What Do You Owe Your Spouse?

A reader emailed me, describing his unhappiness in his marriage. He asked if he owed it to his wife to stay in the relationship. My answer? No. Staying in a relationship solely out of a sense of obligation is a breeding ground for resentment and contempt. The marriage may last, but not in a form that will benefit either partner.

Even with a lifetime vow, I don’t believe we necessarily owe it to our partners to stay. Sometimes, the best move for  your spouse and for you is to leave. Sometimes, the best gift you can give someone is letting them go.

That’s not to say we bear no obligation to our spouses. Once you make that commitment, you owe your spouse the following:

Transparency

No matter how many years or decades you have been with someone, you can never entirely read his or her mind. When conflict or concern is consistently deflected with an, “I’m fine,” you are not being up front with your partner and you are taking away any opportunity to work as a team. If you cultivate a life hidden behind a veil of secrecy, you are shutting out your spouse and opening the door to increasing deceptions.

Transparency does not mean that you utter every thought, share every action. It means that you say what needs to be said, even if it scares you. It means you face ongoing issues rather than tucking them away in some hidden corner. And it means you keep no secrets that you fear being discovered. Your partner is your equal; it is not up to you to shield them from the truth.

Responsibility

One of the most cruel actions a partner can take against the other is to shift blame for his or her own choices to that of the spouse. “Of course I cheated. You gave me no choice. You never want sex and all you do is nag.” “You hold me back.” “You just don’t make me happy any more.”

It is not your spouse’s job to make you happy. It is not your partner’s role to ensure you are fulfilled. That’s on you.

You owe it to your spouse to accept responsibility for your own well-being. If you’re not happy, make the effort to explore what is lacking without immediately blaming your partner or your marriage. If you’re bored, create excitement in your own life instead of blaming your marriage for the rut. If you feel stuck, create change before you castigate your spouse for holding you down.

Energy

A marriage cannot thrive without attention. You cannot expend all of energy outside of the relationship and expect for it to survive. Your partner does not have to be the center of your life, but they have to be a part of your life.

You owe it to your spouse to turn towards him or her. You owe it to your spouse to see. To listen. To make an effort and put in the time and energy and attention. You wouldn’t adopt a dog only to ignore it. Why would you do that to your partner?

Fidelity

If the agreement you have with your partner is one of monogamy, then you owe it to them to uphold that promise. If you desire a change in that agreement, your partner deserves transparency and an opportunity to decide what he or she will tolerate.

The obligation of fidelity extends to marital funds. If you misuse money, you are embezzling from the marriage. Again, if there is an issue, you owe it to your spouse to be transparent and allow them an opportunity to respond.

Liberty

Despite the familiar colloquialism of “ball and chain,” marriage should not be a prison. Both partners need to have the freedom and flexibility to make decisions, to grow and change and to express ideas and feelings. 

You owe it to your spouse to see him or her an individual with his or her own opinions. You owe it to your spouse to allow them independence and autonomy. A healthy marriage is not one of dependence, but one of interdependence. And that takes two sovereign entities.

Empathy

When you took the oath to have and to hold, you expressed that you care about your spouse. You have an obligation to your partner to attempt to see from his or her perspective and understand his or her feelings. It doesn’t mean that you will never make a decision that hurts your partner; it means that you will be sympathetic of their suffering and will make an effort to limit the impact.

You owe it to your spouse to see them as human, imperfect and messy. To be quicker to forgive than to judge. And to be patient with their mistakes while admitting that you make them as well.

Civility 

Be nice. There is no excuse to act otherwise.

Considering divorce? Consider these 12 questions first.

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31 thoughts on “What Do You Owe Your Spouse?

  1. Lisa- this is one of your best posts yet! All,of your points are so important and everyone should learn and understand these things before and throughout their marriage. There is a reason two people fell in love and if we always focus on that we can handle the rough patches in life and marriage. The grass isn’t always greener and divorce is ugly and sad for everyone. What it does to kids is life changing. Thanks Lisa!

  2. I would add one more – ‘if you ever contemplate ending the marriage that you have the respect to sit down with your spouse, have a discussion with her, and ensure she is part of the decision-making process.’

