Editor's Note: The views, information, or opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author. Readers should consider each unique situation. This content is not meant to be a substitute for individual, professional advice.
Q: How can I overcome my resentment toward my husband? He has been unemployed for several years, and I don’t see him making any efforts to provide for us—especially for our children. Sometimes I think of leaving him to teach him a lesson, but I just think of our covenants, and I stay. It’s so hard to endure. I do not enjoy our marriage anymore.
A: Dear reader, thank you so much for trusting me with this. I imagine you may feel trapped, alone, frustrated, and hurt. Especially in Latter-day Saint homes, where the husband is often expected to take the lead on breadwinning, this likely feels like a major betrayal.
My first instinct upon reading your question was probably the same as a lot of people’s: I wanted to quote numerous scriptures and statements by Church leaders on a husband’s duty to provide for his wife and children.
For example, “But if any provide not for his own, and especially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel” (1 Timothy 5:8) comes to mind. As does the family proclamation’s assertion that “fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.”
▶You may also like: Ask a Latter-day Saint therapist: How do I navigate inconsistent behavior from my spouse?
Here’s the thing: You know the doctrine. So does your husband. My question for him is what’s keeping him from stepping up? Because, in reading your question, it seems your frustration lies not in his being unemployed but rather in his not making an effort to find or keep work.
Reading between the lines of your question, it seems you’d be patient if he were giving it his all. After all, a balancing principle in the gospel is that those who cannot work but would if they could are sinless in that circumstance. Unemployment is not a sin. Commandments to care for the poor, the duty of covenant individuals to do so, and programs in the Church to meet the needs of the struggling are essential in Christ’s plan for this reason (see Mosiah 4:16–25).
Also, if it were about both of you deciding together that you, not he, would be the primary breadwinner, that would also be understandable. After all, while the family proclamation states that husbands are primarily responsible for providing and wives are primarily responsible for nurturing their children, it also says that “in these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.” The document acknowledges that “circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation.”
The issue here is that you had an agreement, whether explicit or implicit, that he would provide for the family. I would ask again, what is his hang-up? Is it psychological? Providing for a family can be terrifying. There’s a lot of pressure there. I would ask, is fear holding him back? Fear of failure? Fear of not being enough? Is there a limiting self-belief that is keeping him from taking action? If so, what could he do to work through that belief?
It's easy to write his behavior off as laziness and apathy—and in some cases, with some people, that’s what’s happening. Far more often, however, depression and anxiety play a role in crippling someone and keeping them from taking action. If that’s what’s happening, assure him that he’s not weak or shameful for struggling. Fears and insecurities are human.
All that said, you can be compassionate while still holding him accountable. If he’s held back by fear, depression, or insecurity, there’s counseling for that. If he can’t pay out of pocket or with insurance or family support, in my experience the ward may contribute where there’s a legitimate need. If he’s discouraged because he’s tried to find and keep work previously and it didn’t go his way, encourage him to keep trying, and tell him that you believe in him. If he’s not doing it because he just doesn’t want to and never will, then you have to decide what comes next.
President Gordon B. Hinckley, while encouraging couples to stay married and work through their problems, said, “There may be now and again a legitimate cause for divorce. I am not one to say that it is never justified.”
President James E. Faust taught: “I confess I do not claim the wisdom or authority to definitively state what is ‘just cause’ [for divorce]. Only the parties to the marriage can determine this. They must bear the responsibility for the train of consequences which inevitably follows if these covenants are not honored. In my opinion, ‘just cause’ should be nothing less serious than a prolonged and apparently irredeemable relationship which is destructive of a person’s dignity as a human being.”
Now, I’m not one to promote divorce whenever there are problems. It is not to be taken lightly, and I’m not telling you to divorce your husband. I am saying, to the point of your original question, that you resent him because you feel trapped. You feel tied forever to someone whose behaviors make you feel unloved, unvalued, and disrespected.
You mention that you’ve thought of leaving him “to teach him a lesson,” but then you think of your covenants and stay. Let’s explore two paths: leaving and staying.
If you leave, it should not be to “teach him a lesson.” If you leave, it should be because your relationship, over a prolonged period of time, is apparently irredeemable and is destructive of your dignity. President Faust offered that as his opinion, not doctrine, but in my professional judgment that’s good counsel and a solid way to guide that decision.
If you leave, from my perspective, it should be because you believe the covenants have already been broken on your husband’s end. It would need to be a matter of earnest prayer. It would be because trust has been broken. Without trust there is no relationship, and without repentance there is no trust. Christ commands us to forgive. He never commands us to trust.
If you stay, you can overcome resentment by seeing your husband not with judgment, but with compassion due to what may be holding him back. You can love him without expecting anything in return. You can see your marriage as an opportunity to grow in your ability to love. That doesn’t mean you enable him. It just means you accept him.
If you stay, you would do so recognizing that because your husband has already broken the covenant he made, you do not stay out of obligation. You are not trapped. You don’t have to stay. Staying means nothing unless you are free to leave.
Choosing to stay can change the whole dynamic and free you from resentment because you don’t feel chained to the situation. If you choose it and choose him, that can be empowering. You can choose to set boundaries for yourself and decide what the relationship needs to look like for you, what you will do to provide for yourself and your family, and how much (or how little) he gets to partake of that.
Whether you stay or leave, you will heal from resentment by forgiving. You can choose to see your husband as trapped by his own self-imposed limits. He’s not a victim, but what he’s denying himself by his choices is still sad. It doesn’t eclipse the pain his choices have caused you or your children. Forgiveness means letting go of bitterness and a desire for vengeance. It means sincerely wanting good things for a person, which includes humbling trials and consequences to help them make better choices. It means loving your enemies.
In his talk “The Ministry of Reconciliation,” Elder Jeffery R. Holland said:
“‘Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven,’ Christ taught in New Testament times. And in our day: ‘I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.’ It is, however, important for some of you living in real anguish to note what He did not say. He did not say, ‘You are not allowed to feel true pain or real sorrow from the shattering experiences you have had at the hand of another.’ Nor did He say, ‘In order to forgive fully, you have to reenter a toxic relationship or return to an abusive, destructive circumstance.’ But notwithstanding even the most terrible offenses that might come to us, we can rise above our pain only when we put our feet onto the path of true healing. That path is the forgiving one walked by Jesus of Nazareth, who calls out to each of us, ‘Come, follow me.’”
I hope that what I’ve shared with you today is helpful. God bless you.
If you live in Utah and would like to meet with a member of Jonathan’s team, please click here. Submit a question for Jonathan to answer anonymously at email@example.com.