Marriage on the rocks, but the rest of my life is a disaster too
February 8, 2013 10:03 AM   Subscribe

My marriage is in bad shape and I feel a lot of anger and resentment toward my husband for his lack of initiative, follow-through, and logistical/emotional support within our household, especially during times of crisis. But right now I feel like I'm dealing with the mother of all crises, and on a practical level it would be folly to leave for at least a year, nor will I be in a position to focus on giving him one last honest shot at fixing things for months. What tools/attitudes/approaches can I adopt or employ to keep from making things worse and even more unsalveagable over the next few months?

My 7-year 2nd marriage has been disappointing for a long time, and a build-up of resentment/anger toward my husband is ossifying into full-blown contempt. We have been in counseling on and off for years. He is extremely passive, conflict-avoidant, withdrawn, and self-admittedly puts a minimum of effort into things, including his health, our relationship and mutual responsibilities. He is a very kind, well-intentioned person, but he tends to be self-absorbed and his follow-through is poor. During times of crisis, of which there have been several, he will do the things that are asked of him, especially if outsiders would be aware of his actions. But he typically won't volunteer extra "logistics" support and is not good at being emotionally supportive either. In the past there was also a problem with alcohol; after a few years of pressuring him to address it, he made the final decision to quit 2 years ago, has had a few relapses since then, but has I believe been relapse-free for at least 6 months.

If it were just me, it would be ultimatum time: clearly laying out my expectations in terms of responsibilities, follow-through, and "emotional intimacy"/support, and giving him something like a 6-month time frame during which we both would agree and commit to do everything we can to help him meet those expectations.

But it isn't just me.

The "mother of all crises" is that we are grieving the death of my teenage son (his step-son) less than a year ago. My teenage daughter (with a long psychiatric history including mood disorder and anxiety) in particular is having an immensely hard time. She was admitted in-patient a month ago due to an eating disorder and is currently in a day hospitalization program. We both work full time, the schedule is grueling (4.5-5 hours driving each day to drop her off and pick her up, currently split between my husband and I), we pass like two ships in the night most days, and I just don't have energy to work on the marriage. I also admit that while the support I have gotten from him in the past and currently is not sufficient, it is still better than nothing and I fear losing it if I tell him how checked out I feel right now and how close I am to calling it quits.

Leaving any time in the next year would be a horrendously bad idea; although one of my resentments has to do with my husband's emotional distance and failure to develop a meaningful relationship with my kids, he has also never been unkind toward them and my daughter has point-blank said that she feels her brother's death seriously eroded her sense of being part of a family, and also that she worries that her problems are driving a wedge between husband and I.

My question is not so much how to put up with this disappointing marriage for the time being--I have been putting up with it for a long time now, there's zero fighting, and there is nothing especially injurious or soul-crushing going on--but rather any suggestions or encouraging words to keep from losing hope and sinking even further into the pit of contempt. I wish I could just let the little things slide, but it is so hard when I view them not as little failings but as one more example in a long string of disappointments.
posted by SomeTrickPony to Human Relations (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I know this is a fall-back hivemind suggestion, but therapy, particularly since you don't feel like you get any support from your husband. I know you're stretched super-thin, so maybe find someone who will do remote sessions via phone, email or Skype?

Also, if you haven't been working with a support group, something like KinderMourn (a support group for parents who have lost children) might be helpful. It was invaluable for a dear friend of mine, whose son was murdered just before his 18th birthday.

Hang in there; we here in the hivemind have your back (as much as we can being a group of internet strangers).
posted by tigerjade at 10:17 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

First of all, this sounds incredibly hard and sad and my heart goes out to you.

One amazing thing I learned in grad school about dysfunctional companies, was that there was only one real problem, and everything else that was wrong with the company stemmed from it.

This may be the case with you too. You and your husband do not sound like a good match and it may be that it's time to end your marriage.

You're in luck that your husband may not feel inclined to change much of anything so it's possible that you might be able to have your cake and eat it too.

