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How Will You Know Your Marriage is Over?

by | Feb 15, 2017 | Articles, Boundaries, Emotional Abuse, Learning, Popular Posts, Waking Up | 54 comments

Let’s pretend for a minute that your relationship is like a game of tennis. Can you visualize you and your partner on the tennis court? The game has just begun, and the ball is going back and forth. Back and forth.

Once in a while, the ball drops.

This represents relationship conflict. Sometimes the ball drops on your side, and sometimes it drops on his side. When it drops on your side, you take the initiative to resolve the conflict.

You pick up the ball and try again.

But when the ball falls on his side, and you ask him to pick up the ball and lob it back, he responds with “Well, it fell because of how you hit the ball. Not my problem. Not my responsibility.”

Hmmmm. That’s odd. Not really how you’ve experienced other relationships, but whatever. You want to be cooperative and make this game work, so you walk around to his side of the net AND PICK IT UP FOR HIM. Then you go back to your position to get the ball going again.

Because the game matters to you. The relationship is important, and you took your vows seriously.

But life happens. The ball drops again on his side of the court, and once again, he makes no move to pick it up.

You make the logical point that if he doesn’t pick up the ball, you won’t be able to continue the game.

He scowls at you and tells you it’s your fault and your problem, and if you cared about the game, you’d figure it out.

You argue with him because what he just said sounds a little insane, and you wait longer, but he refuses to pick up the ball. So you sadly walk over to his side and pick it up. Again. You made a commitment for better or for worse, right?

Well, this must be what “worst” means. Bummer.

And this goes on for an entire year. Two years. Five years. You pick up all the balls on your side, and you pick up all the balls on his side. You feel resentful because the entire game is up to you.

The responsibility to keep the game going falls completely on your shoulders, and that’s a heavy weight to bear.

All the books you read, your church, and your spiritual friends tell you that if your partner won’t do it, the godly thing is to do it yourself!

You CAN keep your relationship alive! Don’t let bitterness creep in. Do it with a cheerful heart. Let him off the hook. He’s a guy, and guys are not like girls. Be okay with the differences! Get over there and PICK UP THE BALLS!

God will give you the power you need to make that man happy! It is your duty as a female, and you will eventually be rewarded with an awesome game.

Besides, your partner is always so happy. Smiling and waving at everyone who passes by. Such a friendly, sweet man. If someone outside the court needs help, he interrupts your game to help them out. He is an incredible human being with a magnanimous heart. Johnny-on-the-spot for everyone.

Then he returns to you and requests that you get the balls going because his are oh, so very tired.

Ten years. Fifteen years. Utter exhaustion sets in. Panic, even, as you contemplate doing this with gray hair and crispy bones. The future looks grim.

Now you are stomping around. Complaining. Frantically waving your hands. Frowning. Yelling. Your eyes are bloodshot, and your hair is a tangled rat’s nest.

You look and sound like hell while he looks happy and rested and helpful to everyone who passes by.

And then an idea hits you. You’ll stop picking up the balls.

Why not? Everyone already thinks you’re a lunatic. Why not see what would happen if you didn’t cooperate?

The first ball drops on his side. He looks at you like, “Well, aren’t you going to get your tushy over here to pick up the ball?” You stare at him triumphantly, crazily, almost drunk on this strange sense of power, and you say, “NO!” He waits. Surely you are bluffing.

But you’re not.

How Will You Know Your Relationship is Over?

Time passes. He looks around uncomfortably and waves at people. The ball remains at his feet.

Someone passes by and yells at him, “Hey! The ball is at your feet!”

He waves back. “Yup! Got it covered!”

They walk away, assuming the problem is taken care of.

But it’s not. The ball remains quietly lying there.

You sit down on the tennis court pavement and wait.

He gets an idea and goes to the back of the court where a huge bin of balls sits. He grabs a brand new ball and lobs it at you.

You aren’t expecting that, and the ball drops. But at least the game is moving again, so ever (if not insanely) hopeful, you haul yourself up, grab the ball, and lob it back. It falls. You wait.

