Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Dismaying Story #122: Married Roommates

Dear Andrew,

First, I need to tell you, I didn't love my husband when we married. He was my roommate for many years, playing pseudo dad to my two small children from a previous marriage until the kids moved out on their own. We are both in our 50's (I'm 5 years older). For 10 years we were just roommates who had sex once in a while. Then, it got too expensive to live where we were (California) and so we moved to his home town in the Midwest so he could help out his parents who were getting too old. We didn't feel right about imposing on them though we lived with them for about a year. We started looking for a place to move and decided to buy a house. In the Midwest, people are very conservative (I'm a liberal) so I was shocked we would get turned down for a house just because we weren't married. How stupid! Anyway, I said, "Well, if that's what they need us to be then let's get married." And we did at the courthouse. No kisses, no romance, no honeymoon. It was all very practical. We really were pretty good roommates, huh? Or was that taking it too far? Anyway, we got a house and settled down four years ago.

Now I am trapped in a marriage that has no love in it. We do care for each other but there's no love, no intimacy. We're still roommates. We even sleep in separate rooms because he works nights and I work days. I really want to leave him now but after 14 years how do I tell him I need someone I love and who really loves me and feels passion? I don't want to hurt him but I have needs that this relationship just doesn't meet.

On weekends we do chores, eat together, watch a little tv together. Then we go to sleep. There are no hugs or kisses. There are no activities we do together. He is a couch potato and I go off to the gym. That's all we see of each other. It's been this way for 4 years and I need someone at home when I get home at night (he's gone by the time I get home). I need someone to hold me, encourage me, kiss me, play with me. I don't just need someone to do chores with. I need someone there to talk to and to be a companion to me, sharing ideas, having sex, wanting to do things with me. I feel like I'm to blame and it means, "you made your bed, now you've got to sleep in it." But I see it as though I'm already living alone as it is. How different would it be if I just left?

In fact, one time a few years ago, I left on a trip to do genealogical research for a whole week. He hardly noticed I had been gone. Didn't even ask me where I had gone to or what I had seen. Maybe we really are still roommates!

I need to make up my mind what to do. He isn't mean or dreadful or lazy. He does his share and works hard, just like I do. But there has to be more to marriage than this. In my first marriage, my spouse beat me up in front of the children. That took a lot of time to get over that one. So maybe I was just looking for a roommate, not another husband. I really made a big mistake when I suggested marriage, didn't I.

Don't know what to do. I'm over menopause and should be ready to retire soon. But instead, I'm eager to find someone to be intimate with, etc., have adventures with. I want some fun times with someone. I won't be able to find that kind of retirement with this guy. That's for sure.

Signed, Bored to Tears

Dear Bored to Tears,

Yours is a story of settling. Fourteen years ago you both settled for a relationship of convenience. It was easy to be together -- no commitment, no work, no stress.

And like you said, no joy, no love ... no “Umph!”

If this were twelve years ago I would advise you to try putting more into the relationship. In many cases when people feel they have settled, the relationship can be improved tremendously by figuring out things you enjoy doing together, putting effort into finding opportunities to share time and experiences, making time to have fun together. This can go a long way toward building closeness. If you’re not careful, doing that over a period of time can even lead to passion and kissing.

In your case, though, my guess is that fourteen years of momentum (or maybe I should say a lack of momentum) would be next to impossible to turn around. If you want an actual love life, your only choice is probably to leave and start over. But then your letter makes it clear you already know that. Your problem is that you worry about hurting him, and you also worry about what would become of you.

“Who would want me?” your inner voice says. “It seems so risky to leave this safe situation, even if it is boring.”

Thing is, your bigger risk is staying. In fact, it’s more than a risk -- it’s a certainty. Stay and you are guaranteed to continue living without hugs and kisses.

Should you worry about hurting him? Of course you should. He may not be your Prince Charming, but you have shared many years together.

But here’s the thing -- how much are you hurting him by staying? You are not the only one who is deprived of love and passion. You may hurt his feelings if you leave, but at least then he would have a chance to find a partner who is more than a roommate.

And so would you.

It sounds to me like your mind is already made up about what you want to do. You’re just trying to convince yourself it’s what you should do. I suggest you find the courage to admit to yourself what you really want in life, and then do what it takes to make that happen.

All the best,
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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Dismaying Story #121: Not Really Trying

Dear Andrew,

I recently read Dismaying Story #111: Missing the Game of Life. I agree with your response to the woman who was writing but have a related question to your answer.

How do you insist that your husband change? I mean, I would love to just go to my husband and say – you need to do more around the house, I am not happy with our current situation, etc. and believe me I have tried that in the past but I only come away feeling guilty for even bringing up the subject to begin with.

A little history . . . my husband is 12 years older that I. We have been married 18 years. He has a definite problem with clinical depression – in fact has been diagnosed as bi-polar with depression being predominate. To add to the mix he is a licensed counselor although he does not do that currently. He has a definite tendency towards being a hypochondriac and often acts like a chronic victim.

In our marriage it has meant that often I pick up the slack and do “everything” other than have a job outside the home. We have 3 children one of which is special needs and I have been a SAHM for a long time now.

In the past 7 years he has lost 3 jobs – one of which was a dream job – due to his depression, being “victimized” by his bosses, etc. It has been a horrible roller coaster ride with health and financial losses.