How do you envision yourself saying the following to your husband: "Hub, although we have given it a mighty, mighty effort, I just don't think that our marriage is strong enough to withstand the horrible stresses we've been having over the past year. As you know, now would be a hideous time for me to do a divorce, and it may not be the optimal time for you to divorce me either. What do you say to an in-house separation? I still rely upon you for logistical support, but we can start disentangling our emotional connection? I'm tired of being angry and disappointed and I'm sure it's no picnic for you either. Can we be roommates for the next year and deal with it then?"

You never know, he may be thrilled with the suggestion and you can work out an arrangment that's mutually beneficial. He probably wishes that he could get out too. And knowing that there's a plan in place and a time limit might do everyone a world of good.

As for telling your daughter. Be sure to stress that this has been a problem since day 1, and that a strong marriage gets stronger during adversity and a weak marriage crumbles. Her issues and problems aren't in any way responsible for the end of your marriage.

I wish you luck and peace.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:24 AM on February 8, 2013 [8 favorites]

This suggestion might annoy you, but sometimes it works for me, so I'll just throw it out as an idea. When I'm feeling annoyed with someone I'm close to, I try to do more for them. E.g., when I'm at the store, I think "what would so-and-so like?" Or when they say something, I take that as an opportunity to really hear what's going on for them and to respond kindly and attentively. This probably feels like asking you to give even more when you already have so little, but deciding to be compassionate regardless of someone else's behavior is a pretty direct way to short-circuit contempt. It gets you using that mental "what's going on in my relationship?" energy to think about what you can do for them (and not insignificantly, for your relationship), not what you expect from them and how they're failing at it.
posted by salvia at 10:27 AM on February 8, 2013 [9 favorites]

Neither of you are really with it right now. There's been so much going on that making any drastic decision right now.

But I think maybe it hurts so much because you continue to expect and hope for him to want to try and that's just not realistically going to happen. If he does, it won't be on your schedule, it will be, naturally, on his.

So, you kind of have to sit down with him and acknowledge reality. You aren't really a working couple anymore. You're married-in-name-only. You both know that it would be bad for you both to split your finances and life completely, but you may want to try disentangling yourself emotionally from him. Stop hoping he'll change, fix on what you yourself can accomplish.

My condolences for your loss. I really hope things look up for you soon.
posted by inturnaround at 10:28 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am so, so sorry about your son, and about your entire situation. The fact that you are writing coherent sentences is impressive to me. Be kind to yourself – it doesn’t sound to me like you are.

You say “I also admit that while the support I have gotten from him in the past and currently is not sufficient, it is still better than nothing, “ but overall I don’t believe that’s true. It sounds to me like he’s only half in the game, and in my experience that makes it even worse. So I’m not sure that separating needs to be off the table. Is it possible that making a clean break would ultimately make it better for you and your daughter? Being “not unkind” isn’t a glowing recommendation. And the whole situation does sound soul-crushing to me. Don’t minimize your own pain, or your own strength, okay?

I understand, though, if that’s not the direction you want to go. You say your husband takes direction well enough. In that case I would very clearly outline – in writing if possible – what you need him to do. Specific quantifiable things, not “be nice to me.”

Do you have other people you can rely on to do the emotional heavy lifting? I know how hard it is to trust someone when they have let you down before, particularly because of an addiction. It’s hard to allow yourself to believe that they will care for you in the way you need them to. But if you are choosing to stay with him, then you need to accept that as your choice. Don’t stay and also continue to be resentful, because that’s on you, not on him.

Would it be possible to take this time, over the next year, to think about separating, to really consider the logisitics, and even start working towards making that happen? I don’t mean a secret apartment, but I do mean understanding your financial standing, saving money, thinking about the possibility.

Good luck.
posted by lyssabee at 10:30 AM on February 8, 2013

Holy crap. You guys are coping with the death of a child and another child is in crisis. You, as a family, need support and help. You both individually need support and help. I know you are stretched thin right now, but if there was ever a time for couples counseling this is it. Even if in the long run you do not stay together, you both will be so much better off for getting help now.

