Took the vows. Both still here. Why do I feel so alone?
January 31, 2014 5:10 PM   Subscribe

Please help me think through a marriage that's hollowing out from the inside. Survival strategies needed.

Hi. I've been married for almost 15 years, and the last five have been tough: death in the family, major health event, moving, major job change, all in addition to parenting and work and heavy daily responsibilities that we have chosen, but which are now mandatory. His small business is emotionally demanding, especially because he's somebody who needs a lot of time to be quiet and recharge. I'm running everything at home. That includes caring for our kids and dealing with emergencies, all the housework (except dinner, he's an awesome cook), and a fair chunk of the outdoor responsibilities. We are both doing a lot, and we're not as young as we used to be, and the connection in our marriage has suffered.

As far as support systems go, we have no family nearby, friends are few and busy with their own lives (I have several friends here; my husband has a few acquaintances and gets together with them once every two months or so), and the larger surrounding community is...foreign... to us. I have found a few places to volunteer and do so once a month. My best friend is a couple of hours away, so I only see her every six months, but she is a terrific support by phone and email. This by way of saying that my husband and I are largely what we have in terms of a social life, of emotional support, and of intellectual life.

We're pretty self-sufficient. But I may have hit my limit and I don't know what to do.

He has mostly abandoned our mutual large project, saying that I'm in charge of it (we usually plan together and work on it together). He does not participate in parenting as much or in the way that I'd like him to, though I am aware of differences in parenting styles and the fact that I can't make him do it my way. He works hard in his business; he goes to bed early and takes as many naps as he can, because he needs the energy, and that takes up a good portion of the time he's at home. He often skips breakfast and gets fast food later because (he recently told me) he's grumpy with me because I don't make him something hot to eat before he goes to work/pack lunch for him. He mostly doesn't talk about work until something goes wrong. I encourage him to maintain connections with his friends because his tendency is to let friendships drift. He would rather throw things away than maintain them. Broken objects will sit for months because he just stops seeing them.

Which brings me to the most painful thing. In five years, we've had sex four times. Three of them at my request. I approached him about this a little over a year ago, and was open, clear, and direct about how painful this lack of intimacy was for me, and proposed several solutions for him to consider. His initial response was to admit that he hadn't been showing up for our marriage. Then he ordered some books on marital intimacy for me to read. Then he bought me a vibrator.

I know it was meant to be a gift to help me satisfy my needs, but the message I got was that he wasn't interested in helping me meet them beyond doing some online ordering. I can tell that story to my best friends and laugh, but it hurts.

And still, no sex. Failing connection. A real sense that if I want our daily existence to continue, I have to be the one to do it. If I want anything to change, I'll have to drive it. That I am sustaining this partnership by myself. He is a terrific man -- I love him and will not consider divorce -- and we are exhausted and I have been as clear and direct and understanding and supportive as possible (including refraining from talking about emotionally-laden stuff when I know he is tapped for energy and problem-solving) and I don't know how to do everything we do without him. I am strong, resilient, and skilled. And I want my partner back.

I am aware of John Gottman's work. For good reasons, counseling is a long-shot ("Pray harder" isn't helpful advice, and we both know most of the rest of the local counselors personally). Got some reading on the shelf. Have lots of other duties to keep me busy and active. I have some perspective -- I know that marriages wax and wane, but five years is a long time to wane, isn't it? -- and in many ways, my life is good. I have to emphasize that there is no abuse or yelling or particular anger. I still like and respect him. He's just... absent, even when he's doing something with or for family. Direct and open conversation has not changed anything. We continue to show up for the jobs in front of us. Is it time to let go of the hope for connection, and accept parallel lives within our marriage?

What do I do? What else can I try? What else can I say to him? What do I tell myself when I'm tired and lonesome?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (47 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
If you want my permission to get a discreet boyfriend, I hereby give it. I mean obviously this is an important part of you and it is not a part he's interested in helping you with.

I know this is generally an unpopular opinion (theoretically. Although social statistics show that it is a very popular solution.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:21 PM on January 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

You haven't said what the mutual large project is, but it doesn't seem like you need any more projects right now. Maybe just table that. You have enough life stuff happening.

He often skips breakfast and gets fast food later because (he recently told me) he's grumpy with me because I don't make him something hot to eat before he goes to work/pack lunch for him.

Did you ever agree to do this? He's the cook - why isn't he making your lunch as well as his breakfast? This is an odd detail, to me. He's an adult who can cook. Why is he expecting you to provide meals as well as doing everything else you're doing to run the household?

It seems like you might actually be letting him off the hook a lot. It's theoretically kind of you not to force a conversation when he's "tapped for energy," but you're also tapped, and these conversations need to happen. It sounds like he's using the need to "recharge," the early bedtime, the naps, the idea that he's too exhausted for a meaningful conversation as a place to hide, a way of turning you off and retreating. I can see why you're exhausted, because you seem to be holding up 3/4 to 4/5 of the family life, but am not as sure why he is. He sounds potentially depressed, certainly withdrawn.

I'd say to stop being quite so considerate. You have some serious problems here and it sounds like he needs to be accountable for dealing with them. Even if it's depression, he needs to take some steps to improve so he can function, not delay or dismiss treatment.

You say you won't consider divorce, but what is your option if things never improve? Would you consider living apart? Would you consider going away by yourself for a while? Would you live like this for another 40 years, even if everything stayed the same? What if he's not happy - would he divorce you? Have an affair? Are you ready to go it alone if that comes to pass? Is it possible to get some help in to take care of cleaning or childcare tasks to provide you some downtime? Delivery service, help with errands, landscaping/outdoor work, occasional retreats away for you? He may not want to change right now and maybe you don't either - but you can at the very least ask him to brainstorm, and contribute to, solutions that lighten the load in your life so you can both have the time you need to recharge.
posted by Miko at 5:23 PM on January 31, 2014 [27 favorites]

Miko, isn't the large mutual project the marriage itself?
posted by janey47 at 5:24 PM on January 31, 2014

I don't think so ("we usually plan it and work on it together" would be an odd thing to say about your ongoing marriage).
posted by Miko at 5:26 PM on January 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

It sounds, at least, like being broke is not part of your problems. Given that, it sounds like maybe part of it could be helped by throwing money at things. One, if he's too exhausted to handle much of anything else and keep up with his business, he probably could benefit from bringing in someone, even just part-time, to help out. If his business cannot afford more people and he is literally doing nothing else but working on it and it still can't afford that? Then you need to start looking at ways that business can make more money. It is not supposed to kill you forever.

