“Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater had a wife, but couldn't keep her.
Put her in a pumpkin shell and there he kept her very well.”
By Pastor Debby Bentch
Absent Spouse Syndrome
Over the course of the past few years, I have identified an affliction in marriages that I have come to call Absent Spouse Syndrome.
Often, the first indication that a pastor or counselor receives that makes him or her aware of a serious problem in a particular marriage, is a call from a desperate husband who wants to know if he and his wife can come in for counseling. At this point the wife is, most often, not interested in talking to you or to anyone else, although the husband may still be able to coerce her into a “one time” visit.
If she does keep the appointment, the first thing you will probably notice about her is a very cold and hardened demeanor. If at all possible, she will sit as far away from her husband as she can possibly get, with her arms folded in front of her. Her face is devoid of emotion, although you may sense or detect an underlying element of anger or a seething rage. As well, she may be completely uninterested in even talking to you, let alone sharing her feelings or problems. Her answers to your questions will be short, calculated and cynical.
Her husband, on the other hand, is ready to “spill his guts.” He appears to be willing to do anything to save his floundering marriage. He is desperate to do “whatever” it takes. He may confess to any number of “sins” or shortcomings that have contributed to the crisis in his marriage. He will, more than likely, confess to indifference and a variety of addictions, all of which he is more than willing to address and for which he is extremely repentant. He is obviously distressed and desperate to the point of pleading and begging. “Pitiful” would describe him well, at this point.
However, upon further investigation, you come to learn “the rest of the story.” It will probably go something like this...This couple has been married for 10-20 years, although I have observed some who have been married for far fewer years. For most of their married life the wife has not been satisfied or happy with the quality of the marital relationship. She may feel alone most of the time, even when he is there. She tries to talk to him and to share her feelings and concerns with him. She has, more than likely, read books on relationships, or watched appropriate programs or sought advice and counsel from others. She may plead with her husband to go with her for marriage counseling or to talk to the pastor.
And for years, her requests, her concerns and her pleadings are met with indifference and apathy. “We don't have any problems.” Or “I don't have a problem and I don't need counseling.” Or “If you have a problem, you get counseling.” As the years go by, the husband continues to be “absent” from his wife spiritually, emotionally and, sometimes, even physically.
Eventually, the wife begins to “build a wall around herself.” Brick-by-brick, one painful experience after another, year-after-year she builds a wall that is meant to protect her from the man she used to love with all of her heart. She has come to realize that, if he is not going to get help and if things are never going to change, he will only continue to hurt her and she is desperate to protect herself from any further pain. A sense of helplessness and hopelessness compels her to become indifferent towards him. She begins to close down emotionally. She becomes adrift spiritually, after all, “Where is God in all of this?” “Why hasn't he answered my prayers? Does He really even care?”
Finally, something happens. The husband makes a most critical error, one too many careless and thoughtless mistakes and it becomes “the last straw.” She is through. It is over. There will be no turning back.
By the time this couple reaches your office, the “divorce” is already well under way. She has already divorced him spiritually. She has divorced herself from him emotionally. She has probably divorced herself from him physically and she may have already become involved with someone who is more than willing to meet her emotional and physical needs.
At one time, the husband had all the control and the wife had none. Now, she is in complete control and he finds himself desperate to undo years of apathy and neglect, but it is too late. In his desperation, this husband, who has now admitted to the fact that he is “willing to do anything” to save his marriage and may very well be trying to change some of his behaviors, is totally clueless as to why it just isn't working. “Why won't she forgive me?” “Why won't she try to save our marriage?” “Why won't she give me another chance? Doesn't she now how serious I am?” “How can she just give up on our marriage like this?”
At the same time, he begins to smother her with attention, hence the term, “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater.” Now, he wants to talk. Now, he wants to meet her physical and emotional needs. Now, he is ready to get serious about a relationship with the Lord. Now, it is too late.
His smothering presence only tends to push her farther away. His efforts to gain support from family and friends, by showing his changed behavior and his willingness to get counseling, only angers her more. She has heard it all before. When his willingness to share all of her shortcomings and focus attention away from his own responsibility and onto his wife’s, overshadows his willingness to address his own issues, a few more bricks “hit the fan” and fall into place. His attempts to “corral” her are a waste of time and effort. She has now become the Absent Spouse.
Is there hope for this marriage? In my experience, nothing short of a divine act of God will save this one! So what can we, as pastors and counselors, do?
- When a wife tells you there are problems in a marriage, you better pay attention.
- When a husband tells you there are problems in a marriage, it is probably too late.
- Pray for the marriages in your congregation.
- Provide adequate pre-marital counseling.
- Warn, counsel and teach your married couples in the early stages of marriage.
- Learn to detect the tale-tale signs of a neglected marriage.
- Listen to the women in your congregation who come to you for counsel.
- When it happens, help him to pick of the pieces of his life, to grow in His relationship with the Lord, to be a good father to his children and to live the rest of his life for the glory of God.
I give full credit to Pastor Debby Bentch at http://pavilionedinpraise.blogspot.com/