My wife is emotionally dead

I've tried and tried but I get nothing back from her -- and now it's killing me

Topics: Since You Asked, Marriage, Sexual abuse, Rape, incest, family systems, attachment theory, trauma, intimacy, Divorce,

My wife is emotionally dead (Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)


This isn’t the first time I’ve tried writing to you, but it is the first time I’ve succeeded. A recent letter from a man in a similar situation pushed me over the finish line.

I’m a man in my early 50s. I am married to a woman who just turned 40. We’ve been together for about 17 years. To compress the story with shorthand from attachment theory, I’m a classic example of “anxious-preoccupied” attachment. I am a child of divorce; both my parents were and remain distant and unaffectionate, and I’ve lived my life without a secure base and safe haven. My wife is the classic “fearful-avoidant” type. My wife’s biological father killed her mother, and she was raised by her uncle’s family. One of her male cousins raped her repeatedly for over a decade.

My wife has the key characteristics of a survivor of sexual abuse: difficulty with intimacy, trust, sex and so on. However, instead of taking the promiscuous route, she adopted a carapace of self-righteousness, intolerance and judgmentalism. Our sex life falls into the borderline sexless category.

I feel like I try to contribute positively to her emotional well-being, and am supportive when she needs it, but she does basically nothing for me emotionally. I consider this behavior to be emotionally abusive, mainly by omission, in that she knows what a committed relationship requires, but refuses even to try to operate that way. In that sense she is constantly making withdraws from our emotional bank account and rarely makes a deposit. As I have pointed out to her many times, it is far easier for her to act in ways that cause me pain than to show me love, comfort and intimacy. We are still together – perhaps because we have a lovely child – but we are suffering.

Books for partners of abuse survivors generally assume that the survivor is in “recovery.” In our case, my wife simply refuses to acknowledge that there is anything wrong with her, or with her approach to our relationship. We have been in therapy several times, but she always reverts to her cold, distant ways. She has never made any effort to seek counseling for her childhood experiences.

I have had problems with alcohol abuse over the years, and finally managed to bring it under control about six months ago. The key to this was my recognition that alcohol was a substitute for the missing attachments in my life. The penny dropped when I understood that the key to AA (which I don’t attend) was the creation of attachments to fill this void.

Recently, I explained to my wife in great detail how excited I was finally to understand why I had tended to abuse alcohol. I also explained how her tendency to push me away and punish me with passive-aggressive tactics was the worst possible response, since it reinforces the reasons I abuse alcohol. I pleaded with her to try to understand how hard it is for me to make progress when she is withholding the basic emotional content of marriage from me. I explained to my wife that the only way I could account for her behavior was to assume that she either a) doesn’t fully understand the pain it causes me, or b) doesn’t really love me, since nobody could knowingly cause such pain to a loved one.

My dilemma is this. I just ended a period of unemployment that was very hard on us. My wife seems to have been a little mellower during this period, but within 48 hours of my landing a new permanent gig, she was back to her old tricks. This time, I have reacted with anger — not outward, but inside. I simply cannot take this anymore. I have concluded that she must not love me, given that she knows how I feel about her behavior.

However, I feel that I must give this one more shot, if only for my daughter’s sake. I want to give her an ultimatum: Either she seeks counseling, or at the very least shares our situation with a trusted friend (she has many) so she can get an alternative perspective – or it is time we end this.

Is this the right thing to do? Is it possible to force a victim of abuse to confront its impact on her life? Is it even desirable?

At the Precipice

Dear At the Precipice,

Thank you for such a precise, careful letter treating such incendiary and tragic topics.

I suppose there is a point at which the damage that has been done to a person cannot be reversed or accommodated, when it is time to face the fact that not everyone recovers their humanity after inhuman treatment, that some traumas are so profound that one’s future life is permanently circumscribed, that there are limits to what one can recover, that some emotional damage is permanent and irreversible, that parts of a person, emotionally speaking, can be not just damaged but killed, amputated, destroyed.

And when this happens maybe the appropriate response is one of acceptance and mourning, as if at a death. If it is impossible for her to participate, if her capacity for emotional response is so deadened that it is also deadening yours, then it may be time to accept that this relationship carries in it a kind of death, and accept the death, and mourn the loss, and then walk away from this scene of death and build a new life.

I say over and over again that there is hope and that people can change and that new vitality emerges through struggle and that it always takes longer than you expect it to. Usually when I am saying such things it is because movement is infinitesimal but it is movement. Usually I am sensing that things are getting better but slowly.

But there may be times, as in this case, where there is no movement, where there is instead emotional death, and much as we might want to rail at the perpetrators of this in your wife’s past, and remain with her precisely because she has been so tragically, unconscionably damaged, we must accept the possibility that to stay is to simply keep sitting by the graveside.

We shouldn’t blame someone who walks away from a graveyard, assuming quite reasonably that no miracle is to occur. And, if a miracle did occur, she who arose from the grave could easily locate you and startle you with her miraculous rebirth. At that point you might be so amazed that you would eagerly want to start a life again together.

Yes, there is a time when it is clear that nothing further can be done. It sounds like you have reached that point.

The paradox of it is, it sometimes requires just such a realization from one partner to let the other one know the depth of her dilemma. That is, should you decide to leave, it might be, for your wife, the desolation that cracks her open — the crack through which the light gets in, as it were. Or, in the lingo of recovery, your leaving might cause her to hit bottom.

It wouldn’t be the first time. But no one ever knows.

In this case, it seems that you would be justified in concluding that to stay in this relationship does nothing but increase the sum of pain in the world, and does nothing to heal anything, and that your expenditure of love is wasted, and that all these things constitute a kind of death from which you are justified in walking away.

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