I received an email from a woman I’ll call “Jenny”. Jenny is in quite an unempowering situation, being married to a man that simply doesn’t care about her. He makes decisions without her, he dismisses her, he disrespects her, and basically does anything he wants, and also expects her to do what he wants.
Jenny is in an unhappy marriage.
She reached out to me to thank me for helping her and many others that I don’t even realize. It’s true, I have no idea how many people read this blog or listen to the show until they write to me or mention The Overwhelmed Brain in an article somewhere online, so I was grateful to get her message.
Though I was honored by her gratitude, I was also disheartened to learn that not only is she in an unhappy and unhealthy relationship, but she is afraid to leave it because it will mark another “failed marriage” in her life.
Imagine limiting yourself to a position of no matter how unhappy you are, you will not make certain choices to become happier. Jenny’s limiting philosophy in her marriage is that she would rather stay unhappy than to end up in divorce and be the person with yet “another failed marriage.”
There’s something wrong with this picture. Marriage, to me, is all about amplifying love and happiness, not disintegrating it. And when it has disintegrated, you try to reinvigorate it in any way you can. Then, if you can’t, and you’ve tried absolutely everything, take the next step that will allow both of you to be happy again.
That could mean time apart, separation, or even divorce because sometimes things just don’t work out. And yes, you could have a “failed marriage” too! I know I did.
But, I reframe failure in marriage to a successful divorce. When there’s no other path left, and happiness cannot happen between you and your partner, sometimes you have to seek happiness separately. So, it’s possible you need to have a successful divorce to avoid a failed marriage.
A failed marriage is where at least one of you is unhappy, and no matter what happens, nothing changes or it gets worse, and you stay together no matter what. No Matter What!
Staying with someone who doesn’t love you, or even hates you is a failure. Staying with someone who doesn’t honor you honoring yourself is a failure.
Before I read Jenny’s email, let me just share a little story that has some relevance to what she’s going through.
In the late ’90s and early 2000s, I was in a long-term relationship. For the most part, it was great. However, when we argued, something she did made me feel terrible.
I would “lose” every argument because of this one thing she did time and time again. The funny thing was, I didn’t even know she was doing it!
She was invalidating me.
Our arguments would end with me sulking in defeat and her having the most rational, logical reasoning for her point. It would take me becoming a brilliant brain scientist to figure out how to be even more reasonable and logical in my response to her so that I could at least gain some headway in my defense.
But because I was so tied up in strong emotion, I had trouble coming up with even the simplest of facts to support my side. So, I bowed in defeat every time, angry, hurt, and demoralized.
It took me 15 years to realize that my emotions were being invalidated. Or, let me put it more accurately: I had emotions that she was probably not aware of that were not being validated. I would feel hurt, sad, or angry. And instead of her acknowledging that I was hurt, sad or angry, she just chose to plow over me with all the tiniest details of how she was right.
But… she didn’t know she was invalidating me. She couldn’t know! Because I never shared with her that I was feeling these emotions in the first place. Instead, I just got into the thick of the argument and didn’t want to express or be vulnerable. And because of that, I never gave her a chance to see what I was feeling.
So, I felt like I was being invalidated. I felt like I didn’t matter to her. I felt as if all she cared about was being right.
I felt that way for 13 years. And I never shared it with her.
What would have happened if I shared that? Maybe she would have become more compassionate and maybe our conversations would have been more authentic. Instead, they were highly charged bursts of emotion buried under reason, logic, and a strong desire to defend oneself so that there would be a “winner”.
But she won every argument because I chose not to be vulnerable.
In my newsletter, I remind you that you are worthy. You are valued. Your thoughts, emotions, opinions, and ideas matter, and sometimes days, weeks, months, or years are wasted when you are with people who don’t share in that truth.
I believe that wholeheartedly. I get letters every day from people that have some really serious stuff going on in their life, stuff that I would never want to experience, and they want a better life.
They want to get out of their struggle.
Some of my coaching clients wanted to be heard to know that they were significant and important to someone in their life.
You are significant. You are important. You are worthy. I know this to be true because just having the desire to improve yourself in any way is a sign of self-worth. The desire to improve only comes from a place of worth.
