How many times over the years in my work as a marriage counsellor have I heard a man describe his role in the family like this: “I’m low man on the totem pole”? Trust me—it’s a lot. Or he may say, “I feel invisible in my own home.” I’ve heard men lament that they feel that, to their wife and kids, they are no more than a walking ATM machine. One articulate but frustrated husband told me, “As soon as she said ‘I do,’ she didn’t!”
I work a lot with people struggling to recover from divorce, so I’m passionate about trying to educate married people to the nuances that may lead to a separation while there is still time to repair the damage. One of those dynamics that may lead to a husband getting fed up and leaving is feeling unappreciated and undervalued.
A husband may describe the story of his marriage like this: “We met and fell in love, and it was great! We had so much fun, and we were all over each other. Then we got married, and it was still pretty good for a couple a years till our first child was born. Everything changed, even during the pregnancy. Our sex life hit the skids. My wife was obsessed with taking care of the kids. When the children came in the door, the marriage went out the window!” He may feel that the kids come first, his wife's job comes before him, her parents come before him, her friends come before him, keeping the house clean comes before him, her activities come before him—even Facebook comes before him!
Handling the stresses of working, child rearing, and running a household can wear women down, so much so that they’re struggling just to make it through the week. There are infinite things to do and children need so much attention, so it’s easy to put the couple on the back burner. Don’t do it! Women often feel that it’s okay to focus on the family for a few years till the kids are older and more independent, but without tending, marriages can’t survive in a healthy state.
If your husband is grumbling about being low man on the totem pole, you need to take it seriously because it makes him vulnerable. Some woman at his office may come along and be interested in what he has to say, and that attention may be too hard for him to resist. As much as a man may love and value his family, for many men, their primary emotional attachment is with their wife. Women often have a variety of people to meet their attachment needs—their mothers, sisters, friends, kids, and yes, their husbands, but there are more people in their lives to fill that need for closeness. Many men whom I’ve worked with look to their wives to connect.
I know, of course, that this doesn’t describe all marriages, but it certainly is true in a significant proportion. It’s complicated for a woman to juggle the roles of worker, homemaker, mother, and wife. The first three are not optional, but don’t assume that the couple is infallible and will be there indefinitely. Plus, it’s good for you to remember that you are not only a mother, you are also a woman. It’s okay to get a babysitter and go out once a week and have some fun. It’s fine to leave the kids at your mother-in-law’s and spend a weekend at an inn every once in a while. When the couple is strong, the family is healthy.
Men have different issues that they need to address to make their wives feel supported and appreciated, but today we’re focusing on the husband’s lament—“I’m low man on the totem pole.” It’s time to take it seriously and put that one to rest.
I’m a psychotherapist, family therapist and the author of Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife's Guide to Recovery and Renewal; The Divorce Talk: How to Tell the Kids—A Parent’s Guide to Breaking the News without Breaking Their Hearts; My Sister, My Self: The Surprising Ways that Being an Older, Middle, Younger or Twin Shaped Your Life, and the editor of Planet Heartbreak: Abandoned Wives Tell Their Stories. I can be found online at www.vikkistark.com.