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Ask Hara: Stuck in Life's Traffic Jam

How to hold on to your marriage when you've lost a lot.

At 53, I feel stuck in the traffic jam of my life. I have struggled for the last seven years with different business ventures and recently lost our home. During the same period, I lost my mother and my younger sister. I'm trying to get back to the top of my business life, interviewing for jobs and selling consulting services when possible. While I struggle, my wife works two hours a day as a fitness trainer and as a school coach for a modest stipend. When I ask her to contribute more to our life—we've been living with her parents for the past year—she breaks down in anger, turns off all affection, and demands that I leave her mother's home. I feel she has become too dependent on me to make it all happen. We now go through the motions of daily life; I say nothing to her unless it is required.

Your wife may feel betrayed that some perks of partnership changed without her consent. But welcome to the twenty-first century, when no one is guaranteed a free ride forever, nothing can be taken for granted, and we all need to reexamine our assumptions often, if life doesn't force it first. Your wife definitely needs to let go of a dream to be taken care of and get a grip on the new reality without throwing tantrums. A change in circumstances is one of those things that can reveal character and make or break a relationship. Perhaps she neglected to read the fine print, but a marriage contract does not guarantee income security. In a real partnership, both individuals typically choose to sacrifice some comfort—temporarily, one hopes—for the good of sharing life. Your wife is unwilling, for reason(s) that may include preferring her old life (who wouldn't?) and not feeling connected enough to you to continue casting her lot with you.

But then you don't seem to be putting up much of a fight for your marriage either. Silence is not a terrific problem solver in relationships. Like a wily 2-year-old, your wife has learned that a display of anger and a few tears are all it takes to get you to do her bidding. Maybe living with her folks has pitched her back into toddler mode. Neither of you seems to have much compassion (to say nothing of passion) for the other. Marriage is for grown-ups. Have you told your wife in matter-of-fact but empathic language—the emphasis is on empathic; remember, you're both still on the same team—that her minimalist approach to work is a luxury you were happy to indulge when things were going well but which the partnership can no longer afford?

Image: Hara Estroff Marano

HARA ESTROFF MARANO askhara@psychologytoday.com

For these reasons, you need to abandon your strategy of withdrawal—it's just reinforcing your wife's outbursts—and try something different. You might borrow proven strategies for dealing with the tantrums of toddlers: Stop being so reactive to your wife's howls and instead of capitulating by silence, calmly help her deal with her anger at you, her frustration for having to change her lifestyle, and her fears of a downwardly spiraling future. These are not unreasonable emotions—even if she is unable to express them directly—and they likely underlie her distress; it's time for you to begin addressing them, which may well restart the connection between you and restore a sense of cooperation.