How do I make up for 10 years of blowing her off?
March 20, 2013 7:05 AM   Subscribe

I've been married for a few more than 10 years. For most of that time, I did not really listen to my wife or honor her goals and desires for our life together. Starting in 2012, I have made a change in my attitude and actions, and we are communicating and making significant progress in our relationship. If it were just making the current state of affairs good, I think we're on a good track and we'd be ok. My question is: How do I make up for the previous ~10 years? If you want to email: Thanks in advance for any advice, here or via email.

More details: Things started to go down hill not too long after we got married when I did a grueling job search that failed. I was really, really depressed and afraid and did not want to plan anything. My wife really wanted to get settled down and grow roots, but she agreed to move more than once so I'd have future chances to take my career in the direction I wanted. I squandered these opportunities and we had to move additional times and it cost years, during which time she was really lonely and depressed.

I feel really lucky that she didn't leave me. In many ways it would have been a classic AskMi DTMFA had she asked. She is amazing. I feel like I owe her a lot. She gave me a chance to do something that would have rebalanced the ledger, and I completely fucked it up. I do want to make it up to her. I don't know how.

If you want more info about my head: definitely somewhere on the autism spectrum, but undiagnosed; perfectionist; more or less depressed and anxious since early teens; hugely conflict-averse; hyper-sensitive to criticism. Many of these are substantially less true and/or debilitating now than they were a few years ago, thanks to: Therapy, anti-depressants, the Mental Illness Happy Hour (I'm just a listener), self-help books, a good career path, a wife still willing to work on our relationship, and the grace of God.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Why not ask her for suggestions? Were I in her shoes, just knowing you are feeling remorse for the past and looking for ways to make it up would be HUGE.
posted by tigerjade at 7:10 AM on March 20, 2013 [16 favorites]

She gave me a chance to do something that would have rebalanced the ledger, and I completely fucked it up.

What was this, and why and how did you fuck it up? If you are thinking in terms of acts that might "rebalance the ledger," this is pretty important information and the absence of it makes this question hard to answer.

In a more general sense, we can really only make up for our previous failings by showing our current commitments and worth. This is particularly true in relationships, where the appropriate currency is intimacy and mutual respect, rather than, say, money in the bank. I guess it's kind of unclear to me what you're asking here.

If you want more info about my head: definitely somewhere on the autism spectrum, but undiagnosed; perfectionist; more or less depressed and anxious since early teens; hugely conflict-averse; hyper-sensitive to criticism. Many of these are substantially less true and/or debilitating now than they were a few years ago, thanks to: Therapy, anti-depressants, the Mental Illness Happy Hour (I'm just a listener), self-help books, a good career path, a wife still willing to work on our relationship, and the grace of God.

These things have no bearing on your question insofar as what matters to your wife is how you act.
posted by OmieWise at 7:13 AM on March 20, 2013 [6 favorites]

Learn from the past ten years, but in all other respects draw a line from them. Do not let guilt drag you back towards anxiety/depression.

And then, be the best person you can be. You don't have to be super-happy all the time, or super-grateful all the time, just, in the old cliche "be yourself, only better".
posted by greenish at 7:15 AM on March 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Sorry dude, but the past is the past and is staying what it was. What you can do is make the present and future excellent, which has the potential to make the past seem like a good investment instead of wasted time.
posted by jon1270 at 7:18 AM on March 20, 2013 [27 favorites]

Grand gestures can be nice, but not if they replace the day to day improvements you are so intent on sticking to. So first thing you can do: remind yourself everyday to stay on this new positive track.

As for ideas:
- renew your vows, and make some of this part of them
- have a custom book made, with photos from your first ten years of marriage and some text that reinforces what you've said here
- take her on a big trip and propose to her all over again
- ask her what she wants (kids? a career? to go back to shcool? a new house? a trip?) and make some sacrifices on your end for her goals
- sit down and brainstorm what each of you wants out of the next ten years

But yeah, nothing can "make up for" past wrongs. All any of us can really do is commit to doing better in the present, and it sounds like you are doing that. Try not to be too hard on your self.

On preview, greenish speaks wisdom.
posted by hamandcheese at 7:20 AM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

"Go forth and sin no more."

