Can You Be Friends With a Spouse You Don’t Trust?

QUESTION

My husband and I have serious marriage problems.  We’ve been married for 31 years and basically, I have never felt connected to him emotionally.  We married before I felt that connection, and I naively thought it was something you got after living together.  In my attempts to address this, he has felt inadequate to meet my needs for friendship and love.  In the past he has suggested that I find a girlfriend to meet my friendship needs.  I have also felt our relationship was kind of a boss/employee relationship, never a friend/companion partnership.  He seems to me (and others) to have an arrogant manner.  I have felt intimidated much of the marriage.  After listening to one of your talks, I have finally been able to pinpoint one of my problems, which is an inability to be an agent for myself.  I’ve kept hoping he would someday decide he loved me and would start treating me with more emotional intimacy.  Over the years, because I hadn’t figured out how to still be “nice” while stopping him from being arrogant towards me, I have let resentment build.  It got really bad at one point and I consciously decided to protect myself by keeping an emotional distance.  I didn’t know at the time, but he was then addicted to porn.  After I found out, I was devastated and dared to ask him to go stay at his parents’ house.  He refused.  I spent the next three and a half years avoiding him in the house because I didn’t want to take our teenagers away from their home and neighborhood.  We haven’t shared the same bedroom for four years now.  I recently found out he’s been able to stay away from the addiction for almost a year and that fact has made it possible for me to look at him and talk to him without feeling sick.  We’ve talked seriously about the possibility of divorce.  He finally now says he wants friendship, whether it is with me or with someone else.  He has a girl in mind who is about 15 years younger than me.  Things are looking worse and worse.

The prospect of having our kids come from a broken family is the one thing I can’t reconcile.

I asked him if there was something I could do that would make it possible to mend the marriage.  He says he wants me to treat him like a friend.  He feels like he’s done his best to be kind and doesn’t think he should have to change any more.  He thinks I’m too sensitive.

While I am amazed that he seems to finally want what I have wanted all these years, the thing I need to happen so I can try to “be his friend” and mend the marriage is to be able to trust him.

My question is, how do you treat someone like a friend if you don’t trust them?  Do I start by pretending I trust him?  Do I leave myself open to be hurt and if he says something demeaning, tell him he’s doing something wrong and he needs to treat me better?  If I do that, he’ll get defensive and say I’m too sensitive.  How do I do this?

ANSWER

Your problem is serious and layered.  In this setting, we can’t hope to address all the relevant concerns. However, here are a few things to consider:

1 – It’s possible to be friendly with people we don’t trust—the key is that we have to acquire the skills to keep ourselves safe—emotionally and in every other way. This requires good boundary setting and maintenance. Too often, we get stuck waiting for our partner’s behavior to change or for them to “get religion” and realize how they are hurting us. This puts us in a position where we are being held hostage to someone else’s timetable of progression. That cannot be the will of our Heavenly Father. Part of our journey toward emotional and spiritual maturity is taking responsibility for our own safety, with or without the cooperation of those around us. This can and should be done without turning from victim to victimizer. We must become non-victim agents, as you’ve recognized. It’s actually not that hard to get along with, and even like, people that can’t hurt us, not necessarily because they have stopped being hurtful but because we know how to be safe. There are probably some books about relationship boundaries—I don’t have any titles to recommend but you might check this out. I am currently working on a book about how to deal with hurt and anger. The book after that—already begun—is on healthy relationship boundaries.

2 – You almost certainly could benefit from good counseling. Hopefully there is someone, perhaps a friend or priesthood leader, that could give you a referral. Just fyi, I have a growing number of clients outside of Utah that I visit with over the phone or on video chat.

3 – The pornography was certainly a key contributor to your husband’s emotional distance. Pornography turns people cold. It’s good that he has stayed away from porn for the past year and a half but the fact that you just recently found out doesn’t indicate complete repentance on his part. Real repentance must include apologizing to those we have offended and doing all in our power to fix what we’ve broken. So, of course, you don’t trust him.

4 – I understand not wanting your kids to come from a broken home, nevertheless, consider these words from Elder Dallin H. Oaks: “. . . members whose former spouses persistently betrayed sacred covenants or abandoned or refused to perform marriage responsibilities for an extended period . . .  have firsthand knowledge of circumstances worse than divorce” (Dallin H. Oaks, “Divorce,” Ensign, May 2007, emphasis added).

5 – While I, too, believe in marriage preservation—particularly where children are involved—I know it is not always possible. It is not healthy to remain in a marriage where human dignity is being destroyed. The fact that your husband already has his eye on a woman 15 years younger than you are is not encouraging. However, if you learn to set and maintain healthy boundaries, taking responsibility for your own emotional safety, it may be possible for you to be friendly, in spite of not trusting your husband. That might make it possible for the marriage to continue and there are usually significant advantages to the children and to a wife to maintain a marriage. So I really hope you will get help to learn how to set those boundaries and give it a try.

I wish you the best.