He leaves that ball on the ground along with the other one, and he grabs a second new one from the bin and starts the game again.

You play like this for another “pull-your-hair-out-in-frustration” five years until the entire court floor is covered with balls, because you’ve decided that if he doesn’t want to pick up any balls, you’re not going to pick them up either.

The game grinds to a halt as you both trip and stumble around all the balls. No conflict ever resolved.

Stupefyingly enough, it doesn’t seem to bother him. He’s fine with the ball-covered pavement as long as everyone that passes by thinks he’s amazeballs.

And they do. After all, look at his long-suffering patience in the face of utter negligence on the part of his wife. He smiles sadly, almost pathetically, and waves a friendly hand at all who pass by.

Meanwhile, you are thinking. Thinking. Thinking.

Thinking about how this game never changes.

Thinking about the fact that your head hurts from banging it on the same damn wall over and over and over again.

Thinking about the fact that this man never picked up a ball in twenty years, and the chances that he will pick one up now are dismally low.

You are thinking.

And then you decide.

You’re done. You don’t want to be done. You’ve invested twenty years of your life picking up this guy’s balls, and you really REALLY wanted it to be worth something. But you know now that you could pick them up for the rest of your life and die an early death, or you could walk off the tennis court and find something else to do with the last remaining days of your life.

So you do. But before you go, you stand by the fence of the court and yell in at your partner, “Hey! I’m leaving now! But if you want to pick up your balls and try again, I’m still open to coming back!”

He looks angrily at you because you talked about his balls that way, and he sullenly chokes out, “WHAT? Look around me! I’m doing my best, but you can’t possibly expect me to clean this whole thing up by myself! You made this mess too! Why should I be the one to have to clean it up?!”

You walk away. Your spiritual friends grab you and tell you you’re crazy to leave such an amazing man, and what is your freaking problem, anyway? What a QUITTER! You must not know God, and now your kids will go to hell.

So you hesitate, worried about these things. You look back at the court where some men are talking in hushed whispers to your partner.

Suddenly you see some movement. What? Is he going to pick up a ball? Seriously? Why, YES! He DOES PICK UP A BALL! It’s a miracle!

You stare with mouth gaping open as he walks toward you with the ball. He’s actually going to take responsibility for something! Maybe there IS hope, after all!

They must have convinced him that to play this game, you need to be willing to pick up some balls!

He gets to where you are standing, looks compassionately at you, and says, “See this ball here? It’s a real problem. I see that now. I’d like to get rid of it, but I’m pretty sure it’s yours.

And that, dear Christian woman, is how you know it’s game over. For really and truly real.

How Will You Know Your Marriage is Over?

If you know you can’t keep picking up his balls and playing for the both of you for the rest of your life, you’ll find an amazing support network of women who are making that same decision, plus all kinds of courses, expert workshops, weekly coaching, and live events to empower you with the truth in the Flying Free Education and Support program.


  1. Denise

    I don’t get it! I do up until the last 2 paragraphs. It’s like you were in our home. I left a month ago to take a time out. can someone please explain.

    • Natalie Hoffman

      I’m not sure what you don’t understand – can you tell me more about that?

      • Denise

        Actually I do get it now. The husband brought the wife the ball and said the ball was the problem but I think it’s yours. In other words, the problem is yours. Duh! My counsellor explained it to me, but I still didn’t really understand until just now where the proverbial lightbulb when on. My husband has always been telling me I’m the problem.

  2. Anonymous

    The end is chilling and I get it!! Once I recognized his abuse (and throw in his secret porn addiction our entire marriage) and I began initiating a desire to talk about the abuse, he gave me the ball back … in the form of divorce papers.

  3. Janet

    I did ALL of the lobbing of tennis balls for many years. But, after 45 years, how did I know the relationship was over? I was told something, I called the cops, he was arrested, he is in jail.



    I am so thankful for the hope God has given me, and for the future ahead of me.