Even if you’re feeling depressed or worse. Even if you can’t see the meaning of anything in your life, when you read these words or tune into this show or others that have a mission to help you improve your life somehow, the motivation to do so comes from a deep place of purpose, meaning and desire to want to feel better and live a more enriching life.
That is worthy.
You probably know people that have no desire to improve. They have no desire to evolve, emotionally, or psychologically.
They have no desire to make your life easier either. They may not even care if you don’t like how they are, and they may not even care if you’re suffering because of their behavior.
They might not even care at all about themselves, so how could you possibly expect them to care about anyone else?
But you care about yourself because here you are trying to absorb as much as you can about creating a better life for yourself. Even if you don’t feel like you care about yourself, it doesn’t matter because here you are. You are right here, right now reading these words, maybe applying them to you for the first time in a long time, or… ever.
Whatever seed of motivation that prompted you to read this article or tune into this episode is the seed of worth and wanting to thrive in some small or even big way.
And those that don’t want to improve and think they’re fine as they are, they may be right. They may be absolutely fine with who they are. In fact, you can see that as an obvious fact with some people, can’t you?
You might know someone who has no problem being who they are even though it’s clear that those around them are suffering and unhappy in some way.
“Not my problem” they might say. Or maybe they don’t say those words, but you feel the sentiment regardless.
They might tell you, “I’m not the one with the problem, you are!”
And this is where the truth may hurt… they may actually be right. You may be the one with the problem.
Let me put that into perspective. If there is someone in your life that you simply can’t stand how they behave, and they are showing no effort to improve themselves or improve the way they act towards you, and you keep them in your life, who do you think is responsible for your unhappiness?
Do you think that the person that you know will never change is responsible for making your life miserable?
Or do you see that by you staying in a toxic situation, you are doing it to yourself?
No answer is right or wrong here. I do realize there are seemingly unavoidable situations that we get ourselves into because we are afraid of what life might be like without those particular people in our life. But I am saying that you play just as much a role in what you get from any relationship, whether it’s family, friendly, or romantic, simply because you choose to keep showing up.
When the stove is on, and you refuse to move your hand, you can’t blame the stove for burning you.
So as I segue into today’s email, it’s not that I’ve already taken a stance one way or the other, I just want to make it clear that there is an equal amount of responsibility on both sides of the issue here. And what usually happens is that the one who has the least amount of problem with any arrangement is usually not the one who takes any sort of action or leaves a situation.
In other words, a stove doesn’t leave the kitchen. It stays right there and burns anything that comes near it.
So here’s Jenny’s email, and my response:
Good morning, and thank you for this wonderful insight (remember, she’s responding to my weekly newsletter email about invalidation and how you are worthy and significant). It is the very thing I struggle with almost every day of my relationship with my husband.
It took me many years to figure out what the problem was.
I have felt so minimized, because no matter what my input, no matter how I deliver it, I have been “dismissed” time and time again. My husband has made so many major and minor decisions based on what he wants, without even considering my feelings, opinions, or the impact they will have on me.
Once I began to understand what was happening, I experimented and tried reversing my opinions, desires, etc. just to double check on what I thought was actually happening.
Turned out I was right. He was often pulling in the opposite direction from me just to have the upper hand! (or so he thought) it seemed he just had to be “in charge” of everything.
Once I pointed this out in marriage therapy I believed he would realize his behavior then work on changing it. To my surprise however, it just has gotten worse.
I have emotionally shut down to a great extent, and I find myself feeling hurt and angry almost all of the time.
Worst of all, I think of life without him, and how much better that may be.
Divorce is a very real desire, but the guilt of having another failed marriage is depressing to me, and I just plug away, not knowing how I’d survive without his income.
I continued to point out to him for awhile that there is no “I” in teamwork, but he just goes about his life as usual, pretending I don’t exist… That is unless he “needs” me to perform specific functions and tasks, which he expects me to fulfill, and I do.
Invalidated, undervalued, ignored, disrespected…all words I have used to describe how I feel over the past six years.
Thank you for making my day with your kind and supportive words. So simple, but so powerful. It makes me realize just how painful living in a one-sided relationship can be.
I truly enjoy your words and insights. Bless you for your kind and helpful information. I wonder if you even know how much you help people you do not even know?!
I wish you a delightful day,
My response to Jenny (and you, the reader, if you’re in a similar situation):
Thank you so much for sharing all of that Jenny, and thank you for your words about me and the show. I am truly honored that you think that.
