I'm trapped in marriage

I was almost ready to leave ... and then my do-nothing husband had a stroke

By Cary Tennis
Published November 12, 2010 2:01AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm really tired. I'm 53, I spend two and a half hours each day commuting to and from a demanding job, I have a big old rambling house that constantly needs something done to it, and I have two teenagers still at home. And I also have a third child, the one I married 25 years ago.

When I get home, I am the cook, handyman, financial manager, driver, tutor, house cleaner, launderer, dog walker, college tour organizer, vacation planner, computer tech support person, decorator, therapist, landscaper, you name it. My kids keep their rooms clean, do their own laundry, make their own breakfasts and lunches, and put the trash out once a week, but otherwise, it's all on me. Throughout our marriage, my husband did exactly nothing. Nothing. He would not hang up a coat, throw away a wrapper, wash a cup, cook dinner, or even suggest what to cook for dinner ("Whatever you want" was his stock answer), bring in the mail or open it, never mind deal with the contents -- mow the lawn, or deal with hiring someone else to mow the lawn. I think you get the picture. I had felt like a single parent since my kids were born, except that there was also this husband, asking what was for dinner and complaining about our sorry sex life. Yes, we had a sorry sex life. I was exhausted and resentful, and that was the very last thing on my mind.

He had a job. He's an Ivy League-educated lawyer who'd been content to have a low-key nonprofit position that's allowed him to be "true to his principles" (that is, not make any money) for his entire career. I found that admirable when I was younger. Later, as I was trying to figure out how to send two bright kids to college, I just found it selfish.

When we met, I was an artist. I was in a prestigious MFA program in painting, and a rising star. After graduate school I strung together a living as an adjunct professor at a couple of different colleges, maintained a studio, produced some good work, showed a couple of times a year. The full-time teaching job I hoped to find never materialized. After we had children, it became clear that his nonprofit salary was not going to support a family of four, so I found a job in publishing and have been doing that ever since. I've worked my way into a position of considerable responsibility, and I am now -- and have been for a few years -- the main breadwinner. Forget painting -- I haven't had a studio in about 10 years. When people come into my house and see my paintings from 20 years ago, they're shocked to learn I did them. I always believed I'd get back to it but now, at my age, I'm beginning to think that's delusional.

So there were many issues -- I felt that I was married to a selfish man with no ambition and no sense of responsibility who, left to his own resources, would live in domestic chaos, surviving on carry-out Thai eaten off paper plates. He'd said as much. When our children were little they asked me why they had to do chores and Dad didn't. My daughter once said, "My mom's the worker. My dad's the rester." I think she was 7. I tried to talk to him for years about using that law degree for both societal and familial good. I knew it could be done. But he wouldn't compromise. He even referred to me once as his meal ticket.

I had begun thinking that this marriage had to end once my kids were on their own. I worked day and night, starting at 5:30 a.m. when I'd put a pot roast into the slow cooker, until after 11, when I'd sit with my laptop paying bills. He would come home at 5 p.m., grab a beer and sit in front of the TV watching crime shows. Two hours later when I walked in the door, he'd ask what was for dinner.

I never got to do the one thing that sustained me. I started dreaming a couple of years ago about a quiet, clean, spare apartment in the city, where I could walk to my job and still have enough energy and time to rebuild my life as an artist. I thought I could live with my marriage for another couple of years, until the kids were gone.

Then, exactly a year ago, my husband had a stroke. At this point, he has recovered about 80 percent of his former functioning, but he still has noticeable cognitive deficiencies and impaired memory and motor skills. He just returned to work about a month ago, but it's a struggle for him. It's really heartbreaking to see. After a year of dealing with the terror of the stroke, and the relief of seeing that he's mostly OK, I find I can breathe again. And I also find that the old resentment is back, stronger and more frightening than before. I know now that I can't leave him. He can do even less than he did before the stroke. He hates to have me gone for even a short time. I feel completely trapped. Now I dread the idea of my daughter leaving for college.

I mourn my life as an artist, which I feel I'll never get back. And I feel like the worst person in the world for all of these feelings.