We attended counseling about 6 months ago and it was somewhat helpful at the time. He also sees a psychiatrist for the bi-polar/depression and takes medication for it.

When he is having a “hard” time at work, etc. he comes home and doesn’t do much of anything but talk with the children (he is a good dad) and watch TV. I do everything else – clean, cook, laundry, grocery shop, do household repairs, take care of the cars, plan for the kids and their needs, home-school my special needs son, take my girls back and forth to their extra activities, handle the finances, pay bills, etc.

He will help if I ask him to do something and is supposed to have the regular job of taking out the trash but if he is depressed that will get ignored unless I point it out.

My problem is that when I approach him about either helping me – like please put your glasses and dishes on a certain side of the sink so the other side can be used to fill glasses, etc. – he makes me out to be some weirdo for even asking.

If we sit down and I try to bring up issues he gets extremely defensive and says things like ‘I am doing my best’, ‘I am depressed’, etc. and has this way of turning the issues around so that I am the bad guy and I am picking on him. I tell him sometimes that he puts on his “counselor” voice and says “I am doing the best I can.”

We learned in counseling that I have a tendency to be too harsh (according to him) when I bring things up but when I try to soften it, rephrase, etc. the result is always the same . . . He says he will TRY to do his best and sometimes things improve for a few days but it does not last.

I know that I enable him to “be depressed” and just not do anything because I will do it (I learned that from my counselor) but how do you get a depressive person to want to change and how will the household continue to run, if I don’t do it?

I wish it was just as easy as saying – gee, honey I need more help and need you to be more involved and take responsibility and keep a job – but it does not work that way for me.

I am at the point of thinking of leaving him simply because I am tired of having my life (housing, income, health insurance, etc.) being decided by someone who is just going to TRY to do his best. I would rather succeed or fail on my own merits than be dependent on him.

There really is a long, long history here that I can not really get into but I feel sort of desperate. He has once again “lost” a job in that he has been demoted and has to take a pay cut. He knows how this is like the last straw to me and when I tearfully asked him if he would promise me to not lose the current job his response was “I will TRY to do my best.” I want to scream: "Obviously your best is not enough, don’t just try to do it, do it.”

We tried to talk last night about the situation and I tried to bring up how I feel and how I don’t trust him to keep the current job and think of his family first. I know that it was not fun for him hearing that from me. But he turned it around again and said how I was getting off topic and how much humiliation he has taken from his superiors in the past and his current boss and how he has stayed with the jobs “because of the family.” But he then loses the jobs or just quits (he once just quit a job because his boss “yelled” at him too much).

How do I approach this? How do you insist that someone change? How do I express what I need and get his cooperation in fulfilling my needs?

Signed, More Than Just Trying

Dear More Than Just Trying,

Simply insisting your partner should change is effective only when the problems are relatively minor. For example, if a husband is merely unaware of how much his wife needs his help, then her insistence may bring this to his attention. That might be enough in that instance to prompt him to respond to her needs. That can only happen, though, when a relationship is generally robust, with many other positive characteristics. The scenario I described only works if both people are generally predisposed to be supportive of each other and the husband merely needs a nudge to bring this to the fore. If, on the other hand, trust, closeness and supportiveness tend to be in short supply in a relationship, demands for change rarely have any long-term effect.

Telling the chronically unsupportive spouse to step up is similar to informing the long-term smoker they should quit, or the chronically overweight person they should lose weight. People in these types of circumstances are already aware of the issues. They already know their partner is unhappy with the status quo. Informing them yet again about this fact does little to change the situation.

Generally the answer lies in developing your relationship to the point where both of you feel good about doing nice things for each other. It's about developing an attitude of mutual supportiveness in all aspects of life. This is made more difficult in your case by your husband’s personal life challenges. He is incapable of meeting even his own needs for fulfillment and achievement, which makes it even more difficult for him to provide for others.

It is good and necessary that he is seeing a psychiatrist for his bi-polar symptoms, but the results prove that is not enough to address all of his needs. He also needs a life skills coach. Many people might assume that would be part of the service when seeing a psychiatrist, but often this is not the case. The psychiatrist’s focus is on responding to the acute depressive symptoms; the response usually comes in the form of medication. Assuming the prescription is effective, the result is typically a person with a somewhat improved ability to respond emotionally to life’s challenges. As you can attest, though, your husband still has bi-polar symptoms, though hopefully less severe than they might be otherwise.

So your spouse still has emotional challenges and must try to deal with a plethora of ineffective life skills and habits. For instance, he seems to have a habit of turning your requests for change into discussions about how you request change. This means you spend all your time talking about how you fight, rather than the issue you wanted to address. This is a classic mistake. A more effective strategy is to ban this as a discussion topic when attempting to resolve conflict, and to consciously keep the discussion on the underlying issue.

Your husband would benefit greatly from working with a life skills coach. He could use help with developing strategies for meeting challenges rather than running away, resolving conflict, and no doubt a number of other strategies and skills. At some point it also makes sense to involve you so ineffective patterns of communication and interaction between the two of you can be replaced. At the beginning, though, the primary focus should be on helping him learn to cope. Such skills can be taught, and they most certainly don’t come out of a medication bottle.

If interested, he could talk to his psychiatrist or other health care professional about where to find such a coach in your area. I suspect this could make a significant difference in your lives. Good luck!

All the best,
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