Two, if you're literally having to handle ALL the housework, etc, then get someone in to take care of the lawn and to pick up the laundry and bring it back done, or whatever other things will take a load off your shoulders, although it won't help with other problems. But if it freed you up to help with the business, say, that might be something.

There are counselors who do couples counseling via things like Skype, you are not just limited to who's available in your community. But in the end, if he isn't willing to pitch into helping to save things, that's about all the answer you're going to get, there. I am still dealing personally with the aftermath of a relationship where it took me a looong time to figure out that I couldn't fix it all myself; it does happen. But I was a small business accountant for ages and I have seen a lot of people exhaust themselves and their relationships because of poor business planning, so that's definitely a thing. MeMail me if you want some ideas as to where to go on that, if it seems to be a concern.
posted by Sequence at 5:28 PM on January 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

You can only have your partner back if he wants to come back. And I don't see that happening.
posted by discopolo at 5:32 PM on January 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

Hi there. I was you several years ago, with the totally checked out husband and the putting the noses to the grindstone and the reaching out but getting no response from the other side. I am so, so sorry you're in such a painful and lonely position. I know exactly how painful and lonely it is.

Things are better in my marriage now, but it's been a long and painful journey to get here. I will not spill several pages about it, but I will tell you the hardest lesson that both my husband and I had to learn, which was the thing that really made the difference.

You say that there is "no abuse or yelling or particular anger". By this I presume that you mean that there is no hitting or aggressive behavior. But I want to tell you that when people describe the terrible treatment that one person can inflict on another person, the phrase that they use is "abuse and neglect". Abuse and neglect are both equivalent in terms of the damage that they do. Read that again. Abuse, in the sense of hitting and contemptuous words and overtly controlling behavior, inflicts damage on par with the damage inflicted by neglect, in the sense of treating someone as invisible and unworthy of care and attention and refusing to recognize their clear pain. In a way it's even more horrible because it is SO insidious, so hard to identify and pin down--a matter of what's missing and what's not done rather than what is clearly, obviously over the line as in the case of aggressive abuse.

Very gently, what your husband is doing IS abusive. Passive aggression (suggested by the breakfast issue--he was grumpy at you, but you were supposed to read his mind?) IS abusive behavior. Checking out of a marriage emotionally and practically (parenting, your large project) IS abusive.

It can be really, really hard to see this when you've become accustomed to it, like that frog in the pot of water that's inching up to boil. Hard to imagine how someone gentle and hard working who doesn't lift a finger against you and probably even tells you with sincerity that he loves you can also make it so clear that you, your hurt, important things about your life together don't matter.

Lots more I could write. I invite you to MeMail me if you'd like to. Probably the best book I can recommend to you to start to make change is Stephen Stosny's Love Without Hurt, which I found after several years of struggle for us, and which has made a big, positive change. Hard to say if it would have been effective at the beginning of the struggle because we each had to learn a lot to be really receptive to what it had to say--but I sure do wish I found it earlier than I did. I bet it could help you.

I wish I could give you a big hug. You deserve better. So does your husband, actually, but I mean from that that he deserves better from himself.

Again, please feel free to MeMail me. Take care.
posted by Sublimity at 5:34 PM on January 31, 2014 [48 favorites]

Oh, and while the love languages stuff can be so terribly hokey, entertain the possibility that it's a thing--i.e., that his problem with the lack of lunch is that it's perceived as a gesture of affection on your part that he misses when it's not there. I know the whole "you aren't his mother" thing but I know people who made very strong connections between a nice packed lunch and being loved as kids who definitely carried them to adulthood. (Granted, they're mostly women who now make hot dog squid for their children, but it seems very plausible to go both ways.)
posted by Sequence at 5:38 PM on January 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Have you considered taking a vacation, just the two of you, for a couple of weeks? It might be a way for both of you to decompress, reflect, enjoy each other again, and talk to each other in a more relaxed way.
posted by shivohum at 5:41 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think it might help if you stop thinking that there is some way to change his behavior. Sometimes people think the issue is language: that there is some turn of phrase or approach that will result in him behaving differently. That is because it is painful to realize that people we love can see us in pain and not take any steps to alleviate that pain, anger or sadness. It is easier, I think, to handle incompetence (I just need to say that I'm hurting in a way you understand) than indifference (no matter what I say, you won't check back into our marriage in a way I want).

I think if you won't remove yourself from the situation, you accept that you do not have the power to make him change and find work arounds for all of your issues, from needing a break on household chores by getting help or just deciding that the bathroom doesn't need to be that clean, to finding alternative companionship or learning how to grieve and accept that your sex life isn't what you want.

Easy to say, and so, so hard to do. Don't stop trying to get through to him, but just understand that his failure to behave differently isn't because you aren't communicating effectively. He might be really okay, happy even, with how things are in your relationship. That is one if the saddest things about marriage. One person's unhappiness isn't always sufficient motivation for the other person to change. That's not addressed anywhere when people are saying "I do".
posted by anitanita at 5:45 PM on January 31, 2014 [15 favorites]

Maybe set up a weekly or bi-weekly date night? And yeah... when's the last time y'all had a vacation?
posted by matty at 5:54 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

He's checked out of his marriage/family; do you want to continue to be married to someone who has checked out? If that is okay with you, I would suggest that you discuss with him the idea of having an open marriage, and if he's not comfortable with that, then move on.
posted by heyjude at 6:12 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your husband sounds completely and thoroughly exhausted. I mean the man sounds wiped out.

