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I'm stuck in an unhappy marriage

I’m not sure how I should be feeling about the things said between me and my husband. I swing between feeling confused, enraged, ambivalent, distressed, sad, angry, frustrated, upset, embarrassed and depressed. We are both near retirement age, have been married for fourteen years – estranged for about ten. I’m worn out. I don’t know whether I love him anymore or whether he loves me. He claims he does, but then talks to me with contempt and I feel confused. I care about him, but I am confused as to why we are still together.  I think he feels more or less the same as I do. One minute I feel, with absolute certainty, that my desire to divorce him is the right one, but when I catch sight of the man I used to love, I cling to this glimmer of hope. I have lived with this hope for most of our marriage.

My husband is not a bad person. Mostly, my angst is caused by his inability to relate to me, to empathise, to listen, to see me, to understand me, to know me  – these are the things I hope for. I want him to be ‘present’ and share his world with mine. It’s as if I’m leading an invisible, parallel life – a life he refuses to see. I think I’ve been going through a crisis of confidence for about a year or maybe four. I’ve been feeling pretty low and abandoned by him. I’ve consciously refused to accompany him at times, because I can’t bear the hypocrisy of pretending anymore – I don’t feel like I’m living an authentic life.

Following a recent row, he revealed that he sees me as someone who is judgmental of others, that I take unwarranted umbrage to all and sundry, that I am self-sabotaging my relationships with people and now with him - that if only I would stop being like this, then we would be happy.

Over the years, I have examined myself and in particular, whether his view of me is accurate. While I have come home and moaned to him on occasion (as most people do), he has blown up these few instances disproportionately and I feel judged. I feel humiliated by him. I don’t recognise myself as the person he is describing. I don’t feel he supports me emotionally, in fact, I think it makes him very uncomfortable. I am emotionally supportive of him or at least, I was, but he doesn’t share enough of his life, thoughts and feelings for me to feel connected to him anymore. He wants me to change. I feel he wants to whitewash me with a big paintbrush and blank out the complexity and richness of sharing emotions, thoughts, desires, hopes, fears and dreams. I feel devastated frankly. We have been to couples counselling a few times and I’ve also been on my own.  We both want the other to change, but it seems neither of us can meet the other’s criteria for having a relationship.

I’m sorry for the long message. I’m sure you get lots like this.

Yes, I receive many messages just like yours. All of them mirror much of the pain you’re describing for you and your husband. From what you say, it looks like you’ve both reached such an impasse that neither of you has the energy or even the inclination to see what could be different between you. Instead, you’re both looking at the other and hoping that something will happen to change the truly miserable experience that appears to be your marriage. Like lots of people, you know what the problem is and have ideas about the solution – but actually making the changes needed is the tricky bit. However, the short answer is, you have to stop waiting for the other one to make the first move.

I think that you’re seeking a soulmate, for want of a better description, someone who will just know who you are, what you need and basically supply it. I think, too, that he’s looking for the same thing, albeit through a slightly different lens. That’s not surprising. Most of us want to feel supported, loved, cared for and important to our other half, but we usually need to experience it in a way that we can recognise. Clearly, that’s not happening here. As a result, the means of communication you’ve both adopted is one of blame, counter-blame and humiliation.

There’s a sense, too, that your husband is saying that it’s you that needs to change and has conveniently listed your apparent failings. Well, I have news for your husband. Although you may indeed be critical sometimes or moan about the people at work (I’ve no idea whether this is the case or not), like any other human being, you also crave love, affection and sharing. It looks to me as if what’s being said here is that you need to sort yourself out before any of the good stuff can come your way. If that is indeed his approach, then he needs to accept that this approach rarely works. He is effectively treating you like a naughty child and as an adult woman, that’s really not on. Likewise, you also have a very long list of the things you want to change in him. But you too, have to remember that he is only human and having all of what you seek from him would be a very tall order for anyone to meet. As a relationship counsellor, I see many couples who are essentially saying to each other ‘I want you to be perfect for me’. They don’t actually use those words, but that’s what they mean. Waiting for a partner to become perfect usually entails quite some time and I think you and your husband are now essentially waiting for the other to make the first move. That’s the first thing that needs to change.

The bottom line here is that I suspect neither of you can completely meet each other’s needs, so some compromise is required. Of course, the thing about compromise is that it can’t all fall to just one person. That means that you each need to step forward and meet each other half way – even a tenth of the way would be a start. So, how do you do this?

The first thing to do is to recognise that this is about both of you. You’re each occupying your own corner at the moment and somehow you have to find a way to start sitting together. The second thing to do is re-engage with couple counselling. I know you’ve tried this route before, seemingly without a good outcome. I’ve no idea why this might have been, but I would strongly recommend that you try again. It’s certainly true that sometimes people have to find the right counsellor at the right time. Maybe it’s your time now. For me, one of the most striking features of your letter is the underlying hope, despite everything, that you could have a future together. Perhaps you’re both yearning to see through all the bitterness, disappointment and sadness and find the person you married. It’s not for me to say whether either of those two people are still around. Maybe you’ve both changed and it really is the end of the road for your marriage. But I’d say this. If it’s going to work, you may both have to be more realistic and generally kinder to each other – probably in that order. I’m wondering if what’s keeping you so stuck is that now, you’ve reached the point where you now assume exactly what the other is going say and therefore stopped listening. Couple counselling can be very helpful in getting new dialogues going. It can also help with ending relationships with the least trauma and maybe this would actually be the best route. So get some more professional help, but make sure the person you see is actually trained in couple work.

Finally, you tell me your marriage is ‘barren’. That phrase always suggests to me that there’s a complete indifference about the other person. But actually, if you think about it, all the mass of painful feelings, raised hopes and dashed expectations you describe suggests that you may each remain heavily invested in this relationship and the prospect of full-time retirement may be putting an even sharper focus on what’s missing. It’s often a time in our lives when we take stock and ask the rather daunting question ‘is this really it for the rest of my life’. So, whatever happens for you, make sure you move in one direction or another. We’re all living longer, but being profoundly unhappy can make it seem like an eternity.

If you're reading this and finding a lot of it resonates, then marriage counselling might help. Our counsellors are ready to work with you to strengthen your marriage.


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Ammanda Major is a sex and relationship therapist and our Head of Service Quality and Clinical Practice

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