Dear Carolyn: When my wife and I got engaged 17 years ago, she was a healthy, cheerful, gainfully employed young lady. Two months after the engagement she stopped working entirely and hasn’t worked since except for the occasional part-time job, which she quits in a fit of pique after two months because she “doesn’t care for the manager’s attitude.” She doesn’t clean the house, she only moves the piles of things we don’t need into the corners of our home and leaves them there. I’m the only one that does several critical chores. She complains that she isn’t able to clean the house because the family is constantly leaving stuff everywhere, but how long does it take to move two pairs of shoes?
She hasn’t exercised in years and has gained about 70 pounds. She’s no longer physically attractive to me and is angry that I’m not more interested in her sexually.
These would be tolerable if she had maintained her cheerful disposition, but she’s often negative toward me and our children. She berates us for not helping her enough around the house, but when we do try to help she shouts at us for doing it wrong. She complains bitterly about how stressed she is, but the only responsibilities she has besides the home and children are occasionally volunteering — where she has burned bridges with her negative attitude — and visiting her aging father for a few hours once a week. She doesn’t think much of me, and frequently lets me know the ways I frustrate and annoy her.
Since our marriage I’ve attained two degrees and have been moderately successful in my career, but she hasn’t advanced at all, and is resentful. Yet she has no interest in doing anything more. She’s stuck.
I would have left years ago, but I worry about the impact on our kids. The woman I thought I had married is gone, and I don’t much care for the person who has replaced her. I’m not perfect either, but I don’t feel this is a partnership anymore. Is there a healthy way to alter this dynamic?
Exhausted: This is more nightmare than marriage.
When that happens — and particularly when it includes a parent who berates the children “often” — the question of staying married demands a better answer than just “Stay for the children.” Please enlist reputable professional help — including a skilled family therapist and an attorney with mediation experience, just to keep that less-disruptive option open.
You can have these meetings quietly and solo as you explore your options; while it may seem dishonest, and is, it is defensible to maintain the status quo while you think through your options as long as staying in the marriage is among the options you’re still considering.
However, there’s an argument for bringing your wife into the process shortly thereafter, because the marriage you describe isn’t just a nightmare for you. It sounds like a prison for her.
I can see why you wouldn’t be so charitably inclined toward her choices and attitude — I’m not reflexively so, either, and not only because anger, blame, self-destruction and martyr complexes are cruel to children and off-putting to anyone else. It’s also hard to summon sympathy for your wife’s state because there’s the appearance of self-imprisonment. To some degree she chooses not to stay fit, not to look inward when she struggles in a new workplace, not to accept help with chores, not to make kindness her default when she interacts with her husband and kids.
Yet all of these — and your revealing throwaway, “the only responsibilities she has besides the home and children,” as if those aren’t enough! On top of your absences getting degrees! — point to a possible, underlying explanation that has the effect of limiting one’s choices: depression. Any chance she has it, has possibly even suffered from it throughout these 17 years?
You correlate her job-quitting with your engagement to illustrate how far she has fallen from your expectations, but what if instead it illustrates how dramatically her life changed for the worse, in ways neither of you has fully grasped?
Yes, maybe she’s an opportunist who hitched a convenient ride. Maybe, too, she’s an abuser who, as is typical, showed her “healthy, cheerful” side only as long as she needed to for securing a commitment. Do explore both possibilities in individual therapy.
But it’s also possible she misread her own heart and went all-in on a life that was a catastrophically bad fit. Committing to home and kids isn’t for everyone; it can be repetitive, lonely, physically taxing, profoundly boring and — cough — poorly understood work. If it didn’t suit her from the beginning, and if she just lacked the self-awareness or courage to change course, then crabbiness could have developed into clinical morass.
Opportunism and abuse warrant discreet, careful steps to protect your kids, yourself and your assets; depression demands compassionate inclusion in an effort to bring this sickened family to health. Start with the former, please, to gauge your need for the latter.