Recovery, Love and My Marriage

A reader recently posed this question which gave me reason to pause and reflect: "Why did your marriage fail in spite of the fact you began recovering? It seems that recovery would have helped to improve your relationship."

After nearly three years of separation and divorce and many hours in counseling offices and support groups, I still cannot give a definite answer to this question.

Therapists have told me that usually when one partner starts recovery, one of two things happen: 1.) the non-recovering partner starts to recover, too or 2.) the non-recovering partner leaves and the relationship ends.

I did not want my marriage to end, but I did want improvements in the way my ex-wife and I related to one another. I worked extremely hard at recovery in order to effect changes in myself. However, a relationship is comprised of two people. Although I began a recovery program and maintained it, after about 22 months, my ex-wife decided she could no longer live with me and left.

There were lots of factors involved, but basically, throughout our marriage, she had the upper hand. To maintain her dominant position, she would withhold herself from me both emotionally and sexually as a way of controlling me into meeting her expectations. Kind of like saying, "If you aren't a good boy, I'll take away your privileges." Initially, the periods of punishment would last a few hours, but the longer we were married, the longer these periods became—lasting days on end—and then overlapping. Punishment was triggered by any action or word that did not comply with her expectations of me as a husband. Being co-dependent, the idea of being emotionally and physically abandoned was terrifying to me, so I became compliant early on in our marriage to keep her happy. But I also developed a deep-seated anger toward her. Initially, I manifested this anger as depression.

However, once I started recovering and getting a healthy perspective on relationships, I challenged her dominance and our own relationship digressed into a fierce power struggle. It was as much my fault as hers. I refuse to say it was all my fault, or the result of my depression, as she and her family desperately wanted me to believe. I began manifesting my anger late in the marriage through rage, name-calling, and fighting (which, I admit, was inexcusable behavior on my part). This was also facilitated by the fact that I was sporadically taking Wellbutrin, a psychotropic which has been clinically proven to bring out dormant hostility.

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We agreed to separate in January of 1993 and after about three weeks, I wanted to end the separation. She refused and filed a restraining order, which required me to attend anger management treatment. This actually worked out as my introduction to the benefits of group therapy. After about five months of separation and counseling, I discovered that I could survive on my own. My recovery began in August of 1993 when a therapist suggested I attend a CoDA meeting.

When we got back together again in December of 1993, I was still not fully aware of all the dynamics of our personalities and how much the power play was warping our marriage. I didn't want to be in control, but neither did I want to be controlled. She still wanted to be in control, and didn't seem to be happy unless she was. This time, the struggle for dominance manifested itself primarily in our decision making process. We could not agree on anything (this is no exaggeration). She would probably rebutt by saying I never made any firm decisions, but from my perspective, she was never happy with the decisions I did make and constantly second-guessed me. What I wanted was for us to make decisions together, rather than one of us forcing a decision upon the other. In order to make her happy (a major warning sign of co-dependency), I tried giving in for a while, hoping she would change, But eventually, one tires of giving in all the time. It's that mature, delicate balance of both individuals being big enough to give and take that makes a relationship healthy and fulfilling.

I must also point out two additional factors that helped destroy our marriage. She came from a very strict, legalistic religious background and had unrealistic expectations of Biblical proportion about how marriage was supposed to be. Along with that, her mother exercises passive / aggressive control over her father. So my ex-wife was just doing what had been engrained and modeled for her. Because it was church and parents, she never questioned whether these ideas were best for our situation. I honestly don't believe it was a malicious, mean-spirited intention on her part. I honestly think she just had unquestionable expectations about marriage and our marriage did not measure up to those expectations in her mind. One of those expectations was that the wife calls all the shots and "rules the roost" so to speak. This is exactly how it is in her parent's marriage—her mother is in complete control of her father. I believe from conversations with her mother, that she probably gave my ex-wife lots of advice in the area of "man-handling" tactics.

The difference between me and her father is that her father complies to keep the peace. He even suggested I do likewise. With us, however, the struggle eventually became a "deadly embrace" because I rebelled. I didn't want to be controlled—I didn't want us to play passive / aggressive games. I wanted a healthy, mature relationship; however, she didn't want to give up her position of dominance or question her expectations. The end came one night in September of 1995 when I woke her up yelling about a decision I wanted to negotiate. But she had already made up her mind on this particular decision. No, it wasn't mature of me to yell at her. But neither was it mature of her to be non-negotiable. We both should have handled it differently. I came home from work the next day to find her gone again. After months of fruitless pleading with her and her family to work things out, I filed for divorce in February, 1996. The divorce was final in May, 1997.

I believe that part of her motivation for refusing to work things out was to control me on a spiritual basis. Her form of religion states that I cannot divorce her and re-marry without sinning. In other words, if I wouldn't live by her rules, she'd could leave me and force me into a life of married celibacy, or force me into compliance with her demands on my knees. (Of course, her actions fly in the face of Christ's injunction: treat others as you want to be treated.) But I am not bound by her legalistic interpretations of the Bible. My view is that I have been abandoned. I am free to form a new relationship with someone who loves me and will treat me as an equal, rather than trying to control me through the grossly misguided use of the tough love tactics espoused by psychologist David "Dare to Discipline" Dobson.

It's an awfully sad story, and it didn't have to end the way it did. In fact, I even asked her on the final day we sat down with our lawyers to settle whether we could work things out. She would not answer, nor would she explain why. Her lawyer merely laughed and suggested I was mentally ill for even asking.

Come to think of it, perhaps I was.

Hindsight and new relationships have shown me that our marriage really was a living hell. I think my ex-wife would probably agree. So I guess the fact our marriage ended actually was a happy ending for us both.

Thank you, God for happy endings. You have shown me that You will work things out for the best, even if, from my limited perspective, I cannot see it at the time. Thank You for showing me how to recover. Thank You for being my friend. Thank You for loving me enough to bear patiently with me through my growth process. Thank You for the new relationships You have brought into my life that are healthy, supportive, loving, and nurturing. Amen.

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next: Letting Go of the Future

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, December 21). Recovery, Love and My Marriage, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 14 from

Last Updated: August 8, 2014

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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