Sunday, September 24, 2006

Dismaying Story #58: Good Fences Make Good Ex's

Dear Andrew,

I have been married to the same person since 1973 and I have put up with a lot of weirdness from this person. My children and I suffered for it and I will never trust him again. I still spot lies and he still blames me for anything that goes wrong. He gets angry over little things, such as following our daughter to a doctor's appointment and she doesn't stay in the same lane ahead of him! I've been to counseling many times, though he would not go. It always ended with, "We've worked through everything with you individually but you have a definite problem with the marriage." He would rather I walk out on him than change, so I left.

Two years ago I moved away from my Florida home to take a good job across the country. Although he was extremely distant emotionally, now he calls me almost every night. He speaks about the kids, grandkids and people I mostly don't know from work or church. Never about us. If I ask a personal question he freezes up and there is a long space of silence and then he will make an excuse to hang up. I enjoy hearing news of the grandkids even though I speak with them often too. I am puzzled as to why he calls me all the time, as when I go "home" to visit, he spends very little time with me. No use to ask why he calls; that would be one of the "forbidden" questions. He says he loves me (rarely) but my idea of love is an intimate relationship and sharing of life together.

Before I left I was miserable and began not liking myself. I was becoming bitter. We never did anything together. When I would ask him to go to lunch he would begrudgingly do it but make me miserable so I stopped asking him to do anything with me. He only rarely ever asked me to do anything with him. If I went it was like a date with a stranger. I hate to go anywhere in a vehicle with him, it's like I'm trapped. One time I asked him to talk to me about finances and he said he was going to church. I said "If you walk out of that door and do not address this, you will have crossed a line in this relationship, closed a door that will never open again." And he left. So I pulled back, contributed toward the household with my income and began to live my own life with him only physically present.

Now I'm miserable being away from my home, my kids, grandkids, college opportunities, just the way of life in the South! I love it there and I hate it here, except I need the good money. If I go back "home" we will need to lead separate lives, financially, emotionally, and in every way. I think I can convert our study to a room for myself. One older daughter with her handicapped son live with us and it would be a hardship for her to lose this economical living space.

I guess I just want a reality check regarding my relationship or lack of it with my spouse, and my plans to return "home" in a couple more years when I can retire.

Signed, Indecisive

Dear Indecisive,

Your relationship with your husband was over long ago but neither of you has fully admitted it. Here is a big clue -- you moved across the country.

And he can't stand it. He doesn't like the fact that you decided whether the two of you would be together, hence his frequent calls. This is the only way he can retain control over whether or not the two of you are in contact. If the two of you don't talk, this is due to your decision to be apart and that won't do. But if you try to steer the conversation anywhere he doesn't want to go ... well he controls that too, doesn't he? Then when you go home he can choose whether to see you or not, so he exercises that choice. Again, he is in control of what happens between you.

You have pulled back from your husband but not all the way. Your letter makes it clear there will never be a loving bond between the two of you, yet you permit him to call all the time, the two of you talk about love, you have not divorced and you are considering moving back in with him. Regardless of your intentions, you are sending out clear signals to him that your marriage still has a chance.

Either you still have hope for your relationship (which I don't believe to be true) or you find it difficult to stand up to your controlling husband and finish what you started. I'd bet big money on the latter.

You need to define appropriate boundaries between the two of you. Start by having a good talk with yourself and admitting that you really do want to be apart from him. Look in the mirror and say the words right out loud.

Then tell him the same thing. Ask for a divorce. Tell him he can't call every day, and back it up by refusing to talk if he calls too frequently. It's great if you can still be friendly, but you need to take back some control and dignity. The bit about receiving news about the grandkids is really an excuse -- you can get that information from other sources. These steps are necessary to permit you to begin healing inside, to move forward to a new emotional place in your life that doesn't include being his wife. You have started that journey but stopped with everything in limbo. You no longer know who you are or where you fit.

Moving back to Florida can work for you. The timing may be dictated by economics, but the most important consideration is to make sure your new relationship with him is well defined with appropriate boundaries. Please, please forget this idea of moving back into the same house. Given the two personalities involved, there is no way you could be in the same physical space every day and have any sort of effective emotional fences. You can afford your own place now, so you can find a way to do the same back in Florida. Even after splitting your assets, you or your ex should be able to work out a way to co-habitate with your daughter and her son. The existing house is not your only option for helping them.

Hopefully taking these steps will help you cast aside the indecisiveness and move forward with renewed confidence.

All the best,


  1. Dr. McAllister, I respect your opinion and knowledge.

    But I wonder, isn't divorce supposed to be the last option? Isn't it something to be avoided if possible? If there's any hope at salvaging a marriage--and I do agree that the current state of affairs between these two cannot be considered a marriage--shouldn't they try? I think there must be a way to form an effective dialogue and figure out what they want.

    If the two of them were married 33 years ago, do either of them stand to gain from being away from each other? She could try to find happiness on her own, but there is no guarantee she will get it. Truly, there is no guarantee she will gain happiness with her "husband" either. However, with equal risk in either case, is this the right junction to give up on the marriage?

    He has not fulfilled his duty as a husband, and it's unclear whether or not she had fulfilled her duty as a wife. The love appears to be absent from their marriage. But don't those marriage vows imply that the two of them do share something profound, that they will always have a chance to recover from tremendous odds?