  4. Natalie Barr

    Ok!! That article was Amazeballs!! And perfectly describes the last 24 years of my life. Like you were in my life, my mind for 24 years! Thank you for writing that, Natalie. You rock!

  5. J

    Yeah. Mine picks up the ball, but in his mind, they are really mine to pick up and I need to thank him profusely for picking up the balls that are his responsibility. So he IS picking them up (i.e. changing behavior,) but he will never admit that they are because he left them there. So on the surface, we look like we’re having a real game of tennis, but we’re not. However I feel like maybe he is trying to play the game right and is just confused. But then I am like, even if we ARE playing a real game of tennis, I am burned out on tennis. I’d rather play with someone else or not play anymore.

    • Elizabeth

      Yes, for me I describe it as he gives enough to keep me hopeful and not enough to always be frustrated and confused all at the same time. ugh…

  6. Andrea

    Wow. This is so on-point. I’m still in our marriage (7.5 years) and he is at the point of when the husband says, “What? Look around. i’m doing my best.” He literally has used those exact words with me. And then leaves me feeling like it is all my fault that this happened to our marriage. I am personally to the point that I have decided divorce is the best option for me. And to finally come to that conclusion without questioning myself or trying to rationalize his behavior is liberating. To know that I am DONE.

    • Natalie Hoffman

      Good for you to see this SOONER than later. Many of the women I work with (including myself) hung on for decades before getting free. I wish you the best in your journey!

    • Debby

      32 years. 32 years. Only in the last year has he finally picked up any balls and said, “This IS my fault”, but that was after 8 times moving into another room, then 3 times living completely separately. It has taken everything out of me and he is FINALLY making some real change? Believe it or not, I feel DISAPPOINTED that he is actually showing some movement. I feel like I’m being sucked back in…

      • Debby

        To clarify, the 8 times were over the past 10 years and the 3 times were over the past 3 years. Anyway, LOTS of effort and movement and inconvenience (not to mention money since I had to buy a 5th wheel to live in this last time!).

      • Elizabeth

        I’ve decide that if my husband does change genuinely i still have the option to not let him back into my heart. abuse has consequences. I used to want him to change, i’m so far removed from him it no longer excites me. and i’m so tired of the thought of having to develop trust if he would change. maybe i would want to get back together but at this point it doesn’t feel that way. but then again i don’t know what a genuine husband is like so it’s hard to say!

  7. Jill

    I found your blog recently, and this is one of my favorite posts! I love the comparison to playing tennis. In the last few years of my marriage, it seemed like my husband was throwing all the tennis balls over the fence, as far away as he could. Then he would yell, “Let’s play tennis!! Why aren’t you playing tennis? You said you’d play tennis with me. We are both on the court and we both have rackets. COME ON!!! PLAY TENNIS!!!” Then I’d explain that we can’t play tennis because he chucked all the balls away, and he would give me endless guilt trips for not being able to start the game. So, I would agree to collect the balls, letting him know that it would take a long time and he’d have to help me because I couldn’t carry them all myself. And he would just give me more guilt trips…… I kicked him out 6 months ago and haven’t felt this good in a long time!

    • Natalie

      It’s so nice to play a different game, right? 🙂

    • Denise

      He actually left! I had to leave. There’s no way he would do it. He wouldn’t with the mother of his children. He made her have to leave with small children. You think you would have been a red flag! But nooo.

  8. Brenda

    It’s like you have been watching my life. Still married but not sure exactly why.

  9. Jessica

    Will you be my new best friend? Great writing. I am now separated from H for three months with eight children. He says he wants to reconcile but his game is all talk as it always was in the past. He can’t see why I’m not ready to reconcile. I told him three months ago I was filing for a legal separation and have been slowing moving in that direction, I’m hoping he will be served next week. I told him I hope some day we can put the pieces back together but right now I don’t even want to be near him after 14 years of verbal and emotional abuse, neglect, and lies. His response? If I file for separation he will file for divorce since that’s clearly what I want and I’m not willing to work towards reconciliation right now. I stopped picki up the balls and he can’t stand that his controlling and manipulative tactics aren’t working anymore. The threats come out laced with lovebombing, double minded statements. I just keep asking when will this hell be over? I would love to connect with you personally!