Let me dive into the first thing that sticks out more than anything from your message. You said you struggle almost every day of your relationship with your husband; You are dismissed time and time again; Decisions are made without you, and therapy only exacerbated the problems.
On top of all that, you’ve shut down emotionally and you feel hurt and angry almost all of the time.
So, just so I’m clear, you said you struggle almost every day, you are dismissed time and time again, you aren’t included in decisions, and you are basically emotionally shut down, except for hurt and angry feelings.
Let me ask you something. When you think about what marriage is supposed to be, is any of what I just mentioned in my last statement included in your thoughts?
When you imagine living with someone and making a home and family, being with them every day for the rest of your life, does that include a daily, miserable existence?
I don’t mean to bring you down, but I want you really soak in what you wrote to me because if that’s marriage, I don’t want any part of it.
That’s why I ask you, Is that marriage to you?
I can’t hear your answer but I’m willing to bet that you define marriage much differently than that, at least the way it’s “supposed” to be.
Let me share with you the story of a good friend of mine who may actually be reading this right now. He was married to a woman he really couldn’t stand to be around. There were personality differences, cultural differences, and even differences in the way they raised their child.
On top of that, they were of the same religious beliefs, so divorce was simply not an option if they wanted to stay a member of their faith.
One night he told me that no matter what he did, his wife would yell, get upset, or ridicule him, or a number of other things that seemed to never end.
At the time, I was in a good relationship and couldn’t understand what he was saying. So I asked him, “Every night you go home from work and get harassed by your own wife? Is that the exception or the rule?”
He said this happens almost every day.
I went, “Every day?” I was in shock. And he looked at me a little funny as if that kind of information shouldn’t be surprising to me.
So thinking about how I’d feel in that same situation, I said to him, “Wow, I can’t imagine knowing that I’m going to be married for the rest of my life until I die, and that I’ll never be happy because I have to come home to someone who seems to hate me. I can’t imagine knowing that I will never experience happiness again.”
He gazed at nothing, soaking in my words.
I wasn’t trying to put him down or make him feel bad, I was just “trying it on” to understand what he must be going through.
He finally snapped out of his thought processes and said, “I never thought about it that way before.”
I think we talked a little bit more about it that night, but then we never talked about it again.
But I could tell that for the first time, the finality of it all crept in. He soaked it in, and our conversation that night set something in motion for him that would change his life and his relationship forever.
Jenny, the reason I repeated what you wrote to me a couple of times is so that you can grasp a real understanding of what life is going to be like if you choose to stay in a relationship that eats away at your very soul.
There’s a comfort zone that you keep expanding to include more and more discomfort every day. Soon, you will have expanded your comfort zone so far that almost any disastrous deed he does will be tolerable to you.
The water boils slowly and you adjust to the heat instead of jumping out before it’s too late.
The realization is this: He will never change and you will never be happy if you stay with him. Unless… he does change. But, accepting that he will never change has to be your first step.
It will never get better than it’s been and it will only get worse.
You said that he doesn’t consider your feelings, opinions, or the impact his decisions will have on you. A clear indication that all he really cares about is himself.
Let me ask you again, Is this a marriage?
Is this really what a marriage is to you?
If you didn’t answer “no”, then say it anyway: “NO. This is not a marriage.”
To me, marriage is all about strengthening the love, bonding, and connection you have with your partner. It’s about supporting each other so that each can be happy and pursue interests that bring them joy. It’s a commitment to sharing experiences and learning and growing together. It’s a celebration of the time you want to spend together.”
What you described to me is the opposite of that. So when I read about how depressing it would be to have another failed marriage, I want you to remember that you succeeded in the marriage, but he failed.
You did everything you could to make it work. He didn’t.
You are a catch because look at all you tolerate yet you are still there. That gives so many other people room to make mistakes if you were to ever pursue another relationship.
The thing is, he’s not even trying to not make mistakes because he simply doesn’t care. In fact, he already knows you won’t leave, so he will just keep doing what he wants when he wants.
Think about everything I’m saying here. You said, “Worst of all, I think of life without him, and how much better that may be.”
That’s worse than what you’re experiencing every day of your relationship!? How is that worse?
I know your reasoning: It’s the guilt of having another failed marriage.
