Help! I’m Married to a Vacillator

You sense the push and pull of your spouse, at one moment idealizing you and your relationship and at the next moment devaluing you and the relationship. You long to have a consistent, stable relationship, but feel your spouse can become out-of-control angry and then communicate it indirectly by withdrawing or pouting. Later, like a switch has been flipped, he/she acts like everything is okay (and it is for them but not for you). You can’t read his/her mind, but that is what he/she expects of you and does to you. Some of the things your spouse has said to you are so dramatic and negative that you feel your trust is broken and the relationship may not be able to last. What can you do?

You can’t change or reform another person. If that’s why you’re here, I’m sorry. You will be disappointed. However, if you want to know better how to love and connect with your spouse, then read on.

Is My Spouse A Vacillator?

If your spouse could say many of the following, he/she probably has the vacillator love style:

  • I am a very passionate person who feels things deeply.
  • I seems to me no has ever really understood what I need.
  • My love relationship(s) tend to be intense and romantic at first.
  • I am almost always disappointed in relationships, hoping for more than I receive.
  • I can easily recall long lists of ways people I care about have hurt or disappointed me.
  • People’s attempts to meet my needs are often too little, too late.
  • I want far more connection with my spouse than I have and can easily sense distance in the relationship.
  • I feel my spouse should pursue me more often with more passion.
  • I tend to pick fights but don’t know why.
  • I make it very clear when I’m upset, and feel hurt if my spouse doesn’t pursue me.
  • I like the feeling of making up after a fight.
  • I tend to wait for people to pay attention to me.
  • I tend to write off people who hurt me.
  • I don’t like to be alone, but when my spouse is around, I feel angry and empty.
  • My parents drive me crazy.

(Information adapted from How We Love Workbook p.56)

Your Spouse Needs Compassion

If your spouse is a vacillator, he or she will need your compassion and understanding. Your spouse feels a deep need to be valued and seen as special by you. Under the surface is a deep current of scary feelings of abandonment and rejection. He or she fights sometimes overwhelming whispers of the enemy,

  • You’re not wanted
  • You’re not important
  • You’re not valued
  • You’re not loved


You Need Compassion

When you feel the push and pull, pressure and shame about giving more than you are able to the vacillator you love, then you can take a step back, take a deep breath, and offer yourself some compassion. If your friend were hurting or in a difficult situation, you likely wouldn’t counsel them to stuff their feelings, suck it up, and not be such a baby. But do you ever treat yourself like that? A simple definition of what Kristin Neff defines as self-compassion is,

“Self-compassion is treating yourself like someone you care about, with support, encouragement and warmth.”

It’s not your fault if your spouse is unhappy or angry when you don’t do everything they want or the way they want it. As equal partners in a relationship, you are responsible for the you part. Your thoughts, needs, desires, attitudes, perspectives, dreams, and goals are all important part of the marriage. They ought to be equally represented in your marriage. You are responsible to live your life. Yes, you are in partnership and must work together, but if you find yourself always drawing the short end of the stick and shrugging it off or internalizing it into resentment, then you likely need to set some boundaries.

As one of you kind vacillator readers has indicated, vacillators can be abusive/destructive in the way they communicate and treat others.  If you experience psychological, verbal, emotional, financial, sexual, or physical abuse in your relationship, it’s time to take steps to set healthy boundaries and create safety for yourself and children. That is beyond the scope of this blog, but if this is you, begin getting safe community and support to help you as you learn how to do this. Healing takes place in a safe nurturing environment. You may have been isolated through the years, buy you will need safe community from caring people to heal.

  • Check out Mending the Soul:
  • Look up the nearest domestic violence shelter and see what services they offer. They may offer you and your children a place to get safe while your spouse chooses whether or not to get safe. They may also offer outpatient services, like our local Harmony House that offers relationship training, which is like amazing educational coaching to help you know what boundaries you might need and how to set them, how to relate to others, and how to be whole and healthy yourself.
  • Check out 12 step groups such as Celebrate Recovery. Addictions are often a part of a controller or victim’s life (whether you or someone else is addicted), and groups like this offer support to both the addicted and those who love them. And the support can be amazing. If you visit one 2-3 times and it doesn’t seem like a good fit, try a few weeks at another. Each community has a different feel.
  • If you are in an violent or physically abusive situation, call 911.

