Dear WholeFamily Counselor,
I have been married 15 years and have two children, ages six and 14.
Over the past 15 years, every time my wife has found things about the marriage or me that she doesn't like, she has either said that she has no love for me, or that she wants a divorce. Each time I have accepted blame and fault for the problems, and have made numerous promises to change. I have finally realized that throughout our marriage I have been the first to apologize and amend.
My friends have told me that I am not assertive enough and that my wife treats me like dirt. They are trying to convince me to get divorced. I can't; it goes against everything I believe.
A frequent example is that every time that she wants something for herself and the house I am always the one to work more in order to come up with the extra money. I never demanded that she work full time. In my mind, I wanted to show her that I would do anything for her.
To back up a bit here, the first time she wanted a divorce, my inability to succeed in business was her reason. Her response to this was to enroll in nursing school. Her final word was that I could stay with her until she graduated in three years but then I would have to go. Mind you, I was expected to be the one who paid for the schooling and all of the family expenses, because she swore she would not work while attending school.
Within nine months, we were reconciled -- afterwards I changed every aspect of my life, spiritually, career, etc. She graduated with her nursing degree and we had our second child, a son, bought a home and settled into a "normal" life. We seemed to be happy.
She had an illness that lasted two years, and after surgery, she was well. For four months of that time, she was absolutely dependent on me. After recovery I was "left in the dust," because she wanted to be independent. I felt alone, and found myself a short time later in an affair -- the dumbest thing I ever did.
I got myself out of that situation and professed my love for my wife, and promised that I would never again do that. I was putting my energy back into our marriage and family. Profuse apologies and a great deal of work building a new business were what I assumed to be the best way for me to make a change.
In the 18 months since the affair ended, I tried as often as possible to be "good." We'd meet for lunch; do more things together, etc. I made constant efforts to let her know that I loved her.
One day in April she left to have lunch with a friend, all cheerful, and as she went out the door, she kissed me and said, "I love you." Two hours later the same day it was as if another person had occupied her body -- and she again said she wanted out the marriage. I of course asked why. Every reason she cited was something that she had never even mentioned to me. It was everything from money to sex.
I am now at a point that I have given up on further discussion until she wants to seriously engage. During this time, I have reflected on some of the things that have happened. I often have thought that she may be involved in an extramarital affair. Many of her actions make me suspicious, such as sleeping on the couch for the last six months, not allowing me to see her naked and refusing to have anything to do with me. Other times I think she's just emotionally shutting down.
What is also distressing to me is the fact every night she puts our son to bed and crawls in with him and sleeps there for two or three hours, then gets up to go to the couch. My daughter just turned 14 and often expresses her disgust with her mother, especially about how her brother is often left unattended to do as he pleases.
The fact is I love my wife and my family, and whether rational or not I follow my faith and will endure almost anything to see this through once more.
Any advice you have will be appreciated.
Willing to Endure Anything
Dear Willing to Endure Anything,
It sounds like you're in a tough position. Your faith, which is very dear to you, is limiting your ability to respond to this situation. The importance of preserving your marriage appears to be an overriding value for you. You sound very adamant about not "letting this relationship go" regardless of the humiliation or loneliness you must endure.
Furthermore, with all the effort that you're investing in order to stay married, it would seem to me that divorce would not only be a religious failure for you but a personal one as well. Sometimes, however, divorce is the best solution. It is a painful, yet realistic, acknowledgment of irreconcilable differences and a decision to end the pain.
Your wife sounds very angry and vengeful towards you. She's obviously been dissatisfied with the relationship for a long time. What's not clear is why.
In either case -- your own self-esteem must be suffering greatly. You and she both deserve to be treated with mutual care and dignity. Unfortunately, you have become positioned in this relationship as the "less than worthy one," or the one who must beg for attention and affection.
Moreover, given her withdrawal from you emotionally and sexually, I would wonder, like your friends, what besides your religious convictions are prompting you to stay in this relationship?
In general, I usually like to strongly encourage couples to work things out, despite the current discomfort. However, when abuse is involved (physical or mental), my immediate response is to encourage the abused spouse to get out. Then once you have distanced yourself from the daily abuse and humiliation, you can then "safely" get together and talk about what changes must occur; without fearing that your "self" will be overwhelmed and/or discounted in the process.
Any sort of humiliation and/or disrespect that one party willingly endures in a relationship is likely to impact negatively on his or her self-esteem, and lead to further criticism and disrespect from the abusing party.
In other words, if you behave like a doormat, it is quite likely that you will be treated like one as well! Your use of phrases like: "changed every aspect of my life for her," "left in the dust" or "once again begging to be let back in" suggest to me that you feel worthless and discounted in her eyes. This is not the way to win your wife's love and respect. In marriage and relationships in general, we must strive for win/win. Nothing else works.
Since divorce is not an acceptable solution for you, the question then is: "What are the possibilities for change?" Here are some options to choose from:
1. Achieving mutual agreement, working on changing the tenor of the relationship through counseling or marital therapy.
2. Learning to adjust to living in a loveless or "intimacy-less" relationship.
3. Going to marital therapy on your own if she is not interested in being in marital therapy and learning how to value yourself and stop humiliating yourself in order to buy love.
There is no guarantee, of course, that therapy will resolve your problems; but at least it will provide for a safe and neutral arena for clarifying and expressing your mutual feelings and desires.
The outcome of therapy may be that the two of you end up choosing to live in some sort of muted, tension filled separation (kind of a "cold peace"). This may in fact prompt you or her to some sort of extramarital arrangements, and/or to choose to reside in separate places while maintaining the official "institution" of your marriage for religious reasons.
In any event regardless of whether or not you and your wife reconcile, I would strongly advise you to focus personally in therapy on how you are setting yourself up to be "taken advantage of."
Another area of concern: It is bad for your children and your marriage to involve them in this conflict.
Your wife's seeming "alliance" with your son, will only further serve to undermine his esteem for you. Likewise, your siding with your daughter will only exacerbate the already tense relations she has with her mother and will disrupt the healthy and necessary process of adolescent separation and growth.
One of the best things the two of you could do for your children would be to model for them a mature and mutually responsible resolution of your conflict, by avoiding pettiness, rancor, and mutual disrespect.
In summary, try to keep your needs and feelings in perspective, clarify the real situation, and then do what you have to do to take care of yourself and your children and permit your wife to do the same.
Marc Garson MSW