    1. That is exactly what I was going to say. He owes it to his wife to let her know that he is not happy in the marriage; he needs to sit down and talk with her. He may find out that the feeling is mutual. After 31 years of marriage my ex left me a note on the kitchen table and that was the last I saw of him. If he would have given me the respect to let me in on how he was feeling and the process was OUR decision, not just his alone, I know things would be much different today. I want nothing to do with him. This makes things hard because we have adult children and now Grandchildren who will never know he and I were together until they are old enough to figure it out. In other words, a little bit of pain for him in the beginning (facing me) would have alleviated the years of pain everyone is dealing with, now and in the future.

      1. I feel for you and I know what you mean. It was the issues of abandonment, the complete lack of participation in the decision-making process of the biggest factor in my life, and the feelings of being disrespected have caused me the greatest angst.

      2. I can relate. My wife left me six weeks ago without even a note. She just packed her clothes and her kids’ clothes during the day while I was at work and left. She changed her phone number and has made it impossible for me to contact her or her family. I have no closure. Her lawyer says that she had been contemplating the divorce for months. She never said anything about divorce or being unhappy. I wish she had said something. I’m certain our marriage could have been saved. We were only married two years. She didn’t give it a chance.

      3. It’s so frustrating and heartbreaking when the decision is made unilaterally without an opportunity for discussion. It’s cowardly and selfish. I’m sorry you’re in this mess:(

  3. Lisa, excellent post. Thank you. I only wish I had read it and been able to show it to my now ex husband a year ago. We may have been in a different place in our lives instead now. I hope it helps someone else though because divorce with kids is so very rough. Well said.

  4. I LOVE YOUR WRITING~!
    I normally don’t share my story. I kind of did in another reply long enough ago where only you might see it. But I do like the way that as you said, you breathe before you respond. LOL.
    I’ve always come from the thinking that if you truly feel the marriage is over, you leave first. Not because there is someone else. There shouldn’t be someone else until you leave. Well, in a perfect world.
    I never thought that basically good, moral people could find themselves in a nightmare of cheating and sneaking around. In fact, I judged harshly and took it personally when I’d hear of a story and of course was never on the cheater’s side.
    But I have learned that there are two sides to every story. Like it or not. And of course when you are the cheating liar, you justify it and never start out “planning” to step over that line.
    Though I love your watering can metaphor. I feel that we all want to excuse our behavior for all the reasons in our head. But the truth is… most of us are not being abused or backed into a corner. We are making BAD decisions.
    Even the ones who are living with alcoholics or being physically abused just need to get the hell out. Not necessarily be escorted out because who knows if you are just jumping from one frying pan to another?! Besides, most people who cheat will be cheated on or cheat again. Isn’t that the statistic?
    But I kind of understand how it starts. By the time you realize that even texts or phone calls have stepped over the line, it is too late. And then it is one last text or one last phone call and as someone mentioned on one of your other posts… maybe you? It becomes an addiction. And usually has nothing to do with the person you are cheating with. It is all about our own selfish need for validation that we feel that person is giving us, who in turn is using us to feed theirs… etc.
    I was so stuck in a rut, with an empty nest and a dried out watering can that I almost got sucked in. Reading your posts and the pain of others I have an entirely different vantage point. In my story, the friend that found me was not married. But I was. I’d like to think that if he was, I wouldn’t have let it go as far. NEVER wanting to do that to another woman. I regret hurting my husband though, I’d like to think that I am wiser because of it. That I have a different perspective than most. I don’t think that anyone ever starts out thinking… I am going to have an affair. But….
    I do think that no one knows what hit them when they step over that one line that blind sides them and turns them into a fool.

  5. Reblogged this on ashtx and commented:
    “It is not your spouse’s job to make you happy. It is not your partner’s role to ensure you are fulfilled. That’s on you.” Maybe if more people understood this simple rule, there would be less divorce. Only YOU can be responsible for your happiness.

  6. It’s true you shouldn’t stay in a marriage just because. I did. Even when I wasn’t happy. I would never have left. Out of obligations to my husband, our marriage contract and our children. Even though I was miserable I stayed. The best thing he ever did for our family was when he left. That opened the doors for my children and I to be happy.

