How to Overcome an Abusive Marriage:

How to Win Back a Husband
Who Has Been Driven Away by Abuse

Letter #3

Dear Dr. Harley,

My husband and I have only been married for 8 months, but we have lived together for almost 5 yrs and have a 3 yr old daughter. The first 4-5 months of our marriage was really good, but then I started feel that he did not love me or find me attractive. When I would try to talk to him about these feelings of unhappiness he could not understand me. I would get frustrated by his lack of understanding and we would just drop the subject.

But two months ago, I became increasingly intolerant. If he made one little mistake, like not be home when he said he would be home, I would blow a fuse! Then I would tell him that we should just get divorced, and that I didn't know why we got married in the first place. At first, he was not willing to let that happen, so we would talk and things would get better. He would be more affectionate towards me and tell me that he loved me. But that would last for only a few days.

About a week ago, I blew a fuse again and now he has moved out. He is willing to go to counseling to help our marriage, but he will not move back in until I can control my angry outbursts. Is there a method that I can use to help this problem I am having. I love my husband very much and I know that he loves me. We both agree that we need help learning to communicate to one another and I know that I need help with my anger.


Dear B.R.,

You actually may have two problems. One is learning to control your angry outbursts and the other may be that your husband is slipping in his willingness to meet your emotional needs now that you are married. The tendency to get lazy after marriage is characteristic of most marriages, but particularly troublesome when couples live together first (read my Q&A column on living together before marriage). There is a very high risk of divorce for couples in your situation and you are just now seeing why that's so.

The angry outburst problem is probably something you've had most of your life. But that doesn't mean you can't overcome it, at least in your relationship with your husband. You've already taken the first step, which is to recognize that your angry outbursts must be overcome. That's a big first step, admitting you have a problem with anger. For many, the decision never to lose your temper with your spouse again is all it takes. That's because most people with an anger problem have a moment where they can decide to protect others from it, or to let them have it with both barrels. You may be able to protect your husband by simply deciding that you will never punish him with an angry outburst again.

The next step is to know when and how you lose your temper. From the sound of your letter, it seems as if you and everyone else in shouting distance would know. But there are many who only recognize the very worst of a temper tantrum as an angry outburst. Your husband may also see other, less energetic forms of anger as abusive toward him. As a way of helping yourself understand exactly what you do when you get angry, and how often you do it, ask your husband to describe instances of your anger to you. And be sure not to get angry when he tells you something you won't want to hear.

The third step is to understand why you get angry with your spouse. Anger is actually an effort on your part to solve a problem. You want your husband home at a certain time, so when he is late you punish him with an angry outburst. There may also be other reasons you allow yourself to be abusive toward him, but in general, it's a problem solving strategy that you are in the habit of using. You must somehow learn to use another tactic to solve your problems, one that doesn't hurt your spouse. I'll discuss this a little later when we talk about your second problem.

The fourth step is to try to avoid the conditions that tend to trigger your anger. Of course, the easiest way to do that is to solve the problem. If your husband comes home on time, you have no reason to be angry. Is there some way to be sure your husband will be home on time without using anger as a way to motivate him? As you can see, anger is not a very good strategy, because now he's not coming home at all!

The fifth step is to learn to control your temper when you have not yet eliminated the conditions that tend to trigger it. If your husband comes home late, night after night, what could you do to avoid an angry outburst each time he does it? I'm sure you can think of many strategies that might help you control your temper in frustrating circumstances. Some would work for you when you try them, and some wouldn't. For example, you might change your expectations -- don't expect your husband to be on time. Or, you might ask your doctor to prescribe medication that would relax you around the time he comes home. Or, you might reach an agreement with your husband that if he's ever late, he does something for you that would make you so happy that you would want him to be late all the time. Another possibility is to join an anger management group, offered by most large mental health clinics, that can help you try to control your temper in these situations.

But remember, none of these ways to overcome angry outbursts actually solves the problem. So in addition to these short-term solutions to avoiding anger, you should also be staying on course to resolve the conflict once and for all.

Finally, the sixth step is to measure your progress. And the one who is in the best position to do the measuring is your husband. Ask him to identify any instance of your behavior that he would consider an angry outburst. Your goal is to reduce his measures to zero. You may need support and accountability while you are working on this project, and anger management groups can help support you in your effort, and hold you accountable.

Now lets get to the second problem, the possibility that your husband is failing to meet your emotional needs, now that you are married.

I would guess that there may be certain things your husband was doing for you prior to your marriage that he is not doing now. These omissions make you feel that he is losing his love for you. Of course, it's possible that he really is losing his love for you. Your recent anger flair-ups might be one of the major causes for his loss of love, because it's a major Love Buster -- it withdraws love units on a very large scale. Other Love Busters are demands and disrespect, which you might be inflicting on him, too. You need to consider how your behavior is effecting your husband -- whether it is depositing or withdrawing love units. Since you have been married, you may have been withdrawing many more love units from your husband's Love Bank than you have been depositing.

But, technically, what upsets you is not how he feels about you, but what he is doing that fails to meet your emotional needs. Before you were married, he probably did a much better job responding to your needs than he has done recently. It could be that he loves you just as much as ever, but has simply become lazy now that you and he are married.

Laziness after marriage is a huge problem for couples who lived together before marriage. The commitment of marriage does not make them more willing to meet each other's needs, it makes them less willing, because they figure that the other person is now committed. But the high rate of divorce in these relationships proves that the commitment of marriage really doesn't mean much when emotional needs are no longer met. A high percentage of these marriages don't last through the first year.

Coming home on time is a sign of affection. It means that your husband cares enough about your feelings to schedule his day so that he would be right on time for you. It's a way of saying he loves you and cares about how you feel. I fully understand why his being late would upset you, because it would mean to you that he doesn't care how you feel. In fact, you have probably let him know numerous times how important it was for him to be home on time, yet he continued to be late. That's why you doubt his love for you, because his expression of affection to you is probably decreasing in quality and quantity. Being late may be only one of a host of ways he fails to show his affection for you.

If affection is your most important emotional need, and it sounds as if it might be, I suggest that you express that need to your husband in a way that he could clearly understand. Apparently, your anger has made him so defensive that he sees your need as a demand, something that he must do or else he will suffer the consequences. But if he comes to understand your need for affection as a request from his friend and lover, I think he may learn to come home on time -- maybe even give himself a 15 minute buffer -- just to prove how much he cares about you.

As an aside, you may have what I call an "electric fence personality." Read about it in my Q&A column entitled, "How Can I Recover My Sexual Desire for My Husband." It may give you additional insight into your problem. Right now, you are concerned about your husband's love for you, but the reality may be that it's your love for him that is at risk. It may be absolutely imperative that your husband put the same effort into meeting your emotional needs now that you are married, or you will find him to be repulsive in no time.

If you can learn to control your temper, and if you can encourage your husband to meet your emotional needs without being demanding about it, I think you will beat the odds against couples who live together before marriage, and you and your husband will grow old happily married together.

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