Is Staying Stuck a Choice? When your Spouse Won’t Change

by | Dec 12, 2022 | Sexual Intimacy | 20 comments

Merchandise is Here!

We all want amazing lives filled with joy and passion and wholeness.

Who wouldn’t want that? But too often that is not what people experience.

I’ve been sitting in my yellow chair trying to write the final post for our “digging yourself out of the pit” series, and whatever I wrote I didn’t like. So I went on Facebook, and found something my good friend Sarah McDugal from Wilderness to WILD wrote, and I decided to take a whole different approach to this morning’s post!

Sarah is addressing abuse survivors here, talking about making the choice to grow after trauma. Please listen to her, and then I want to talk about how this can apply to us even if we’re not abuse victims:

 

I have noticed a growing trend toward crying “victim-blame” at any suggestion that trauma survivors might benefit from self-assessment at some point in the healing process.

While NO abused person is responsible for *causing* their own abusive relational dynamic, that doesn’t mean that survivors should be considered exempt from reaching a place of intentional consideration of their own coping habits, thought patterns, and belief systems, in order to grow.

If we act as though victims of trauma have no need to self-reflect, no arena in which to improve, no expectation of post-traumatic growth — we are devaluing victims’ ability to overcome, to learn new tools of discernment, and to prevent harmful things from happening beforehand next time.

There are various profiles of victims — some fit neatly into a “self-value deficiency” paradigm (similar to what my friend Andrew J. Bauman recently has discussed) while others may have a strong sense of self-worth but were strongly conditioned by their teachings or belief systems to accept subpar treatment in the name of being a “good wife”. Others possess a very strong sense of self/identity, yet are trapped in the cognitive dissonance of the alternating charm/harm of the abuser, plus they are highly loyal and conscientious individuals who have an inner drive to stick to their own vows regardless of the behavior of the abuser, as a matter of internal principle.

Of course we all agree that no abuse is the fault of the victim.

ALL abuse is the result of the abuser choosing to mistreat another person and to misuse their power and influence for harm.

That being said, it is ALSO an important part of post-trauma growth to take the time to discover more about oneself in relationship to surviving abuse. (This cannot be done during a season when a victim needs safety, it must wait until they have achieved stability and are in a place of strength.)

Regardless of which profile a person fits into, it is crucial to take time to gently self-assess, to self-reflect, and to thoughtfully identify what aspects played a role in their abusive experience.

(ETA: This does not necessarily refer to the victim’s actions. Answers to self assessment on this could include:

  • my church’s teachings
  • my family’s expectations
  • my age and innocence
  • my isolation from options
  • my conscientious desire to do right
  • my lack of tools/resources
  • my social conditioning/belief systems
  • etc etc etc

These are not placing blame on the victim, but it is eye-opening to assess the overall contributing factors AFTER reaching a safe, stable, strong position on the other side.)

In doing this, we learn more about ourselves, we learn more about our ability to read and rely on others, we learn more about the subconscious belief systems that may have increased our vulnerability.

Learning these things about ourselves and our environmental conditioning is essential to breaking the cycles, to internal healing, to lasting wholeness that is not laced with bitterness or imbalance.

Sarah McDugal--Wilderness to WILD

Facebook

Sarah is saying that it’s important to see how dynamcis in our own lives may have contributed to the problems that we face, so that we open up the possibility for change in the future.

I think she’s so right, and that’s what I want to say today also to people who feel as if they’re in a pit, and their spouse won’t change, and so they’re stuck in this pit.

Last week we talked about how we need to take responsibility for our own stuff that dug that pit deeper. But what if your spouse won’t take responsibility? What if your spouse seems content to sit in the pit?

Your wholeness does not rest on your spouse’s shoulders.

This is a hard one to understand or internally feel, because our spouses affect us so deeply. This is the person you love most in the world; you want them to love you too. You want them to care that they are hurting you. You want them to show that they value you.

And that’s what I see in the heart-wrenching comments over and over again in the blog, by people who are hurt by spouse’s inactions.

