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Dating Advice #213 - Abroad and Alone

May 9, 2009 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

Her marriage is a total disaster. Can it be salvaged?

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I have been married for just over a year and moved abroad to be with my husband. Before we got engaged my husband was an angel -- loving, caring, affectionate. After the engagement I started to see a different side to him. He started to blackmail me, and would threaten: "Unless you do this, I'm calling off the wedding." But because I had broken a previous engagement, I didn't want to break this one. So I passed it off as pre-wedding tensions.

Now we are married and he's saying, "Unless you do this, we're getting a divorce." Basically I have no say in anything, and I have no family in this country to support me. His mom backs him up by also telling him to divorce me. It's been an awful year but I don't want to get divorced because of the after-effects. But I also can't take the marriage anymore. We don't have any children, because my husband has intimacy issues with me.

My husband has changed and I feel like I don't know him (or like him) anymore. He won't go to marriage counseling because he says that I'm the problem. I don't know what to do anymore. Please help.


Dear Rebecca,

While we can see that your marriage is troubled and that you and your husband are both very unhappy, we don't have enough information to know what is really wrong with your marriage. We can look at the facts you described from several different perspectives. Here are two of them:

Possibility #1: A Difficult Adjustment To Married Life

Every couple is challenged to some degree by the adjustments they must make during their first year of marriage. There are a number of factors that can make the transition to married life a little easier, including how aware both people are that marriage requires adjustments; the degree to which both partners are open-minded and flexible; and whether one or both of them possess certain interpersonal skills that will help make the transition easier, or can learn and acquire these skills during the early period of their married life, possibly with the help of a series of workshops or sessions specially geared to newly married couples.

Some of the many adjustments newly marrieds face are:

  • getting accustomed to each other's life rhythms, styles and preferences
  • balancing each person's friends, interests, and the need for personal time with their need for joint friends, interests, and time together
  • learning how to communicate respectfully and effectively, so that each really hears what the other is saying and responds appropriately
  • realizing when to give in for the sake of the relationship, or because it is more important to your spouse than to you
  • learning how to resolve disputes in a productive way, and recognizing that there will always be issues about which you will never agree

While your letter highlights the difficulties your husband is having with the concept of giving and compromise, we can assure you that this is a mutual problem. It could very well be that he is also compromising on a number of issues, but because you are having such a difficult time you find it hard to see his point of view. In addition, perhaps each of you is having difficulty choosing your battles, which is something couples who have been married a while learn to do.

It may also be true that he gets his way more often than is reasonable because you may not know how to be assertive enough to give your relationship the balance it needs. Your husband's "threats" about divorce have to be seen in context. While they could be efforts to force you to give in during an argument, they could also be his somewhat immature way of expressing frustration with your unhappiness or his own, or a misguided way to get a problem resolved when he doesn't know another way of doing so.

The challenges of your first year of marriage have been compounded by the fact that you moved to another country and have been isolated from your family and support system. This makes your transition from being single to being married more difficult. The adjustments of being in an unfamiliar culture are also stressful. It is common for people in your situation to expect their new spouse to become everything for them -- their family, social structure, entertainment, and source of happiness and comfort. These expectations put unfair pressure on the person who is expected to be Superman or Superwoman, and causes a lot of friction in the marriage. While husbands and wives assume many of these roles at different times during a marriage, no one person can be expected to fill them all at the same time and to be the exclusive source of their spouse's comfort, security and happiness.

Another factor that contributes to the difficulties you and your husband are experiencing is that his family, particularly his mother, is nearby, and your family is not. While your letter makes it seem that your mother-in-law is actively encouraging the two of you to break up, there could be other explanations for her conduct. It is possible that she is commiserating with her son's unhappiness by telling him that if he is so miserable he can always get divorced. She could even be frustrated by his complaints and be telling him, "If you refuse to do anything about your marital problems, stop complaining to me and get divorced."

The physical intimacy issue that you alluded to can have many sources, but it is definitely a symptom of a troubled marriage. Since you didn't go into detail, we won't address it other than to say that this is a difficulty that can be more successfully addressed once you make headway in resolving some of the other problems in your relationship. We're going to discuss our ideas about this in a moment.

