Our new baby is tearing us apart!

I used to be the loving husband. Now I feel like just the sperm donor.

Published September 22, 2005 11:02PM (EDT)

Dear Cary:

My wife and I have been married for just over three years, and in July of last year we had a daughter who is the delight of both our lives, an astonishing, gorgeous, charismatic little girl over whom perfect strangers stop dead in their tracks on the street in admiration. That's no exaggeration.

Yet though my daughter is a wonder and a joy to me, I'm also afraid she may be tearing my marriage apart. My wife and I are growing increasingly distant toward each other. We snap and bicker almost daily. We have virtually no sex life. I have begun to feel that I have become little more than a sperm donor in our marriage, the man who made it possible for my wife to have the one thing she's always wanted most, a child. She's an educator and amazing with kids, and I've never seen her happier than when she's with our daughter. But I, and our relationship, have become afterthoughts for her.

She shows me no spontaneous affection, no kisses or hugs or touches around the house. I feel I've become a roommate whose function is to pay the bills and provide childcare (I work at home). And when I try to bring up the idea of a night away without the baby (we've spent exactly three hours without her since she was born more than a year ago), she doesn't want to talk about it, because it's too difficult. As if divorce would be easy. We've scheduled family nights and other things, but those are window dressing. They don't get to the root of the problem: Our relationship seems to have fallen to the bottom of the priority list for my wife, below our child, her job and keeping up our home. In response, I have found myself becoming hypercritical and hypersensitive to any perceived slight from her. That, as you can imagine, isn't making the problem any better.

I'm sure I'm not the perfect husband, and maybe I have other issues buried here, though I really don't know what they are. I'm 40 and she's 39, and we've been through our own relationship wringers and are quite self-aware. I'm just afraid that our child is blinding my wife to the demise of our marriage, and I can't stand the thought of ripping apart our family, losing our home, and breaking my daughter's heart. For the first time in my life, I'm thinking of seeing a mental health professional -- a relationship counselor for the both of us. Would you recommend that? I'm rather at sea here and I really, really don't know what to do.

Depressed Donor

Dear Depressed Donor,

Remain calm. Keep warm. Stay indoors. Do not flag down a passing police car. Do not flag down a passing hooker.

You are not alone. Help is available.

That relationship counselor you were thinking about? Yes, call. Say what you said to me -- that you're rather at sea and don't know what to do. They specialize in don't know what to do. They verily frolic in it.

The more I think about it, the more it seems that you, my friend, will make an excellent partner in the therapist-client relationship. You are, if you do say so yourself, quite self-aware. You know what the issues are in your marriage. You know what you want. You know -- mostly -- what has happened to you.

Some things are affecting you in ways you don't understand and didn't foresee, and you just don't quite know what to do about it or what the likely outcome will be. Those undiscovered effects will probably be one subject of your talks with a therapist.

Not knowing where you're headed, meanwhile, may have led you to indulge in what is often called "catastrophic thinking." That is something else you might want to discuss with a therapist. I'm thinking of the last paragraph of your letter, where you say, "I'm just afraid that our child is blinding my wife to the demise of our marriage, and I can't stand the thought of ripping apart our family, losing our home, and breaking my daughter's heart." It's easy to imagine such a devastating outcome when you're unhappy and under stress. But doing so doesn't help. Instead, it can increase your worry and stress. So it's helpful to consider a more nuanced and probable outcome, such as this: You may continue to be under some uncomfortable stress for a few more months or even a year, but most likely you and your wife will eventually find your way back to a more loving and nurturing relationship.

(I indulge in catastrophic thinking, too, so I know whereof I speak.)

I hope you find a good counselor. Such a person can help you understand the various forces that are affecting you and help you discover a more balanced view of the future. For the time being, keep this in mind: What you're going through is fairly normal. It happens from time to time when people have kids.

Good luck. Don't jump. Help is on the way.

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