Please don't take this as "taking his side," because I am on your side, in that I want the two of you to be happy in your marriage and feel good about each other and the lives you live together.

But I'm struck by the fact that, though he sounds checked out in a lot of ways, what he's checking out to do is sleep. He's not out to the bars to binge drink with his friends. He's not up at night watching porn and chatting on the internet. He's not like doing fun hobbies and he's not even out fishing. He's sleeping. The man is tired!!!

I have a feeling that your husband's utter exhaustion is at the root of so many of these problems.

One thought I have is that it might be partly physical. Is he overweight? You have mentioned a lot of fast food. The problem is, when someone is exhausted, trying to get them to focus on healthiness and losing weight will often make them resent you.

I know you already feel like you are doing more than your share on so many fronts. But... would you consider making your partner's breakfast and lunch? It is so, so hard to get people to eat healthy so much of the time when they would rather just have fast food. Here you have someone who is even SUGGESTING and ASKING to eat whatever you want to give them. This is such a help, you have no idea.

The second thought I have, and this is harder, is that even if your husband eats healthier, gets a bit more in shape, and even if he has a checkup to rule out any physical problems that you/he may not be aware of... I think there is a certain amount of exhaustion that is just going to be there due to the way things currently are with his business.

If I were you I would really take a look at how things with his business are structured, to see if there is any good way to take a significant load off of him. I have an inkling that is what would really help. I really, really do not think being harsher and less understanding with him is the way to go at all. I think the two of you could start seriously resenting and even despising each other by going that way.

I'm rooting for you guys...
posted by cairdeas at 6:16 PM on January 31, 2014 [31 favorites]

He seems to be sleeping a LOT, could he be depressed? Lack of sex drive, checking out, wanting to sleep as much as possible sound like classic symptoms to me.

Also look at ways to cut back on how much you both do, is this big project really so necessary, can he take a cut in pay and work less, I am assuming your kids are older, can they help around the house with yard jobs etc, cut back on after school activities etc etc etc you both sound exhausted to me.
posted by wwax at 6:20 PM on January 31, 2014 [20 favorites]

Also, if he's heavier than he used to be, he might feel ashamed about his body image and also have problems performing that might make him feel even more ashamed. I don't think coaxing will do anything to help, since it doesn't sound like he has the strength to even begin to think about changing something like that, and it would overwhelm him too much right now. But I think if he had more wiggle room, if he wasn't worked to the point of exhaustion all the time, it might be less overwhelming for him.
posted by cairdeas at 6:26 PM on January 31, 2014

Another thought occurs to me. Has he ever been checked for sleep apnea?
posted by cairdeas at 6:36 PM on January 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

cairdeas: "Another thought occurs to me. Has he ever been checked for sleep apnea?"

My doctor just sent me for this testing. I had a lesson at the unit, then took the stuff home - some cables attached to my face, straps around my chest, cannulas up my nose and a box to read it all taped to my chest. And for that I learnt...I have a marked inability to fall asleep, to stay asleep, to drop into deep sleep, and very tense muscles. So not sleep apnoea but something. Enough that we've made some changes (primarily no caffeine after 12, no backlit screens 60 min before bed, yoga and mindfulness meditations) and honestly, it's made such a massive difference.

I actually sleep deeply again. I'm not waking up tired, or sore. It's easier not to be cranky because I'm not exhausted. It's not easy by any means, and I'm missing out on a lot of things, but at the moment it's worth it. It's made my family's life easier because I'm not constantly tired, or grumpy, or bursting into tears. I'm finding all these dumb mistakes I've made over the past few months and wondering how many more I made, and how much harder they made it.

That said, I have an immense negative association with 'dads who nap' because it's hard to criticise napping, since everyone needs sleep (note: the sleep specialists I saw hate napping, and only recommend it in limited situations and only ever for 20min blocks) but it's a super convenient way to avoid parenting/family duties. Never mind it makes things worse as far as sleep goes, never mind that it's almost always a direct relationship between one partner's sleep and the other, they nap through a significant amount of the family time they have and simultaneously do not make moves to ensure they don't need to nap.

But yeah, maybe ditch the project since it's not fixing anything, and not offering any intimacy and explain how that, not just sex, is missing. When was the last time you got to have a conversation? Watch a movie? Exercise any compassion for each other without having to sacrifice to get it? It's hard to be compassionate when you're at the end of your own rope, and it seems like you partner is doing their damndest to get you to fall.

Mostly, can you sit with him and work out a plan to get to where he's not exhausted? Make changes so he can get good sleep? And then from there, what he needs to do - connect, properly, with you somehow. Work on breakfasts if that's a thing, or meals that can be stretched to lunches, or a cleaner or a junior at work or something. But lay out why, and what the consequences are - you may not leave, but eventually something will break and I would be heartbroken if it were my partner.

I know because we had to sit down and work out how we were going to support the changes I had to make in order to be able to sleep, the menus and the cooking and the shopping in order to support smooth running of the household - some of that he's had to step up to as my responsibilities change and I have less time. How we were going to hang out when I had so many restrictions on time and what I can do, but he still needs to spend time with me and have a good time with me. But we had the conversation because I didn't want him to suffer through having a grumpy she-bear wife any more, and I was sick of being that bear.
posted by geek anachronism at 7:26 PM on January 31, 2014 [12 favorites]

Okay, so I am literally NEVER this person. I have never given this advice ever, in my entire life up until now. But you changed that.

I think discreet lover is possibly the way to go here.

I really dislike divorce. I am willing to recommend almost anything before divorce, especially with large families and low-conflict marriages in which only one partner makes most of the money. Mefi tends to be extremely "if you're not having great monkey sex, always GTFO, it's not a marriage," and I really, really, really strongly disagree with that most of the time. I think Mefi is unrealistic about the amount of sex most people have, and that dry spells are fairly normal. I also am just really not a "passion" person- I tend to be practical and consider marriage a financial partnership, friendship, and safe place to raise children. (Once you have children, you will never be able to cut ties anyway.) And I think a TON of people out there severely underestimate how freaking hard divorce is, not only for the kids and the divorced partner, but for even the one who initiates it, and how much it can change your safety net, change your social circles, age you, etc.

