The Washington Post

Carolyn Hax: Can counseling help a couple with two divergent dreams?


Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

My wife and I have been together 38 years and we are, once again, going through a tough time. We have been seeing a marriage counselor and both respect and value the counselor’s opinions and advice. But we don’t seem to be getting anywhere.

I feel as though my wife wants to control and smother me, and my wife wants more time from me than I can give her. Things are complicated by the fact that my wife just retired and I probably never will. I love my work. Also, I am heavily involved in a social-change movement, and my wife just seems to want to do nothing but go to the gym.

How do we get things to work when we have different plans for the way we spend our time?

Different Interests

Have you been clear with her that you have no intention of retiring, or of involving yourself less in the movement?

While the guidance of a good counselor can be life-changing and marriage-saving, it can only be so to the extent you want to change and want to save. There is always a point beyond which you won’t go to save the marriage — and if you’re not sure where it is, all you have to do is ask yourself whether you’d rather get divorced than do X.

If you know where that point is and have reached it, then you need to say so. Not in as inflammatory a way as I’ve said it here, necessarily — no need to spell out, “I’d rather divorce you than retire to hang out with you at the gym” — but instead as a neutral statement of your needs:

“I hear, Wife, that you want me to retire so we can spend more time together; am I representing that fairly?”

And, if she says yes: “After giving it a lot of thought, I realize I’m not willing to retire; my job gives me a sense of pleasure and purpose that I’m not willing to give up.”

I generally try not to get involved where there’s a therapist on the scene; I’m only doing it here because it sounds as if you’ve hit your limit on compromise, and if that’s true, you need to say that in therapy.

Re: Different Interests:

I would also drop the judgment-heavy language. The tone here, “I have a fulfilling career and work for social change in my spare time; my wife just plays at the gym all day,” does not bode well for finding a resolution. If he respects her as his equal partner, then he needs to respect her choices.


Or admit that he doesn’t, right? The language is judgmental, I agree, but he can’t fake respect. He can say he respects her as an equal partner, assuming he does, and respects her right to live as she chooses, assuming he does. Conveniently, this works in reverse as a request for her to respect his right to keep pursuing his interests vs. hers.

But if he thinks the ways she uses her time are shallow and it’s affecting the way he feels about her, then the elephant isn’t just in the room; he’s in a recliner watching Animal Planet.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style,

1150 15th St. NW, Washington,

D.C. 20071, or Subscribe at



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