This is the first in NewsBreak's weekly (perhaps twice weekly) Q&A column on relationships. The plan right now is for me to respond to one question per week.
There's a link at the end of today's Q&A where you can submit your question. We won't include any identifying information.
Feel free to ask advice on any relationship issue. I wish I could answer all of your questions but unfortunately that won't be possible. I do promise that I will personally read every question sent to me.
Dr. Michael Tobin
Dear Dr. Tobin,
I have been married nine years and we have 4 children, 3 boys and a girl. I feel that my husband is very self-centered. He is a full-time public defender who puts no effort into child care or maintaining the home. He also puts no time into our marriage.
The unfortunate thing is that even though he works 60 plus hours a week nearly half of the money we live on comes from my job as an occupational therapist. When I ask him for help in maintaining the home, he says he can’t because he needs time to prepare for his cases.
His argument to me is that we agreed from the beginning that he would be devoting a significant amount of his time to his career and that I would be responsible for everything else. It’s true that I agreed at the time but I had no idea that I would be a slave to his career.
I assumed that our marriage would be a priority and that we would have some fun time together and that he would share in some of the responsibilities. I don’t even get appreciation.
In his mind we are partners working toward a successful future. He believes that he is building his reputation now and that in the near future he will open a successful private practice. He tells me that I should be patient and trust him and that all our efforts will bear fruit.
I don’t know if I believe him and I don’t know how long I can continue in this marriage. I often have fantasies of just escaping. If I didn’t have children, I would.
Please advise me about what I can do. I’m desperate for an answer.
Married to a self-centered man
Good for you for reaching out for advice. That's the first step toward changing a difficult situation. So let's dive right in.
I wonder if your husband knows how lonely you are. Does he understand how much you miss him? Would he be surprised about how unhappy you are?
You've made it clear that you feel victimized by his focus on work, his “unwillingness” to help, his lack of commitment to the marriage, his absence as a father, and the lack of fairness in his financial contribution. You feel overworked and underappreciated, filled with resentment and disconnected. In short, you’re describing a relationship devoid of love and intimacy.
What you write is painful; what you don’t write is revealing. Over the years, I’ve answered many questions from visitors to my website and almost invariably they tell me about how much effort they’ve invested in getting their spouses to respond, to change—to do something different. They often write of a failed therapy experience, a consultation with their minister, which led nowhere, or an attempt to unilaterally act differently in order to improve the situation.
I may be wrong about this but what I sense from you is that you’ve been building up resentments but you have not taken the “risk” to change a situation that causes you so much pain. You have described a marriage that sounds untenable and is dangerously close to divorce yet I have no idea if you’ve communicated any of what you feel to your husband.
I’m going to assume that you haven’t, and if I’m wrong and you have, then I want to help you find a new and more effective way of communicating how you feel and what you want to change.
I recommend you try the following:
- Take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle of the page. On the left side write Resentments, on the right, write Wants.
- First write your list of resentments that you feel toward your husband. For example, “I resent you for not helping with the children.” Or, “I resent you for not spending time with me.” Or, “I resent you for taking me for granted.”
- Now on the right side under Wants change your statements of resentments into statements of want. For example, “I resent you for not spending time with me,” becomes “I want us to spend time together,” or “I miss you and I would like us to spend time together.”
- Once you’ve completed your list of resentments and wants, I would like you to notice the difference in how you feel when you express resentments and then wants. To be very frank, it’s easy to express resentments and to feel like a victim. It’s quite another thing to speak proactively in the language wanting to create positive change. It’s the difference between acting out of fear or finding the courage to do what must be done in order to change a difficult situation.
- Once you feel you are ready to approach your husband in the spirit of wanting to create change, you can either set a time to speak to him or write him a letter if you feel that may be less threatening. You need to be careful not to lead with your negative feelings. If so, he’ll most likely react defensively. Lead with what you desire; not with what you don’t want or like.
- Even if you take the correct action, there’s no guarantee that he will respond positively. He may feel so overwhelmed by his work and feel misunderstood and unappreciated by you that he will hear all of your requests as demands and criticisms. If so, try not to react negatively. It’s a strong indication that you will need marital therapy to help you through this difficult period.
The main point that I would like you to take from my response is this: Take responsibility to change a negative situation into something positive. Feeling and acting like a victim is an absolute guarantee for unhappiness and failure. Finding the courage to be proactive and taking control over your life is one of the main pathways to happiness and fulfillment.
I wish you well.
Dr. Michael Tobin