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Now, if that hurt is due to a spouse’s abuse, due to marital coercion, due to porn use–please, please see a licensed counselor, call a domestic abuse hotline, draw boundaries. You do not have to submit yourself to abuse, or to betrayal, or to assault. Please. For people in dangerous, emotionally destructive marriages we recommend reading Gretchen Baskerville’s The Lifesaving Divorce

But let’s assume that it’s more that your spouse has no libido and won’t address it. That they hate sex and won’t talk about why. That they have cut themselves off emotionally.

That hurts. That feels insurmountable.

But you still have choices. 

I want to talk for the rest of this post to people who are choosing to stay, because that’s the majority on this blog. Their spouse is doing something that hurts them, but they don’t want to blow up the marriage. They want the spouse to fix it! 

Now, obviously some may just choose to leave, because the hurt is too great. I understand.

But assuming you did not choose to leave ,then what?

Well, first, realize that staying is also a choice.

The Choice to Leave

At its most basic, you can leave. So why don’t  you leave? Because you are making a choice that something else is better.

Maybe you think, I don’t want my kids to split up their lives between two homes, and so I am staying because I’m going to give my kids the best life possible.

Or, I enjoy the life that we’ve built with our church and our community and our house, and I wish sex were better, but I’m not willing to lose all of those other things.

 

The Choice to Cut Yourself Off Emotionally From Your Spouse

Your spouse may be hurting you by cutting you off sexually, and you coud, of course, retreat emotionally. But maybe you decide not to.

Maybe you realize: I am choosing to remain emotionally connected to my spouse, as much as I am able, because even though I want a better sex life, I still love my spouse and I don’t want to lose the relationship I do have.

Or you realize: I know that my spouse is so wounded because of how he or she grew up, and aversion to sex is not a conscious choice. And so I will act as Jesus to my spouse and I will love them regardless, because I am choosing to do that.

Or you say: I know that much of my spouse’s dislike of sex is due to how I treated my spouse for the first fifteen years of our marriage. I made sex all about me, and now she has a really hard time even imagining sex could be good. And that is on me. And so even though I want something different, I am going to choose to love my spouse because it’s the right thing to do.

When you realize you have choices, bitterness can be eased.

Your spouse is not the one keeping you trapped; you have chosen to continue with this relationship because there are things that you value more than punishing your spouse for not giving you a good sex life.

And that mental shift can also ease some burdens and pressure on your spouse, which can actually change the dynamic so that more healing is possible on both sides.

But then, when you feel trapped again, you can take a deep breath, and say, “Today, I am choosing this because I love the life I have with my kids, or I love other aspects of my marriage I’m not willing to give up or I’m privileged that God is using me to show my spouse unconditional love.”

Does it make everything better? Nope.

It really doesn’t.

But it’s also the only route to change.

 

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When you realize that you are choosing something now, it opens up the possibilities for more choices in the future.

Instead of going through life thinking of all the ways your spouse is trapping you, you can learn about boundaries and choices and pursuing growth and joy on your own. That can be contagious. But even it’s not, it helps you get in a better place so that, in the end, you won’t feel so trapped.

I wanted to write a post on how you can magically get your spouse to change.

But there is no magic. There is no magic formula, and there are no magic words. Not even God forces people to change or makes people change! Everyone has free will.

So the question is: What are we going to choose? If we focus on that question–on growth, rather than feeling trapped–then bitterness goes away and life opens up.

I know this is a really hard ask. But I’d encourage all of you today who feel stuck, to ask, “Why am I deciding to stay? Why am I deciding to love anyway?” And you may just realize that you actually are making a choice because there are other things you value, too. Your life is not just your sex life, and those other things that you value matter too.

I hope that may help you have a mind shift. I hope this helps you pursue change and growth rather than feeling stuck. I know it’s a big ask. I know it’s hard. But it’s also the only route through that I can see.

 

When Your Husband Won't Change

What do you think? Is this too big an ask? Have you found concentrating on choices to be empowering or not? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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20 Comments

  1. Stefanie

    This series has been really helpful. Lots of good stuff to think about.

    I don’t think it’s a hard ask because it’s just reality. Nobody is forced to stay or leave. And people will make their choices based on their individual circumstances and values. The reason it feels heavy and hard is because there’s no good answer.