If she's forgiven you, the best you can do is not repeat the mistakes you made in the past. You don't owe her some grand gesture. That's not how relationships work. There's no tally of rights and wrongs...or there shouldn't be.
posted by inturnaround at 7:28 AM on March 20, 2013

You make up for it by doing better going forward. Full Stop.
posted by magnetsphere at 7:35 AM on March 20, 2013 [6 favorites]

Don't keep score. This has poisoned the vast majority of my relationships, and it is never worth it. Wake up every morning and ask yourself, "What can I do today to show my wife how much I love her and want this relationship to work?" When you find yourself comparing what you've done to what she's done, put "Married my dumb ass" at the top of her column and strike out everything else.
posted by Etrigan at 7:36 AM on March 20, 2013 [47 favorites]

Tell you that you want to renew your vows (in front of family and friends, although it need not be as fancy as a wedding). Then stick to those vows. Really, really stick to them. Consistency is what will make the difference.
posted by desjardins at 7:40 AM on March 20, 2013

You make up for it by doing better going forward. Full Stop.

This nails it. Don't spend a minute living in the past and spend what time you have left doing whatever it takes to make things right for her and for you. Actions speak louder than words so make your actions count and prove to her that you've changed.
posted by playertobenamedlater at 7:44 AM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

The most important thing is to tell her some of the things you've told us. In addition, if you can afford it, how about offering her a vacation together any place she wants to go?
posted by Dansaman at 7:45 AM on March 20, 2013

Every day, go the extra mile. This means: do or say something thoughtful to her that you would previously never have thought of doing. I mean small things like leaving her a post it note with encouraging words before a hard day at work. Things that show that you are thinking of her more than of your previous failings.

Most important part: do not express your guilt. Do not wear a hangdog expression. Do not seek to make redress by visibly suffering to show how bad you feel. Don't apologise and seek her reassurance that you have improved. Do not seek her reassurance at all. Because if you do these things you make t about you again and puts pressure on her. And it should be about her, not you!

So do things that will improve her life in order to improve her life. Show her that in your eyes it is now her turn to lean on you. Because she is awesome and you love her.

(All this presupposes that you have already apologised.)
posted by Omnomnom at 7:46 AM on March 20, 2013 [11 favorites]

If you are focused on the past and your failures, you're not focused on the present and your relationship and your wife ... which is exactly what you're trying to avoid.

You're used to being anxious and worried, that's normal to you. Being focused on the present and your relationship and your wife results in an environment that doesn't feed your anxiety, which feels unnatural and off to you, and ironically makes you anxious! So you're digging into the past to get back to that anxious feeling that's so familiar to you. Don't go there. Stay where you are: in the present, in your relationship, with your wife. Focus on getting used to the new normal. You can even tell your wife "I am so used to being anxious I'm not sure how to handle how awesome it is just being with you."

we had to move additional times and it cost years, during which time she was really lonely and depressed.

What is your situation now? Is she still lonely and depressed? Have you put down roots? Is your career stable? Is hers? If together you've spent the last decade moving around with your needs in mind, maybe this next chapter should be about meeting her needs. Expanding your social lives, engaging in hobbies and projects together and with friends, etc.
posted by headnsouth at 8:24 AM on March 20, 2013

It's not an account.

Let's say you did somehow decide that your relationship absolutely required a minimum of, I don't know, 50 arbitrary units of spousal effort to be mailed off to your account every month. This is your minimum payment on the charges you're incurring on an ongoing basis to your wife bill. (See, this is already a really weird way of thinking about your relationship.)

But let's say that for the past 10 years, you've been precisely a half-assed husband, and you've only been putting forth 25 units per month. You're 3000 units in debt. So you think carefully about it, and decide that once you take into account the effort you put into work, and your other relationships, you're going to be able to sustainably put forth an average of 75 units, month after month. Hey, that's great news! in 10 years you'll have your debt paid off!

So, say it's 10 years in the future. After 20 years of marriage, you're out of marriage debt. Congratulations!

Are you now going to throttle back your effort? Go from 75 back to 50? You could keep doing 75. That's a sustainable amount to put into your relationship. But, are you going to think to yourself, "I'm out of debt, so why do more than the minimum?"

If you love your wife, it doesn't matter one whit what's happened in the past. You owe it to her to put your maximum sustainable amount of effort into the relationship. What's sustainable for you depends on your exact circumstances at the moment. The effort that she requires from you will also depend on your wife's circumstances. She might go through a difficult career period or depression or another illness too, and require more effort from you—maybe even more than your sustainable amount!—so that you have to dig in and do more for her.

But it's not right to try to keep score. Just be the best person you are able to be with the energy, knowledge and skills you have now, and keep looking for ways to grow as a person. It sounds like you have gained a lot of wisdom. You're going to gain even more.
posted by BrashTech at 8:38 AM on March 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would look at some of the things that your choices cost her and figure out which of those things you can help "extra hard" to rebalance now.