Whatever the case, if you are experiencing damaging behavior from others, be sure to take a self-compassion break.

Take a Self-Compassion Break

  1. Notice that this is a moment of pain for you. You can tell yourself, “This hurts.”
  2. Recognize you aren’t alone: “I’m not the only one who feels this way.”
  3. Physically show kindness: Close your eyes and place your hands over your heart.
  4. Verbally show kindness: Ask yourself what you really need to hear right now. Talk to yourself like a friend.

Written version:

MP3 version:

Find Out How They Got Here

If you are in a healthy place in which you feel you can be yourself and represent you in the relationship, and if you feel safe, you can take steps toward understanding your spouse better (not to fix them, but to help you have perspective).

Try to picture your spouse as a child. What do you know about their childhood? Do you know their stories about distressing moments in their childhood? If not, talk through these memories kindly with your spouse, sincerely seeking to understand the root of their fear of rejection and abandonment. What experiences grooved pain into their soul?

You have to first recognize that your spouse got here through pain.

The coping mechanisms your spouse learned as a child that can be so maddening to you were caused by injury. Your spouse grew up in an environment in which the love he or she so desperately needed from parents was not reliable. Your spouse couldn’t count on it to be there when he/she needed it. He or she likely experienced one or more of the following:

  • A parent was only spontaneously close and caring.
  • Your spouse was always waiting for that parent to be present and sincerely care about knowing and understanding him/her.
  • A parent sometimes treated him/her like “the special one” or their “favorite,” overindulging and giving you constant attention.
  • A parent who traveled for work or was often away serving in the military.
  • A parent with a mental illness such as bipolar caused mood swings that significantly affected their relationship.
  • Your spouse felt his/her parents were never really there for them when they needed them?

Picture Your Spouse as a Child

Your spouse had the natural desire for connection and tried to get it with his/her parents or caregivers. However, it is so painful to grow up in a constant state of wanting and waiting. This likely developed from:

  • Having some connection or bonding that was inconsistent and unpredictable.
  • Longing for parental affection but feeling abandoned.
  • Receiving affection not based on their own needs but on the mood or need of the parent (usually by then, the child was too tired of waiting and angry to receive what is given).
  • Needing a parent to be close, stay engaged and give consistent attention.
  • Having a parent that at times would treat them like “the special one” overindulging them and giving them constant attention.
  • A parent communicating displeasure with family members indirectly by withdrawing and/or being hurtful rather than using words.

As a child, they grew very adept at reading the emotional ques of their parents. They learned to read between the lines of words, attitudes, body language, and behavior to try to figure out what to expect from their parent and how to respond to them. This became their measure of whether they were:

  • wanted/unwanted
  • liked/hated
  • accepted/rejected

What Your Spouse Really Wants

Vacillators are on a quest to find the consistent, deliberate affection they longed for as a child. They are longing for passionate love and attention that doesn’t ever grow board or distant.

How Can You Help?

You aren’t able to give your spouse 100% attention 100% of the time. But, you want him/her to know you love them and are committed to them. What can you do?

Unless your spouse has been working toward becoming a secure connector, he or she likely doesn’t know how feelings of anger and loss from childhood abandonment and rejection drives them. A focus on these feelings can possibly even make them feel uncomfortable at first, especially since your spouse likely doesn’t even realize they are there. Milan and Kay Yerkovich in their book How We Love Workbook: Making Deeper Connections in Marriage explain that you will need to seek God for guidance and apply these suggestions slowly, over time, one at a time. The following suggestions are gleaned from their book:

Try Not to Take it Personally

First of all, try to not take it personally when your spouse is reactive. Your spouse learned very young that relationships do not bring comfort. They were not given the chance to communicate their inner feelings in a safe environment where they would be met with love, support, comfort, and understanding. Try not to get defensive and repeat an unsafe environment for their emotions. Their response with you is their response with everyone. Rather than taking it personally, try to view them with compassion.

