Dear Neil: I have been married for 32 years. My wife wants nothing to do with me, and for the past two years has been sleeping in another room. She gives me the silent treatment until I can’t stand it anymore. It’s been more than a year since we’ve had any intimacy or have even held hands. A year ago she got a job and now spends 12 to 14 hours a day at work. We have almost no contact with our friends, and we do virtually nothing together. I keep asking her to go places or do things with me, but she always makes an excuse not to. Please help. I love my wife very much.
Holding Out in Houston
Dear Holding Out: It is unclear from your letter why your wife has withdrawn from you, but it’s clear that she has. It is also clear that she is very angry with you, because to live the way you’re describing sounds very punishing.
So the first step is simply to acknowledge that you are deeply hurt, that you feel very rejected, that you would like to understand why she is so angry, withdrawn and cold to you—and promise her that you will listen to her and will not argue, interrupt, get angry or respond until she is completely finished. Ask her this on a day when you know she has free time, and when she is not overly tired. If she says that this is not a good time, ask her to give you a better time for the conversation (within the next 24 hours or so), but tell her that the conversation is very important to you.
When the conversation occurs, honor your agreement and listen to her wholly and fully, without arguing, defending yourself or getting upset. I am assuming she has grievances against you that she will air, some of which may have happened a long time ago. Listen to everything—large and small—because they are driving her withdrawal from you. After she finishes, offer her as much compassion and empathy as you can. Do this even if you feel your wife was hurtful, unfair or wrong. Do not—I repeat do not explain yourself, defend yourself or tell her about her failings or mistakes. You are trying to diffuse issues so the two of you can get through them, not to prove yourself right.
Then ask her what you could do now that would ease her pain or help her reduce her anger. She might say, for example, that she would like an apology or that she would like you to apologize to someone else. Whatever she asks, if it’s at all humanly possible for you to do it, agree to do it, and do it well. You’re wishing to make amends in order to soften her resentment. After she finishes, ask her if there’s anything else that’s bugging her. Listen fully, and explore with her whether she needs additional amends from you. Then tell her that you miss her terribly, and ask what it would take for her to be willing to come back to you—emotionally, physically and in spirit.
If she responds with more requests of you, do them. If she responds by saying that there’s nothing you can do, that she’s not going to come back to you regardless of what you now do—she very likely means it—and that means she has no intention of being close to you again.