For example, your multiple moves probably made it difficult to for her to establish solid friendships and supportive social networks. Can you do the "heavy lifting" to help you both as a couple, and her as an individual, become better integrated socially into the community where you have finally landed? That may take the form of identifying groups/clubs/activities, reaching out socially to your neighbors or co-workers, volunteering or participating in the civic life of your community, or finding the right faith community.

Or maybe she needs to feel like she has more roots in her home; whether you own or rent, there's may be things you can do as a couple to make it feel like a mature, "respectable" home and less of a waystop.

How are you for retirement planning? Maybe you guys are behind the 8-ball and this is an area where, again, you could assume a greater share of responsibility for the planning and tracking to get you back on track--whether that means spending more time tracking your spending, planning to get together with a financial planner, etc.

Or perhaps there's a personal dream that she's shelved for years (hobby, career, art travel?). Ask her about those, and encourage her in every way you can.
posted by drlith at 8:45 AM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Do better now. That's all you can do. She loved you when you were fucking up, and you can be grateful for that, but that's about it.

Tell her every day how much you care for her, appreciate her and love her. Do little things that make her life easier. Filling up her car with gas, taking care of stuff around the house before she has to ask, doing something around the house that's not normal upkeep, but something that doesn't get done all that frequently (wiping down the baseboards, the windows, dusting the ceiling fans, stuff like that.)

If you have some money, a lovely vacation to a place she's dreamed about visiting.

Leave the past in the past, work towards a better today.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:49 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ask. We're in one of these periods in my relationship; my partner came to a similar realization and is trying hard to make some things up to me. And I don't know exactly how he can do that either, but it's huge to me that he's trying.

There is one very specific thing I asked him for that is really, really helping. It's a teeny thing that might not matter at all to someone else, but for me, in the context of our relationship and how forgetful he's always been, the fact that he has been reliably and consistently doing this one thing that takes him thirty seconds but really matters to me, is really wonderful. Your wife will know what particular thing would make her feel like you cared. Ask her. (And don't put her on the spot. Let her know she can think about it and come back to you with a response.)
posted by Stacey at 8:58 AM on March 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

Renewing your vows is a nice idea. Commit to living where you are long term (if it's possible).

It sounds like a big part of the problem is that she's lonely and isolated. You can fix this and show her things have changed by doing the work involved with finding a circle of close friends to socialize with and being a good friend and solid member of this community. Overcome any social anxiety you have. Be the one who organizes social events. Go to meet ups. Go to churches. Join clubs and organizations. Get involved in the local neighborhood watch. Care about who gets elected for school board or alderman and help out with campaigns. Most of all, do activities she likes with other people she might like (sports, crafts, whatever.) If she does not feel comfortable going to parties or making small talk with strangers, go by yourself, find nice people and then plan small-group events with one or two couples she might like.
posted by steinwald at 9:06 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with all the, "tell her", "Do better now", but if you want to make a token, those custom printed books aren't too expensive.

Photos, email exchanges, scans of letters. Kind of a 'scrapbook' but printed. Show her all the stuff you've been through, and how much you love her, and how you love her more than ever now that you've gone through it.

(I used milkbooks for a personal project, but I've used blurb in the past too. I'm not religious about either service)
posted by DigDoug at 9:08 AM on March 20, 2013

Yeah, you can't really make up for it. You can apologize, and spend the rest of your shared life with her being a better husband, partner, and friend.
posted by stenseng at 9:25 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'll be more specific than the posters above.

- Don't leave her.
- Don't cheat on her.
- Spend n hours per week on housework (if that's the kind of thing she'd like) where n is some minimum number, and is more than you do now, and stick to it each week.
- Equivalent for child care.

Those are big ones above. Here are others that are secondary to those above:

- Set aside n hours per week for a heart to heart conversation / check in and stick to it. Focus on listening to her rather than using it as a chance to better your own lot. Learn to actively listen, then do what she says.

- Take up one hobby that you do with her that she might like. I would suggest some partner activity like ballroom dancing but it can be whatever your wife would be into. If you don't know what that is, find out.

- Buy her things that are expensive, that she wants, that are reasonable, but that she wouldn't necessarily get herself. If you don't know what they are, find out and use your creativity/imagination/brain. Don't go so far as to ruin your family's finances, but if you were going to spend $1000 on some gear for your hobbies, spend it on her instead. Stick to this for the next n years, where a good number for n could be 10 years. (If it pains you to think about doing that, as the notion would pain me, remember that thoughts of remorse are comforting to the sinner but real acts of remorse are difficult and sometimes painful... and only one of the two matters. Real acts of remorse involve investing your resources -- time, money, etc., in someone other than yourself.) Protip: gifts like lingerie (if that's what you're into), that also benefit you, are worth less than gifts that are primarily for her and demonstrate careful attention to who she is as a person and what she likes, needs, and wants. Ditto for generic gifts like flowers, compared with something tailored to her.

