My Spouse Is From A Broken Home, Now What?

It’s a different world growing up without one parent in the house. In the midst of that, it’s life-altering when that parent is verbally, physically, and emotionally abusive. It shapes things. It changes mental pathways. It reroutes emotions.

It redefines emotions.

It’’s hard enough moving on and coping with such traumatic experiences in life and into adulthood. But what about those that don’t know of this reality? What is to say when someone from a healthy home, growing up with both parents, enters into a marriage with someone who comes from a home that experienced a parental split? What can help the spouse who doesn’t understand where the other is coming from? Because the truth is, it’s a completely different worldview; an entirely different way of understanding and processing life.

Emotions are different. Social situations are tackled differently. Common words and phrases have different definitions. Life rotates on a completely different axis. It takes years to understand why we think the way we think and feel the way we feel. And if it takes years for us, there’s no telling how long it can take someone looking in from the outside. The obstacles can seem quite daunting.

Over the years, I have encountered many dear friends and even family members who have entered into marriage with a spouse whose home life was worlds apart from their own. On one side, this is such blessed news. Why? Because that means, by God’s grace and mercy, these friends and family members will give their spouses a picture of sacrificial love and commitment that their spouse hasn’t seen before. And hopefully, they will come to understand marriage, and ultimately Christ, in a completely different and healthy way.

The constant need to perform drives us and ultimately it drives us right into the ground.

But there’s a divide, and a very practical one at that. Thoughts are different. General activities may take different forms. Conversations have unknown obstacles that might not be planned or prepared for. My hope is that through this brief survey we can walk away with better understanding for how to relate to those who do, in fact, come from a home life where situations created different emotional and spiritual realities that seem foreign to many.

Including those closest to them.

 

1. Emotional Attachment

Attaching to others is a funny thing. For many coming from a split home, attaching relationally can be uncharted waters, at least attaching in a healthy way. There are two sides of this coin: attaching too much or not at all. This drastically affects relationships because some may distance themselves from others and never get too close. They’re there in friendships and special bonds, but at the same time they’re not. This distance is created with friends, family members, and spouses because of ultimate fear of abandonment. Why get close if everyone leaves? Why risk getting left again? Why be left exposed? The defense for us, for those that this affects, is to not be left empty handed. So, if we don’t care too much we won’t care when someone moves on. We stay our distance. We keep safe. Because who knows, at any minute, the other shoe could drop and we be left alone and look like a fool again. That fear drives emotional connection, or really disconnection. Ultimately, we don’t want an episode 2. A dear friend phrased it like this,

“I rarely get to the place where if someone left I would care.”

The other side to unhealthy attachment is attaching too much and too often. Although practically different, the source is still the same: someone who should have loved and cared for us didn’t, and we were/are left wanting.

We get feelings hurt when friends don’t text. Don’t call. Don’t invite. We are neck deep into a friendship within the first 48 hours. And all for the same reason, we want the connection we didn’t have. We want relationships. We want companionship. We want affection. We latch on to the next person because maybe this person is the one. Maybe this person is the best friend, the spouse, the replacement, the father/mother substitute. Where the prior manifestation puts little confidence, if any at all, on the human capacity for relationship, this aspect puts too much.

The reality is that someone who should’ve loved and cared for us didn’t, and now we are left wanting.

It’s a dangerous see-saw, one that looks to humans on both ends for fulfillment and meaning they were never meant to give.

 

How to bring Gospel help?

Affirm your commitment. Verbally. Physically. Show you care and know that there are times when you will have to affirm your care, concern, and affection when you might not think it necessary. But also, and ultimately, let them know that Christ is the ultimate lover and companion. Continue to remind them that only he will not fail. Let those struggling to attach and trust know that they can get close and be cared for because Christ has protected us from eternal separation. Christ has achieved for us, his children, the ultimate no child left behind scenario for those in Him. Let those in the latter situation, those attaching too quickly and too often, know that because of Christ they don’t have to jump head first into a relational bond because Christ is and will always be enough. He, unlike any other, always fulfills what we too often falsely think people can and will.

Because of Christ, we can trust others.

But because of Christ, trust in others is secondary to trust in Him.

 

2. Self-Worth

This is a big one, if not the biggest. It’s not an easy thing to feel that you’re worth much or valued if a parent leaves and causes emotional/mental/physical harm. Many people I talk to have low views of themselves and it either works itself out in perfectionism or inability to view themselves as good at anything. If we’re told we’re stupid, we believe it. And because of that we’re either going to prove that we’re not or live in the lie. We prove ourselves constantly to prove our parents wrong. Everything we do has to be perfect because if we fail, then others won’t appreciate who we are and won’t take us seriously. If we fail, then it’s true what they said. We want to be worth something. We want to show the world that we weren’t a mistake. We want to show our parents that we are lovable and worth their time; to show that we do matter. That we can be great. That we didn’t amount to nothing. We have to hit the mark. This constant need to perform drives us. And truthfully, it’s driving us right into the ground.

