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A man said his wife abuses him and he accepts it out of guilt for lying. A therapist said his wife needs to move toward forgiveness.

Doing It Right Series: Wife comforting her husband as he rests his head on a table.
  • Sometimes feeling guilt can be helpful for growth and understanding. But that doesn't justify abuse, a therapist said.
  • Enlist a couples therapist to see if you and your wife can move towards forgiveness.
  • Have a question for Julia? Fill out this anonymous form. All questions will be published anonymously. You can read more Doing It Right here.
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Dear Julia,

I hurt my wife of 20 years. I kept a friendship with an ex, lied about things, and have spoken unkindly about her.

On the other hand, I feel that I've always provided for our family, including our two daughters. I've helped with my mother-in-law's colon cancer and transition. And I'm currently helping my wife, who has breast cancer and recently underwent a double mastectomy. My wife continues to bring up every bad thing I have done to her. Sometimes, she gets physical and wants to fight. She's told me that she wants me to hurt as bad as she is hurting.

I've accepted verbal and physical abuse for years because I feel guilty and bad about the things I've done.

But where is the line drawn? How much do you accept from a person who you have wronged?


Dear Illinois,

Abuse, whether emotional or physical, is never justified, and I'm sorry you've spent years living this way. I can also understand why your guilt has kept you in the upsetting cycle that you described.

Guilt can have such a hold on us because it's a paradoxical feeling, Alexandra Solomon, a therapist and host of the "Reimagining Love" podcast, told me.

"We think, 'If I love you, how could I hurt you?' But the reality is that we do sometimes hurt the people that we love, and we can't undo it. It's painful because we're hardwired for empathy," said Solomon, who is also the author of the forthcoming book "Love Every Day."

According to Solomon, feeling guilt isn't always a bad thing. If, for example, you feel guilt for saying a genuine "no" to a partner's request, you're respecting your own needs and preventing resentment, which often grows when we do something out of obligation instead of desire. Your partner may feel rejected and you may feel guilty in the moment, but that will pass. And if you feel guilty for a mistake you truly regret, it can be a reminder to act differently in the future, said Solomon.

But you shouldn't have guilt hanging over you for a long time. If your partner continues to bring up the hurt you caused — even after you have sincerely apologized and put in effort to change — they are creating an unproductive loop that ultimately hurts both of you.

Understand that your wife's desire to hurt you isn't all about you

Solomon explained that the depth of hurt someone feels is usually related to the extent to which they were wronged.

They might feel a brief sting if their partner says they can't drive them to the airport, but the feeling will pass. It would hurt more deeply — and be harder to get past — if they found out that same partner cheated on them, betraying their trust.

Their perception could also be influenced by past experiences of betrayal or abandonment that have nothing to do with you, Solomon told me. If someone who is hurt can't recognize their old wounds, they may not see an apology and better behavior as enough to move forward, Solomon said.

Your wife's health could also play a role in her behavior, according to Solomon. She said that a personal health crisis could cause someone to experience heightened feelings, both good and bad. Fear of the future can cloud someone's judgment, potentially causing them to act out in more extreme ways than if they were healthy, said Solomon.

This doesn't excuse your wife's behavior, Illinois. But understanding why your wife continues to seek revenge for your past mistakes could help you shed some of your guilt and decide how to stop the pattern you and your wife have found yourself in.

Set boundaries, and also learn how to be accountable

To move forward, it's important you take accountability for your hurtful actions, while also setting boundaries with your wife, Solomon said.

She said that you should acknowledge the pain you've caused her, and explain that you have thought about your actions in the past to prevent repeating those mistakes in the future. But you should also tell your wife how her reactions are hurting you, and that you won't be allowing that in your life anymore.

Solomon suggested you say something like, "I hurt you, and it hurts me that I hurt you. I'm working to understand what happened in my life that led me to hurt you like that. But it's not OK with me for you to threaten me or talk to me in that way."

She said working with a couples therapist would likely be more effective than trying this on your own, since they can guide the conversation if emotions start to run high.

If you notice your wife becomes defensive when you state your boundary, or keeps threatening you, it's not because you deserve it. It's because her experiences make it challenging for her to understand your perspective.

Ultimately, it's up to her to hear you out, or decide to continue on her current path. And it's up to you to either accept her treatment or walk away from it, knowing you deserve better, faults and all.

As Insider's resident sex and relationships reporter, Julia Naftulin is here to answer all of your questions about dating, love, and doing it — no question is too weird or taboo. Julia regularly consults a panel of health experts including relationship therapists, gynecologists, and urologists to get science-backed answers to your burning questions, with a personal twist.

Have a question? Fill out this anonymous form. All questions will be published anonymously.

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