    For me, it feels like a sucky choice between two bad options. I realized awhile ago that I wasn’t going to get out of my situation without someone’s heart breaking – either mine or my kids’. And I’m not willing to break my kids’ hearts.

    Also, listening to the John Oliver segment on the World Cup in Qatar put things into perspective for me. There are a millions of people whose lives suck a lot worse than mine. And then I thought about the mom of the 20yo young man working in slave conditions to build the stadium, and how he took this option because he was looking for work and I guess there were no opportunities where he lived, and the poor mom whose life was probably hard growing up in poverty and having a kid and then the heartbreaking realization that she can’t save her kid from the pain of poverty. Her kid is going to carry the same pain she carries.

    And on a smaller scale in my own life, it’s a hard realization that the gospel is not a fairy tale with a happy ending. God is not coming to save me or my kids from a hard life and the best I can do is try to minimize the damage. God did not save me from a bad situation, despite my having done everything in my power to do things “God’s way”
    For me, minimizing the damage means trying to give my kids a happy childhood and trying to give them information that will lead to them having an easier time in their significant relationships in their adulthoods. So better sex ed, information about consent and healthy boundaries, etc. (But honestly I kinda feel like the blind leading the blind).

    Sorry about always being the Debbie Downer in your comment thread.

    Reply
    • Phil

      Stefanie – look dont know who you are and dont know your story. One thing I can tell you is the absolute peace I am witnessing with my friend who’s wife finally left him after 25 years. In his case while he has done MUCH wrong in the relationship she was actually the abuser. As a qualification for myself I work with men recovering from sex addiction. Most men I deal with are not the dominant one in their relationship. The dominant ones dont tend to stick around and especially with me. Thats because I call them on their crap and they dont like it so they leave. Back to the story. With my help my friend created boundaries that made his wife have no choice but to leave. Divorce was in process but at this point it has just turned into her living on her own with no contact with him by her choice and she shows up for the kids when she feels like it. It was literally off the wall bat crap crazy at his house for months. I mean hell Stefanie. Sometimes he called me 3-4 times a day. It was a nightmare. I could tell you stories you wouldn’t believe. It was exactly the fear he had which you also apparently share. He thought keeping his family together was so important. And he is a hierarchal marriage guy who’s faith essentially does not allow divorce unless its physical abuse. He was willing to take her mental abuse for the family. But yet it got so bad he had to so something. Here is what has transpired since she left. His house is PEACEFUL. The kids are improving in their behaviors and the fruit is ripening. His house is now a safe haven for even his mother in law! He just had the 2nd best Thanksgiving of his life and he is at peace. His kids are safe (no threats to put them in a mental institution) and at peace and relationships are being repaired. It is so cool to watch. Getting there sucks Stefanie. I am walking proof of that. My story is for another day. Its just a story Stefanie. Its a hope story. Sometimes we need to be lead to the other side of the cage PODCAST 169! Praying for you Stefanie and your kids!

      Reply
      • Stefanie

        Thanks Phil.

        There’s no abuse going on in my home. Just a lot of unhappiness and disappointment, mostly about sex, but it’s affected the rest of our relationship. Healing has been elusive, so I’m learning to live with the pain. My husband is a good man and the kids love him. Their world is happy and secure right now. My kids would be crushed if we split up. I won’t do that to them.

        Reply
        • Phil

          Best Wishes Stefanie. The best I can say is dont give up hope. It sounds like you have one major sticking point that has brought unhappiness to your relationship. I am no expert by any means but usually there is more than one thing going on. Shelia preaches physical, emotional and spiritual. I come from that line of thought too. For me and my wife there are so many layers that have kept as at a distance even though we have been working together in our marriage and our family for the last 20 years. My part/damage was large and her part has been what appears as not feeling safe to open up. It has taken 10 years for me/us to get to this point where we are finally on the same page. My hope for you is it does not take that long. Do however keep looking for a new path. I promise you there is a trail with your name on it 😬

          Reply
  2. Sedge by the Lakeshore

    Good post. Thank you, Sheila. And thank you, Sarah, if you are reading this. I know your words were meant for a romantic relationship, but parts of it can also apply to family who keeps hurting you.

