Ask Andrew – How can I let my wife know I’m there for her but still be my own man
I have read (over and over) your “I Love You But” book, and am awaiting shipment from the UK of “Help Your Partner to Say Yes.” I want to thank you for the excellent insights in the ILYB book, and in particular for the hope and encouragement it has given me.
I want to both send word to your other readers that they are by no means alone. I also want to seek some mutual reassurance that there is reason to hope amidst the hurt – I think one of the consequences of gaining understanding is unfortunately gaining regret for mistakes of the past. I would welcome your thoughts on the blessings/curses of hindsight – those moments of horror when you realize how ineffectively you responded to a need of someone you love.
Also, I wanted to pose a question specific to men. In short, I wrestle with the right balance between letting my wife know I am there for her and that she has been heard, while at the same time being a strong, independent “man going his own way.” Assertiveness, decisiveness, setting boundaries are often difficult to integrate with biting my tongue, being conciliatory, and trying to build loving attachment. What are some specific steps or behaviors one can do to show a wife with ILYB that I have both the alpha male qualities she needs in order to respond to me as a man, as well as a solid, caring husband and father?
When I ask my wife what she needs most, she says she needs me to find my own strength, or to find myself. I don’t quite know what to make of this.
I gather it is not an uncommon feature of ILYB for a wife who has fallen out of love to want space, distance, and to see increased attentiveness as smothering. In some ways, finally doing the things she has been hoping for over the years is no cure, and indeed can harm progress towards reconciliation. At the same time, I have to think that if I were to announce I am moving out, filing for separation, and moving on with my own life that this is not helpful for fully restoring our marriage.
So I sit and suffer in limbo. And I don’t need to tell you it is suffering. The emotional pain makes it impossible for me to focus at work and I am missing the feelings we shared as if a part of my body has been ripped out. I worry both that I lack the patience to wait this out, and that I am being a fool for hoping her feelings for me will return. And as she pressures me to be decisive, I yearn to act, even at the expense of regretting that action later.
I am trying hard to take care of myself and being thankful I have a fine job, and we have two lovely children. I am still in our family home and take part in family activities. I exercise 3-4 days a week and am in excellent shape (I look pretty good for a man in his mid-40s). And my wife does exhibit acts of caring about me – she does ask about things at my work, she asks me for help with her projects, and we are able to occasionally enjoy a pleasant evening out together. We are both still wearing our wedding rings.
There has been no talk about separation or divorce, save for in the immediate flush of the ILYB moment when her anger was freshly unleashed and some of my tactics (talking about our vows) proved unwise and I think were seen as trying to manipulate her through guilt. But neither of us has ruled it out either. She appears quite firmly among the undecided, and I am in pain wondering.
There is absolutely no intimacy, particularly physical intimacy of any kind save for the occasional squeeze of a hand or goodbye kiss, and rare shared moments of eye contact (which I have sought to cultivate). She mostly ignores me unless there is a logistical need she needs addressed.
I have no idea how long this will go on (it has been two months since ILYB) but she is a very private and very independent and very strong-willed person (she is a litigator, drives herself 5am-11pm, runs marathons, and prides herself at being able to wear down others in her path). This quality of her personality does make me wonder if a really strong statement that I’m leaving would be met with more respect than my continuing to try and demonstrate I can meet her needs. Her agenda seems to be to purge herself of need for anyone else (which was very much her approach before we met), and to throw her life into the children’s activities (primarily my son’s, as my daughter is more needy and therefore my wife finds her frustrating). And I worry she similarly perceives me as the sad dog hanging around the door.
I think I know where the ILYB comes from. First, when my wife and I had children I was overjoyed and strove to be supportive and attentive, but in some respects I was not there for my wife in ways she needed me to be (but never verbalized to me) during the period when our children were very young. In a number of ways, I resented the intrusion on my extremely fun and festive (and sexual) life with my wife and I manifested this by withdrawing in certain ways, such as staying up drinking after she’d gone to bed instead of being there with her. We continued to be very much in love for the next ten years, but I know now I hurt her – entirely unintentionally – in ways that still resonate for her.