I am also not big on recommending cheating. Very rarely would I say this. But something about your husband giving you a vibrator really makes me think, hm. Possibly this man knows she has needs, cares about her meeting them, but just doesn't feel that he can. Perhaps he has E.D.?

If you think at all that there is a chance he would agree to an open marriage, I think this is one of very few cases in which that might make everyone happiest. Maybe he would prefer a kind of "don't ask, don't tell" arrangement.
posted by quincunx at 7:49 PM on January 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

It sounds like he should schedule a visit to a doctor first of all. Going to bed early AND needing lots of naps signals a physical problem to me. Depression and sleep apnea both are energy-sapping. Thyroid problems are less common in men, but if he's hypothyroid that would drain his energy too.

He needs to go to a doctor, get a thorough checkup, a screening for depression, and a sleep test. It is not normal to need a daily nap, especially if one gets enough sleep (from 7 to 9 hours) at night.

If he's simply tired (or depressed or ill or has sleep apnea) fixing this might well help your marriage. If everything checks out normal, then you can consider the possibility that all those naps are his way of escaping life and your marriage. But wanting to sleep all the time is so often a signal of either depression or sleep apnea (or both!) that getting him checked by a doctor should be your first step. Maybe couch it in terms of his health - "Honey, I'm worried about you. You are sleeping all the time. Why not get a checkup to see if there is something that can be done about it?"
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:37 PM on January 31, 2014 [8 favorites]

I agree with Rosie M. Banks about couching it in terms of his health. Just be careful not to say, "... so that you have the energy to do X Y and Z." I think it would be better to say something like, " ... so that you can be better rested."
posted by cairdeas at 8:44 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't think you understand how serious your situation is. You won't leave, you won't seek therapy. You want a magic solution that is not those things. But there isn't one. You can change things together, which requires therapy and probably a medical work up on him for depression and illness, or you can leave. If you refuse to do either of those things, why would anything change except to get worse? There is no easy fix. Your marriage as a relationship is all but dead, your needs are unmet, you are both sunk deep in despair and stress and resentment. You can't change this without help.

An affair will not help you, I can't believe anyone thinks that. Get help or go. Stop trying to carry the whole marriage by yourself. You'll end up bitter and burnt out and miserable.
posted by emjaybee at 8:48 PM on January 31, 2014 [21 favorites]

It sounds like you were trying to be compassionate towards your partner, and when you saw him getting overwhelmed you lowered your expectations of what he would do for the partnership to help him. And he did less than that, so you lowered your expectations again, and he did less so you lowered your expectations ad infinium. No matter how low your expectations to your husband has decided to not attempt to meet them and instead he has rationalised it as you giving him permission to stop being a partner.

Raise your expectations, right up to the level they should be. No naps, (I agree with the comment of the dad's/parents that nap to avoid responsibility); he is a great cook so tell him you want him to make a hot healthy breakfast for you to eat together at the table you set each morning, and I would tell him that there needs to be sex once a week or there -will- be a divorce. I think he needs that ultimatum, and you need to make a decision about what husband you deserve, and what father the children deserve, and what you are modeling as a healthy relationship to them (believe me, they know there is something wrong).

If his job is so draining he cannot be a husband or father, then he needs to take steps to change his job. If you aren't working outside the home you might want to look into a career for yourself, both to salve your self-esteem and to prepare for a potentially financially uncertain future (not necessarily that you divorce but instead he may decide he is unable to do his job either and be checking out of it too).

Have a look at the divorcebusting books and forum. This is a pretty common tactic in marriages and they have specific strata gives that are healthy responses to your partner's dysfunction. Good luck.
posted by saucysault at 8:49 PM on January 31, 2014 [10 favorites]

In five years, we've had sex four times. Three of them at my request.

I've been in a similar position: half a decade of involuntarily, inexplicably, utterly sexless marriage. I know from experience how painful it is. I felt rejected every day and I was barely holding myself together. Give yourself credit for the strength you've shown in keeping your children fed with a roof over their heads.

He's just... absent

Everything you've been saying about him suggests clinical depression. He should get checked out. He gets some sympathy from me if he's got that (I have clinical depression myself) but he needs to take responsibility for his actions. Getting treatment cannot be optional for him. If he refuses your request that he seek help you should deliver a divorce ultimatum. I know you don't want a divorce, but if he's not even willing to try to find out where all his energy has gone there's no hope of getting him back. Insist.

However, I don't think clinical depression is the whole explanation. What I'm about to say is not going to be fun.

Extraordinary effects demand extraordinary explanations. Depression would explain not wanting sex often, but no matter how low his libido is there's nothing stopping him from using the vibrator on you. If he's been refusing to even touch you sexually for years something huge must be going on in his head. Something so big that it explains both his lack of attraction to you and his near-total lack of concern for your needs. It might be the same thing that's inhibiting non-sexual intimacy between you, the loss of connection.

I want my partner back.

Without exaggeration I must have sobbed that into my pillow a thousand times. I know you love him but take a deep breath and consider the possibility that he might have fallen out of love with you years ago. That was true in my case - in the end that's what my wife told me. The way he's behaving is consistent with trying to keep up a false front for the kids' sake.

What do I do? What else can I try?

One option is to keep doing what you're doing. You're strong. You can keep the roof on the house until the kids leave, or until one of you dies from old age. Remaining where you are, in pain, making occasional superficial changes to keep a semblance of hope alive is a thing you can choose to do. It's what you are choosing by default if you do nothing.

You could ask for a divorce right now, but you're not ready for that.