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  8. I’m struggling because my husband is an Agoraphobic, and lazy to boot. We get along fine, but I hate, just hate that I have to do everything because of his anxiety. I work and support us, I clean most of the house, I take care of our child when I’m home. He says he’ll do what I ask him to, but I ask, and unless I nag, it doesn’t get done. So, I’m broke, stressed, and resentful. We’re trying to get SSDI for him, which may help me financially, but I have so much resentment. I’ve talked to him about much of this, but gentler, because he’s in therapy to try to get better (I don’t think it will work, because they’re not addressing bad habits too).

    I make all the decisions, do all the paperwork. It’s so unequal. And yet, we get along together just fine. He’s a loving dad to our child, and he’s loving towards me. I really don’t even know what I want, just for things to get more equal and I don’t think they ever will. So what should I do? That’s the question I’m tossing around.

    1. What a tough spot to be in. I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. As I see it, you really only have three options-
      1) Stay with the status quo.
      2) Leave him.
      3) Change your response to the situation. (Find ways to get more support, work to release resentment, see if there are untapped ways to capitalize on his strengths, take breaks for yourself)

      None of these are easy. And there is no one “right” answer. But since you cannot change him or his limitations, your decision, whatever it may be, really does fall into one of these three categories – stay, leave, change you.

      Sending you thoughts of strength and clarity.

      Lisa

    2. Ahh might heart goes out to you MsReadit.
      For some reason (perhaps because I commented on this amazing post a few years ago) I was notified by your comment.]
      I will be praying for you.
      I worked in a Psych ward when I was in my twenties and mental illness still baffles me. I know it is real and yet it is so hard to understand and a rather scary position to be in.
      I mean the vows say for better or worse but my heart is pricked by your faithfulness.
      I have to wonder if you saw any signs or new of his condition and what he did before you married him?
      You are definitely a better woman than I am. I get ticked off if my husband is in a bad mood. HOW selfish! I KNOW!!!!
      I do think that a counselor could make him see that he needs to help around the house. I sometimes have to wonder how much is mental illness and how much is laziness. There are hoarders and obsessive compulsive people that actually do get help so I know with a good counselor there are tools out there.
      You don’t say your age, but I am assuming that if you still have a child at home, you have a lot of life left to live and should not just settle for things the way they are now.
      For all of your sakes.
      I do know that in my marriage, I weighed the bad with the good and realized that the good was pretty good and I’d be a fool to jump on the greener looking side of the fence to go out into the unknown and what might work for you is fine. But from what you say, you are stressed and nothing is changing.
      It is good that you guys get along and he treats you nice. But I feel that there are more tools out there that could help you both. A lot of services are free or on a scale if you are worried about adding another bill to your pile.
      I will be praying for you! Google some out reach services in your area.
      When I went to marriage counseling I dug my feet in. Even though I’d worked in the industry. I am glad I went. I really had no choice. It was pretty black and while. I was leaving or not. I stayed and I am glad I did. But even though my counseling ended about five or six years ago, I still draw from it and use the tools that I learned back then. Go talk to somebody soon! Please.

  9. sorry auto correct drives me crazy… I should have reread before I posted with all those errors! But I am sure you can sift through my essay and get what I was trying to say. lol.

    1. No, I totally got it, and really appreciated your compassion. I’m sure there were signs, but the truth is that things changed so gradually, that I didn’t really see. Even if there were signs, would the situation today be any different?

      I have been looking for outreach. So far I make too much to qualify, but I’m still hopeful. I plan for us to do marriage counseling once he’s finished with outpatient. But really, I’m looking at my daughter and myself and trying to see what the best thing is.

      I didn’t realize I was in a co-dependent relationship before these past few weeks. Now I know it, but have not figured out yet what’s to be done. Thanks again for such a thoughtful reply. 🙂

      1. Thank you for your response. One thing that you might do is read reviews on different church’s in your area that might fit your beliefs and reach out to them. They usually don’t charge unless there is professional counseling within the organization. From what I’ve experienced, you can give an offering after your session.
        I’ve gone for what turned out to be regular visits for a while.
        I am glad your husband is going through therapy. I’d encourage contacting the therapist and asking him/her to address the issues and/or allow you to sit in on a few sessions.
        I understand codependency and it is definitely a condition. I have to constantly work on my codependency issues. It is funny, as I go back and look at all of my relationships, they have all stemmed from wanting to “help”.
        I can’t say a lot about the highs of getting older but I can say that in age, lessons learned are very helpful in acquiring the wisdom we need to see things from a different perspective. Just keep strong!

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