At this point, they often make the biggest mistake of their lives-one or both spouses have an affair. There are no excuses for infidelity, but the reason most people give for having an affair is that their intimate emotional needs (affection, conversation, sexual fulfillment, and recreational companionship) are not being met in marriage. And since 60% of all marriages experience that extremely painful betrayal, this response to unmet emotional needs, which is common in marriage, is almost a certainty.
When a complaint doesn't work, and criticism doesn't work, and independent lifestyles don't work, then there's always divorce as a final answer to the question, "What should you do if your spouse isn't meeting your emotional needs?" There's little reason to fake it anymore. The marriage is broken, so why pretend that you're still married?
L.R., it doesn't sound as if you've reached the point in your marriage where you're thinking about divorce, or even having an affair. So let me take you back to the beginning, and give you the steps I'd recommend to help you get what you need in your marriage.
The first step, as I mentioned earlier, should be to express your need clearly without demands, disrespect, or anger. Invite your husband to join you in completing the Emotional Needs Questionnaire that can be copied free of charge from the Questionnaires section of the Marriage Builders® website. After you have each described your most important emotional needs to each other, the book ,"His Needs, Her Needs," will help you learn to meet those needs for each other. The accompanying workbook, "Five Steps to Romantic Love," provides worksheets that will help you both implement a plan to turn need -- fulfilling behavior into habits.
This first step may solve your problem. Your husband may respond positively to your request, and the issue of unconditional love may not become a factor in his thinking. What I'm recommending is a focused appeal. Instead of just asking him to read a book, you're asking him to join you in understanding each other better. Then, if he is not sure how to proceed after he understands you better, the book I recommended will help him put a plan into action that addresses your complaint. This has worked for thousands of couples that have struggled with unmet emotional needs.
But if your husband refuses to accept your offer, the next step I recommend is so controversial that I encourage you to discuss it with your closest friends and family, but not your husband, before you try it. They may think of other ways to solve your problem. But my plan makes sense when you're out of other options.
This step has two parts. I call one part plan A, and the other plan B. They are to be executed sequentially -- plan A is first, followed by plan B.
One spouse can't save a marriage, but one spouse can often set an example that the other spouse will sometimes follow. Plan A is to avoid all Love Busters, and to meet the other spouse's emotional needs without expecting anything in return immediately. This may seem like unconditional love, since it is to be done when your husband is failing to reciprocate. But the very limited period of time that it's applied, usually a month, makes it conditional. The condition is that it won't continue unless your husband responds to your offer.
While you are giving but not receiving, you are to communicate the importance of reciprocity. Along with being an angel, you also explain that you expect your needs to eventually be met, too.
But before you begin plan A, prepare for plan B, which is to completely separate from your husband. You can't simply move out of the bedroom. You must move from the house, or have him move. If you live in a state that supports legal separation, go to the trouble to see an attorney so that all financial and legal arrangements are made in advance. Be sure that you can support yourself for an extended period of time, such as a year.
If you have young children, I would advise you to require your husband to move, and for you to remain in the home with your children. If the children are grown, I'd advise you to move and pick a living space that is cheerful and uplifting. You'll go through quite a few emotional ups and downs and the place you live can be either inspiring or depressing. Make sure it's inspiring.
I know that this sounds like a power play. Separation makes it seem as if you are trying to force your husband to grovel on his hands and knees, begging you to take him back unless he does exactly as you command. But it's not that at all. It's letting him know that your care for him is contingent on his care for you. You don't accept his unconditional love premise if it means giving him what he wants without reciprocity on his part.
What is the alternative? It's amazing how quickly time passes. Before you know it, you'll have been married not 20 years, but 40 years, and you'll be facing the same problems then.
As an illustration of how this is to be done, I'll describe how a woman I counseled, Ellen, went through that experience, and ended up having a very affectionate and romantic husband.
Ellen contacted me with essentially the same complaint that you described in your letter. Her husband, Ken, was not abusive, but didn't meet her intimate emotional needs. She is a Christian, but told me that she was very tempted to have an affair or divorce her husband. She wanted to avoid both possibilities.
After Ellen agreed to follow my plan A/plan B approach, it took her almost a year to prepare for plan B. She saw an attorney, saved some money, got a better paying job, and found an apartment that appealed to her. About one month before she was ready to implement plan B, she poured on the charm with plan A, all the while encouraging Ken to join her in learning how to meet each others emotional needs.
Ken loved all the attention (and sex) he was getting, but remained firm in his conviction that he shouldn't have to learn to meet her emotional needs. He believed in unconditional love.
After a month had passed, when Ken returned home from work, there was a note on the kitchen table from Ellen. She explained that she loved him, and wanted their marriage to be successful. But because the relationship was one-sided, with she doing all the giving, and he doing all the taking, she decided that it was time to do something about it. If he wanted to talk with her, she could be reached on her cell phone.
I had explained to Ellen how her husband would probably react at first: He would throw a fit. And that's precisely what happened. He told her that he was filing for divorce, and that she was now on her own. I also predicted what might happen next: After he had a chance to cool off, he'd want to have sex with her. That also happened right on schedule after two weeks had passed. My advice to her was that she should agree to it only after he saw a counselor with her that would take them through "His Needs, Her Needs." Since her husband hated me after he learned that I was the architect of this plan, I suggested that she find a local counselor who was familiar with my books and methods, which she did.
Sometimes, especially when an unfaithful spouse refuses to end an affair, I recommend no contact at all for plan B. If he wants to contact her, he must talk through a designated mediator. But in this case, I didn't feel that a mediator was necessary and that Ellen could talk with Ken by cell phone. He didn't know her address, however.
Plan B ended with the first counseling session. Ellen gave Ken her address and they planned to meet regularly to complete the lessons.
Ken wanted Ellen to move back to their home immediately, but I recommended that she wait until they were meeting each other's intimate emotional needs almost effortlessly. It turned out that they were separated for about a year because while Ken wanted Ellen with him, he resisted learning the new habits that would meet her emotional needs. He agreed to do everything that was recommended while in the counseling office, but then didn't always follow through on the assignments.
But Ellen was in no hurry to return home. She made it clear to Ken that until their new habits were in place she'd remain separated from him. Fifteen hours a week of undivided attention, using the time to meet each other's emotional needs for affection, conversation, recreational companionship, and sexual fulfillment, was the goal. And they had to practice it until it became almost effortless for both of them. Then, she'd return home.
Toward the end of their program, they would spend the night with each other on a fairly regular basis. He'd be with her, or she'd be with him. So the transition back to living together was almost seamless, and they continue to have a romantic relationship to this day.
But what can be done if your husband does not respond the way Ken responded to Ellen? What if he refuses counseling? What if he makes no effort to draw you back into a relationship with him? What if he threatens to have an affair, or divorce you?
There's the possibility that your husband will not want you to return. He may be happy that you've left. Separation is always a dangerous step to take because it can lead to an affair or divorce. But what are the alternatives?
Some people wait and hope for a change of heart. But as I mentioned earlier, time can go by very quickly. Before you know it, 20 more years will have passed without any improvement.
If you want to be among those who are happily married, you may need to do something drastic -- like follow my plan. Or you will live together unfulfilled (like you are now) or throw in the towel and divorce.
I strongly encourage you to be among those with a very fulfilling marriage. While your husband may not like my plan at first, especially if you separate from him, if it succeeds, he will be a much happier man. He will come to recognize, as you do, that a great marriage requires a mutual effort. Both spouses must take their marital responsibilities seriously by meeting each other's intimate emotional needs.
Willard F. Harley, Jr.
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