Option three is to get him to articulate what's going on in his head. He may not understand himself, or if he does he hasn't been talking for some reason. You said direct and open conversation has failed and therapy is not possible. That makes it sound as though option three is closed to you.

I don't see an option four. A marriage cannot be saved unilaterally.

Survival strategies needed.

I've been pretty bleak here, but I've got one hopeful thought. Maybe it's never occurred to him that his using the vibrator on you is an option. It's worth suggesting and it's not asking for much from him. Seeing himself make you happy might restore some of his self confidence, and that might help in a lot of other areas in your marriage. Maybe there's something comparably passive for him that you could do that would bring him pleasure in bed - would he even say no to that? Low effort sex is still sex, and it might be a place to start rebuilding marriage-wide intimacy if he consented.

Maybe that's an option four. Find something that helps with one of the problems you have together and see if the change has positive ripple effects. Sex might not be the place to start but it's a thought.

For what it's worth, hearing your story has made me feel a bit less alone in my own experience. Memail me if you like. Dude, we should start a club.
posted by Moist von Lipwig's Angel at 9:42 PM on January 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

You both have faced almost every major life stressor in a short period of time. I agree his behavior sounds like clinical depression. If so, I have to hand it to him for continuing to work so hard at his business, which can be a very very difficult thing to maintain in such a state. For that reason, it also sounds a bit like protracted grief (or "complicated grief"). Sometimes those who are really struck down by grief focus on one thing to the exclusion of all else as a coping strategy; it helps shut out and fill up the loss. You mentioned a death in the family. Reading this, I wonder who was lost and what your husband's relationship to that person was?

The two darkest, loneliest points in my marriage occurred after significant losses of loved ones. But, strangely, neither I nor my spouse put that together on our own in the moment. It's like we couldn't even see what was right there. (Or rather, we couldn't see that the loss that was so obviously there had anything to do with "us" and what we were going through.) When someone pointed that out, a little light went on, and we could move forward (slowly, but forward) from there.

Just a thought.
posted by beanie at 10:23 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Getting a bf on the side is not going to solve your problems, it will only make it worse. Maybe you have been too passive and not really shown any anger which is wierd. What do you mean there is no yelling? If you are resentful you better show it. Right now you must be portraying a cool passive demeanor and that aint gonna get his attention. Be straight up, show some emotion and tell him how it is.
posted by Greenlight2b at 12:12 AM on February 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

So, okay, I kind of am this guy, in a way. My job's pretty demanding (I work freelance and have one major gig and a bunch of minor ones) and then I'm in school working on my degree. So on weeknights, I pretty much have dinner and vanish under my headphones to do classwork.

But here's the thing: There's a stopping point, you know? Like in a couple years, I will finish my degree. Is he busy with his business for a set period of time? Or is he willing to make the commitment that if whatever is not done in x time, then he will find a way to dial back? Because for one thing, your marriage obviously can't take it, but it's not a healthy way to live long-term. There's a reason the phrase "working yourself to death" exists.

And the second thing is: Because I am unavailable those times, I try to be even more available to my wife on weekends. Which seems entirely reasonable to me. Would he be willing to consider that, something like a standing date night or a day for just the two of you? Because again, this can't be sustained.

There is a lot of good advice above and I lean towards something deeper, too, but on a practical level, if he is that tired all the time and eating bad food and not taking care of himself, he is going to die. Maybe that's an angle to take that's not going to throw up as many defenses as all the emotional stuff: I am genuinely concerned for your health and well-being, how can we fix this?
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:28 AM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately, when things start going south, the last thing on your mind is sex. Resolve the deeper issues and the sexual aspects should improve.

he's grumpy with me because I don't make him something hot to eat before he goes to work/pack lunch for him. He mostly doesn't talk about work until something goes wrong.

He's asking you to do something for him. If he usually cooks dinner, ask him to make a little extra so you can start packing him lunches and make him breakfast on the condition that he eats with you/family. If he's cooking all the time, why not give him a break and make dinner two or three times a week?

He would rather throw things away than maintain them. Broken objects will sit for months because he just stops seeing them.

This seems to indicate that he'd rather ignore issues and might be conflict avoidant. Maybe that's why direct conversations aren't giving you the results you're looking for. Find a way to help him out at work and start prioritizing the current issues in your life and addressing them slowly. You say it's been about five years since you've been frequently intimate, so this will not resolve overnight. Give it time, you're obviously willing to wait out the storm so to speak, you just need to try other tactics. Right now I'm hearing a lot of both of you upset that neither of you are fulfilling each other's needs and resenting the other for not realizing that you're both sinking. It will help if you work at this as a team rather than individually. He's too overwhelmed with work to help you, and you're getting overwhelmed without him. Start there. Good luck.
posted by lunastellasol at 12:35 AM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, try e-mailing him or writing him a note, or possibly even a bulleted list of solutions or different things to try. Frame these issues as problems that can be resolved rather than needs not being met. It's all about how you communicate your expectations. But you have to give him something to work with rather than giving him demands to deal with.
posted by lunastellasol at 12:44 AM on February 1, 2014

Don't have an affair. If you're going to stay married, then you need to honor your vows, or what's the point of them in the first place? It is a lot healthier for your family unit (and I speak from experience) to divorce than to live a lie.

So if you're going to stay, I think you need to figure out why he's unhappy. It could be depression, stress, a sleep disorder, whatever. It doesn't matter if objectively you have a nice life, sometimes it's better to be less financially comfortable so you can live near your support system.

It's easy to blame him, but you both had roles to play in it I would assume. You guys seem like you've lost empathy for each other. I think few things are more dangerous for a relationship than that.

But you can't force somebody to want more. Even if he has something you can treat, it's not going to fix years of not maintaining your relationship. He has to want it. You have to want it. Does he want more? Does he want to have a partner again? Sometimes the answer once you relieve the depression or stress, etc is yes but I've also seen the answer be no. Maybe he just wants to be roommates, or maybe he doesn't want to stay married at all.