Practically speaking - is there another relative or friend who could help with getting your daughter to her day program? Just one day a week, to relieve the pressure a bit?
posted by stowaway at 10:34 AM on February 8, 2013 [10 favorites]

You mention that your daughter is in a day program at the hospital. They have great referrals for family therapy and may be able to orchestrate that as part of her treatment plan. That would allow you to support her, be open and honest about your marriage, and remind her that it is NOT her fault.

You also need to really take care of yourself. Find a positive hobby or activity that will allow you to be alone and feel good about youself--exercise, massages, writing, anything, and schedule time every week for you. I can't imagine how frazzled you must feel with all of this going on.

Things will not be this way forever, and you will not feel this desperate and alone forever. I am so sorry about what you are going through.
posted by andariel at 10:37 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am so sorry to hear about your son and what you are going through.

Therapy aside, do either you or your husband have a close friend who would be willing to help shoulder some of the responsibilities of your daughter’s care? It seems like if someone could take the driving or some other piece of the puzzle off your plate, you would better be able to address your immediate needs.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:48 AM on February 8, 2013

Why not try to focus on what he is doing? Splitting 5 hours of driving with you is great. Your daughter values your relationship with him - or she would not mention that she feels like a wedge. He's sticking it out with you - they're not his kids, as you point out, but he's still with you in a situation in which walking away might actually be much, much easier for him. Also him not wanting to start conflict right now is probably a good thing for you. He has stopped drinking, too, in spite of these rough times, which sounds like a good thing.

You are so caught up in the negative that maybe it's preventing you from seeing the positive, why not just try to see the good in his actions and the benefits they bring you in this terrible time in your life?
posted by pick_the_flowers at 10:59 AM on February 8, 2013 [12 favorites]

It sounds like you are going through a difficult and overwhelming time. I wonder if couples counselling might help you to be in a position to better respond to this situation. My understanding is that grief and trauma are not good times in which to make major life decisions. And it is possible that your husband, you and your daughter need to learn new tools for managing what's going on, especially now that alcohol and eating disorders are not coping outlets. This probably means you need to change some systems too or that you have.

I really encourage you to talk to a family counsellor, especially one who has extensive experience with trauma - maybe one that can help with EMDR, family systemsand other therapies too.

From a purely practical standpoint, the following occurred to me:
Rent an apartment nearer to where your daughter is in treatment and live there as a family until she is no longer in daily treatment
Take a leave from work (may qualify as medical leave)
Have your husband take a leave from work (may qualify as medical leave)
And then the above

Obviously, if either of you is becoming abusive or putting the other at risk, you should separate. But, right now, perhaps you could take some steps. You could also say to him that you aren't in a position to work directly on the marriage right now and that you need to work through this grief and that you both have personal issues to address. I don't think you need to separate, unless you are finding that living under those conditions is causing the marriage to further erode. You could also do an in-home separation, but it depends on where you're at with all this.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:58 AM on February 8, 2013

Thank you, hivemind, as always. I appreciate everyone's suggestions; I think it's especially helpful that they cover a pretty wide range of alternatives.

For the sake of clarification, we are still currently seeing our marriage therapist, although only every other week right now. I also see an individual therapist every other week to talk about grief/marriage/parenting issues. Husband had been seeing an addictions counselor every other week for 2 years, but hasn't found time to fit in an appointment this past month. And we are now doing family therapy 2x/week through daughter's ED program and plan to continue that at least 1x/week after she steps down to outpatient care (hopefully a couple more weeks). So, as far as the usual hivemind "get therapy!" suggestion, we hear ya.

Cognitively, I realize that focusing on the positive never hurts (well, ok, not never but most of the time). It doesn't come naturally to me in better times--I am a ruminator--and now it's even harder.
posted by SomeTrickPony at 12:24 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wow. Your description of your husband is identical to that of my boyfriend, with whom I've been living for 3 years. For the past 6 months, he has been my roommate. I finally gave up on him and have been looking for another place to live (which is not easy in my area - must stay in school district for my 14 y.o. son).

However, I do not have the soul-crushing issues that you are facing, and you should be commended for even caring enough during this time. The fact that you are dealing with the loss of one child and the other in severe crisis is enough to put some folks over the edge. And yet, you are still trying to figure out how to mend the marriage. You sound like an incredibly strong and compassionate person.