These ideas above are secondary to the top 4 but I think they are good tangible ways to repent.

I think that if you do all these concrete things, you are off to a good start.

Disagreeing with the other posters... gestures like "renewing your vows" pale big time in comparison to concrete, ongoing investments of your time, money, and attention as I described above. In celebrity lore, not that it's always a good example, I think Heidi Klum and Seal just publicly renewed their vows about a year ago then they divorced a year later.
posted by htid at 10:21 AM on March 20, 2013 [13 favorites]

gestures like "renewing your vows" pale big time in comparison to concrete, ongoing investments of your time, money, and attention as I described above.

Seconding this. I was married to someone on the spectrum and he would say things like I WOULD DIE FOR YOU and other grand-gesture things (which are public and score points) but he wouldn't, you know, talk to me or want to have friends or sex or pay bills or allow the kids to make noise in the house (which are private and intimate and hard). Be her partner, every day, and ensure that she has your full support in getting her needs met and her life enriched.
posted by headnsouth at 10:30 AM on March 20, 2013 [8 favorites]

Seconding htid. Do everything he/she says and your life will be a MILLION times better.

And so will hers.
posted by 3491again at 10:35 AM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Read Love 2.0. Then implement.

I am absolutely not a grand gesture person but I am in year 18 of my current relationship. Valentine's Day, Christmas, Birthdays - I do nothing special. Every single day I do the things that matter. It's the accumulation of constant small good things that make a relationship and not flowers the day after doing a bad thing.
posted by srboisvert at 11:01 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with those that say to talk to her about it. Tell her how you wish you could make ammends and how you feel remorse over what she went through. Ask her if there is anything specifically you can do to make up for it. Regardless of whether or not she says a specific thing, your job from here on out is to be the best husband, partner, lover, and friend for her for the rest of your lives together. You make up for it by not repeating the mistakes of the past. You make up for it by keeping your promises and making sure she feels valued. You make up for it by being present in your relationship and putting in all the work that relationships need to stay healthy and happy. You make up for it by making a point of being romantic and affectionate (in a way that you and she are comfortable with) on a regular basis. You make up for it by not keeping score. You make up for it by being loyal to her and loving her and being faithful and respectful of what you have together.

Basically, be the husband she deserves. Be that husband every single day.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:03 AM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

The best way to make up for bad behavior from the past is behaving well in the present.
posted by zippy at 11:41 AM on March 20, 2013

Is she happy where you ended up? If not, I would seriously consider moving to an area where she has a support network - obviously, talk about this with her, and don't unilaterally start lobbying for another move. I also think it's really worth talking to her any truly listening to what she said - learn about active listening techniques such as when she says something, you reply back by repeating what she said but in your own words so she knows you understand her meaning.
posted by fermezporte at 12:36 PM on March 20, 2013

I've stuck by my husband through some pretty crappy shit. I'm glad I didn't give up on our marriage. And it's still a work in progress (well, what marriage isn't). The best things he does is to acknowledge the truth of everything, and to show me in his current actions that he loves and appreciates me. I don't need him to beat himself up over what happened in the past, but we've had a few cathartic conversations about all that stuff. And he has to be right here with me, working it out, when sometimes there's still emotional fall-out. Move forward, make it better. This isn't for everyone, but one weekend a few years ago when our daughter wasn't home, we got sloppy drunk and had this huge hash-out of all sorts of stuff. We both yelled and cried and yelled and cried and it really did go far to release a lot of tension.
posted by upatree at 1:08 PM on March 20, 2013

You make up for it by doing better going forward. Full Stop.

This has already been stated and restated. The thing to remember is you can't go back in time and make things better. She's stuck with you. Be the best you can be to her going forward because she sounds like a keeper.
posted by Doohickie at 1:51 PM on March 20, 2013

"She is amazing."

I don't see that anyone brought this up, but... do you understand that the extremely "amazing" person who took a step back for you for 10 years... may be a different person today?

What I mean is, let's say your wife has evolved to be a more outspoken, stronger self-advocate - maybe even a person you didn't know much in the past 10 years. Would this person still be amazing to you? What is it that you find "amazing" about her? Is it from all the support she's lent you at her expense for a decade? Or do you find her amazing in her own right, completely outside of you? If it's the latter, that's good. Very good, even. If it's the former, be prepared that her amazing-ness may not exist much, or for a while, but likely not ever in the same degree as before. If you have recently changed, she has also likely changed. Will you still find her "amazing" if she's not your shadow anymore?
posted by raztaj at 3:58 PM on March 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

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