By Hara Estroff Marano, published on October 22, 2004 - last reviewed on April 19, 2006
My husband and I have been married 28 years, a great achievement by today's standards. You'd think we have been through thick and thin enough times that nothing should surprise us anymore. We are both educated, in our early fifties, with two sons in college. From the outside, we appear to be a "normal" family, but something inside me is eating me up. I cannot stand being with my husband anymore; everything about him irritates me, from something as trivial as his smoking habit to something as serious as job opportunities. Right now he is working overseas, and I do not even miss him; actually I feel less stressed. We have grown apart, and no matter what we discuss we seem to have opposing views. He thinks I analyze and criticize everything he does; I feel like there is always an opposing viewpoint that needs to be taken into consideration. To what extent is a wife supposed to support her husband, or her sons, for that matter? I always seem to want to speak my mind, and weigh the good and the bad, but it always comes out that I am the devil's advocate. The only thing that seems to keep the peace is a game of avoidance.
Just for the record, smoking isn't a trivial habit. Cigarette smoke can be downright unpleasant and is an irritant in its own right. In addition, it pollutes the air everyone in your household breathes, and it damages body tissue. What's trivial about that? But the truth is, everything is irritating when you're angry at someone and don't know how to express it; the annoyance seeps out sideways.
It's not clear what you are really angry about, but anger has a way of building up over minor disappointments. Apparently, you are far more interested in keeping the peace than in having a real relationship. Perhaps you think that giving voice to disagreement or disappointment demands confrontation, and so you retreat into avoidance. That dooms you to unhappiness, because it creates no opportunity for awareness of a problem and thus no possibility of change. You are paying a literally miserable price for peace.
No relationship can ever be satisfying unless two people actively create opportunities for expressing what they want from the other and for ironing out their inevitable differences. There are ways to voice concerns without engaging in confrontation, which is typically unproductive anyway. Find a quiet time to talk to your husband kindly.
Such conversations, like all conversations, need to be conducted in an atmosphere of good will. Each of you needs to listen to the other without interruption. When you want to bring a problem to your husband's attention, always—repeat, always—begin a request for change with a statement of appreciation. After all, you have to ask for change in a way that is most likely to bring it about. You might say something like this: "I know we haven't been getting along lately, and that makes me sad and angry. I would like to feel closer to you. But your smoking really bothers me, and I don't think it's doing wonders for you either, which worries me." Then you need to state your request, and it should be specific. Don't just tell your husband what he should not do; specify what you would like him to do to remedy the problem: "For my sake, do you think you could give up smoking in the house?" When two people feel listened to, when they can feel free to ask for what they want, then closeness can develop. It's not too late to give up the game of avoidance and get back a real marriage.
I have been married for 13 years but my husband has never said "I love you!" I love my husband and he loves me and we take care of each other a lot. But I noticed that we never talk or hug each other in public, as other people do. We have three kids and are busy shopping for and entertaining them. When we are alone we always talk about our kids' education, their behavior problems and how to raise them as good human beings.
It's good to be focused on the children, but it is possible to be overfocused on them, too. It's also important to recognize that what kids need most is a stable, secure, emotionally positive relationship between their parents. The emotional climate between parents is your kids' best security blanket. So satisfaction matters.
Which is to say, it's important for your kids' sake and your own sake that you rekindle the romance in your life. You and your husband need time alone together focusing on the two of you—NOT talking about the kids. You need time alone together for renewing the affection you both have for each other.
Further, it wouldn't hurt your kids to have some time to themselves so that they can learn how to entertain themselves. Entertainment is not a parental responsibility. Every child needs free time to deploy their own curiosity and discover what interests them in the world around them, from books to nature to running.
It's not necessarily declarations of affection that speak the loudest. But everyone does need demonstrations of it. Create time alone together where you can talk to your husband. Find out what his beliefs are about adult relationships. He may have grown up in a family where the adults focused only on the children, or ridiculed public displays of affection. Adults typically carry into their own relationships attitudes they absorbed, without even knowing it, from heir family of origin.
If he thinks it's not good to show affection in public, or even in private, try and explore how he came by his beliefs. And tell him kindly that what may have worked for others doesn't work for you, and that you need more. Work out together a level of expression that you are both comfortable with.
Begin with a private conversation, preferably outside the house. It would be nice if you could go out and have a romantic dinner together somewhere. But that's not necessary. The same atmosphere can be set if you do something as simple and low budget as going for a walk together.