Let me say this, if I were in your shoes right now, I would be seeing this situation as the empowering feeling of another successful divorce from someone who does not value the amazing person I am.
You are amazing, I know this is true. I’m not saying you should get a divorce. I can only guide you in the sense that if I were in your shoes, I’d rather be broke and homeless than with someone who didn’t care about me, dismissed me, invalidated me, and made me feel like any less than I know myself to be.
I’d rather be alone than with someone who makes me feel worse than alone.
I know this isn’t always possible and I’m not suggesting anything rash, but I am suggesting that you start making immediate plans to honor yourself, in whatever form that takes. For me, that means getting out of the toxic relationship. For you, it may mean something different.
You have very real concerns if the marriage ends, especially financially. Yes, your finances will change, but you also have legal rights. Talk to an attorney or someone in the know.
My girlfriend was in a terrible relationship for years and it kept getting more miserable. She talked with her attorney, got things in order, and made her escape plan. After she filed, he did everything in his power to make it hard on her. He hired the most vicious attorney in the area and made sure she had a massive battle ahead.
There are men that do this. They make the battle so hard and escape so impossible that the women they are trying to control buckle from the pressure. The woman gives in and submits to more time in the emotional prison they call their marriage instead of continuing the pursuit of their legal rights.
Again, I’m not saying that divorce has to be your path because I don’t know your situation well. But the way you describe him tells me that nothing will change, and things will get worse, and soon you will be so up to your neck, that you will be barely existing while he’s having all the fun he wants.
This is not a marriage.
Let me say that again:
THIS IS NOT A MARRIAGE!
So when you think of “another failed marriage”, I want you to remember what marriage is supposed to be and know that in order for it to really be called a “marriage”, both people have to give in to it not take away from it.
When you give and give and he takes and takes, this is not a marriage; This is not a love relationship, it’s a dominate / submissive one; This is not friendship and bonding, it’s hardship and bondage.
What you are describing is not a marriage, so you cannot feel guilty about another “failed marriage” because your situation does not qualify. You may have the paper that says otherwise, but if that’s all that defines a marriage then I want nothing to do with it, and neither should you.
You and I both know that marriage can and should be so much more than that. Marriage should be the amplification, not the disintegration, of good feelings.
You’ve done what you can to make this work, now do what you can to honor yourself and give yourself what you are worth.
Yes, your income level will change but maybe not by much. That’s what lawyers are for. They will make sure you know your rights and how the money will be distributed (if you decide to get a divorce I mean).
Talking to a lawyer doesn’t mean you’re committing to one path or another, it just means you’re getting all your ducks in a row and collecting all the facts no matter what path you choose. It’s better to know and be prepared for what may come – especially if he is already preparing to leave the marriage himself. Nothing worse than getting sideswiped.
Or, if anything, make Google your friend. Get informed about your rights and your options. An informed and ready person is much better than the opposite.
You said it yourself, you are continually Invalidated, undervalued, ignored, and disrespected. Whether you choose to create another successful divorce, or stick around the toxicity and live in the hope that things will somehow get better, start gathering as much data as possible so that you are an informed, active participant in your future instead of just waiting for the next shoe to drop.
I want you to be treated the way you deserve – the way you give – because what you give, you get back. Unless you are purposefully putting yourself in situations where the person you give to does not have it in him to give back. If that’s the case, then perhaps your choices in life need to be re-evaluated so that they serve you instead of someone who can’t reciprocate.
I’m going to wrap up my reply to you with these final statements:
If you choose to stay, the situation will not change.
Accept this completely so that you can decide what you need to do as things stand today.
If you choose to leave, the situation will change and things may actually get better.
The question is, will you choose to stay in misery or venture out into possibility?
My married friend who I spoke about earlier used to get home from work and be miserable every day. And he was ready to accept this fate for the rest of his life. When we had that conversation, and for the first time realized that this would be his life for the rest of his “life”, he chose to get a divorce.
The church they attended did not like this so they ex-communicated him. But, he was happy again. And since that day, he has had more peace in his life.
Whatever you choose, make decisions that honor you, not ones that honor someone who doesn’t honor you – after all you know where that leads. You deserve to be treated with love and appreciation.
Do what’s right for you and cleanse the toxicity in your life in the way that works for you.