From what I have experienced with my bf/roommate, passivity is not something that can be fixed unless he really has an aha-moment; something that shakes him to his core and gets him off his ass to address his own issues. The fact that the death of his stepson and the aftermath has not shaken him is very telling. My bf/rm has 3x faced the loss of custody of his beloved children due to his own addiction, yet he still continues. I have tried to help him, but he must be motivated to help himself (and receive help). I simply cannot understand his inertia, although I suspect he is depressed.

In any event, if couples/family counseling is not the avenue (although I agree with others who have suggested you give it a go), then it may be time to cut your losses and move out. Take Daughter with you and start a new life. Clearly you are motivated to have a happy life, and hubby sounds like an albatross around your neck. Focus on healing you and Daughter.

I so wish I had more advice for you vis-a-vis your husband - like I said, your description is identical. I have tried everything with him, but he is insistent on living life his own way. I cannot change that.

I wish you and your daughter peace.
posted by sundrop at 12:44 PM on February 8, 2013

I would think that the fact that you are dealing with the absolute worst case scenario of crisis-that of losing your son-means that you really do not have -nor could you be expected to have-any kind of perspective on your marriage or anything else right now.

You are right to postpone any major decisions on your marriage, and I think you should simply continue as you are, with the addition of making an effort simply to be kind to your spouse.

I think it is very commendable of you to consider your daughter in all this as well, as it seems she does take away at least some stability from him.

Finally, when you are able eventually to put some mental and emotional energy into this, maybe you could consider whether or not it is possible to adjust your expectations of this man. Are there any positives to the relationship besides his helping with transportation? ARe there any expectations that could be directed away from him-as in, if for instance he doesn't help with housework, could that be outsourced?

I was told by a marriage counselor once that every marriage goes through times of mental divorce. As good as my marriage is now, I know what he is talking about. We are imperfect people married to imperfect people. The good news is people can change but in general we are talking about baby steps most of the time, and being able to have faith for small improvements help facilitate them. Right now you simply need to focus on surviving your tragedy.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 2:32 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am so sorry to hear of your son's death and your daughter's crises. That is so, so much to bear...

Your question asks for coping techniques to help you get by. Here's one: get a massage, regularly, maybe one every week or two. I'm guessing that if things are on the rocks with your husband, you're not getting a lot of touch. Take it as a kind of therapy. Let someone be kind to you and give you the pleasure of touch for an hour every week or two. Let it be a reminder that you have that capacity, to receive kindness, to experience pleasure. You won't need to reciprocate (aside from paying, of course), so take the opportunity to fill yourself up, emotionally.

Best of luck to all of you.
posted by Sublimity at 2:45 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

You and your husband do not sound like a good match and it may be that it's time to end your marriage.

Wow, no. Maybe based on parts of how you worded the question, but you are enduring one of the most difficult trials of a lifetime. Grieving a teenage son must be unimaginably painful. This is not a time to decide really anything about your marriage. You are probably on an emotional rollercoaster.

Based on your description, I was impressed that your husband stepped up and got himself sober, and has stayed that way for 6 months with just few relapses before. That is a huge accomplishment. It's not easy. That is worth so much. I also like that he does what he is asked to do. In the long run, that sort of quality matters a lot.

I have personally endured some tough trials, but nothing like what you are experiencing. The best thing I did for my relationship during that time was what you already seem to be doing: don't say or do anything awful you can't take back. Avoid irreversible negativity, and put in some rare positive moments when you can find them. Just try to get through it, cut everyone a stupidly lot of slack, and don't break up. Apologize when necessary. Sometimes that is really all you can do. Looking back, the rare positive moments meant a lot when I could conjure up the effort to make them happen.

You might also find other people who have had very long marriages and ask them for their stories. It can be useful to have the perspective of people who have dealt with crises in long partnerships.
posted by htid at 11:26 PM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

This resonates with me. Not the tragedy and added pressure, I am so sorry about that.