Possibility #2: A Classic Controlling Relationship

From another perspective, your letter could be describing what some might call a classic controlling relationship, in which the male partner acts charming and affectionate during the courtship, but begins to display his controlling tendencies during the engagement or after the marriage. Often, the controller unconsciously selects a partner who is vulnerable to being controlled, because she is insecure, dependent, or unsure of herself. He may begin to isolate his partner from her support system by complaining about her family and friends, and telling her not to see them.

He may marry someone who is willing to move from another city or country, because this will further isolate her. He may take control in other ways, such as limiting the spouse's freedom of movement and access to money. To obtain the partner's compliance with his demands, he may threaten to hurt or punish her, or in your case, to get a divorce.

Not everyone with controlling tendencies becomes a controlling spouse. Such a man may marry someone who is able to assert herself, so that the pattern of control never begins. Out of necessity, he may learn the art of negotiation and compromise (or they may frequently argue because they do not learn this art).

It's important to understand that many people who become controlling spouses don't plan to become bullies. They want to have a happy marriage, but have difficulty doing so for a number of reasons. They may not have seen a mutually satisfactory marriage when they were growing up and have nothing to model their own behavior upon. They may lack interpersonal skills, or may be immature. And they may be receptive to learning how to have a more egalitarian marriage, especially when their marriage is relatively young.

Based on your letter alone, each of these two scenarios is plausible. Perhaps the truth is a combination of the two, and perhaps if we heard your husband's input we would have a different assessment. One thing that husband and wives who are wallowing in despair do not realize is that in most cases, no one person is to "blame" for a troubled marriage. There is a problem with the way they interact with each other. No matter what the source of your problems may be, we believe that your marriage needs immediate help if it is to survive.

Can Your Marriage Be Saved?

Is it too late to save a young marriage in which both partners seem so unhappy? In many cases, the answer is, "No!" We have seen marriages, particularly young ones, rise from the brink of despair, with the help of a trained and qualified marriage or family therapist. Often, success occurs when the husband and wife believe they can work together to help their marriage succeed, and they decide to make the effort. Other times, it is because one of the partners works with a therapist and starts to make changes that have an affect on how they interact with each other. Then at some point the other spouse realizes that therapy can be beneficial and starts to attend counseling, too.

We understand that your husband isn't interested in marriage counseling right now, but that could be because at this point, the two of you are busy blaming each other for your unhappiness. With such an attitude, neither of you will be able to make any progress toward improving your marriage. It would be much more helpful for both of you to change your view of the situation. Isn't it better to say that each of you wants to have a good marriage, but you are both are having trouble achieving that because you've lost your way? That one or both of you is unnecessarily wallowing in self-pity? That you both need help, and instead of blaming each other should try to learn to work together with the help of a counselor?

We cannot predict the effect that counseling will have on your marriage. However, since you want to keep your marriage together, we believe that this is the next step that you should take, even if your husband cannot be convinced to attend at this time. Choose a therapist who specializes in family therapy or marriage counseling, and who comes recommended by people you trust.

Hopefully, counseling will also help you to gain a clearer, more balanced view about your situation. You may make progress so that your marriage improves, or you may ultimately decide to leave your marriage. You should also be prepared for any progress to take time and be accompanied by some regression -- for every two steps forward, you'll take one step back. But you will continue to move forward.

In addition to counseling, we recommend that you take steps to enrich your own life. If you are not working now, you should consider entering the workforce, even part time. How about volunteering a couple of days a week? There may also be other venues for you to enrich yourself Jewishly as well. It's also important for you to develop friendships, if you have not already done so. You can do this through volunteer work, involvement in the local synagogue, or participation in projects in which other young, Jewish women are involved. If you have a talent or hobby that you have neglected, this is the time to pursue it, or to take a class about something that interests you.

It is easy to feel sorry for yourself when you are not being proactive. By following these suggestions, you will feel better about yourself and this can have a positive impact on your marriage.

We wish you the best of luck,

Rosie & Sherry

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