    Like the part about deciding how much to engage with someone on an emotional level. Fortunately I no longer have to interact with toxic people on a daily basis. So this is helping me process the past.

    Reply
    • Nessie

      Sedge- I can transfer a lot of this advice to my family members as well. Healthy is healthy and toxic is toxic. Details just get tweaked a bit. It really does lead one closer to peacefulness.

      Reply
  3. Jo

    I think removing the pressure of the decision by acknowledging “Today, I am choosing this” is vital. Frankly, there aren’t as many resources as needed for spouses with kids to leave poor situations. It is often choosing between multiple poor choices and empowering people to decide when a different choice is needed is so important for that individual to regain autonomy.
    I’ll never forget the call my sister told me she had filed for divorce. I waited years for that decision but the timing was up to her.
    My sister didn’t have family she could bring the kids to live with for any amount of time. She gave up work and income when marrying. Do other people talk about their resources before marrying?

    Reply
  4. Phil

    Sheila – this dances around your subject for the day but here it is. I am the abuser in my relationship with my wife. Our past has abuse in it. I sold it to her and she bought it and I even got her to “like it”. How sick is that? After the first 10 years of recovery working on myself I realized that my past behaviors complimented by snap shot behaviors of the past in current daily activity kept my wife in Ignorance. Aka not aware and not safe. I was re-enforcing the past with current behaviors I had inability to change…and the flash backs have kept us in ever lasting cyclical patterns for 20 years now. Since those first 10 years I have been trying to repair our relationship for the past 10 years. She has claimed for almost 10 years now that the past is the past and I just love you for who you are. She read the GSR and said I am not that person. My thoughts? What makes you so super human that you can walk through the s*** I handed you and not be effected? Safety is key here. She has not felt safe to open that door I SLAMMED SHUT 20 some years ago. So she became numb to it. She wasnt even aware that she was effected. But today there is life! Today there is hope! Her new line is You dont know what you dont know until you know it! PODCAST 169! Im on an incredible journey right now Sheila. Its for me and its for US – GRACE & PHIL. I am at the base of the mountain. It is achievable. I see light at the end of the tunnel! PODCAST 169!

    Reply
  5. Jo

    I wanted to respond to Tyna on Facebook but can’t for privacy for my sister.

    For women in these situations, I cannot recommend enough the practical communication techniques developed by Bill Eddy for working with high conflict people. This practice allowed my sister to see patterns in her communication with her spouse and respond in ways that would move forward and establish boundaries.

    For example, his BIFF method (Brief, Informative, Friendly, Firm) gave her a guideline for her responses that prevented her from taking words personally and shifted her focus to the control she had with her words-which took minutes instead of endless time being stuck in the emotions and unfairness of the situation. The shortened time allowed her to get back to taking care of herself and her kids.

    I would liken these communication tools to Sheila’s practical suggestions at the end of each chapter in TGSR and the final chapter.

    TGSR really helped understanding the relationship but the High Conflict techniques helped with the day to day communications.
    https://www.highconflictinstitute.com/

    Reply
    • R

      Wow, Jo, thank you for sharing about the BIFF approach! I’d never heard of this acronyn before, nor had I heard of HCP (high conflict people) before. Lately I have been using an approach along the lines of BIFF with someone in my life, just had no idea it was a tool — or that perhaps I am dealing with an HCP. Reading the examples on their website was eye-opening! I think this approach really does encourage self-regulation and “bringing our best” to a tough situation, which is so in-line with Sheila’s article here.

      Reply
  6. Chuck

    This is really good. I see many of the principles of Dr. David Schnarch’s Differentiation Theory here, which has been a game changer in my marriage and sex life. The concepts of we cocreate the marriage and sex life we have. That we teach other people how to treat us. That we can chose to grow even when our spouse does not. Our spouse may feel this healthy pressure to grow with us.
    TGSR was key to better conversations in our marriage. Thank you! I see the growth in your blog away from simple narratives. Your research is good to help drive better questions, but we need to be careful about simple answers. God bless

    Reply
  7. Debbie

    We are in counseling, I have done a lot of growing and self reflection. I don’t want a sexless marriage but that is what I have. Leaving isn’t an option because we have a son with schizoaffective disorder. Crying helps a lot bu the pit is deep and I see no recovery in this life . Just trying to se purview daily is about all I can do at this poi t

    Reply
  8. Nessie

    “OF COURSE WE ALL AGREE THAT NO ABUSE IS THE FAULT OF THE VICTIM.”
    I think that is sometimes the problem… there are those who *don’t* actually agree, which is why the distinction later on is so important. “(This cannot be done during a season when a victim needs safety, it must wait until they have achieved stability and are in a place of strength.)”

