Dear Neil: Before marrying my husband, I was concerned with his inability to communicate his feelings, but I hoped that once he left his family he would come out of his shell. After four years of marriage, I found myself lonely and was left to my own devices every weekend because he enjoyed restoring classic cars so much. I decided at that point to start my family because it would give me something to do.
We had 2 children, one of which is autistic, and he leaves the physical and emotional upbringing of our children to me. But in the intervening years his ability to relate to me has all but disappeared. He has not taken me out to dinner for 11 years because I went outside for a cigarette between courses once, which embarrassed him because he was “left alone.” We also haven’t had sex in 11 years. He controls all the money and gives me a set amount for food. He buys car parts and guns, but I haven’t bought new clothes in years. Unfortunately, I am a smoker, and he maintains that since I spend so much money on cigarettes I don’t deserve any more money for myself. I have given up smoking several months at a time, several times, but he hasn’t even noticed.
I haven’t worked in 19 years, but have done a great job with my kids. If I leave him, my living standard will drop considerably, but I am thinking there is no future in staying with a man who is emotionally unavailable to me. Do you think there is any hope to revive our marriage?
Very Alone in Wellington, New Zealand
Dear Wellington: It is not easy to advise a woman who hasn’t worked in a long time (and who is the mother of a special needs child) to leave her husband and go it alone on a reduced income. But it is also hard to imagine you and your husband being close again, because you’re describing him as so isolated and detached—and the two of you as so distant. It certainly doesn’t sound as if he loves you at all.
Why did you allow your marriage to get where it is today without forcing some changes? If, for instance, you had long ago insisted on more couple time together, far more weekend time together, dinners out (maybe without cigarettes), more romance, more communication—and if you had confronted the sexual issue when it arose—things might not have gotten so cold between the two of you. You have clearly felt extremely disempowered in your marriage, which is very unfortunate.
So here’s what you can do now. First, tell your husband (privately, without your kids around) exactly how you feel. Tell him that you feel that your marriage is dead, that it distresses you about the lack of warmth, friendship, closeness, romance and touch, and that you’d like the two of you to resuscitate your marriage. Tell him that it is painful to be married this way, and that you’re feeling very hurt and rejected.
Then ask him what he would need from you in order to warm up. He has clearly been hurt, disappointed or disillusioned by his marriage, or he wouldn’t have shut down so completely. So ask him to talk about what has turned him off so completely, and then invite a conversation about what would need to happen in order for the two of you to warm up to each other. You might also ask what has disappointed him about your marriage—and about you.
Let him talk. You cannot afford to get defensive or angry at what you hear from him—that will shut the communication down further, and you don’t need any more of that. He has trouble enough communicating his feelings, and you don’t want to give him any more reason to emotionally clam up. When he is finished, it would then be appropriate for you to talk about what you want or need in order to feel closer and warmer as well.
You have the right to insist on certain things in a marriage. Engagement. Affection. Romance. Time together. Benefit of the doubt. A willingness to work things out together so both of you are reasonably happy and content. An understanding and agreement that both partner’s needs and wants are important, and that it can’t just work well for one partner but not for the other. Nobody grows closer by agreeing to live almost completely separate lives from each other.
If he refuses to engage in this conversation, or he acts as if he doesn’t want the relationship to be closer or warmer, it would be safe to assume that nothing is likely to change in your marriage, and then you can decide whether or not you wish to remain married to him. You are right in assuming that there is no future in staying married to a man who is emotionally unavailable to you. That may be far worse than living on a reduced income.