This is the seventh post in a sixteen part series on “Marriage with a Chronically Self-Centered Spouse.” In the posts six through eight we will examine four broad types of self-centeredness: (a) low relational intelligence, (b) lazy or apathetic, (c) situational explosiveness, and (d) intentional manipulation. This order is chosen to follow the Matthew 7:1-6 pattern of giving grace even in how we address level three marriage problems.
Lazy or Apathetic
Because we are all self-centered people (by virtue of being body bound and more aware of our thoughts than anyone else’s) it takes effort to be other-minded. Understanding why someone else is offended, excited, or slow to understand requires a sacrifice of self-preoccupation.
One of the marks of lazy or apathetic self-centeredness is complaining that too much is being asked of him/her, or the on the flipside, labeling their spouse as being demanding with overly high expectations. Discussions about what is reasonable (especially during an argument) can begin to feel absurd. The lazy or apathetic spouse makes every request seem like a big deal and their areas of neglect seem normal.
In these cases, the offended spouse begins to be forced into the role of a parent more than a spouse. If the home is going to function, they must be “the responsible spouse.” The lazy or apathetic spouse enjoys being cared for (though rarely expresses gratitude) but resents when this care taking causes him/her to feel juvenile.
The responsible spouse feels caught in a Catch-22: (a) treat their spouse like an adult and see significant areas of marital, family, and home life deteriorate, or (b) treat their spouse like a child and contribute to the problem while facing the anger that comes with being “parental.”
Finances, hobbies, and time with friends are frequent points of conflict when the laziness is rooted in immaturity. Inactivity, poor hygiene, and lack of enthusiasm about any area of life can reveal an apathetic self-centeredness rooted in depression. Demanding tone, whiny attitude, or exaggerated responses to disappointment reveal lazy self-centeredness that is rooted in a sense of entitlement.
In some cases, the indifference extends beyond the home to an unwillingness to maintain employment. Regardless, friends and family usually begin to notice the inequality in the marriage. If the passive spouse has maintained a social network, this results in a strong tension between “his friends” and “her friends.” This social pull further increases the strain on the marriage.
As these strains become more pronounced, the marriage problems seem more insurmountable. This only confirms the “what good would it do to try” attitude in the passive spouse. When things hit a severe crisis, he/she may put forth effort for a short time, but the lack of “perseverance muscles” result in falling back into old habits quickly.
When this is brought up it is usually turned back on the offended spouse (“I’m sorry I can’t be who you want me to be. I tried. What more can I do?”) or swallowed up in self-pity (“I don’t know why you put up with my crap. You deserve someone better. I’m such a loser.”).
In a counseling case like this, it is easy to get drawn into prescribing the particular actions that should happen instead of focusing the attention on the overarching pattern of laziness or apathy. As a “voice for responsibility” the counselor will quickly seem to “take sides.” Each session will reveal many more “easy fixes” that will quickly pile up and become overwhelming to the passively self-centered spouse. For this reason the early counseling objectives should focus upon:
- Screening for depression. If the passive spouse has interest he/she enjoys and engages, there a low likelihood the self-centeredness is rooted in depression. The effort put into other pleasures should be used as a standard and model for the effort put into the marriage. If the passive spouse lacks the ability to enjoy his/her previous pleasures, then depression is likely a strong contributing factor and should be dealt with as a primary issue.
- Creating “half way” criteria. If one spouse has become a pseudo-parent, then many marital systems will be unhealthy. Turning them immediately over to the passive spouse is rarely effective. The counselor should help the couple define what a healthy marriage would look like (based upon biblical gender roles and individual competencies). Then the passive spouse needs to be taught what it looks like to meet his/her spouse “half way.” This should be directed by the counselor so that “the responsible spouse” is not placed back into the parental role. Once consistent effort is established at “half way,” the couple can be directed to complete the journey towards a healthy marriage.
- Expecting effort fatigue. The previously lazy or apathetic spouse will get emotionally and relationally fatigued many times. The counselors needs to anticipate this and prepare the couple for it (both spouses may despair when it happens). Managing these moments is vital for getting from sincere sorrow or passivity to longevity of effort in marriage.