Communicate That You’d Like to Understand Their Past

Remember that this reactivity is rooted in pain. Ask your spouse to talk about times they felt like they were waiting for their parent’s love and attention only to be disappointed. Find out more about incidents that left them feeling abandoned or unwanted.

Your spouse is likely unaware of the deep pain grooved on their souls. Pull up pictures from their childhood and ask them if they can remember what they were feeling when they were that age or in that picture. Reflect back what they are saying to show you are hearing them (without interrupting),

  • “It sounds like you felt ___________”
  • “It seems like that memory was a really bad one, and it makes you very sad to think about it”
  • “That must have been so hard. I hear a lot of hurt and grief when you talk about…”

Draw Out Hidden Emotions

The memories that led to their reactivity are burying other emotions. Vacillators often allow anger to override feelings of sadness and rejection. Help to draw this out of your spouse.

Hold and comfort your spouse as they work through these emotions. Milan and Kay recommend cradling your spouse or holding their head in your lap and maintaining eye contact while they share with you.

When your spouse shares a memory or their feelings with you, tell your spouse regularly,

That matters to me.

When their feelings matter to you, they feel more secure and can begin to let their feelings matter to themselves as well. Other options may include:

  • “It means a lot to me that you shared that with me.”
  • “Thank you for the honor of telling me that memory.”
  • “I feel really close to you when you tell me memories like this. Thank you for letting me in.”
  • “Thank you for sharing that with me. I know it’s hard to talk about. It helps me know and understand you better, and I want to know you well, because I love you.”

Helping your spouse recognize and be comforted for those sad feelings can be very healing. It will build trust and reduce anger.

Your spouse must begin to feel sadness to be able to overcome anger. This applies to times of conflict between you as well.

Keep Balanced and Stable

Vacillators vacillate between feeling you/your relationship is all good or all bad. Hold the middle ground that they don’t know exists. Every person and every situation has good points and bad points. Once your spouse can see the good and bad in every person and situation, you will know significant progress has been made. Until then, make sure you can- every time. State the reality of good and bad calmly, gently, and kindly. Refuse to escalate a situation when your spouse does, and refuse to accept their point of view as your own. You can acknowledge,

“I can see you are very angry about this. I understand your point of view and hear you saying, ___________. I love you and you are very important to me. But I don’t see this situation the way you do. I see both good and bad in this situation and believe we can work through it. Here is how I see it______________.

Remain Loving but Not Reactionary

When your spouse is very angry, he/she may be looking to incite a strong reaction in you. They are wanting to see if you are passionate about them or wanting to punish you for not giving them the attention they feel they need from you. Your spouse may pull up past hurts and go on and on angrily not hearing you. This is unhelpful to the relationship.

I’m Done!

They will likely make extreme dogmatic statements like “I’m done,” “I can’t take this anymore,” or “We need a divorce” that are extremely destructive. On their end, when their switch flips, they will feel like everything is better and say they didn’t mean those things but were just angry. They don’t realize that you can’t get past them easily, that trust was broken, and that the relationship may be severely weakened or damaged because of it.

What Can You Do?

The angry cycle doesn’t go anywhere helpful. Refuse to enter it. It only leads to darker and worse places- places your spouse is not hearing you but is rather saying things you will never un-hear. Milan and Kay suggest in their workbook (p65) that you say,

I see how upset you are. I want to listen, and I will listen when you calm down. Then you’ll be able to tell me what hurt you before you got so angry.”

Your spouse must be able to tell you the hurt that caused the anger. They are likely not aware of it, so it will take a lot of firm refocusing by you in the conversation to direct them to first tell you the hurt. They must then acknowledge the hurt to you that led to their anger. Sometimes this is bringing up old feelings from their childhood that make their feelings toward you and this situation unnaturally intensified. (See I’m A Vacillator. Now What?)

