Reader Asks: What Do I Do When My Expectations of Marriage Are Not Being Filled?

Dear Neil: I read your recent article about willful blindness, and it brings up an issue I am grappling with in my marriage. I have expectations which are not being met, and I’ve been ignoring a variety of behaviors. My husband and I have virtually no intimacy whatsoever. Other than eating together and watching TV movies together, the only time we do things with each other is when I organize or suggest them. I have tried to talk with him about these issues, but he will just shrug them off saying “I’m not good at that,” or “it’s my low self-esteem,” or “you don’t touch me either.” This last comment is true, because frankly, I’m not sure I love him anymore. As far as I’m concerned, we are just roommates.

I would like to save this marriage and we’ve been to numerous counselors. My question is: should I lower my expectations in order to be happier, continue trying to make changes or just give up and leave him? Perhaps there are other choices I haven’t thought of. Please don’t try asking me to be intimate with him first. I have tried that and I get rejected. It has to come from him. When I ask if he still loves me, he answers “of course,” but often I feel that he is just comfortable with our situation as it is, since we’ve been married for 29 years. Could you advise me?

Forlorn and Lonely in Vail, Colorado

Dear Vail: Virtually everyone would feel their expectations of marriage were being violated if they had your story. And I doubt it will help you to lower your expectations, because you are likely to carry resentment and hurt into the future, and that’s not a very appealing way to live. Most of us have all sorts of expectations about how we’re going to be treated by someone who says they love us—and how we’re going to be better off married than not-married. I am trying to suggest that lowering your expectations is probably not practical long-term.

But before you consider leaving him, perhaps you might try an extremely open and honest conversation with him about how you’re feeling—and what you are needing to be different in the relationship in order for you to feel good about it. The simplest way of doing this is to tell your husband that you would like a serious conversation about the marriage with him, is this a good time for him to talk? (If he says no, then schedule a time with him that would be better.) During this conversation, tell him that you have been growing increasingly unhappy and lonely in the marriage, that it’s hurtful to you that he isn’t affectionate or sexual with you, that it’s painful when he doesn’t invite you to go places or do things together, and that his excuses about not being very good at initiating invitations or about having low self-esteem are no longer acceptable to you as answers.

Then tell him what you would need in order for you to feel closer, more connected and more valued. If, for instance, it would please you if the two of you agreed to a date night once a week where he was in charge of creating new activities, recreational pursuits or fun events, then tell him that. If you want the relationship to grow warmer and more affectionate, offer him guidance about what you need for him to do (or quit doing), and be willing to take 50 percent of the lead until it feels more natural to him.

You guys have fallen out of closeness and connection. The question is about whether both of you are open to rekindling the warmth and closeness, or if your marriage has grown too stale and disconnected for the two of you to put a lot of effort into your relationship any longer.

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