There is an emptiness

I don't know what happened to my marriage. We share a house and a bed and little else. Is it time to call it quits?

By Cary Tennis

Published August 28, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

As my sixth wedding anniversary approaches (looms?), I have been asking myself difficult questions. I am married to a good person. Is that enough? The sparks have long died out; we don't fight, we don't yell, we're not nasty -- instead there is an emptiness, a growing distance between two people who share a house and a bed but little else.

We recently spent a seven-hour flight watching separate movies, and spoke about two sentences between us. Holding hands, or even just an affectionate touch, didn't seem to be an option. I am deeply sad, and tired. Tired of trying, tired of being disappointed, tired of feeling dissatisfied and unfulfilled, tired of being unhappy, tired of trying to talk, ask questions and make the effort. Just plain tired.

As I write this, I realize just how difficult it is to put all the bits and pieces of a life, the hopes, the grief, the dreams that won't go away, in a concise, neat, ordered letter asking for advice. So, I will give you glimpses, jumbled-up ones, to try, if not to make sense of, then to get a sense from.

I got married at 24, against my family's wishes, crazy in love, convinced of the "rightness" of it all. My family eventually came around as I knew they would (we are very close). My husband and I moved from a group house, to an apartment, to our own house two years ago. We got promoted, have good careers, and no kids. Along the way, I don't know where we lost each other. In retrospect I see signposts -- a walk along a trail, where I asked, "Are you happy?" and he replied, "Yes, I am," and kept walking silently; my growing frustration with his emotional detachment, his unwillingness or inability to express joy or sadness, or even a simple emotional reaction in the moment. An unconstructive type of competitiveness that interfered with his ability to be happy for my happiness, accomplishments and minor victories. All of this was in the days when we did talk. Now the communication has broken down. He refuses to see a professional together or apart.

I have always had the travel bug; I grew up moving around, and the world beyond America is part of my work, my heart, my passion. He is content where we are (house in the suburbs), detached, uncommunicative. He says he loves me, and I know he does, in his way. For him this is enough. I yearn for more, and realize that love, after all, is not enough. At least not this love. I feel like I cannot breathe here. I dream of a room of my own. I am lonely in the bed I share with him. After one sexual encounter too many where my body was present but my heart and mind absent, I now refuse sex with him. The context has evaporated. There is no excitement, no emotional connection, no curiosity, only a strange detachment.

I come from a family and background where divorce is rare. My parents are lucky to love each other deeply. On a recent visit, I remember thinking to myself, they talk way more than we do! It made me smile for them, and sad for me. So, it took me a long time to even think about the D-word. Now it's in my head and I can't get it out. So, what am I asking? I want to know what you see in this jumble.

How Do I Start Over?

Dear How Do I Start Over,

I know it is difficult to sum up a life situation in one letter but you have done it admirably, to the point that I feel I know you and want you to be happy. It sounds like your marriage died tragically right in front of your eyes. Your story reminds us how merciful is the option of divorce when one party is, for whatever reason, irretrievably unhappy. There's no reason that you can't get out of this marriage and set about becoming the happy person that, at your core, I suspect you are. So I urge you to tell your husband the truth, that you are desolate and inconsolable in this marriage and that you have to get out and begin again.

It will be difficult to explain to your husband. It may come as a shock to him. He may not realize how acutely you are suffering. When it dawns on him what he stands to lose, the avenues of professional help that he has up till now been refusing may suddenly seem uniquely appealing. He may now be the one who suggests you go to counseling together. It may be tough for you to do at this point. It may appear that he is using the option of therapy to undermine your desire to leave the marriage.

Having made up your mind to divorce, having envisaged a breaking-free, a new world, having perhaps fallen in love with a new idea of life, going to therapy might seem like a letdown, a delaying of your dreamed-of release from bondage. But I doubt that any reputable therapist would stand in your way if you make it clear how unequivocally you want out of your marriage. In fact, the therapist might support you in your desire to split and, what is more important for the future, aid in clarifying just how this marriage lost its vitality.

That is what you need to understand. Perhaps you overlooked, in the beginning, the little signs that he was not the man for you. Perhaps you thought that he would change, or that his coldness, his shutting-down, was temporary. It's possible, of course, that your husband is mildly depressed. That doesn't mean you must stay with him, but it would be worth looking into. That is another reason to seek some professional help at this point, if he becomes willing.

My only warning to you: Do not give in to pressure from friends, family and husband. Do not second-guess yourself. In the absence of tangible cruelty or infidelity, you may find yourself wondering why you are giving up the known for the unknown. But you have already become enlightened about your situation. You have already made your decision. Hold to it tightly. Do not fail yourself. Get a room of your own.

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Cary Tennis

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