Tough talk: When your spouse isn’t there for you

I am not a psycologist by any means, and this article must not be construed as an advice. 

When I hit about 28, I came undone. It started with just some normal “tough life events” that piled up. My spouse was not there for me when I desperately needed him, and that abandonment became bigger than the reasons I needed him. Quickly, I no longer had any grip on my life or my emotions. After 5 years of unsuccessfully seeking for help and living a chaotic life, I found this therapist. who told me: There are very few things more harmful than being neglected by the very person who’s supposed to be there for you. This one remark gave me my life back.

A bit of background. I was neglected by my parents who went to all of my siblings’ school or athletic events but none of mine. I don’t remember a hug or a simple conversation. I don’t even remember a high-five or “how was school?” When we are out once a year to buy clothes and I wanted to hold Dad’s hand, he thought it was funny to stay just far enough ahead so I couldn’t quite touch his hand. This game is supposed to end with the child finding the parent’s hand. I never got to find his hand.

My sister used to beat me physically and emotionally every day. Sometimes she would have a knife or a glass bottle. I was constantly petrified. I believed for years that this was the cause of my problems. The therapist said I was wrong. “It is not the fact she beat you. It is the fact she beat you in front of your parents who are supposed to be your ultimate defender. There is nothing more harmful than being let down by the person who’s supposed to be there for you.” It is the neglect, the betrayal, the abandonment, being all alone in the whole world.

The therapist continued, “There are few that are more cruel than neglect. Not only that you have nowhere else to turn because your parents are supposed to be your ultimate support but also that neglect doesn’t leave a visible bruise or a clear event you can describe, and many people refuse to understand that you need their help and support.”

“Your parents may not have done anything to you, but you are still a victim of abuse.”

(I’m simply repeating his words here because these words truly helped me. Personally, I think there are several that are much much much worse than neglect, and he said those words to help me stop minimizing my experience.)

Of course, as they say, I ended up repeating the pattern. Once an adult I stayed in relationships that were filled with neglect – infidelities, lying, exclusion from social events, isolation from my friends, broken promises, abandonment. Here is what I’ve learned.

4 things to consider when your spouse isn’t there for you

1. Feel validated for what you’re feeling.
You’re feeling neglected, abandoned, disregarded, and outprioritized. Don’t let anyone (including you) tell you those emotions aren’t valid. Don’t let people make you question if what your spouse is doing is “all that bad.” Don’t listen to people who tell you you’re “too sensitive.”
Remember what my therapist said. Neglect as abuse is difficult to explain, and some people aren’t able to understand it no matter how hard you both try. Some people are just adamant to conduct scrutiny before dispensing empathy as if it were something to be earned. Don’t waste your energy.

2. Combat frustration with empathy
OK, so your spouse is acting childish and they are not living up to their responsibility in this relationship. Do they deserve empathy?
It’s not about that. Empathy is not for them. It’s for you.
What is causing your spouse to act this way? They are just like this, and they can’t help themselves? They lack the capacity or willingness to understand? Or to care? They had an easy life and simply have all fear and no skills to face a difficult situation? They are not as strong as you wished they were? They are facing their own difficulties they haven’t told you about because they don’t want to burden you? They too are having a rough time in life and needing you right now the way you need them? They are exhausted or suffering from depression and don’t have the energy to face yet another situation?
What if there is a slightest sliver of chance one of those is true… It doesn’t mean you’re not abandoned and neglected, and it still hurts. But empathy should curb frustration.

3. Take ownership. And do it now
Taking ownership is not the same as admitting guilt. Taking ownership is about exuding control. It’s not about bowing down – it’s about rising above.

I say “do it now” above very seriously. Two mental health dangers here I’ve personally experienced. 1. My spouse is supposed to be there when I need them but they aren’t! is a variation of gaslighting. I kid you not. 2. I was repeating the same thing (pleading my spouse to understand that I needed him) over and over and expecting a different result. You know what that definition is for, and in this case cause-effect goes both ways.

I still to this day wouldn’t admit “I’m never ever going to be able to change my spouse,” but I knew I was running out of time. I had to at least move forward with “All I can change is me.”

So what does “taking ownership” entail? To me, that means sitting down to really wrap my head around these things.

– Take ownership of the clarity of the request
by narrowing down to the one small thing I need most from him. He hasn’t heeded me this long; he won’t just get up and do several things. But my list of “things he did wrong” is only getting longer, and I can’t help be frustrated by – and nag him about – the length. At this point, my message is very non-constructive – “Look at how long this list is!” = “Bad spouse!” Not “Could you do this one thing? I really need it right now.”
I must give him just one small tangible task at a time. e.g. “It makes me feel so wonderful when you take a second to make eye contact with me when I get home.”

– Take ownership of the manner of communication.
You don’t send a telegram to a blind person. You don’t give a Yankee hat to a Mets fan. The responsibility to “read the intention” is often placed on the receiver, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth: The responsibility is on the sender to make sure their message is received in a way they intend.
Two examples of ways that I put a lot of effort into but didn’t help at all: Nagging and criticizing. It felt like I was “trying hard” at the time. But the best I accomplished by nagging was “reluctantly following instructions.” Criticizing only caused resentment and shame and drove us farther apart. But when I gave him a sincere thank-you for that one time he picked up his socks – he did it for a few days after that.

– Take ownership of the fact this is the person you chose.
When your partner accused you (sleeping in late, not cleaning the bathroom, making plans without asking first), you probably said “This is me. Accept me for who I am.” This goes both ways. Your spouse might be weak, childish, selfish, disappointing. But that’s the person you chose to be with even if you may not have known that before. No one knows another person 100 % before or during the relationship. We keep learning about each other, and surprising new things pop up now and again. We take them for who they are, or we have no right complaining about them not being there for us. Sure, all of them let us down in one way or another. How do you live with it while accepting them for exactly who they are?

– Take ownership of the emotional control
Do you know your end game? And are you committed to only doing things that help reach your end game?
When you yelled at your spouse last night for wanting to go out yet again, how did it help? Did it bring you together or create more resentment? Did your nagging text, another email, another Facebook post bring you together? Did you think the 89th text would work when the other 88 did nothing but shame and guilt-trip?
Know the difference between action driven by the desire to unleash your emotions and the planned action toward accomplishing your end game.
Take ownership of your emotional control.

– Take ownership of the fact that you’re sometimes wrong.
If you answered “No I’m not” or “Well, sure, but not this time,” I must tell you that you’re making your own journey difficult on yourself. Let me tell you a fact: For most people, they are wrong because they don’t know they are wrong yet. If this last item was the “aha!” moment, please go back to the beginning and read again.

– Take ownership of the fact YOU are a spouse too.
Let me challenge you. You’ve been so caught up in your hurt that you haven’t sincerely asked your spouse “How are you?” or left them a little love note or little gift? If you want your spouse to be there, you genuinely have to be there for them too. No matter how angry you are. No matter how exhausted you are. Because, after all, that’s what you are expecting of them, isn’t it?
Try asking “So, how are you?” and really really mean it. Really meaning it possibly includes listening to your spouse for hours – commit to it. They might reciprocate it.

4. Most importantly, please seek professional help. You may not need it yet. But, take it from me, it’s much easier to get help when you don’t need one than to get help after the fact. It took 10 years for me to get my life back fully.

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