On Your Mind: She feels more like his mother than his wife

on your mindNOTE: The question below reached us through our “online hotline” button which lets anyone send a question to a local counselor at Ozark Guidance — in a completely anonymous way. The email comes in with no email address and no identifying information. We set it up this way so women would feel free to write about anything on their mind.

Looking for answers and found you guys. I’ve been married for 13 years. We have 2 children, 9 & 10 years old. My husband never has conversations with me unless it’s about a grocery store run or a to-do list. I started noticing that, if I stop talking, he will walk around in silence. He can spend days on end never speaking to me. He also has no friends and never has had friends. He has acquaintances through work or a musical project but he doesn’t see the people outside of work and, once a music project is over, there is no contact with those people.  I have a lot of friends and he has always just come along for the ride if there was a party or gathering.  He has no hobbies or interests.  He plays guitar but hasn’t been in a musical project in 4 years.  I’ve bought him books, encouraged different outings, tried to give him ideas, talked and talked, even counseling but the future is what’s worrying me now. I get nothing in return.  He runs around doing endless lists, staying busy but not quality time with us. When we go on vacation he seems lost without anything to do. It isn’t fun for us. When the kids grow up, how will they develop a relationship with him? I feel like more of his mother than his wife. That is just wrong. Am I expecting too much from him?  Is any of this normal?

Response by Patrick Henry, LMFT, LPC

Your story is not as unique as you might think, and your questions are similar to those many others are asking. This doesn’t make it easier, but you are not alone. The good part of this is that you don’t have to beat yourself up or feel like you’re failing. Lots of spouses are trying harder than their partner without the desired results. In most marriages (even the really satisfying ones) one partner is working harder than the other at least once in a while over the course of the marriage. That’s what makes it work. None of us are at our best all of the time. It does sound like you’ve worked hard to pick up slack and support your husband. One spouse often has to do this temporarily, but what you are describing sounds like it has become the norm and has left you tired and worried about the future.

Is This Normal? (Defining Normal—Normal vs Healthy)

Normal is hard to define when you’re talking about marriage/family unless you go with the literal definition for normal which is “that which is usual, typical, average, common, or standard.” By that definition, much of what you’re sharing is normal-ish in the sense that your unfulfilled expectations and desires for more from your marriage/partner are common—that is, you aren’t alone and many are in the same boat or a similar boat as you.

Around half of marriages end in divorce and many marriages have a partner who is unsatisfied or yearning for more at least some of the time. The point is this– while this may be normal (not uncommon) it is not healthy (good for you) when this becomes what is normal over time.  Normal and healthy are two different things.

The questions you are really more interested in are 1) Is this healthy? and 2) Is it okay to expect more? Healthy is harder to define than normal when it comes to marriage as this seems to be influenced by things like culture and individual expectations and desires. So let’s just say that what’s going on in your marriage/family isn’t working for you and is not healthy for you in that you’re working very hard at it and getting little in return…….and, yes, you can and should expect more from your mate.

His stuff vs Ya’ll’s Stuff

So, how much of this is his stuff versus your(relationship) stuff? It’s hard to see your “pattern” or your relationship dynamics in a paragraph but there probably are some things you/he can do differently to affect change in the other. Often a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist can be helpful in identifying unhelpful patterns as well as more helpful ways of interacting. However, in your story his withdrawal/isolation seems to be there regardless of whether you pursue him or leave him be. This is not what you’d expect to see in a typical pursuer-distancer relationship (a relationship where the more one spouse pursues, the more the other distances/isolates. Often when the pursuer stops pursuing so much, the distancer does less distancing and starts to initiate more interactions).

What you’re describing is a more uncommon relationship pattern (or not a pattern at all). And by that I mean that his withdrawal may not be most effectively treated as though it’s a function of the relationship. Isolating from others, loss of interest in things previously enjoyed, lack of depth in most relationships (no friendships), seeming “lost” on vacation (those are supposed to be fun!), and over-attention to tasks/lists at the expense of relationships and quality time (anxiety/control) are symptoms frequently associated with several common disorders.

If the counseling he participated in previously was couples therapy, then he (and your marriage) may benefit more from him going to see a counselor as an individual to work on his stuff. Don’t confuse his stuff with yours. He may need you to give him a little motivation to seek out a counselor for himself, but in the end he may benefit from it greatly. You may benefit from going on your own as well so that you can process your own emotions, organize your thoughts, determine what you should/shouldn’t be responsible for, and think through what your next steps may be.

What You Can Do

Pushing harder and over-functioning probably won’t work. You only have control over what you do. And you’re not responsible for his relationship with his kids—that’s up to him. It’s hard for you to watch him missing opportunities with his kids and working less hard at this than you. Just keep doing your own part and be careful not to take responsibility for his.

You have to make room for him to grow. If you over-function, then he will under-function. You’re probably worried that if you let up, then the divide will grow even larger. But often this is not the case and many see the opposite effect. Be sure not to over-pursue him. You may even want to let him know that you’re not going to pursue him more than he pursues you and that you’re leaving the ball on his court. Tell him that his rejection and lack of response to you hurts you deeply and rather than set yourself up for more heartache, you’re going to wait for him to be the pursuer.

Assertively communicate with him and set boundaries while making clear the expectations that he work on himself. It’s important to tell him about your primary emotions (hurt, fear) rather than showing anger (or that’s all he’ll see). Hurt and fear are at the center of what you feel and he will respond better to you expressing those emotions than he will to anger (a secondary emotion which results from those primary emotions) which is likely to motivate defensiveness and more isolation. Do some things that are good for you. Don’t forget about your own self-care. Get out and do something fun with friends or with the kids.

Saving your marriage will not be easy. It’s worth fighting for but you have to be smart and you need a good game plan. A professional may be just what you need to help you identify the smartest ways to fight for your marriage while taking care of yourself at the same time. Best of luck to you.

Therapists at Ozark Guidance would be happy to answer your questions and read what’s on your mind. Click the butterfly icon below to fill out an anonymous submission form with your question or concern. The form contains NO identifying information and is designed to give local women an online place to share concerns with a person qualified to offer feedback.

Disclaimer: This RESPONSE does not provide medical advice It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on nwaMotherlode or Ozark Guidance websites.