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The Definition of Marital Abuse That Set Me Straight

Marital abuse occurs on a sliding scale. What I share below is not to minimize the situations someone may be facing such as physical abuse or emotional abuse. 

I’m sharing what I learned in hopes that it helps some husbands and wives understand the impact they have on their partners, even when they would never describe their actions as “abusive.” 

Vanessa and I are honest, caring, sincere, devoted partners. We love each other more today than the day we got married.

Like other couples, even in the best marriages, we argue and fight now and then. Each of us can be stubborn, and convinced the way we see things is the right way.

As a result, a minor disagreement, or difficulty seeing the other’s point of view, can lead a “discussion” into a downward spiral.

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Partners in marriage. Partners in business.

February of 2015 was a big turning point in our lives.

Vanessa was earning more in her Young Living business, than I was as a Senior Director at Life Time Fitness. We saw this as the perfect opportunity to do what we’d always wanted to do: work together in a health and fitness business we could call our own.

I resigned from Life Time. We became business partners.

Vanessa is the CEO, I’m the COO of Healthy Living How To.

We commute from the bedroom to our home office, with a stop along the way to fill up our coffee cups.

Spending all day, everyday together, and trying to agree on decisions about the business, we ran into some challenges.

When you disagree with people at work, you go home and forget about it. You talk about it with your spouse, and then the next day, you go back to work with your mind clear.

Or if you get in an argument with your spouse at home, you go to work, and it can give you time to let your emotions settle down. When you get home, you can have a civil conversation.

When you live and work with the same person, that doesn’t happen.

I saw that I had a lot to do with our arguments.

I’m a big believer in taking responsibility for anything and everything going on in your life. No VKTM virus here. So I started reading.

Unfortunately, I didn’t read Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus until we’d been working together for a year and a half.

After reading it, I believe that Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus should be a college requisite class. 

I did read a lot of marriage books throughout this period, though. I felt like many of the books were written just for me.

It was as though the authors were using their words to hit me between the eyes.

What is marital abuse?

One of the books that’s had a lasting impact on me is Love Busters by Willard F. Harley.

According to Harley,

Marital abuse is a deliberate effort of one spouse to cause the other to be unhappy.

Yikes! That is a scary definition.

I’ll come back to some personal examples in a moment.

Harley explains that we have two parts to our personality, as it relates to relationships:

  1. The Giver: The part of someone’s personality that is concerned only about the happiness of others.
  2. The Taker: The part of someone’s personality that is concerned only about his or her own happiness.

The Giver does things for others to make them happy, even if it leaves himself or herself unhappy. The Taker does things for himself or herself, even it it leaves others unhappy.

If someone feels as though they’re always giving and never getting, that’s the Taker speaking.

The Taker justifies bad behavior. In an argument, the Taker prevents you from seeing the other person’s perspective. To the Taker, his or her perspective doesn’t matter. That Taker is only interested in his or her happiness, nobody else’s.

In positive, happy, intimate relationships, both spouses see things through the Giver’s eyes. They both give to each other, and they enjoy doing so because their individual needs are met by the other.

In a thriving relationship, the voice of the Giver is loud: “Do whatever you can to make your spouse happy and avoid anything that makes your spouse unhappy, even if it makes you unhappy.”

In a state of conflict, the Taker is louder: “Do whatever you can to make yourself happy and avoid anything that makes you unhappy, even if it makes your spouse unhappy.”

And that is what sets things up for marital abuse…

Whenever we have a conscious choice to do or say something that will make our spouse unhappy, we have the potential to abuse the other person.

Shoes, socks, and my other stuff

Whatever I’m doing, I have a very singular focus. A lot of guys do. There’s brain science that shows why it’s so hard for us to think of more than one thing at a time (Not making an excuse here, though).

When I walk in the door, I slip off my shoes, drop whatever I’m carrying on the counter, and then move onto the next project I have in mind.

I end up leaving my shoes at the door, my wallet, keys, mail, and other stuff on the counter, and often my jacket hanging over a chair. I do all this without thinking, as my mind is on what I’m doing next.

