I changed. My wife didn't

My father's death taught me how precious life is. I can't be petty and neurotic anymore. But my wife sure can!

Published May 1, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I fear my marriage is in trouble and I need help. My wife and I used to be well matched as slightly neurotic types who worried about small things. Perhaps it's better to say that we were both risk-averse types, and worried that things weren't going to work out. That made us work to manage our lives in order to minimize risks.

Five years ago my dad died. He had heart problems and so it wasn't wholly unexpected. After this I searched for some good books to help me understand how sons deal with the death of their fathers. One sad thing about our culture is that there are few cultural references for this event. I guess that's liberating in a way, but I also really wanted to know how others had responded to this shock.

Through my own searching  I've come to realize in these years one important way his death has changed me. It has enabled me to value the days more, and fear living less. This is a wonderful thing. Having been visited by the experience of the death of someone close to me, I feel like I am now much better at understanding what matters and what does not. That's helped me to become a more relaxed person, and more adventurous too.

The problem is that I've changed in ways that make the relationship between my wife and me increasingly fraught. So much so that if it weren't for the kids I feel like we might contemplate leaving one another. I don't want to run away and see the world or be with other people. It's rather that I find myself intolerant of my wife's anxieties because they get in the way of doing what I think really matters, which is enjoying the time we have on this earth. That may mean curling up in bed all afternoon with a book, or walking, or whatever. But what it does not mean is worrying over small things. We've talked about this. For me this internal shift feels too big to change, and besides I don't want to. She doesn't feel it's fair for me to expect her to change to match the new me, which is true, and thinks her way of doing things is just fine.

So we've reached an impasse, and I don't know what to do about it. I suppose that our values are now different, where once they were not.

I'd appreciate your thoughts.

Found and Lost

Dear Found and Lost,

Through this death, you received a gift. It was like an inheritance. It's something to bring into your marriage and share. It may not be apparent to your wife what this gift is, exactly, or how she is to use it, because you received it. But it is a gift that can be shared in the marriage.

The way you share it is simply to embody it and be faithful to it. The way you do not share it is by insisting that your wife all of a sudden change. She can't do that. She doesn't have to. Part of this gift is realizing that your wife is who she is, and she doesn't have to change in order for you to enjoy this gift.

Simply the way it has changed you is a gift that can be shared. You share it by living in your new way. You share it just by being who you are. When you fail to join her in her worries, that is a gift to her. Eventually, it may have an effect, but its effect on her is not the point. The point is in how you now go forward, bearing this new way of being. Please try to think of it this way. If you think of it the other way, as if now that you've changed now your wife has to change too or else, then it is not a gift, it is more like a curse. If it tears you and her apart then it is not a gift.

Also if you hoard it then it will tear you apart. If you move farther away from her out of scorn and disappointment, then it will not be a gift but a curse and it will tear you two apart. You need to share this gift you received, this gift of knowledge of how precious life is. Share it not by setting up an obstacle course for your wife; not by testing her, but by opening your hands and sharing this knowledge with her. If she doesn't seem to get it, don't worry about it. Don't get on her case. She doesn't have to get it. That's not the point. The point is now there is someone in her life who has learned something profound. One day she may value that. Relax and laugh and share with her how you are no longer worried about what's going to happen. Let this gift suffuse your body and mind so that you walk around and radiate it. Radiate this new feeling that life is precious and everything is going to be OK. Let this gift radiate out from you and she may pick it up after a time.

It won't cure her or make her a different person. That's OK. She may be thinking at times, what the hell is this? She has her own problems and her own nightmares. You can't fix that.

But you can fully embody the gift of grief and loss yourself. That's all you have to do.

By Cary Tennis

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