Q. I’ve been married for 19 years and over time I have grown apart from my husband to such an extent that now I feel deeply unhappy and want to leave. Though he has been a good father to our three children (14 to 18 years of age) I feel we have nothing in common as a couple and all my happy times are out with my friends and work colleagues. Often I dread coming home to him. We are rarely intimate and, to be honest, I don’t look forward to it. I don’t feel he is a bad man, it is just that we have drifted apart. When I have tried to tell him how unhappy I have been over the years, he has always avoided the conversation.
Last week, I brought things to a head and directly said I wanted to leave – he was shocked and got very upset saying he doesn’t want me to go. I feel really bad about feeling the way I do because my husband is a good man and he supported me changing career and going back to work. I just feel my life has moved on and I want out. If I leave I know I will be made a pariah by my children and both our families, who are very conservative, but I just feel so unhappy.
I know you will tell me to go to marriage counselling, but my husband can barely talk about the issues at home let alone with a counsellor. What should I do? Should I leave and be hated – or just stay and be miserable for the sake of everyone else?
A. I am sorry that you are unhappy in your marriage and sadly your predicament is not a rare one. A lot of couples drift apart over time in their marriages, meaning that one partner becomes deeply unhappy and considers leaving. Often it is because their lives have become divergent, through losing their shared interests or one partner becoming more involved in their work or career.
Sometimes it can be that the couple have neglected their relationship to focus on bringing up their children. It is no coincidence that things come to a head when children are in late adolescence and about to leave home, meaning the parents will be left to their own devices and have the task of renegotiating their relationship. This is often a point of decision for a parent thinking about separating.
Your situation is made more difficult because it has been hard for you to talk to your husband about your difficulties in any way that is satisfactory to you. Many couples rarely talk or lack the skills to communicate about the major differences in their relationships and instead find ways of managing things or else drift along hoping things will get better until a crisis emerges.
It is also not surprising that your husband is shocked by your suggestion to leave – in my experience working with separating couples, frequently one party has been unhappy and thinking of leaving whereas the other has been oblivious thinking they were managing and/or getting through.
Things are now coming to a head in your relationship with your husband and you have to consider your choices and options moving forward. You are right not to take the prospect of separating lightly. There will, of course, be serious consequences for you and your husband as well as your children, and things may not get easier, at least in the short term.
Equally, it is important that you take steps to address your own happiness, and it is not acceptable to simply envision a “miserable future” for yourself. You are kind enough to consider your husband’s feelings when you describe him as a “good man and good father”. When separating many people go down the road of denigrating their partner as a means of justifying their departure, whereas you are taking responsibility for your feelings of unhappiness, which is admirable.
What strikes me, though, is that you are setting out your choices in quite stark terms. Maybe it is not simply a choice of separating and being a pariah or staying in the marriage and being miserable. There could also be the choice of staying and working on your marriage to make it more satisfactory and happy for yourself.
While you are unhappy at the moment, there could still be potential in your marriage, especially if your husband wants it to work and if there is still a great deal of mutual respect between you. Lots of couples get caught in ruts and simple decisions such as deciding to spend time together, creating joint interests and deciding to do new things can re-establish their connection with each other.
Even if you find it hard to talk about issues as a couple, practical steps to build your friendship at the centre of your marriage can make a difference and invigorate your relationship. You can even take the lead yourself to improve things without necessarily having talked through all the issues with your husband. If you can begin to spend more enjoyable time together, the easier it will become to communicate. Have a look at gottman.com for information and resources on improving marriages and relationships.
In addition, I would not rule out seeking professional help for yourself and your husband. Though it might be hard to start talking, couple counselling could be of great benefit, but equally other approaches might help such as couple coaching or doing a marriage course or simply taking time away together. In the first instance you might want to contact Relationships Ireland (relationships ireland.ie) or Accord (accord.ie).
Even if your attempts to improve your relationship do not ultimately work, you might feel better at having tried and such efforts might help you to pursue an amicable separation in the future if that is what is best. Whatever happens, you might find it useful to first seek your own individual counselling to give you space to explore and understand the sources of your unhappiness so you can become clearer about your options.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, July 2011. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.