Integral to the DNA of perfectionism is the fear of failure. This particular strand is also key to the manifestation of the opposite end of the spectrum, the one who has believed the lie of their non-existent self-worth, internalized it, and so they desperately want affirmation on their performance of any task. Whether the dishes, folding the clothes, cutting the grass, making dinner, raising the children, making income, their worth can be so tied up in their performance that they need to be told they’re doing a good job or did something well constantly. The fear of failure eats away at them, beckoning them to believe that they can’t do anything right. They are worried the outcome will prove what they’ve been told to be true. They simply want to know that they aren’t a screw up, and that ultimately they haven’t messed up to the point that people will write them off and leave them behind.

Christ has achieved the ultimate “no child left behind” scenario for those found in Him.

They simply want to know they’re not nothing and that there is something lovable, worthwhile, in them.

 

How to bring Gospel help?

For those struggling with perfectionism, affirm their talents and gifts. But let them know that Christ is our perfection. We can’t be perfect. No matter what we do. We will fail despite how much we try not to. But the good news is that Christ has achieved what we couldn’t on our behalf so we can, as the psalmist says, cease striving and know the He alone is God and he alone has the track record of perfection.

On the other side, know that because of Christ, because of God’s image, because he made you, you have value. You have eternal value because God, in Christ, wants a relationship with you. He has come to bring you into his family. This is Jesus’ prayer in John 17. Jesus came to bring us into the Divine Family, the relationship of God within Himself. And it’s not because of what you do or don’t do, but because of what Christ did. And you get his worth. Because of all that He is, you can have confidence in all that you are and all that you’re not. Christ has eternal value and that is the value you have in him.

 

3. Confrontation

Family interaction isn’t always pretty. Especially if disagreements end in yelling, name calling, physical force, and ultimately household splitting. As a result, confrontation isn’t always easy to deal with. On one hand, it may be all someone is used to and it may be their normal for how conversations or disagreements are handled. This is just how family disagreements are settled. This leads to handling confrontation in a very unhealthy way. And while yelling and force isn’t the way to handle familial confrontation, the person who has seen this on a consistent basis doesn’t know any different. It’s helpful to keep this in mind and ask how disagreements were settled and walk them into a new way; a better way.

The other way this can manifest itself is in the utter fear of confrontation due to the possibility of what could happen. This person has seen the first scenario and as a result carries around a real fear of any confrontation because confrontation is synonymous with yelling, fighting, and potentially physical injury. This person doesn’t have a framework for handling conflict either. This person needs to be shown that conflict doesn’t always lead to violence. They need to be shown that conflict doesn’t equal hate or mistrust or abandonment. A fight doesn’t mean the marriage is over. A disagreement doesn’t mean the person isn’t loved. They need to know there is a different way. The way of Jesus. Humble. gentle. To know that confrontation is okay and we can’t get around it. How it’s handled is the more important issue.

Because of all that Christ is, you can be confident in all that you are and all that you’re not.

 

How to bring Gospel help?

Verbally affirm that even in the midst of frustration, there is commitment. Keep a low voice when talking through a conflict or potential frustration. Always leave the conversation with positive physical touch. Tell them you love them, you’re committed to them, but also show them. We all respond to different manifestations of love, and both words and touch are important. Let them know they can speak their minds and have opinions and not be chastised for them. Assure them that having a differing opinion is okay and it’s healthy. Give them grace as they grow. Always affirm where you stand together. One of the healthiest pieces of advice my wife and I receive during our engagement related to how we handled conflict. We were told that some nights we might get to a place where an argument wasn’t going anywhere. We will be frustrated. We will be mad. We will be hurt. But in that moment, it’s healthy to suggest sexual intimacy.

Why on earth would that work?

In that moment you’re suggesting to engage in what can be described as covenant renewal. We see covenant renewal in the Scripture at multiple points when one of God’s children has gone astray. God renews the covenant with them to remind them that He is their God and he, despite their failures and shortcomings, is committed to them even when they falter.

This is what sex does in marriage. It reminds each other in a way that nothing else can that you are on the same team, you are one flesh, you are committed, you are sticking it out. It renews the covenant you made together and reminds one another that no matter how this argument is settled or handled, there’s grace because you’re staying.

That’s the gospel.

And that’s how we handle the ups and downs in our relationships with those that might struggle in different ways. They might stumble and fall in ways that we wouldn’t but at the end of the day, we, through various means, renew our covenant with them to say that in light of what God has done for us, we are committed.

That’s when our marriages truly resemble the marriage Christ has with his bride, us, his people. He is a better spouse than we’ll ever be, but we’ll never go wrong seeking Him and following hard in his footsteps in the way we love our husbands and wives while we are on this side of the Ultimate Marriage Ceremony.

 

Jonathan C. Edwards (@NotThePuritan)

Jonathan (M.Div, Th.M) is the Director of Curriculum for Docent Research Group. He is the author of "Left: The Struggle to Make Sense of Life When a Parent Leaves," available now!

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