The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carolyn Hax: Checked-out spouse is constantly online

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
5 min

Dear Carolyn: From the time she gets home from work until late into the night, my spouse is online — streaming movies, playing games, listening to podcasts, etc., and barely acknowledging whatever else is going on around the house, including me and our kids. We have talked about it a few times and things change for a day or two, then it’s more of the same. Every night I go to bed with her back to me, a silhouette set against the glowing screen on her nightstand. I’ve given up on trying to compete with it. But that just leaves me lonely. I don’t want to live the rest of my life like this. So now what?

— Married but Alone

Married but Alone: I’m sorry. That must really hurt.

It’s time to stop addressing this as something along the margins. You’re not a week away from fixing it with tweaks to her behavior.

What you describe is someone who has left the marriage emotionally.

Why, only she knows, but I can think of some general possibilities: Her feelings for you have changed; she is depressed and self-medicating with electronic dopamine hits; she is too ensnared by her technology to pull away without help.

This is just one layman to another; marriage counseling is a good next step. (Make an appointment for yourself if she refuses. Resources here.)

So is spelling out the stakes for your wife clearly: “I don’t want to live the rest of my life like this. When you jump online as soon as you get home, barely acknowledging us, I feel incredibly lonely. For the kids it could mean lasting damage.”

This would also be appropriate, given the mental health possibilities: “I am worried about you, too.”

People are more likely to make changes they think of instead of the ones they’re asked to make, so you can lob the ball to her this way: “I would like to know what you would do if you were in my position.”

Presenting any of this with anger risks putting her on the defensive. Presented calmly, though, it serves as an invitation for her to admit difficult things. She might not accept it, but you can encourage her to: “Please don’t be afraid to say something that will hurt me. I’d rather just know the truth. Especially if I can help.”

That is what you want at this point. You want to know what injury or absence she is trying to entertain away, so she can — ideally with your participation, support, encouragement — address it through human connection instead.

Dear Carolyn: My husband and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary in March. This is a second marriage for both of us. We’ve endured a lot — the pandemic, health and fertility challenges, and multiple family deaths — and we’ve come out stronger, so I wanted to have professional portraits done.

We could not get my husband’s ex-wife to cooperate on choosing a date when my 10-year-old stepdaughter would be available. Initially she raised concerns about covid safety, which is reasonable. So we pushed the date back twice, but finally started to run out of options and now we have to do it next weekend or I will lose my rather hefty deposit. Plus, I want the pictures.

We have twins who are 2 and will definitely be in the portraits, wearing outfits that coordinate with ours. Initially my husband was not comfortable excluding his oldest child, but now he’s fed up with his ex and wants to do the portraits either way. I also want to proceed, I just wish there were a way to force his ex to cooperate. What do we do?

— How Many Attempts?

How Many Attempts?: As many attempts as it takes.

Because this is not about a deposit, no matter its heft. At least explain your predicament to the photographer, who may have both a heart and some leeway.

And oh my goodness, please tell me you’re not both ready to exclude your stepdaughter because you’re snippy at his ex-wife? No, oh no. Please.

Imagine a vindictive ex using it as leverage: “See? They don’t care about you.” [Shudder.]

I know as I write this that whatever was going to happen here has already happened, thanks to my production schedule. So I’m going to suggest something incredibly financially presumptuous: If you sat for the photographer without your stepdaughter, then discard the photos and shoot the thing again.

A child’s sense of belonging is the foundation of her strength until she grows into an independent sense of self. Even the most sensitively introduced new babies can bump older ones aside, more so those from a new marriage to those from prior ones.

You’ve made it clear this portrait is a statement. To create your yay-us family statement without 20 percent of your family — the without-a-doubt, no-contest, most vulnerable 20 percent? Just no.

Throw it all out to make it suitable for framing that you aren’t a family without her.

And if you did wait? Then I am relieved and grateful you came to it before I could. Congrats on the five years.