Midlife crisis

He's working all hours and wants "time out" from the marriage. I feel like I've lost him.

Published October 2, 2003 7:16PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have been married for six years, we've been together for eight, we have no kids but have dogs and cats. We own our own home. My husband is very successful in his field and I'm a freelance writer working on her first book. We've had problems, gotten through them, been better afterwards. A few months ago things were going great. In fact, better than they had been going, and if you had asked me about my husband, my eyes would have filled up with emotion and I would have told you I had fallen in love with him all over again.

I turned 40 but it was my husband, who is a few years younger than me, who got the midlife crisis. About seven weeks ago he announced that he doubted his life, his relationships, his work, where he lives, his friendships, everything. Including us and our marriage. This hit me like a ton of bricks and sent me reeling. He is going through a very stressful crisis at his company, where he is a partner. Lawyers and accountants are involved and that has put a tremendous amount of pressure on him. He has no choice but to deal with the work issues first and has no time or energy to deal with "us," so he has asked for a "time out" from the marriage. We still live together, are still monogamous, (though now he has no interest in sex or any physical intimacy) but more like roommates than lovers or a husband and wife. Most nights he stays out until the wee hours and he's rarely around at all.

I don't give him any grief. No, he's not having an affair. He always lets me know where he is and who he's with. He expects the work situation to be resolved in some way within the next few weeks. I have a hard time believing it. Since he started this company two years ago he hasn't been particularly nice to live with -- often short-tempered, impatient, self-involved. And there's always been just one more hurdle at work to deal with. I thought we had broken out of this dynamic a few months back and I was so relieved and happy and all lovey-dovey.

Now my emotions are all over the place. I find this undefined state of our relationship tougher than I thought I would. I miss him so much. Every day I repeat to myself that this is not about me, not to take it personally, not to feel abandoned, but it feels like my heart is broken. I hate the way I see myself now as some needy, weak woman, hoping for her man to come home. It's like I suddenly woke up in the middle of a bad country western song. I have a hard time writing. OK, I'm not writing. I'm one of those people who need order around them to write. I was planning on taking a workshop in the summer with one of my own personal gods of literature but I can't see myself meeting the deadline to get my piece in. Most days a joint is the only thing that takes the edge off.

Last week I told him that I could do this but that he had to tone down the impatient rudeness. He wouldn't treat a roommate like that, after all. And there have been improvements, but often when we talk it doesn't go well. I feel he is angry at me because he feels me "needy," and it makes me feel worse, which makes him feel worse, and then I just want to slap myself across the face and snap out of this. "Suck it up, girl," I tell myself. This is marriage -- showing up every day when it gets tough.

But my fear is that we are doing some real damage to our relationship in this "time out" phase because there is really no such thing. And what am I doing to myself? I was able to get him to agree to set a date, a month from now, when we can revisit the situation. I'm really worried and I really, really feel like crap.

A Fish out of Water

Dear Fish,

If he had left you, or died, or been struck dumb by a brain aneurysm so that he was not only psychically lost to you but physically, visibly, actually lost, you'd have at your disposal a whole universe of support. You could grieve openly and be understood. You could ask for help from friends and family. Medical and legal experts would be at your side. You'd be understood and cared for and helped through your sorrow.

But this! He's tragically lost to you and you're trying to trudge through this dead, numb space as though everything is OK, or will be OK as soon as you get over this little hump. The most painful things, it would seem to me, are the daily pretending that things are OK, and the uncertainty about whether they ever will be OK again.

Well, everything might be OK later or it might not. There are things you can change and things you can't. You can't change what he's doing or feeling, and you can't change the future. But you sure as hell can change what you're doing about it right now. You can get out of the house for a few days. If you're working, take some vacation time. If you're on a deadline with a book, or you're trying to finish an entry for a workshop, pack your bags and go stay somewhere else where you can work on it. Find the orderly surroundings you need. Work on what you're working on and finish it.

Let him take care of the pets for a week. Don't let this situation grind you down. And speaking of grinding you down: Lay off the pot. It's taking too much of your energy and your control. What you need now is energy and control. You need to be dealing. Pot does not help you deal.

You seem to value toughness. That can be good. But you may be giving short shrift to your feelings. If he's treating you poorly and you're feeling bad about it, you need to let him know just how angry and hurt you are. After you've made some plans and packed your bags, let him know what you're feeling. It will do you both good. It will give him something to think about in between meetings.

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By Cary Tennis

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