    Some people are taught by the church to look for how they were wrong/how they contributed (like in biblical counselling), the gaslighting of “was it *really* abuse,” etc., while still reeling from the newness and pain, in ongoing danger, etc. And I know I have been overly sensitive to the prospect of seeing how I can change my own things because I was being pushed to do so before I could consider myself safe. That compounded the healing process greatly.

    “…there are no magic words. Not even God forces people to change or makes people change! Everyone has free will.”
    Exactly. I try to use my life situations (husband not yet able to join me in healing, bad parenting from my childhood, etc.) to ponder how God perhaps sees us. How frustrated does He get with my behaviors, my stubbornness or lack of insight, my resistance to change, etc. Then I try to increase my compassion for others. It’s easier to treat others better who have hurt me when I understand the hurt I have caused my heavenly Father. It helps me to know that God understands how it feels to be betrayed, to be unloved by the very ones that should love Him. When I really sit in that- how great His love and forgiveness are- it is staggering.

    Reply
  9. n

    It looks to me like God sometimes forces people to change, for their own good. Like Nebuchadnezzar. And Proverbs says He can turn even a king’s heart wherever He wishes. And I’ve known so many testimonies of people who tried to run from truth, but were overtaken by God and got to a place they could no longer refuse to surrender to Him. a
    And then found out about many prayers being offered on their behalf. CS Lewis, Augustine, several people I’ve known personally, etc.

    It’s frustrating that God often chooses to limit Himself and give people enough rope to hang themselves. But I don’t understand why you feel so sure that that’s *always* how He operates.

    Reply
  10. Nathan

    n,

    Yes, God can and does change people’s hearts for them, but I would say that this is VERY rare, since God wants us to have free will.

    Reply
  11. Boone

    A few thoughts and observations based upon over thirty years of practicing mostly family law:

    The demons you know are less scary than the ones you don’t know.
    Sometimes staying in the situation is easier than getting out. Divorce is expensive, traumatizing to all involved and your standard of living is going to drop considerably. You have to ask yourself if the garbage you’re putting up with all that bad when balanced against getting out. I don’t mean enduring physical abuse.

    At least get with your spouse and negotiate the terms and conditions of the new relationship. Also understand that this situation isn’t going to last. Eventually one or both of you is going to tire of the arrangement.
    If sex is off the table in the new world order understand that both of you are now vulnerable to making an understanding friend with whom eventually sex will not be off the table.

    If either spouse unilaterally decides to curtail or flat or stop any particular sexual activity that they have heretofore enthusiastically practiced, and practiced same to their spouse’s great delight, common decency demands at least an explanation of your decision.

    Men marry women thinking they won’t change. They will. The only thing that won’t change is the rule that everything changes.

    Women marry a man setting out to change him. A lot of times they’re successful and a lot of those times they wind up hating what they’ve created. The very things that attracted them to their man in the first place are gone and the creation is a poor substitute.

    Where I’m from men are born with the expectation that they know how to do three things, shoot a gun, repair any internal combustion engine and sexually satisfy a woman. I assure you that all three take careful study and practice. It’s OK to seek help. Books are your friends. Read and learn. I advise against any work authored by anybody with the the title Reverend for all three subjects.

    If you have head problems deal with them. Your souse can’t fix you. You can’t fix you and no preacher or biblical counselor can fix you. Trusting any of those three to do the job is like bringing a knife to a gun fight. Get with somebody licensed and trained to deal with your situation. Your marriage will improve as well as your life in general.

