Does he really want a divorce?

My husband doesn't communicate his feelings well, so I can't tell if he wants to split up or if he's just going through something.

By Cary Tennis
Published June 16, 2005 8:55PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My husband's father recently died after living with cancer for many years. He was in his late 70s, having had my husband and his three siblings late in life. It was a good death; We all got to see him and say goodbyes, the hospice staff were wonderful, and the whole family was gathered around him right at the end. Although it was a wrenchingly sad experience, I was impressed throughout at how well everyone in my husband's family treated one another -- so different from my own family.

However, I'm concerned about the way all this has affected my husband. After the death, he refused to take any time off from his Ph.D. studies and said he was fine, that he had been prepared, that the death was not traumatic and so on. I'm bipolar and have anxiety attacks; I've always been positioned as "the emotional one" in the relationship while my husband has been "the calm one," so I was concerned that he was repressing his true emotions. He's been irritable and aggressive for a while now, and I've had a sense that there's something he's not telling me.

Well, the other day we had a huge row and it all came out. He told me that seeing his father die made him question whether he really wanted to waste his life living with a bipolar person; that he's been questioning whether it's possible to have a really close relationship with someone who is "mentally ill" (his words) -- though he also says he's having doubts about whether I really am bipolar.

Cary, I don't know what to think. I'm asking you for advice because yours is the sanest, most compassionate voice I can think of. Finding out "what's wrong with me" has been a long, hard process, and I know I have been hard to live with some of the time. But I really thought, in spite of that, that we were soul mates. We've been together since our late teens -- over a decade -- and we've dealt with bad things before and come out fighting. My question is this: Do I have to let him go, despite the fact that just thinking about it tears me apart? Now that he's finally plucked up the courage to tell me all this, I don't want to dismiss his feelings. But I don't want to end my marriage, either.

Desperate Wife

Dear Desperate Wife,

It's hard to tell what someone actually wants if they're not very good at communicating, isn't it? If he's the kind of person who holds off expressing any emotion until he's practically incontinent with rage or fear, then what he's saying may not be an accurate picture of what's going on. To make an imprecise metaphor, when people hold their feelings in for a long time, by the time an emotion does emerge it's aged and deformed. It's not the fresh and vital electric idea that coursed through his body at one point, perhaps shaking him with its intensity, alarming him with its power but mainly frightening him with its ability to break his reserve, the thought of which shames him into keeping it secret. By the time he's weathered its intensity and held it at bay for a while, the once vital and specific feeling has lost its shape, and instead of a specific emotion it takes the form of a sweeping pronouncement such as that he's "wasting" his life.

It's hard, by that time, to backtrack and pick up all the components of this pronouncement to understand how he got here. You can do it, of course, if the person is willing. Sometimes it's a matter of discovering and reassembling events into patterns that may be decades old -- you know, like in therapy.

I would think the main thing you want to know at this point is: Does he actually want a divorce? Or is he just going through some painful emotions -- grief related to his father's death, fear about his professional future, etc.? Now, to be quite literal-minded about it, if he wants a divorce, he's perfectly capable of saying that and contacting someone who will arrange the legal details. But if he is using this talk as a way of expressing long-held feelings, that's something else. But how can you tell?

I would say that you and he may now need to spend a few months trying to understand what's actually going on. Try putting it to him like this: I love you and I am willing to work for whatever is best for you, whatever it turns out to be, even if it turns out that you want a divorce. But it's not clear to me, at this point, whether you really want a divorce per se, or whether you are using talk of divorce to dramatize your feelings of dissatisfaction with our marriage. So let's spend a few months working with a therapist in order to find out. If you conclude that divorce is really the best thing for you, then I will freely grant it.

Such a period of time will give you a chance to work through your options as well.

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