Question:

I have been married nine years and we have four children – three boys and one girl. I feel that my husband is very self-centered. He is a full-time public defender who puts no effort into child care or maintaining the home. He also puts no time into our marriage. The unfortunate thing is that even though he works 60-plus hours a week, nearly half of the money we live on comes from my job as an occupational therapist.

When I ask him for help in maintaining the home, he says he can’t because he needs time to prepare for his cases. His argument to me is that we agreed from the beginning that he would be devoting a significant amount of his time to his career and that I would be responsible for everything else.

It’s true that I agreed at the time but I had no idea that I would be a slave to his career. I assumed that our marriage would be a priority and that we would have some fun time together and that he would share in some of the responsibilities. I don’t even get appreciation. In his mind we are partners working toward a successful future. He believes that he is building his reputation now and that in the near future he will open a successful private practice. He tells me that I should be patient and trust him and that all our efforts will bear fruit.

I don’t know if I believe him and I don’t know how long I can continue in this marriage. I often have fantasies of just escaping. If I didn’t have children, then I would. Please advise me about what I can do. I’m desperate for an answer.

Susan

Dr. Michael Tobin’s Answer:

Dear Susan,

I wonder if your husband knows how lonely you are. Does he understand how much you miss him? Would he be surprised about how unhappy you are?

You have made it very clear in your letter how you feel victimized by his focus on work, his “unwillingness” to help, his lack of commitment to the marriage, his absence as a father, and the lack of parity in your financial contribution. You feel overworked and underappreciated, filled with resentment and disconnected. In short, you’re describing a relationship devoid of love and intimacy.

What you write is painful; what you don’t write is revealing. Over the years, I’ve answered many questions from visitors to my website and almost invariably they tell me about how much effort they’ve invested in getting their spouses to respond, to change - to do something different. They often write of a failed therapy experience, a consultation with their rabbi or minister, which led nowhere, or an attempt to take unilateral action in order to improve the situation.

Take responsibility to change a negative situation into something positive.

Susan, I may be wrong about this but what I sense from you is that you’ve been building up resentments but you have not taken the “risk” to change a situation that causes you so much pain. You have described a marriage that sounds untenable and is dangerously close to divorce, yet I have no idea if you’ve communicated any of what you feel to your husband.

I’m going to assume that you haven’t, and if I’m wrong and you have, then I want to help you find a new and more effective way of communicating how you feel and what you want to change. Here is a list of suggestions:

  1. Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle of the page. On the left side write Resentments; on the right write Wants.
  2. First write your list of resentments that you feel toward your husband. For example, “I resent you for not helping with the children.” Or, “I resent you for not spending time with me.” Or, “I resent you for taking me for granted.”
  3. Now on the right side under Wants change your statements of resentments into statements of want. For example, “I resent you for not spending time with me,” becomes “I want us to spend time together,” or “I miss you and I would like us to spend time together.”
  4. Once you’ve completed your list of resentments and wants, I would like you to notice the difference in how you feel when you express resentments and then wants. To be very frank, it’s easy to express resentments and to feel like a victim. It’s quite another thing to speak proactively in the language of someone who wants to create positive change. It’s the difference between acting out of fear or finding the courage to do what must be done in order to change a difficult situation.
  5. Once you feel you are ready to approach your husband in the spirit of wanting to create change, you can either set a time to speak to him or write him a letter if you feel that may be less threatening. You need to be careful not to lead with your negative feelings. If so, he’ll most likely react defensively. Lead with what you desire; not with what you don’t want or like.
  6. Even if you take the correct action, there’s no guarantee that he will respond positively. He may feel so overwhelmed by his work and feel misunderstood and unappreciated by you that he will hear all of your requests as demands and criticisms. If so, try not to react negatively. It’s a strong indication that you will need marital therapy to help you through this difficult period.

You can take responsibility to change a negative situation into something positive. Feeling and acting like a victim is an absolute guarantee for unhappiness and failure. Finding the courage to be proactive and taking control over your life is one of the main pathways to happiness and fulfillment.

Rabbi Yaacov Haber’s Answer:

Dear Susan,

I feel for you – the situation you describe is difficult and heart-breaking. Marriage is supposed to be the ultimate relationship, and when it isn’t working well life can feel like torture. That being said, situations like yours are almost always salvageable. While every case is different, here are some guidelines to get you moving in the right direction.

First, let’s understand the problem.

As is natural and expected, nine years of marriage and four children have taken a dream and brought out a new reality on the ground. Your lives have gone from hypothetical to realistic, from romantic to practical. You shared goals nine years ago. Any differences were minor. By now, the gap has widened considerably. You and your husband have different definitions of success.

Today you are rightfully asking yourself if you and your children are happy, secure, loved and cared for. That is your new definition of success. Your husband is asking himself if he is more savvy, skilled and marketable: his definition of success. You both feel neglected, unsupported and lonely. You are no longer on the same page.

Every young couple should dream about a perfect life and imagine a perfect bonding. But wisdom is the ability to adapt to reality as it evolves. In our dreams we can walk a thousand miles; but in reality our feet will soon feel the pain.

As the reality of life unfolds, spouses must negotiate and renegotiate. By doing so they will carve out space for compromise, understanding and love.

The Talmud advises that a person should “be flexible like a reed and not be rigid like a cedar.” The cedar tree looks tall, grand and majestic, yet if a strong enough wind comes it will crack and fall. The very strength of the cedar makes it unable to bend and adjust to the wind - so it breaks.

Renegotiation in your relationship is long overdue.

In contrast, a reed may appear weak, yet it has the ability to survive a storm. It is the reed that can move, bend and be flexible when need be. It is for this reason that a Torah scroll is written with a reed and not with a sliver of cedar.

In your relationship, this renegotiation is long overdue. However, it is not too late. You must have a meeting of the minds and reset your dreams, ambitions, aspirations and goals. Initially, I recommend that you meet together with a third party to catch up on years of hurt emotions.

Your husband will become sensitive and aware of your loneliness and pain while you will gain gratitude for all of his hard work – and perhaps sympathy for his as-yet unrealized professional goals, so central to his identity and self-esteem.

In a short time, the two of you can be on your own and rethink your changing realities and goals to make them compatible. Goal setting is a week by week dynamic. Set aside a time and a place. Hire a babysitter, shut off your cellphones, discuss where you are and where you are going. Write a new page that you can both ‘be on’, and feel free to fall back in love.