    If your spouse is hitting you get out and get out now!!! They’re going to come back after it’s over all crying and apologizing and tell you that it’ll never happen again. Right then they mean every word but the next time the get mad here we go again. It’s not going to stop. Move on!!! Get an order of protection !!!! Get out before you wind up dead!!!

    Reply
  12. Lisa

    This is a really important blog post. And, knowing that this is NOT about abusive relationships, but about relationships with very deep disappointments, is such an important distinction. How many of us fully know what we were “signing up for” when we got married? I am not talking about abuse. Like this blog post, I’m talking about the hurts and wounds we brought with us into the marriage as well as difficulties and traumas that happen after marriage. How many young women don’t even know they have disordered eating when they get married? Many. How many young women have internalized sexual harassment? Many. How many people grew up in a dysfunctional home and have complicated issues of which they aren’t even aware? Many. How many of us expected to have healthy children but found ourselves facing infertility? Our children with disabilities? Or children with mental illness? Marriage is sometimes quite disappointing. If we are safe but deeply disappointed, and we are choosing to stay, we need to stay well.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Thank you, Lisa.

      Reply
  13. Nathan D. Wachsmuth

    This is something I know I struggle with, not personally, but in relation to my own mother. She is a wonderful, God-filled woman who sacrifices constantly and would always be last to eat, last to take care of herself (probably to a self-neglectful level but that’s a conversation for a different day). But I was an instrument of her abuse for years, and I regret that.

    I think it’s been going on for my whole life, but I only really connected the dots now. When I was around 12, that’s when my dad let me in on what had been going on — my mom had apparently gained weight (“let herself go”) and was sinning against him by not “being the woman he married anymore”. This led to emotional infidelity (thankfully never sexually as far as I can tell) where he befriended another woman and she became his closest friend and confidante. And because I was impressionable, I took his word as Gospel truth; he was my hero, my dad, and I ate it up hook, line, frying pan. He would drive us to school and lock the car doors so she couldn’t say goodbye to us each day as we left, occupy all our time so we barely had a meaningful relationship with her, and slept separate from her (at 40), sometimes so far away he was in the basement, not due to ease or comfort, but because he was disgusted with her. It got to a point where he convinced my sister and I that she wasn’t safe to live with (which is completely crap; she’s the breadwinner, mind you).

    The worst thing he did was convincing my church that she was in the wrong and that she was denying him his “right”, and when the only pastor my mother could go to passed away (this is a man she brought a shoebox of index cards with every cruel thing and action he had done in the last few years; who said, “I’ve seen enough to know this is wrong,” when the cards piled up on the table), she was completely lost. He never had church discipline, and remained a worship leader and respected member of the church. The lead pastor bought his story, and didn’t even let my mother get a word in, so she was isolated.

    I honestly think he wanted her to divorce him, so he could take us kids (the only thing he loved), and leave her behind. And he convinced young me that this was the right path for the family. Thank God I eventually went to college and saw what real love means, and learned to fully reject what he’d taught me!

    Well, they never did divorce. And he’s never truly apologized. He says he’s changed and that he feels closer to the Spirit, but I find myself angry a lot lately because it seems so hollow. This man emotionally abused my mother for the better part of AT LEAST 15 years (if not longer; I have no idea if the issues existed before I went to elementary school, but I imagine they were always there) and gets away with a fresh slate because he says he changed? I admit, he reads his Bible more often now and seems to be somewhat more loving in person, so I hope it really is a heart change, but I don’t know if this was worth it. Has there been true reconciliation? God, I hope so. But sometimes I wonder if instead of enduring it, maybe she should have divorced him. Reconciliation is amazing (if its true), but was the reconciliation earned or forced? It feels like she had every Biblical right to get out of there and learn to protect herself. Out of anger, I sometimes wish she had. That’s probably wrong, but if one person sympathizes or at least understands my story, I hope that they understand that it is not your fault that you became physically unattractive to your husband or that he loses sexual interest in you because your body changed. Love is a commitment, not some [if this wasn’t Christian there’d be a strong word here] fuzzy feeling you get looking at a supermodel wife (and that goes away when she gains weight).

    This probably isn’t the place for this but I wanted to share that story to help even one woman who feels lost.

    Reply

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