Second, I was laid off from my job in 2003 and struggled to find work for 18 months, which I finally did but it involved a painful relocation from sunny California to Seattle. I resolved never to get laid off again and as a result I threw myself into my work and building my professional resume’ I continued to do the things I thought I needed to as husband and father (helping around the house, feeding children and taking them to daycare/school every morning, spending time with my wife). All was indeed very happy, but an unhelpful pattern was being created: as I worked long hours, my wife increasingly took control of the home and family, and we stopped becoming a team of equals. She began to attack my competence – instead of “thanks for doing the dishes” I got “you did it wrong.” And I compensated for my long hours at work by being apologetic, or even subservient to her, and increasingly dependent on her approval.
When I was laid off again last year, I proposed relocating back to our hometown, where the prospects for my career were far better. It was this, she told me, which really pushed her into ILYB; I suppose she saw it as the ultimate sign I put my career ahead of her in my priorities. My wife was strongly opposed and while we argued it out, I ultimately took a job close to home. While at the time I complained and felt it a career-limiting job, I have become settled in it – and looked forward to spending still more time with the home and family. Or at least I hoped. Now my time at home makes me feel like an unnecessary appendage as she whisks the children around and takes care of nearly everything on her own.
I had noticed a distance in her last Xmas when we went to services in the church in which we were married – I had hoped to resuscitate good memories but she seemed nervous. I tried various other steps over the next 6 months: love poems, sending her a list of her positive attributes, taking her to the symphony (fulfilling an overdue request), pointedly telling her I felt we needed to work on our marriage. Finally, this June I confronted her and asked her to tell me what was wrong. Which yielded ILYB, followed by panic on my part followed by depression and fear, but ultimately a great deal of learning (I only hope I can someday apply it).
I have since read about the “walk away wife” syndrome, which fits her squarely (she told me nearly as much) – women who have complained for years and not been heard finally giving up and planning an exit. She had all of this upset inside her and didn’t tell me, except indirectly – through complaints that yielded defensiveness from me instead of validation. Now she sits more or less silently on the fence of our relationship – I very much doubt she wants to harm the children by ending the marriage but I also very much doubt such a strong-willed and well-defended person will open her heart to me again.
Am I a fool for hoping her resentment will disappear over time, even provided I don’t pressure her but respect her right to be angry? How can I both be attentive but also decisive? Can I persuade her I have a reservoir of self-confidence (I do) and change the master/slave domestic dynamic to bring back intimacy? Thanks for any thoughts.
First of all, I have to congratulate you on a good precise of how women turn from being loving, into ambivalent and then into angry with their men. You really sound as if you’ve stepped into her shoes and begun to understand her feelings. This is a huge step forward, so well done. You’ve also spotted the solution and it’s not tickets to the symphony (although those help) but respecting her right to be angry, listening to it, thinking about what is valid and changing. This is far more important than traditional male tactics for solving relationship disputes – like romantic gestures – because when you respect her feelings, you are respecting her and saying ‘I love you no matter what’ rather than ‘I love you when you play nicely’.
You’ve also spotted the way forward – being assertive – rather than her slave. So I’m pleased that you’re getting ‘Help your partner say yes’ but please add ‘Resolve your differences’ which has a chapter on assertiveness. You turn round your relationship one interaction at a time. You listen and respond positively to reasonable requests. If you feel that she is treating you like a slave, you need to assertive and say NO – but rather than getting angry or sulking, explain your case, negotiate and compromise. You will know the difference between a man listening and responding but still being his own person because of how you will feel inside. If you don’t respect yourself – either because you’re not pulling your weight or you’re letting be walked all over – you will know to go back to the chapter on assertiveness (and TA in Help your partner say yes).
Finally, don’t worry about being in limbo. I call this the age of uncertainity and it’s friend as it buys enough time to show that you can be different and prove it’s not just a flash in the pan. I explain more in my next book. It’s called ‘My wife doesn’t love me any more’ and will be out in the UK as an e book in September and a physical book in October 2012. (Hopefully the US editions will be out shortly afterwards.)