Right now, he's barely participating in his own life. He's pulling away. You need to de-clutter your life. Step away from any non-essential project. If it's business stress, find him help or decide together it's not working and if it's worth it to keep going. If you have young kids, give yourselves a break once a week. The house doesn't need to be perfect. It's amazing what having free time can do for you. Suddenly spending time together doesn't feel like a burden or obligation because you're not focusing on the 1000 things you need to do. You guys have no perspective, you're stuck in the midst of it. I think when you're going full throttle on everything all the time you never have time to put down your guard. You never have time to look at your life and really appreciate it.

I'm not a "everyone should go to therapy" kind of person but I think even solo therapy would help you. Couples would be great, but if that's not going happen going alone can really help you to sort out all this stuff buzzing around in your head.
posted by Aranquis at 12:44 AM on February 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

If he's cooking all the time, why not give him a break and make dinner two or three times a week?

It appears she does everything else in the house for him so the only way this would not absolve him of all household responsibilities is if he starts to do something else. He already gets all the breaks anybody can reasonably expect to get if cooking dinner is the only contribution he makes to household tasks.

If possible shelve the project for now and outsource some housework/gardening to reduce strain on you hopefully reducing the feeling that it's all down to you. That might give you a bit more emotional resource to deal with your husband.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:59 AM on February 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Hey, anon-- memail me for a story with a happy ending, but too much detail for teh internets.
posted by instamatic at 3:45 AM on February 1, 2014

Essay time... bear with me; I am thinking as i go.

You probably think Jackson Pollock was a successful artist? Or someone similar. Fame and riches. Widely appreciated work. I do, too, but he was an outlier.

I have a friend who is one. In fact, I am one! You know why? Because my economic and artist goals are being met by my efforts. Note that I quantified neither. They are my goals. One sculptor friend of mine sometimes bemoans his lack of success. Bull. He put two kids through college, makes 6-figure marble wonders, and pursues his own themes speculatively. It's just that commissions aren't routine, adulation and appreciation are infrequent, and he wants more Pollock and less pauper. He's still a success. Pollock is the outlier. My guy wakes up every day, eats breakfast, has a roof and is warm, shows his stuff, and even he knows how good he is. In my case, selling my decent art is not even a consideration because that is not why I do it. I meet my goals for it and it meets my needs on its own. There is no other definition for success.

Marriage is kind of like that. You have a successful one, with the emphasis on the SUCk part. This is what they look like. They persist, meeting some goals well and others not at all. The participants get little appreciation, no adulation, have to work 100 to enjoy 1, pile up mutual resentments, try their best to wake up the next day, jockey for advantage, fight life's perpetual fatigue and overwork, and they do it for spouses and kids who don't appreciate it and for a community so involved in fighting the same fight that they aren't even aware that you are fighting one.

I am reminded of a radio station that played a weekend of nothing but covers of Louie Louie way back when. It's amazing how many mefites can play your particular song in their own particular style.

Wanna be happy? Marriage ain't the path. Life lived as you wish is the path. Wanna be successfully married? I maintain you are, but you are in a period of extreme deficit and have lost faith that it will end, and you may be right. It might not.

Your 'marriage' is like your genome. It does not care if you are happy, it only seeks survival, however it can get it. Your grudging acceptance, and your unhappy husband's grudging treadmill life.... doing their job.

My question to you, me, the planet of deluded couples.... how can happiness be to get the most water from a sponge that only holds so much at a time?

No answers. Everybody is working on their version. Doing nothing, however, means nothing changes. Something has to change or nothing changes. (see what I did there?).

Try something else and see what works. We fear change, seek change, are addicted to change and we consistently tamper with working models that meet our needs by changing them. We are just a stupid species. ("Hey, this is great! Let's change it by getting married!" or whatever.... we wonder why the water freezes when we leave it out over night on the sub-zero porch. Well, duh.)

I have my own approach. It is not useful to you. Different things make you and me, and your hubby happy. My clothes probably don't fit you, as it were.

This is what it is. "What if this is as good as it gets?" comes to mind from a movie of the same name.

I don't mean to sound so dismal. I am a cynic in these matters and believe we are programmed to infatuation, fuck, and then fight and flee, and that the programs execute to a time table, with some fortunates have long variable hold times between phases. Nature wants us OUT finding someone else to screw once it has had its way with us. We puzzle why we feel this way, but this is the execution path of the program. Free will can manipulate it, for some, but it generally loses.

Sorry you are unhappy. I hope that changes. I hope it changes for everyone who is unhappy. It's entirely up to us to do it. Not our mates... us. You.

Here is a fun little article from NY Times a while back.
posted by FauxScot at 4:47 AM on February 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Can't stop thinking about this questions, back for more.

If the situation in the OP is like mine, the writer has already tried to lovingly address any possible health issues (weight, sleep, depression) and has been blown off about those too.

Someone upthread suggested conflict avoidance. My guess is that this is spot on. When you told your husband last year that the lack of sex was hurtful and you wanted it to change, he responded, but not with the kind of direct engagement that you were clearly asking for. It's actually somewhat heartening that he responded at all by buying that stuff (my husband just acted like I'd never even had the conversation, which was par for the course at my house) but still, it's an indication that your husband couldn't deal with directly engaging with your complaint about him. Even if the complaint was that you loved him and wanted to be closer to him and have more sex with him (!!)--the implication behind that, was that he was doing something "wrong", and that was impossible for him to face.

Conflict avoidance is a tricky, tricky thing. We all use it to some degree with the people we meet in the wider world, but it is a lethal tactic in coping in a marriage, where you are explicitly and by joint agreement supposed to be life partners, teammates, and emotional/sexual caretakers. When someone refuses to respectfully engage their spouse's complaint, the underlying message is: your concerns aren't important enough to merit a response; I will decide by fiat how this issue will be handled, which is to say, not at all. Note that, fundamentally, conflict avoidance is a power play, but a totally underhanded one. It's even more crazymaking when accompanied by shows of cooperation (like saying he's sorry or admitting that he's checked out, but not actually doing anything to change).