But the relationshp dynamic sounds like a mirror image of some life experiences I've had. Forgive me if I speak in generalities but first, I think htid nailed it.

Your husband is an introvert and you are not. You seem proactive, he is not so much. Doesn't make him a bad person. Maybe a slouch, I don't know.

But I bet he is thinking, "She knew what what she was marrying. And now, faced with new and life-altering challenges, I HAVE stepped up! I addressed my drinking, it is a struggle but on top of that I am helping with the current situation. Maybe not as much as desired or even needed but it's more than even I thought myself capable of. I am taxed too and cannot simply become a new person, why can't she see the good that I have done?"

He may not be able to express this to you, even in counselling. I suspect he is hurting deeply too but possibly not sharing that as much as he could or should.

I know the frustration when trying to do good in a bad situation backfires, somehow the goodwill has been lost and it's very discouraging to receive negative feedback when expecting positive. It's a nasty spiral.

You might find that praising his efforts and making him feel invaluable spur him to FEEL more valuable and to do more. Try giving his security and self-esteem a bump.

Again I'm very sorry for your situation and if I seem to be asking you to do MORE. I know it's not simple but if a change in pespective can be achieved, the rest requires no more energy than you are currently expending (wasting?) on stress and sorrow. From the sidelines I think it's worth a shot, whether the result is to do some healing or just get you through the next year.

All the best.
posted by raider at 3:47 PM on February 10, 2013

I am very sorry for your loss, and for the challenges you are facing all at once.

You and your family is still grieving and its usually not the best time to make major life decisions, as you have also concluded but for different reasons. I'd say ride this out. As for the building up contempt and resentment while you are in the eye of the storm, you can try reminding your self of a couple of things-

* This is a trying time for everyone involved. You need your energy for yourself (your oxygen mask) and your daughter. If the husband is not becoming a lead around your neck and taking everyone down with him, and he is stepping up however little/slow that might be, then cut him tons of slack. You do this not because he is doing something but because the two of you also need to have extra empathy and compassion for each other right now- without keeping scores!

* Forgive him for being himself. Forgive him not for his sake but for you. Forgiving does not mean you condone lack of emotional support or dismiss that your needs during a crisis are not being met. You are not trying to forget that these things are happening. Remember, "the wise forgive but do not forget". Its a preemptive and unilateral action that you are choosing to take, actively deciding to let it go, for now, because dwelling on what should be or should have been is not helping anyone or the situation be better. You want to be in a better place, not a bitter place.

* Know that once an action is done, its done. After that you are left with the consequences and the sequence of events that follow, and in the present moment that's what you have to deal with right now. If you keep dwelling on things that the husband is doing or not doing, you are the only one trapped in that loop. Its not about him anymore. In fact, it has nothing to do with him. You have this deep disappointment within yourself, much like a fire, and your dwelling thoughts are the gasoline that feeds that fire. Its okay to be disappointed, to be hurt, to not have the emotional support from the one or two people from whom we need it the most when we are under such circumstances. You feel let down, and its okay to feel let down, and cry your heart out if it helps. Let those feelings pass through you. But, do not let your thoughts feed those feelings and feed that fire. That is the cycle you have to break. And you do it by letting the thoughts pass through you. It is very important to acknowledge the feelings and feel the hurt but what leads you to contempt is feeding those thoughts to your feelings.

* You can control only one single person on the planet, and that is yourself. Do not let some one else's lack of compassion affect how you respond. You can actively choose to be the actor and stop being the reactor. And when you do, act with compassion because what goes around comes around. When bad things are said or done, its not just the person who does those who is affected. There are multiple causalities, some are immediately obvious, others not so much. Some are direct, others not so much. Some in real time, others take a generation or two to show up. But the effect of those actions remains in the universe. Your heart is like a sponge- it has an incredible capacity to absorb the hurts. And because you have been hurt, you know how much it hurts. That's a painful experience but also a blessing because it makes you more compassionate. Use this gift in your own actions, because that is all you can control.

Finally, I like this video. I hope you enjoy it too.

Feel free to email if you like. Peace to you and your family!
posted by xm at 8:31 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

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