I know I've made a lot of mistakes. I know I should give my kids more household responsibilities, to take some of the burden off me, but at this point they've mostly checked out. I feel like I haven't been a good role model for either of them. My husband and I were in therapy for years, but he felt all we needed to fix was the fact that he wasn't getting enough sex. Maybe I should have just rented a studio and carved out my own time for it, but I hated the chaos that I'd come home to. And believe me, I'm no perfectionist when it comes to cleanliness and order. I just wanted the place comfortable and functional.

Is it too late for me, Cary? How do I fix the next 20 years or so of my life? Do I have to stay married? I think I know the answer to that, but how do I do it?


The Artist Formerly Known as Me

Dear Artist,

I know what you're talking about. I don't think it's too late.

When my mother was 55 she bought some land in Virginia, quit her job and moved into a tent.

That was odd. It struck us five kids as odd. But it was what she wanted. She had to get out.

She had some of the same complaints about my dad as you have about your husband -- that he didn't do much around the house and he didn't earn enough money. But by the time she moved into a tent, they had been divorced for seven years. So my dad had had time to adjust to a wifeless life before she bought the land, quit the job and moved into the tent. And he was healthy. He didn't require care.

She did have certain obligations, but they were not as compelling as yours. Still, your problems are solvable. You can meet your moral commitments and still get out of this marriage. I think it's vital that you do so.

My mom's message to women was: You can get out. You don't have to do it the way they say you're supposed to do it. Not every woman is going to want to do it the way my mom did it. But she got to the breaking point and realized she was not willing to give up her dream to satisfy convention, and she was through meeting the needs of other people. She'd met enough needs of others. She had needs of her own to meet. It was time.

She was a creative person who'd put aside her creative ambitions to raise a family. She had serious, passionate views on architecture, feminism, urban planning and the environment. She was often not taken seriously by others. She was often the smartest person in the room. She didn't fit in.

And by the time she packed up and moved to Virginia, she had a kind of life-or-death clarity about her.

She had to do this thing to save her soul. I understand that.

I also understand that everything didn't go exactly the way she had planned. She thought all her hippie kids would move up there into the woods with her. She thought we could do fine without indoor plumbing. It turned out we liked electric lights and hot showers. We'd sort of gotten used to them.

That stuff didn't matter to her.

She also wasn't interested in balance or compromise. She had a point to make. She had to do this thing in a radical and complete way. So she lived without electricity or running water for the next 29 years.

What she showed us is: You can get out. There is a cost but you can do it.

It made her happy to do what she did. It fulfilled her. It came at a cost but it was what she wanted.

I spent a couple of months up there with her, me living in my tent up the hill, she living in hers, and you didn't really see any other lights or hear any other people up there. That was how she wanted it.

Maybe I should write a book about that.

So the point is that I know about how women in their 50s have to get out. I just think it's possible to do something like my mom did, only maybe in a modified version, so that you have houses next door to you and running water.

What is your moral obligation to your husband? I do not think that you are morally obligated to live with him as a wife. I do think you are morally obligated to work in good faith to help him make the transition to a wifeless existence. But from what you say he has treated you unfairly. It has not been an equal partnership. He has taken advantage of you. And now he is in a bad state but that doesn't mean you have to be a prisoner. He has options. He can make enough to live on. He can hire help.

So I think your job now is to begin planning. I get the feeling you're not into moving into the hills, off the grid. You'd like to live in a clean, spare apartment in the city.

That sounds doable.

The key thing is to break this into components. A life coach can help you do this. If you can find someone who will meet with you either by phone or in person once a week for a year, and help you break this life change into manageable steps, and keep you on course, you can do it.

You just need to have a plan and carry it out. It's simple, but it requires work and you will need help.

What my mom did, she just ran. She was a problem solver but she wasn't a collaborator. She was fiercely independent and you couldn't tell her anything and you couldn't slow her down or speed her up. She didn't see all of the future implications of her move. It was tougher in some ways than she expected. But it made her happy to live up on her mountain all by herself with her kerosene lanterns and kerosene heater and her outhouse and her cistern.

If you're just a little more, shall we say, flexible than my mom, you could do basically what she did, except with running water and lights.

Your kids are more apt to visit you if you have running water.

That's one thing we learned.

Write Your Truth.

Want more?


Cary Tennis

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