Dear Neil: Everything seems to point to the fact that my 30 year marriage is dead and I should leave my husband. But I keep thinking that something will happen and everything will change.
About 10 years ago, he received a sizable inheritance, and from then on things started to change. He became secretive, controlling and verbally abusive. One time he said: “I’m going to make you so miserable that you’ll have to leave.” Recently he lost his temper and yelled at me to “get out of my house” (it belongs to both of us). Another problem is that he maintains that I am fat. But I am a mountain climber (I trekked to Everest Base Camp last year) and I am in great shape. All the same, he maintains he is not attracted to me, and we have not had intimate relations in many months. Indeed, we hardly ever touch.
Why do I persist in holding onto the dream that something will change and our marriage will be revived?
Should I Throw in the Towel? in Golden, Colorado
Dear Towel: A relationship can be profoundly unfulfilling but still feel familiar and stable—and still feel like the two of you belong together. Feeling like the two of you belong together can keep a couple trapped in a relationship long after it has grown frigid, unfriendly and unloving. The distance between you and your husband appears to be a long time in the making, and perhaps even more troubling than the sexual distance is the emotional distance between the two of you.
Ever since his inheritance came through 10 years ago, he has been telling you he is not happy in the marriage, and you have either ignored that message or you have not taken effective action on it. So your husband, who clearly has his own issues and apparently isn’t strong enough to leave you, has progressively withdrawn and has become increasingly angry and hostile toward you.
A relationship requires emotionally checking in with each other. It is important—and maybe essential—to ask your spouse such questions as: “How are you feeling about us?” or How am I doing as your wife?” or “Is anything troubling you about me or about our relationship that we need to address?” or “Are you getting your needs met in this relationship, and if not, what would you like different?” These are check-in questions, ways of staying in touch, emotionally speaking. They are vital so a couple can address issues, hurt feelings, frustrations and resentments. Otherwise issues and hurt feelings can grow big very quickly.
Right now, he’s pushing you away and dropping not-so-subtle hints that he’d like you to move out, and you keep hoping and waiting for everything to clear up. But the issues or conflicts are not clearing up on their own, and unless you take the bull by the horns and directly force a dialogue with your husband about the state of your marriage, this scenario is likely to continue in the direction it has been heading.
It is unclear to me whether your relationship has passed the point of no return, but at the minimum, you’re going to have to ask him what’s eating at him, why he has withdrawn and why he has grown more and more angry with you. What does he want you to do differently, stop doing or change, and what has he been so unhappy about? What would he need in order to warm up to you?
Only then will you know if your relationship can weather this challenge. But the time for you to just sit on your hands and passively wait for everything to be better is over. This marriage requires you to speak up, uncover what’s wrong and to attempt to fix it. No amount of hope in the world is going to replace effective action.