If your spouse refuses to back down, repeat what you said above. Be kind and loving in your tone but firm in your resolve. If the anger keeps spewing out, Milan and Kay suggest saying,

“I am willing to listen when you are able to share your hurt feelings. Let me know when you are ready.

You likely won’t get good responses at the start. Keep at it. Once your spouse does come to talk to you about their feelings, speak kindly and comforting. Explain,

“It is much easier for me to listen and stay engaged when the tone of the conversation is soft and vulnerable rather than harsh and insulting.”

Speak the Truth in Love

You may be a pleaser or avoider or victim, seeing to appease or get away from the angry attacks. Don’t every lie to agree with or appease them. Tell them the truth. Do so in love. Don’t avoid the confrontation. Wade into the conflict with them and learn to face it together in love.

Your spouse may try to communicate their anger indirectly through withdrawal and pouting. Or, they may communicate so many strong complaints that it feels you can’t do anything right.

Choose to calmly, lovingly express the effect of your spouse’s anger and how it makes you feel. Naming Emotions for Spouses and Kids can help you put names to what you are feeling, and Milan and Kay’s Comfort Circle can help you process what is going on and express it in the clearest way.  Your feelings are very important in this relationship and deserve equal footing. Consider expressing:

When you___________. I feel ___________________. Next time, I need you to______________.

Ask for your spouse’s input on how to make the relationship better:

What can we do to speak to one another in calmer, nonreactive ways?”

If you are in a situation in which you are facing verbal or emotional abuse, seek outside help from a trained counselor and people from your church who understand how to help abuse victims. Go ahead and check what those words mean just in case: What is Verbal Abuse?  What is emotional abuse? I personally had no idea until I looked them up.

If Your Spouse Won’t Hear You

If your spouse responds to your vulnerable expression of your pain caused by their anger with a counter argument against you, calmly and kindly tell them,

I love you and will listen to what has hurt you after you have acknowledged your hurt to me. I know you love me. I need to you recognize what you have done and how I feel as a result. I need you to apologize to me first.

Vacillators find it very hard to apologize or admit wrong. They feel things are all or nothing. If they admit they are wrong, they are all wrong. You will likely face resistance on this. Get support and help to know what boundaries to set and how to respond if this is the case. Consider going through the Comfort Circle. It is very important to the health of your relationship for you both to get to a place in which you can make space for one another’s deeper feelings. The Comfort Circle is a great way to do that. 

Mix in the Good

Vacillators may leave you feeling you can’t do anything right. If you are beginning to lose confidence in yourself, get outside help to sort out valid from invalid complaints. When you see a valid complaint, it may be hard to acknowledge it to the vacillator, since they are the ones blaming all the problems on you and not accepting responsibility. Your humility for truly valid complaints (but refusal to accept all the responsibility for your relational problems) will be helpful. Milan and Kay suggest requesting the vacillator help you sort valid from invalid by saying,

“I’m willing to listen to y our complaint, but it would really help me if you acknowledged some positive aspects of our relationship as well.”

The Elephant in the Room

Your spouse is likely interpreting your behavior, facial expressions, words, and gestures in his/her own way. Any perceived distance can set them ruminating. Read more about this in the other posts on Vacillators. You will need to become more vocal about what you are feeling and why.  Explain that,

I have different reasons for my behavior, expressions, words, and responses than you are aware of. If you get concerned by one of my responses, please ask me about it rather than attempt to read my mind. It’s very likely it has nothing to do with you or us. I love you, and I don’t want you to be concerned there is a problem when there isn’t.