    • Natalie

      I’m so sorry, Jessica. A legal separation will cost the same as a divorce, and you will still be tied to him. A divorce is the better option, financially and in many other ways as well. If he miraculously becomes a truth telling, amazing man, you can always get remarried. Did you see my article about the ten hot rungs to getting out of hell? It might help if you can see the game plan in advance.

      As far as connecting personally, I do life coaching for women. My rate is $100 per hour. Contact me via my contact page if you are interested.

  10. A

    My husband has decided he no longer will play tennis, but will not leave the court. Not only will he not pick up the ball, he will not even attempt to hit them. He completely ignores the fact that I am even on the court. I can hit balls all day long, and he will never even look up, until I hit him square in the head with a ball, then he gets upset at me for trying. We used to have such a beautiful tennis game. Then he quit picking up the balls, but now he doesn’t even acknowledge the game… 🙁

    • Natalie Klejwa

      That’s not a relationship. It takes two to build a marriage. When one refuses to play, he has broken his part of the covenant. The other one is not under bondage to stay. It isn’t possible to build a marital relationship with only one participant. I’m sorry this is your experience. Sadly, your story is all too common in Christian circles. The number one cause of divorce among older women is neglect and abuse. The number one cause of divorce among older men is adultery, porn, and other addictions.

  11. Vanessa

    That is exactly how my marriage is …..I do all the trying to make everything work…and he doesn’t do anything..
    Ive heard all that crap about good Christian wives stay, do this do that….B.S. Im tired of it being all on me.
    Ive been in counseling…but I don’t feel I have enough of what I need to make that decision to leave.
    Ive been working on other issues…one was leaving an Authoritarian type church…as well as other abuse in my childhood.

    • Natalie Anne

      Hang in there, Vanessa. Getting free is a LONG process. (((Hugs)))

  12. Hannah

    *jaw drops* *shock and awe* THIS. THIS has been my life, since I got married. I could have written this. I’m struggling to get out after 4 1/2 years of always having the balls in the relationship, and I’m so encouraged that other people GET IT. Thank you for this post!

  13. Pauline

    I understand and relate. I am utterly worn out from always being blamed for his blow-ups. ‘If you hadn’t…, then I wouldn’t have…’ I know how sinful I am and hate that I’m not more loving. I cling to my Savior and His righteousness, because I desperately want to grow in love. But the weight of my own sin on my shoulders and then his too is just too heavy… Sometimes I literally think I’m absolutely losing my mind. And that gives him occasion to heap more responsibility on me… I eventually get an apology, but ultimately it’s all my fault…

    • Natalie Anne

      What are the key things that keep you stuck in the game?

      • Pauline

        Knowing he’s a true Christian – he was converted 10+ years ago (we’ve been married 26, I’ve been a Christian 24 years), and hope in God’s work in him keeps me in the game. Plus this behavior only has been going on regularly and frequently for 2 years (although also before he became a Christian). Plus seeing glimpses in him of recognition that he has responsibility for his own behavior regardless, even if I might be a trigger. He tearfully called himself ‘a proud moron’ the other day. Two days later he was really angry at me again because I had a wrong look toward him on my face. But I don’t think that he sees (yet) that he’s made me an idol (at least is expecting me to perform like one, the ‘perfect wife’) and I make a pretty darn lousy god. When idols don’t ‘perform’ and make happy, the idolater becomes disgusted with it (me, in this case). I need to learn to not be so freaked out by the effects of his idolatry. Looking at all this from an ‘idolatry’ perspective is very new to me. I am guilty of idols in my own heart… So I’m still hoping and praying for change.

        • Teresa

          Pauline, your H can change,…but you don’t have to stay with him, hoping he will. IF he’s serious, he will do the work and then come to you and let you see the difference in him…and give you TIME to heal and to make sure it’s for real.
          Please don’t waste more years on him, hoping and waiting.
          Abusers will play you for as long as they can…don’t play his game any longer.