The question asked was, what more can she do to get this marriage back on the right track. The tragedy of it is: she can't. She's not the one who's disengaged. He's the one that has to re-engage. She can't make him do it. I think it was saucysault who said that the only way to start moving this in the right direction is to *raise* your expectations. I agree. There is no way to do this without conflict on your part, at which point he is almost certain to blame *you* for being unreasonable and abusive.

Another book you might read is Lundy Bancroft's book, Why does he do that? It's about how abusive men think. There will be many behaviors in that book that your husband does not do (physical and verbal abuse) but I bet you will be surprised how many of your husband's behaviors are represented there. Your husband is being incredibly controlling in his passive way, and his disregard for your work (kids, house, projects) and your feelings shows deep disrespect, despite what his words might say. One thing that Bancroft discusses is that it is never, ever possible to get abusive men to change by persuasion and appeal to their better nature. If he doesn't read the books you have, or doesn't take them to heart and make change by his own initiative, if your direct appeals make no difference, there's your answer. Bancroft says that the only way to initiate change then is to effectively give him no choice, i.e., that you'll leave if he doesn't. That was my experience as well.

I wish I could wave a magic wand and make it better for you. If nothing else I hope you can at least take comfort in knowing that you are doing all the right things that a loving, caring wife should do. Your husband should be treating you with as much effort and thought and care. Also, you're not alone in having been in this situation.
posted by Sublimity at 5:10 AM on February 1, 2014 [22 favorites]

The excessive sleeping thing really jumped out at me too as a possible symptom of depression. Especially in the context of everything else that's happened (death in the family, moving, health issues.) I agree with a couple posters above who thought he is exhibiting a pretty classic picture of depression- in addition to the sleep thing, the withdrawing from activities and being "checked out." Does he go to a general doctor regularly? GP's (should) know how to screen for depression. Next time he's going to an appointment for whatever reason, ask him to please mention his altered sleeping habits. A good doc will pick up on this and ask questions about mood, appetite and the rest of it. Of course, that's if he's not willing to come right out and say "my wife is worried that I'm depressed and she wanted me to run it by you." That would be ideal but I know he may not agree to that. But sometimes people really do open up more about these things in the setting of a doctors visit, especially if the doc initiates the conversation based on seemingly benign symptoms. I'd at least make an effort to rule it out before you try a bunch of other things, which at best probably won't work if he is depressed, and at worst would be incredibly damaging to your marriage (cheating.) Not everyone responds to antidepressants but many do so I think this is an avenue worth pursuing.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 6:17 AM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your question and most of the answers here are focused on your marriage, but let me say, if you think your children won't notice, and be damaged by, an emotionally absent father avoiding them every day, think again.

For the sake of your children, as well as your marriage, your husband needs to do the hard work to become an engaged, emotionally available father and husband, or he needs to leave.
posted by Squeak Attack at 6:29 AM on February 1, 2014 [13 favorites]

I'll try to keep it brief because you've already gotten plenty of other advice.

First, it sounds to me like you both need some major life changes. You both sound overwhelmed and depressed, and as many people have mentioned, your husband sounds severely depressed. That doesn't absolve his behavior (since he doesn't seem to be trying to confront it), but nevertheless, it's the major problem at hand.

It seems like you desperately need to get to a situation where you both are less busy and have the time to eat properly, exercise most days, have some "me" time, and get some proper sleep. Until you get those four big factors in order, everything is a Sisyphean uphill battle.

Are you willing to do what it takes to have a life overhaul, even if it means making less money? Will you go to work? Back off on some of your ideas about how your home should be run? Give up his business and help him find better work? Move to somewhere where family is close by so they can help you?

Second, it seems like you need to have a frank talk with your husband where you explain just how severe the problems have become, and you lay out an ultimatum (but a solutions-oriented one). Lay it all out there and demand that he take part in identifying and implementing solutions. What is he going to change, and what are you going to change to make things better? Then, if he will not hold up his end of the deal, hold him accountable and divorce him.

Finally, I would greatly discourage you from considering cheating. That is horrendous advice. It is the best way to make yourself the bad guy in this situation in the eyes of your husband, your children, your friends, and your extended family, and the best way to irreparably destroy any chance at improving things. Tell your husband that you're so fed up and unfulfilled that you've been increasingly feeling like those needs have to be met soon... somewhere... but don't just go out and do it.

Lots of us have dealt with similar situations so know you aren't alone. Keep fighting, and be sure to keep looking out for yourself- that's in everyone's best interest.
posted by Old Man McKay at 7:17 AM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

He's disconnected and you're not having sex. An affair is a distinct possibility.

Even if there is no affair, you're in an EXTREMELY financially vulnerable position as a stay-at-home partner to someone with their own business (and the ability to hide a lot of money there, or simply hide years of losses and unsustainable debt).

You might not think divorce is an option, but it's always an option, because he can file, too.

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF AND YOUR KIDS. I am sorry to yell, but so often as women we get into the habit of taking care of our men, who don't actually need it. You and your kids need your care. Not just emotionally, either, but financially. You can't afford to have your head in the sand. The responsible thing to do is prepare to support yourself and your kids on your own. You owe it to them not to be willfully blind to the continued disintegration of your marriage.

--Strongly consider paying work outside the home, or further training.
--Strongly consider hiring a divorce lawyer and think about how you would finance a divorce in which your children would get everything they're entitled to from their father.
--Look into his financial matters and have a handle on his business, if at all possible.

Good luck.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:23 AM on February 1, 2014 [13 favorites]

Partnerships take two. You are going all in, and he isn't. No amount of will on your part is going to make him re-engage. Intense conversations about why he should work on x, y, or z will probably annoy him and add to whatever resentment he is already harboring. It ain't fair, but it is likely what will happen.

My father checked out of my parents marriage 13 years in and I watched my mother try to hold them together by force of will for 10 years after that before the marriage finally died. It was not pretty, and those ten years were fraught for everyone.