Tell your spouse when you are down, discouraged, frustrated, etc about something outside of your relationship. Explain, “I sound a little down tonight, because…” or “I’m especially tense today, because…”

When the Conflict Involves the Kids

When the parent is reactionary with the kids, it can be verbally abusive. You cannot allow or support this. Instead, Milan and Kay suggest in their book, How We Love Our Kids: The Five Love Styles of Parenting. How to End the Struggles and Tension saying,

“I will support what you need to say to the kids when you are not so angry. I know you don’t want to hurt the kids and your anger is upsetting.

If they won’t stop, Milan and Kay suggest leading the kids away and telling them,

“Mom has some important things to say. We will listen when she is not so angry.”

Learn more about specific ways your vacillator might be impacting the kids by reading Transformational Parenting for the Vacillator.

How Can You Parent With a Vacillator?

Vacillators can devalue you as a person and as a parent, sometimes even communicating you are incapable of parenting their kids. This all or nothing thinking is destructive. It’s destructive to the kids as well. They can be very disengaged with the kids- present but not, and both their distance and re-activeness can be painful for the kids. Find out more about how their approach affects the kids by reading Transformational Parenting for the Vacillator. You will need to:

  • Talk with your spouse about how you feel and your concerns.
  • Encourage your spouse by recognizing the benefits their style brings to the home (fun, spontaneous, passionate, engaged).
  • Ask your spouse to work with you to make a list of strengths you both bring to the table in parenting. Discuss that list in a non-heated time.
  • Notice when your spouse is engaged with the kids and let them know you love the way they were just enjoying and engaged with the kids.
  • Follow the above guidelines when they become reactive.

Your spouse may waver between being overly permissive (to try to attain love and connection with the child) or overly harsh in discipline. Make sure you are stable and seek to establish clear guidelines you both agree on for how, when, and to what extent discipline should be implemented. Write them down, and bring them up often as you seek to implement them consistently together. Get help from a mentor couple or take a parenting class to get some help on how to develop a solid parenting discipline structure.

Be sure you are taking an authoritative not authoritarian approach with your children. If you aren’t sure the difference, find out. The Great Courses class Scientific Secrets for Raising Kids Who Thrive has a great lesson on parenting styles that covers that well.

Comfort For You

As you seek to extend love and comfort to your spouse, be sure that you are taking care of yourself.  You need to be practicing good self-care in all areas.

  • Get good sleep
  • Eat well
  • Exercise regularly
  • Be part of supportive and enjoyable groups (Bible studies, support groups, hobby groups, book clubs- whatever you enjoy that is fun to you)
  • Get counseling (as needed)
  • Relax and regularly participate in hobbies or other activities that are fun for you
  • Develop friendships

One aspect of this is ensuring you have safe, healthy relationships with friends and family in which you are both giving and receiving comfort and love. This means communicating your needs in a gentle, respectful, clear way to friends and family that love you. You can invite your spouse to love you in ways that communicate love to you.

Parenting with a vacillator can be frustrating at times. Ask your spouse to consider taking a parenting class with you or working with a mentor couple with you through a parenting book. This could help facilitate discussion and a team-mindset. Set out boundaries together for your children and develop an authoritative plan together. Talk often about how you are applying the plan and encourage your spouse as they hold firm to boundaries you’ve set together and flex their no muscle. Consider the struggles they have with parenting in Transformational Parenting for a Vacillator.

Want To Know More?

Milan and Kay Yerkovich wrote a great book called How We Love: Discover Your Love Style, Enhance Your Marriage. The workbook quoted in this post is very helpful and practical for taking steps toward growth. They have a whole series for singles, couples, counselors, etc at How We Love. (note, I’m not an affiliate or anything. I just have benefited from these resources and want to share).

I’ll be going through the other love styles in the upcoming posts. Subscribe so you don’t miss valuable information about the vascillator, controller, and victim love styles.

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More Posts In the Series:

If you’d like to know more about love styles, check out the Entire Love Style Series. Here are other posts related to Vacillators:

Photo Credit: Photo adapted from Photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash


  • Milan & Kay Yerkovich. How We Love: Discover Your Love Style Enhance Your Marriage. Christian Audio.
  • Milan & Kay Yerkovich. How We Love Workbook: Making Deeper Connections in Marriage. Waterbrook: 2017.
  • Milan & Kay Yerkovich. How We Love Our Kids: The Five Love Styles of Parenting. How to End the Struggles and Tension. The Crown Publishing Group: 2011.

