I know in my heart I'm going to leave my husband ... but when and how?

There is no way I can deny the way I feel -- but I do wish the path was clear.

Published July 20, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am a 33-year-old woman, married, with a young (under 2 years) child. I met my husband eight years ago and fell in love with him pretty quickly. We had some ups and downs. At first, more ups than downs.

We started living together after a couple of years, and then began a long string of emotional hard times. These were a result of individual career obstacles, personal issues and the tough ebb and flow of cohabitation. We were having a lot of communication issues, and I was having a hard time with his relentless intensity.

I went into therapy and began to think about leaving him. I heard myself saying a lot of things in therapy, over a year, and thought this might be the right thing, but I was afraid to leave him. I was afraid of the guilt, since my family and I have become his family (he basically has none), and because during that time I had dragged him from New York to Chicago. And some part of me really wanted things to work out. For the most part, I convinced myself that once the current problem (getting a new job, finding a new place to live, dealing with tough family, etc.) was solved, we would embark on a happy future together.

We became engaged four years into our relationship. Previously, I had discouraged him from going this route, but at this time I felt like I was ready to commit to marriage. I had a wonderful new job that was very fulfilling to me, and this made me feel much more secure. Due to several relocations, it took us two years to actually tie the knot. Well, that and the fact that during that time we also had to deal with two major family meltdowns that knocked the wind out of me for months at a time. The second family meltdown left us feeling abandoned, so we decided to elope. Everyone knew we were getting married, but no one was invited since we did not know how to invite friends and not family without worsening the situation.

Our elopement and honeymoon took place on the island of Kauai and everything about our trip was beautiful. Unfortunately, I spent the entire time emotionally bereft because I felt so rejected by my family, and he spent the entire time angry about how upset they had made me.

Then, just a few hours before we actually got married on the beach, I found out I was pregnant. I had been feeling especially strange for the past week, and that morning had my first bout of nausea, prompting me to take a home test. Well, I actually took four tests, and they were all positive. I was shocked. Or, more accurately, I was in shock. I barely remember the rest of my wedding day. I don't remember what it was like to be on the beach at sunset, to exchange our vows and have some photos taken, to have a gourmet dinner cooked for us on the beach. I was totally distracted by this surprise pregnancy. It was all I thought about for the rest of our honeymoon. I was so emotionally exhausted from the past few years that I literally had no idea how to feel about anything.

My pregnancy was easy and, for the most part, we worked out the family situation (that is code for "it got swept under the rug"). I had my daughter without major incident and she was beautiful and healthy. And then, about a month later, I fell into a major depression. It did not start off as a dire situation, but over the next six months it became very ugly. Overall, I spent a year feeling desperately lost, suicidal, numb, angry, confused, you name it. In addition to that, I was suffering from postpartum cognitive difficulties (apparently one in four women experience this, though it is temporary). This combination made me so beside myself that I decided to quit my job three weeks after returning to it. I was unable to focus on anything, even an e-mail.

About eight months ago, I finally got on the right drug cocktail and found a therapist who was well suited to me. As each month passed, I became more lucid, energetic, interested and clear-headed. I was beginning to feel more like myself, but very slowly, in baby-step fashion. I had emerged from the fog and felt very purposeful, very determined to protect myself -- as both a person and a mother. Throughout my depression, I never lost that maternal connection with my daughter and, to be blunt, she is the only thing that kept me alive.

As I began to get my "inner voice" back, I realized that I needed to make some drastic changes in my life. I needed to get back to work, I needed to leave my suburban prison and return to urban life, and I probably needed to leave my loving husband. There is not enough time for me to explain why my husband is not the right man for me, but I am quite certain that I would be better off with him at a distance. I know this very well, but as of yet, I have not taken steps to extricate myself from our marriage. He knows that I am struggling with these issues, and we have had some very honest and painful discussions.

The bottom line is, I know I want to leave. However, since I went broke during my depression (I spent all of my savings on our home life once I quit my job), I have no means to begin a new life. My job hunt is in progress, but moving at a slow pace. Meanwhile, I continue to live in our house and depend on my husband for all of my material needs. I feel very guilty and deceitful about this, but I am not sure what to do about it. I know that I will leave as soon as I have the means to do so, but I am not sure what to do until then.

Though I am not in love with him, I do love my husband and don't want to hurt him or take advantage of him. So, given all of this, I feel like I am in a trap. Is it wrong for me to continue to live in our house and participate in our life, which feels smothering and wrong, at times fake to me, though I know that I will leave at the first realistic opportunity? Where do we draw the line when it comes to escape, survival and love? I do not want to give him false hope about us, and I know that he often assumes that my silence about my feelings means that I am trying to make things work. Plus, given that I am no longer in love with him, what do I do about our sex life? I cannot continue to pretend, in 19th century fashion, that all is OK and as it should be.

Wanting an Out

Dear Wanting an Out,

It sounds like you know what you are going to do.

So I feel I have little to say. Yet this relationship now exists between you and me, because you have written to me as though to a friend and I am regarding you, as I often do, as though you were sitting right here in front of me. And to tell the truth I rather admire you, because you are attempting to live according to your own truth, and while I advocate that people try to stay together in order to give children a stable home, I cannot condone living falsely. To live falsely seems to be a sin.

And what do I have to say about this in the larger sense? We live as if shrouded in fog; we flail about like drowning sailors, grabbing at anyone; we have no discipline and no conception of the future and no idea of our responsibility to others; we are blessed with infinite choices and vast wealth and ... My, aren't the mind drugs wonderful these days?

Well, OK, I will also say this: Think what you are doing! You have no job. You are not prepared to raise this child on your own. There is no guarantee that you will fall in love and find a partner who will love you and who is right for you sexually and who will want to help you raise your child. There is, however, a good chance that you will find yourself repeating the last eight years with someone else: A quick and highly sexual beginning, followed by much fighting and turmoil, the repetition of family abandonment and reversals, an emotional life held hostage to the vicissitudes of your work life, abrupt changes in economic well-being ... all of this made more piquant by this growing child, making increasing demands on you and whoever you find as a partner.

And I must also say this: This is not just about you. There is a kid who's depending on you to do what's best for her, not for you. Ideally, what's best for you would be best for her. But I doubt that leaving your husband while you have no job and no way of insulating your daughter from the chaos and uncertainty that would follow is best for her.

So before you leave, try one last stab at saving your relationship. Try being irresponsibly honest. Break down and tell your husband everything. Let it all out. If there is any chance of saving your bond, of finding a way to live together as two deeply flawed but loving parents, of breaking down the barriers of ego and pride between you in order to humble yourselves before a great and just purpose, then this is it: To be utterly, completely, madly frank with him, to break down in tears, to beg him to be the man you need him to be, to tear at him and scream and curse the gods for making this situation what it is, to pray that he too understands the tragic nature of your bond and see if you can't somehow face this tragedy together so you can raise this child and not create more chaos in the world.

You sound committed to leaving. So it would be silly to try to dissuade you. Besides, you seem to have found some authentic voice within yourself, and what am I to say to that? I have only a few words of caution: Despite your therapy and your insights, it's possible that the underlying forces governing your emotional life remain largely unchanged, that you still have the same needs and are vulnerable to the same illusions of rescue by the same kind of dramatically intense men with whom you later are fated to have irreconcilable conflicts.

You can leave but you risk repeating this story.

Nonetheless, I will think of you often and hope you are doing well.

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