After witnessing and being the unfortunate shoulder for her heartbreak and his disillusionment for many, many years I am going to say what I am about to say from a place of love (and hope):

1. Your question is full of so much desire and despair, and almost all of it stems from what you'd like to get him to do. I'm going to tell you a hard truth: you can't get him to do anything. Seriously. This is a losing game full of repeatedly disappointed expectations. Learning this truth is the hardest thing to learn in the world. THE HARDEST.
2. Please read Codependent No More. Don't get freaked out by the subtitle. This is a book about love and independence. I read it, got my mom to read it, think almost everyone should read it. The language about a partner's addiction may not apply to your situation, but the emotional unavailability does, does, does.
3. You currently live with a man with whom you share a great deal of history and mutual regard. You would like him to be something he is not. He might have been that something at one point in your relationship but he isn't now (and may never be again).

I think you should leave, for your sake and for your children's sake, because there is so much life on the other side of grief. There is so much to be found when you put old dreams to bed.

HOWEVER, because you have stated you are unwilling to leave the relationship, I am going to suggest something radical. And that something is: zero expectations. Operate as if all the responsibility is all yours. Don't expect him to help, be happy, contribute, parent, have sex with you, anything. And if he does any of those things, BONUS. And if he doesn't, and that sounds terrible...

...consider that you are already living that life, and I suspect you have been for a long time. The solution isn't getting him to change. The solution is something else. I think in your bones you know what that is.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 7:34 AM on February 1, 2014 [8 favorites]

As YRR says, if you're financially vulnerable, take some action. Don't go getting a side boyfriend until you have socked away enough cash to leave and sustain yourself. Then go attend to your romantic needs.
posted by discopolo at 9:09 AM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think the blueprint for things is pretty clear:

(a) throw money at taking whatever stresses you can off your husband.
(b) get him to do a full medical workup--though yeah, I suspect if you're asking this, he refuses.
(c) start taking care of yourself and working on lining up some way to support yourself or bring in extra money if at all possible just in case things go terribly wrong.
(d) if (a) and (b) happen, see if he is any more interested in getting more involved in your relationship.

However.... well, he just might not be interested in being more involved in the relationship. I can't tell if he's lost all interest in general or if it's just his life, but it could be either at this point. And it will be up to you to decide on your own if you can take life being like this until you die. If he won't do (a) or (b) and just wants things to stay as they are, then you have your answer. If his life gets less crappy, he MIGHT show interest again. But right now, I can't tell.

Good luck.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:42 AM on February 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

I didn't mean it as keep doing everything for him. I meant it more as, "I do the dishes every single day, if I wash another dish, I'll explode!" kind of way. As in switch responsibilities a few times a week so while wife cooks, husband can spend time with children, pick up around house, etc.
posted by lunastellasol at 11:37 AM on February 1, 2014

This sounds like every married couple I know, aside from the naps. Naps plus going to bed early is pretty weird. I'd get that checked out.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 11:55 AM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry, but I am kind of shocked at the suggestions to have an affair instead of just getting a divorce. Personally, in reading your question, my very limited and one-sided (based on your side) opinion is that your marriage is fixable. There are two things that would absolutely guarantee that it becomes unfixable, however, and one of you having an affair is one of those things. The other thing is physical abuse. I mean really, is that the example you want to set for your kids? That instead of getting yourself out of a situation that you consider bad for yourself like a mature, responsible and straight-forward adult, you chose to have a lover on the side? That's a shitty lesson.

Basically, you have three choices. 1.) keep living like you are living. 2.) work to change it - this includes getting therapy. 3.) leave. I highly, highly recommend getting therapy. It sounds to me like the communication between you two is shot (things like he doesn't talk about his day/business, when you might actually want to hear about these things). Talking stuff out in front of a third party is HUGELY helpful. I am sure there is some way you could work out seeing a therapist.

Also, maybe you should try making him a hot breakfast every day. Maybe he feels really worn out and that small daily kindness is the tipping point. You can really only control your own behavior here, and you might want to ask yourself if you could do more as a spouse. I'm not AT ALL saying any of this is your fault. But could you do more? Is it worth trying just a little bit more for a little bit longer?

If you are so fed up that it isn't worth it to you, then leave. Shit happens. But don't take the pussy way out by having a secret lover. Be an adult and own your actions.
posted by corn_bread at 5:09 PM on February 1, 2014

This man sounds depressed. Get him to a doctor.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:31 PM on February 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your needs aren't being fulfilled, you communicated that to hubbie and he basically did nothing about it, yet you absolutely won't consider divorce? Why do you think so little of yourself and your needs that you would remain in a sexless and unfulfilling marriage for the rest of your life? Is this what you would counsel a good friend or loved one to do, if they came to you with the same set of problems?

I don't think you should keep trying to get blood out of a stone. Forget working on your marriage and just start laying plans to get fulfillment elsewhere, and to eventually get out of the marriage altogether. Cutting your losses will be more difficult because you have children and mutual projects/businesses, but it is what I think you should work towards doing, however slowly.

In the meantime, I think you should clearly state to your husband that you will be seeking sexual fulfillment outside the marriage if he isn't interested in participating in that with you.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 8:32 AM on February 2, 2014

My question to my husband in a very similar situation. What do I need to do to make this marriage work because it is not working now? His jaw dropped but I had spent all the time thinking about what he could do when it occurred to me that maybe I could find out what I needed to do. I told him I was done guessing about it. I told him either he told me and I would do what I could if he would. Otherwise, I was going to be out of here because I could not live like this. We have come back, so far so good but I don't guess anymore. Done with that.
posted by OhSusannah at 5:23 PM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

On your husband's part - Extreme exhaustion, checking out, and no sex drive.... can be medically caused by low testosterone, or by a malfunctioning thyroid. Can you convince your husband to see a doctor and get tested for these conditions?
posted by Ardea alba at 7:05 AM on February 7, 2014

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