It drives Vanessa nuts. And rightfully so. Our apartment has little clutter other than my trails of mess.

Sometimes I’m totally unaware of what I’ve done. She’s forgiving, and when she asks, I clean it up.

Sometimes I am aware of what I’m doing. In those instances, I can make a choice. I can choose to do what makes me happy and leave the stuff laying around. Or I can put it away, knowing that it’s inconvenient for me but will avoid unhappiness in Vanessa.

I also have a tendency to leave my socks by the bed. I take them off before bed, and when I get up in the morning I walk into the kitchen, forgetting they’re on the bedroom floor.

My desk in our office is often a mess when I wrap up for the day. I leave water glasses and coffee cups.

These little things can leave Vanessa with just a small tinge of irritation. If I’m totally unaware, that’s one thing. If I’m aware of it, that’s another.

I won’t make Vanessa more happy by taking care of my stuff, but I can avoid making her less happy.

If I choose leave my mess behind, I abuse my wife.

Here’s a more recent, and embarrassing example.

Vanessa might have a tendency to interrupt me when I’m talking. She doesn’t realize it. She just does, and most times I dismiss it.

The other night, we had a small leadership meeting at our home. She interrupted me, and for some reason, my Taker took over for a moment.

My Taker said, “She keeps interrupting you. It’s disrespectful. If she’s going to be disrespectful to you, you need to stand up for yourself.”

So I blurted out, “I wasn’t done talking. You interrupted me. Please stop interrupting me.”

For a moment, I felt justified. Then I saw just a small change in her eyes and realized I’d trampled on her spirit. Yes, the Taker, if you act in his interest, can be quite a jackass.

The Giver acts with unconditional love and doesn’t keep score. The Taker is the ultimate scorekeeper and justifier.

Making It Work

A happy, fulfilling, intimate marriage takes two Givers.

An unhappy, disconnected, marriage takes just one Taker.

If you’re reading this, thinking the other person is the Taker, be careful. The fact that you’re thinking this way might be a sign you’re keeping score, which is a sign of the Taker.

Even if both of you are currently living through the Taker’s point of view, one of you can change and often (but not always) motivate the other to start changing too.

Over the past year, I’ve read more than a dozen marriage books. I’ve also worked with a counselor, something we’d all benefit from.

This whole time, we’ve had a wonderful marriage. I just know that it can be better. As Vanessa pointed out in a recent blog post, if you’re not working on your marriage, you’re working on your divorce.

So I keep working on it. It’s the responsibility I accepted the day we said our vows.

I’m not a marriage counselor or expert. I’m just a guy who wants to be a better husband, and want to share some of what’s worked for me with you. Here are some of the insights I’ve gained:

Though marriage is a partnership, take 100% responsibility for your part in it. We all have opportunities to be more loving, respectful, kind, considerate, compassionate, and thoughtful with our spouse.

Lead your spouse to a desire to work on your marriage by your example, rather than demanding it of him or her. We have a ton of books in our home and on Kindle about marriage. I don’t know if Vanessa has read any of them. I bought them to work on me. If she decides to work on her part, that’s a bonus.

If you think your spouse would benefit from anything in here, please don’t send it to him or her and say “read this.” You could, however, print it out and leave it somewhere he or she would see it and read it out of curiosity.

Consistently ask yourself, “Does my choice have the potential to make my spouse unhappy?” If it does, and there is something you can do differently to avoid it, do it.

Admit when you’ve done wrongYou’d be surprised how much of an impact it will have on your spouse if you simply admit some of the ways you’ve done something you knew would hurt or leave him or her unhappy. If you put it on the table, you’ll be less likely to do it in the future.

Forgive yourself. The most difficult thing for me has been to forgive myself. I hate the idea of anyone hurting my wife in any way. When it’s me that does the hurting, I turn that anger and disgust inward.

When I hold onto it, I have a hard time being the man she needs me to be.

You will make mistakes. Many of them. Working on your marriage is about progress, not perfection.

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