When to Call It Quits
By Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D.
In this series of Q&A columns, I have addressed the question, when is separation or divorce justified? I presented this issue in the context of a very dangerous assumption, unconditional love. In the first column I explained that physical abuse is a condition that should either be effectively treated, or the marriage should end. Many of those who believe that love should be unconditional in marriage feel that their abusive behavior should not lead to divorce or even separation -- right up to the day that they either maim or kill their spouse.
In the second column of this series, I took on the more difficult issue of neglect. Advocates of unconditional love often feel that they should not be required to meet their spouses' emotional needs. For them, unconditional love means that their spouse should meet their needs regardless of their own failure to reciprocate.
The examples of abuse and neglect I chose in the first two columns have made wives the victims and husbands the perpetrators. So it should come as no surprise that men have wondered if I would take the same position if the roles were reversed. Should a husband leave an abusive wife? Should he end a marriage or even separate if his emotional needs are not being met? It's a valid question, since I often don't give the same advice to men as I do to women.
Dear Dr. Harley:
Your two, 'when to call it quits,' newsletters were both geared toward women leaving men. Would you give the same advice to men leaving women? Many of us on the forum would very much like to see your reaction to husbands who have endured the emasculation of years of sexual neglect and are now on the brink of divorce over lack of sexual fulfillment.
On the Emotional Needs section of the forum, husbands commonly complain of lack of sexual fulfillment with their wives. Newcomers are generally given a primer on emotional needs and love busters, and advised to purchase the books and work the program. Further discussions are salted with quotes from your Q&A columns to the effect that sexual dysfunction is usually the symptom of a bad relationship, 9 times out of 10 fixing the relationship will also cure the sexual dysfunction, and so on.
What if you are the 10th one out of 10? What if you are the 10th husband who has worked the program, has identified and meets his wife's emotional needs, has identified and eliminated all love busters...and the wife STILL cannot be motivated to participate in sexual fulfillment. What do you advise then?
My last newsletter, "Rules that Guide Good Habit Formation in Marriage," provides the best approach to the problem of a wife's sexual reluctance in marriage when her emotional needs have been met and Love Busters have been eliminated. The solution is to make sex enjoyable for your wife (MR1) and to reward her whenever she has sex with you (MR2). If she cooperates with your goal of creating a mutually enjoyable sexual experience, she will explain to you how to make the sex act enjoyable for her, explain how you can reward her whenever she makes love to you, and then to give you a chance to develop those skills. If you follow her roadmap, you will reach your goal.
But there are some wives who feel that sex in marriage should be unnecessary, just as there are some husbands who feel that affection and intimate conversation should be unnecessary. They don't have much of a need themselves, so they don't try to meet it for their spouse. These wives sometime believe that love should be unconditional, and that the meeting of intimate emotional needs should be an option rather than an essential ingredient in marriage.
As you already know, I encourage all married couples to be affectionate, conversant, recreational, and sexual with each other a minimum of fifteen hours each week. Couples who meet these four emotional needs make the largest Love Bank deposits. If they avoid making Love Bank withdrawals with Love Busters, they experience a fulfilling and successful marriage.
So almost every day, I'm trying to encourage husbands to be more affectionate and conversant with their wives, and wives to make love to their husbands more often. But occasionally, after a husband meets his wife's emotional needs, and avoids Love Busters, I find that a wife still refuses to make love to her husband. It's rare, but it does happen. In those cases, I discuss the possibility of a separation with the husband.
I'm not opposed to a separation when a spouse refuses to meet intimate emotional needs, but there are dangers that should not be ignored. Infidelity is one of them. An important cause of a wife's refusal to have sex can be an affair that has not been revealed to the husband. A separation simply makes the affair more convenient.
Even if an affair is not ongoing, a separation can lead to one. One of my cardinal rules to prevent an affair is to avoid being separated overnight. A deliberate separation increases the risk of an affair, and can turn a difficult marriage into a disaster.
There are also legal considerations. If a husband separates from his family, he can be accused of abandoning his children. If the marriage ends in divorce, he risks losing the right to joint custody. So an attorney should always be consulted before separating. When a woman wants to separate, she does not have the same legal problems because most courts let her stay in the home with her children. It's the husband who must leave.
If the husband chooses to separate, his children often feel that he's left them. It makes it very difficult for him to explain why he's taking such a drastic step, especially if sex is the problem. But if a wife asks him to leave, the children are still with her. She doesn't need to do as much explaining.
When a husband has children in the home, the risks and problems of separation often outweigh the rewards. After discussing the pros and cons of a separation because of sexual problems, most husbands I've counseled decide not to separate, and I go back to work trying to convince their wives to make love to them. There are three female coaches on our staff and I lean heavily on their instincts and persuasive skills when trying to address this problem.
But there are many other husbands I counsel who either have no children or whose children are adults. These men are in a better position to separate until their sexual problems have been resolved. Their wives must choose to either address the issue or live without the care of their husbands. And before any separation, I make sure that they have been doing a good job meeting their wife's emotional needs and avoiding Love Busters.
I define a traditional marriage as a relationship of extraordinary care between a man and a woman who meet each other's intimate emotional needs, avoid hurting each other, and make decisions together with each other's interests in mind. When one of them refuses to care for the other in these ways, they don't have a traditional marriage from my perspective. Separation is a public expression of alienation that a lack of care has created.
While we're not always able to convince reluctant women to make love to their husbands, we're successful far more often than not. But even if we can't do it, that doesn't mean that someone wouldn't be able to get through. My advice to most husbands in your position is to keep trying to enlist as much help from professional coaches as possible with the hope that one of them would succeed. The worst mistake you could make is to give up on a solution to the problem, and assume that you are destined to live a celibate life as long as you're married to your wife.
Willard F. Harley, Jr.