Suppose that one partner, the husband, begins to show signs of disinterest in his wife. Let's say that their sex life has been rather dull lately, and the sense of emotional togetherness is more of a memory than a reality. (The decline of a marriage is rarely brought by a blowout; it's usually a slow leak.) Then the relationship reaches a low point and the husband consistently treats his wife rudely and disrespectfully in public, pulling behind a wall of silence when they are home. These are symptoms of a condition which I call "the trapped syndrome". More often than not, the man is thinking these kinds of thoughts: "I'm 35 years old" (or whatever age) "and I'm not getting any younger. Do I really want to spend the rest of my life with this one woman? I'm bored with her and there are others who interest me more. But there's no way out 'cause I'm stuck." These are the feelings which usually precede esoteric infidelity, and they certainly can be felt in the strain between a husband and wife.
How should a woman respond when she reads the cues and realizes that her husband feels trapped? Obviously, the worst thing she could do is reinforce the cage around him, yet that is likely to be her initial reaction. As she thinks about how important he is to her, and what-on-earth she would do without him, and whether he's involved with another woman, her anxiety may compel her to grab and hold him. Her begging and pleading only drive him to disrespect her more, and the relationship continues to splinter. There is a better way which I have found productive in counseling experience. The most successful approach to bringing a partner back toward the center of a relationship is not to follow when he moves away from it. Instead of saying, "Why do you do me this way?" and "Why won't you talk to me?" and "Why don't you care anymore?" a wife should pull back a few inches herself. When she passes her husband in the hall and would ordinarily touch him or seek his attention, she should move by him without notice. Silence by him is greeted by silence in return. She should not be hostile or aggressive, ready to explode when he finally asks her to say what is on her mind. Rather, she responds in kind...being quietly confident, independent and mysterious. The effect of this behavior is to open the door on his trap. Instead of clamping herself to his neck like a blood-sucking leech, she releases her grip and introduces a certain challenge in his mind, as well. He may begin to wonder if he has gone too far and may be losing something precious to him. If that will not turn him around, then the relationship is stone, cold dead.
The message I have attempted to convey is extremely difficult to express in written form, and I am certain to be misinterpreted by some of my readers on this issue. I haven't suggested that women rise up in anger--that they stamp their feet and demand their domestic rights, or that they sulk and pout in silence. Please do not associate me with those contemporary voices which are mobilizing feminine troops for all-out sexual combat. Nothing is less attractive to me than an angry woman who is determined to grant her share, one way or the other. No, the answer is not found in hostile aggression, not in quiet self-respect!
In short, personal dignity in a marriage is maintained the same way it was produced during the dating days. The attitude should be, "I love you and am totally committed to you, but I only control my half of the relationship. I can't demand your love in return. You came to me of your free will when we agreed to marry. No one forced us together. That same free will is necessary to keep our love alive. If you choose to walk away from me, I will be crushed and hurt beyond description, because I have withheld nothing of myself. Nevertheless, I will let you go and ultimately I will survive. I couldn't demand your affection in the beginning, and I can only request it now."
Returning to the recommendation that a woman "teach" her husband about her needs, it can be done within the atmosphere of self-respect that I have described. In fact, it must be handled in that manner.
By Dr. James Dobson