    There is a significant emotional cost in trying to overcome a challenge such as this. Yet, I think that when two people make that pact, they are promising to always try. I'm not convinced, with the two of them now being so physically distant, that the effort has been there. And I know that may be seen purely as speculation from a person who has no familiarity with the situation, but it requires an effort from both sides. And yet, what stunningly lacks in this story is a stated intention by both husband and wife to commit to making that effort.

    The option of divorce will be there as long as you are alive, but the chance to build something better won't be.

  2. Hi Shan,

    I respect your opinion too and I'm glad you offered it. Like you, I only have the letter to go on. I got the sense there was little hope of salvaging the relationship, but of course I could be wrong since I am always dealing with limited information. In addition to my published response, I also sent an email to the letter writer urging her to make her own judgment for that very reason. I agree that if a marriage can be saved, trying to do so is the best first step. I still wonder, though, whether that is a realistic possibility in this situation. Only the letter writer is in a position to make that final judgment.

    Thanks for your contribution!

  3. I think you have given her good advice. sometimes we are scared to let go and start new lives again. sometimes we stay in a marriage for wrong reasons.

  4. Since I have been divorced for about 10 years now my X has tried to make me his best friend. And while I say its nice to be able to communicate when for so many years we couldnt, I dont let him call the shots. For instance....our class reunion, he wanted to go with me and my friends....I said...then everyone will think we are still together. So I said you can go but we are not sitting together. So thats what we did and at the end of the evening he was mad, because I basically ignored him. But he knew before we went what it would be. he always gets mad at me and I just ignore him for a few weeks and then he calls me. Sometimes when he calls I just say I dont have time to talk and I hang up...sounds mean huh? You have no idea what this man put me through for years. He never did anything with me....I did it with my family and my kids. And when he figured out I was leaving him, then he wanted to change. And now I am very ambivilent about the whole situation. It doesnt bother me, I dont waste time worrying about it, I wish him good health and a happy life. I think we have just been together so long he doesnt quite know what to do without me. I would never want to live with him again, although he did have a slight stroke 2 years ago and when he was recuperating from the hospital I let him stay here so the kids and I could help him, and I knew he would eat better here since I cook and he doesnt. And when he got better and started to drink I told him it was time to go. I had no illusions of granduer about he and I. I just wanted him to get better.

    I dont think I could ever move away from my kids because of any man. If she wants to come home she should. And she should just live her life doing what she is interested in doing..if she wants to live in the same house as him, I guess it shouldnt be a problem, she said he never wants to talk anyway. I think she should do whatever makes her feel best, when they are the Father of your chiildren it is always better to have good communication...but its not always possible.

    Im not sure about saving the marriage....things dont usually change, especially after all these years. People are what they are.

  5. Anonymous7:37 PM

    I've found your blog a few times through other blogs out there and I think it's great. I've added a link to yours on mine. Stop by my blog and say hello if you'd like!!!


  6. Anonymous8:15 PM

    thanks for stopping by andrew!!! i thought that photo was great as well; i stole it from post secret.

    hope you come back and say hello again!!!


  7. Hi Doc, yeah, I see what you are saying. It's a tough call, but not our's to make anyway. I knew your email response would be sure to put the responsibility of the decision in her hands. And who knows, maybe this is a false dichotomy, and the choices to divorce or not divorce aren't her only options. In any event, I hope everything works out for the Indecisive family.

    As an aside, and I recognize you may have intentionally omitted this, whereabouts are you?

  8. Thanks for the visit!!

    Sorry I don't have much to say on the subject at hand. All I can say is you only live once, do what makes you happy. If there are children involved it may be harder but in the end children deserve two happy parents and not a house of hostility.

  9. I think he still loves her and she loves him but he never learned how to love someone the way she wants to be loved.
    The fact that he calls her all the time and is pleasant with her is proof that he misses her and the fact that she accepts his calls says the same.
    Nowhere in her letter does she say she is scared of him but she doesn’t like the way she is being treated.
    Should Edith have divorced Archie Bunker?
    Did he not love his wife and family even though he was a pain in the ass?
    Sometimes divorce is only running away from what you have because you can’t get what you want.
    She wants him to change not to leave him.
    I bet if they get a divorce they would regret it

  10. From what she wrote, it sounds as if they already are divorced in every way except on paper--what marriage is she saving? She's already taken a job in another state and moved away without him, for crying out loud. She also says she's worked through what she can with counselors but that he refuses to participate, on his own or as a couple. What more is she supposed to do? It's not a marriage if she's in it alone, which it sounds like she is if all he'll talk about is "small talk" and not any of the issues between them. He may have other issues but if he is unwilling to address them or to allow her to try to help him, there is only so much she can do.

    Of course, nothing is as simple as it appears on a blog letter, but I, for one, could not blame her for making this divorce official and moving on with her life.

  11. I ahve a close family realitve who is exactly in the same position and I had even thought of writing to you about it to you Andrew! They have been married for over 26 years. But the wife has been complaining about her husband for almost 90% of the time in these years. Around 10 years back maybe, the marriage seemed to have completely broken down because she said she had no trust in him. But they still hang on together. Don't you think that they could be staying together because they are getting some kind of need fulfilled, even though the payout is negative?