  14. tereza

    This sounds like “I’m sorry BUT it was YOUR fault!” One has to laugh so they won’t cry. Great picture story. 🙂

    • Denise

      What you said is how my counsellor explained it to me. I had to ask her to explain the last two paragraphs because I honestly didn’t get it at first. The whole story was excellent and it felt like Natalie was in my living room with me for the past 14 years.

  15. Christy

    I was in an abusive marriage for 4 years. I went to my church for help and was told I needed to pray for my husband. When that wasn’t working, I was told to pray harder and to have faith. They told me I needed to submit to my husband. My spiritual friends gave me all kinds of suggestions and I tried every single one. I had one friend outside of church who helped me get out. Even when I left, my spiritual friends told me I should plan on going back. And that church? Nobody was there. Church can kiss my butt.

  16. anonymous

    Thanks for the great story. Word pictures like this really help to clear the brain on what is happening. I love the ending as I have often wondered how will I know and somehow that word picture brought clarity to me

  17. Leslie

    We are on year 19 of our marriage. I finally decided to put the kids and school (after homeschooling for 9 years) and go to work. I told him that I’m working so that I can support myself and get out of this marriage. He finally starts to make half hearted efforts to pitch in and I have hope again. So I suggest a marriage confrence. We attend and all we hear is about “not setting any expectations on our spouse and forgiving them”. I tell him I am confused by these statements because although I believe we all need grace and forgiveness, the only time I ever see any real effort from him in our marriage is when I have clear expectations of him. He completely shuts down and doesn’t talk to me the rest of the 20 minute ride home. I guess I have my answer

  18. Aimee

    This has been my relationship with my mother…for over 20 years. Her symptoms of mental illness started when I was a teenager…maybe earlier. It’s so hard to break free. But it is so good. I couldn’t imagine, though, my husband being like that. It breaks my heart to even think about it. Because my blog writings are from the perspective of a healthy marriage and unhealthy relationships outside of that, I want to keep your website in mind for my readers who are struggling with similar issues in their marriage.

    And I totally get the whole “you’re crazy” thing. It happens when your parent exhibits mental illness but treats others as sweet as honey, too.

  19. Kevin

    That is one heck of a way to put it and paint a picture. It is hard to let go when you have kept hitting your head against the wall. For the record, it isn’t just men. The roles are reversed about 25 percent of the time. Whether it is the husband or the wife who is trying to build a better relationship, it is painfully draining when the other is incapable of meeting you there.
    There are lessons to pass on to the young ones so they don’t make the same choices.
    Thank you for this piece.

    • Natalie Anne

      Yes. Men can end up in a head banging game as well. It’s a horrible way to go through life.

      • Kevin

        That it is. My heart goes out to all who are that situation. For the others as well, for I wonder if they will ever know. A sad way to live.

  20. Jamie E

    This is my parents’ marriage to a “T”. I see it happening, my brother denies that it’s that bad and my sister is the one chastising my mother for not picking any of the balls up anymore. Mom has taken on a victim mentality with everyone and I can’t even talk to her anymore. She won’t walk away. She won’t get help or take help that’s offered to her. I won’t let my kids go to their house because of the abuse and so I’m the bad guy. I’ve gone no contact and it hurts, but I think it’s the right thing to do.

    • Natalie Anne

      It does hurt, but I think you are doing the right thing. You can only control yourself.

  21. Kaycee

    I love this. I always felt like Charlie Brown and my ex like Lucy. I would run to kick that football that he promised he would not pull away and well…. he did it again. And when the final moment came his comment was, “Are you going to let God resurrect our marriage?” Since then I’ve realized, I have been letting God resurrect me and it is a wonderful thing.

  22. Shelby

    Thank you!!! I believe laughter is good medicine and this is ROFL material! What a beautiful gift to present heart breaking, gut wrenching truth – with healing laughter!