Copyright ©  2019 Angela Edmonds. All rights reserved.


7 thoughts on “Help! I’m Married to a Vacillator

  1. Hello, I just wanted to comment on a little something. Please note that I am a mix between vacillator and avoider myself. In one of the sections you mention resources for people going through verbal abuse. I don’t think you should be encouraging people in romantic scenarios/marriages situations to stay in a relationship that could be verbally or psicologically abusive. While I understand the point of the article, is not clear to me why you would comment of the subject and even go through the trouble of adding in resources without clearing out that verbal abuse is a non acceptable situation, of course I get that in most the time it is not the case that somebody reading the article is going through an abusive relationship or that a vacillator is being abusive himself/herself, like I said, I consider myself a mix between a vacillator and an avoider, so I know the dynamic. But in the scenario that they are, the way the article is structured makes it feel like it is a normal scenario rather than a serious issue. The average person may simply get confused or understand that is “normal” to be in a situation like this. Which I believe could contribute to encouraging unhealthy relationships. I noted that being a common theme in the way churches and religious organizations address the subject and I thought that I would sincerely and respectfully voice my opinion.

    Very respectfully, Keily E


    1. Since I can’t find the reply I wrote, I’m going to try again:
      Thank you so much, Keily for your thoughtful comment. I truly appreciate it. I understand the heartache caused by well-meaning Christians and organizations that commit secondary abuse by supporting an abusive situation rather than walking alongside people toward safety. I’m truly sorry that my article functioned that way, and I will be working to edit it.

      Abuse is never okay, and those in abusive situations need to seek wisdom from the Holy Spirit, professional help to make wise decisions and set and hold fitting boundaries in their situation, and a supportive small group of same-gender believers who understand abuse and will walk with them down the difficult, painful, and sometimes long road toward safety in relationship. It’s been my experience that there are godly counselors trained and equipped to help in this, as well as Christian organizations, such as Harmony House in Springfield, MO, that offer relationship training and counsel and do a great job of helping a person set fitting boundaries to help them maintain safety in their lives.

      Verbal and emotional abuse can not only affect the soul, but they also can affect an individual’s health and lifespan. It also can distort one’s view of God, which causes significant spiritual hurt. I would never want a person to just sit back and let that continue affecting them and possibly their children as well.

      That being said, I have a high view of marriage and would recommend (as long as one’s life is not in danger) prayerfully setting progressive boundaries in supportive community, with godly professional help that is experienced in abuse situations. In my experience, it is better to set less severe boundaries first. This gives the individual an option to choose to value the relationship and you- or not. If they choose not to, you can quickly add more severe boundaries. Those in abuse situations are more likely to remain there if they jump to a very severe boundary (such as separation) first. They often quickly backpedal and then feel more stuck than before because they tried a severe boundary and didn’t hold it. By building up to a stronger boundary, they can gain confidence in knowing that it is necessary in their situation and they will more likely be able to maintain safety and healthy relationships in the long run. Those in immediate physical danger would take a different approach, needing that counsel and support to help them seek immediate safety. Since I am not a trained counselor, I would refer individuals to professionals with this caution: Look for someone that is trained, loves God, and is experienced in what you are dealing with. People without experience successfully helping individuals navigate situations similar to yours might not be the best pick for you.

      I am going to go back through the article and seek to edit it. I will likely need to go back through some of the others in this series, too. I wrote them before going through a period of growth in this area. I would appreciate your prayers for my wording, as I would not want to encourage anyone to jump out of a relationship God is going to redeem and bring to health- nor would I want to encourage someone to stay in abuse. The individual needs the Holy Spirit’s guidance. They also need godly community where they are that is experienced in abuse and will walk with them.


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