  23. Theresa Vondra

    When my husband and I first started dating, we played tennis a couple of times. He would stand in one spot on his side and hit the ball all over and he expected me to run and hit the ball back to him, directly in front of him so he wouldn’t have to move. And I did, until I realized that’s a stupid way to play tennis. So, we stopped playing tennis, but this is much the way we would deal with conflict in our relationship. It’s a stupid way to have a relationship. So, I’m stopping “playing.” He hasn’t realized yet that I”ve stopped so it will be interesting to see what happens next.

    Thank you for writing this. Your work is very helpful to me.

  24. Tanya Stolt

    The tennis story was so good. It describes my mothers marriage to my father for almost 60 years. She was the one you mentioned who died an early death at his hands. The doctors called it “Broken Heart Syndrome”. That says a lot! Now I so appriciate you helping women like my mother get out before it ends that way for them. That is my mission as well! Together we fight and fly!!

  25. OnMyWay

    Yes! Natalie – this is wonderful!! I have been out 1 month- he has not been respecting my boundaries– but this time under the guise of “being nice and I just want to save my family”. I asked him NOT to contact me outside of children’s schedules–but he always finds a way to contact me about something…but it is always something nice like picking up coffee for me something!!!

    and this is crazy but I am starting to doubt again..maybe it is me? look at how nice and calm he is? maybe it really wasnt’ that bad!!!

    How did you do it? ladies — how do you do it?? How do you recover….I feel like I am in a 2 steps backs mode right now…

    reading this blog helps so much but in my moments of panic I really feel like I am the one who is insane?!

    I have been suffering from bouts of acute anxiety on and off ever since I had children –so maybe it is just me?? the thing is- even though I had some anxiety issues before marriage– my anxiety became totally unmanageable after I was married.!
    I never thought I would have to go on medication and see a therapist but I just couldn’t cope with life!!

    How do you work through the self-doubt?

    • Natalie Anne

      It’s definitely a process. The self-doubt is totally normal and something we all are going through or went through in the past. It is a residual symptom of abuse. Just keep reading things that tell you the truth. We need to re-train our brain to think truthfully about our situations because we spent years listening to lies and telling ourselves lies in order to cope. I used to listen to Patrick Doyle YouTube videos over and over and over again. It takes time, but it will come eventually. The nice moments with your partner are only one part of the four-part abuse cycle. But it is still part of the cycle. You will eventually come to see those “nice” times as the abusive moments they are, and not as the “nice, normal” times you wanted to believe they were. Truth will eventually set you free. (((hugs)))

    • Anonymous

      And what do you do if he’s picking up all of the balls (and making you crazy with his new-found patience) and you still don’t want him back? This is where I am. Because then you really look like a crazy woman.

      • Natalie Anne

        After years of negligence, there is going to be broken trust. It’s up to the survivor to decide how she wants to handle that. But you are not obligated to trust or rely on anyone who has broken that trust in chronic ways over a period of years. Many men will “hoover” – try to change their behaviors temporarily in order to win back the one they are losing. It means nothing. Real change will last and benefit them, even if you decide to leave them permanently.

        • T

          This too is my dilemma..good behavior, he found God, actually being thoughtful but I feel well not too much..many years of fear, anxiety, ect.. just so much guilt about breaking up a family with my children. I can’t live with out them. No th even for a day….

    • Christy

      When I left my ex husband, I made a list of all the reasons why I left. Then, when I felt like I was the crazy one, I’d read my list. It helped me. I knew I didn’t want to go back, and the list reminded me of that.

  26. Elaine

    Only someone who has been there will fully get this allegory. Thank you, Natalie, for finding a way to explain what most of us here have experienced! You have a true gift of words and your voice has encouraged my heart many, many times. I am grateful for this site and for the time, energy, and thought you put into it!

    • Natalie Anne

      I’m so glad! It’s therapeutic for me to write these kinds of stories, and I love sharing them with you.

    • Shari

      Yes, my thoughts exactly!



  1. Seven Steps to Getting Out of Your Emotionally Abusive Marriage So You Can Find Hope and Healing - - […] are now convinced that your attempts to make a difference in your relationship never worked, and to think they…

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