Am I just a mother now?

My marriage has gone cold. Do I stay for my daughter?

By Cary Tennis
Published August 22, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I am 37. It's an age by when I thought I would have the answers to questions and choices life threw at me. But with every year that I have grown older, the less it seems to me that there would ever be a time when I am sure of the answers or the choices I have to make. So I am writing this to you now because if I don't know what I should think or do, there doesn't seem to be much shame in seeking help. It might be useful to point out that I live in a culture where seeking help for "personal" problems is looked down upon.

So, this is the situation. I've been married for about 12 years now, to a man I picked for myself right after college. There have always been personality differences -- I am gregarious and speak my mind (even about things that aren't spoken about here) and he is quiet. My husband is, overall, a nice guy. He is kind and generous and has always given me the space that I have wanted. But in the last 12 or so years, it seems, there has been so much space granted that there is really no marriage left. We have a 7-year-old daughter whom we both love dearly. We have very few disagreements on how we want to raise her.

So here then is the problem. My husband, for whatever reason, has gone quieter over the years. He has very few interests outside his work and he has very few friends outside his immediate work mates. He either does not remember or does not care to ask me about anything important in my life. If I am going for a job interview, for example, he doesn't remember to wish me luck before or inquire how it went after. He has no interest in my problems or my achievements. If I am ill, he offers to take me to the doctor. But if I have gone to the doctor myself, he does not ask me what the diagnosis was. I have, over these years, formed my own sets of friends with whom I hang out. If we go out with some common friends, he stays quiet all evening much to everyone else's discomfort even.

The only conversation we have is either about our child or about his work. He asks me nothing and over the years I have stopped telling him anything. Yet at some level, our home and marriage work. With every subsequent year I have toned down my expectations from him -- in the early years I would expect a surprise birthday party, then a surprise birthday gift, then a gift, etc. Now I am surprised if he wishes me happy birthday. The less I expect from him -- in terms of concern, care or even a general sort of interest in my existence -- the happier I am. I expect nothing now and so I am OK.

About six months ago, I met someone else. His marriage is far more troubled than mine, made worse by the fact that they have a mentally disabled child. We have long chats, we laugh about the same things, he asks me how my day was. He remembers important things in my schedule and asks about them. He makes me feel like I exist, that I matter, that to some extent, I am important. He reminds me of everything I have been missing all these years. OK, let me just come out and say this, clichéd as it sounds, I love him and I am certain he loves me as well.

Now what do I do? Do I stay with my nice guy husband who is just not genetically wired to converse and communicate? (Oh wait, we have sex once in a year and a half or so. Also, even though he suspects that I might be seeing someone else, he has never once asked me about it or chosen to discuss our problems or see a counselor. Not talking about anything is his life's mantra.)

The pros are: Well, he is a good father and this is the perfect environment for our child to grow up in. Or should I remind myself that life is too short to be lived on a compromise and get out of this very spacious marriage and get into a cozy one with the new man? There are several challenges here, but I am mostly worried about whether it would be the best thing for my child to give up the security of this home and live in a house that will be far more chaotic, and probably a scarier one for her, considering the needs of his special child? Should I put my child ahead of myself and live a life of denying myself even the joy of a conversation? Where is the line that separates maternal duties and a little bit of self-indulgence?

Thin Line, Thick Blood

Dear Thin Line, Thick Blood,

The way your choices look now, you can either break up two marriages and disrupt your daughter's life, or live out a bleak, sad, silent existence with your husband.

It doesn't have to be that way.

What has happened in your marriage is not irreversible. It can be changed.

I think you should work on your marriage.

Later in this letter I will talk about the reasons cultures look down on people getting help for "personal" issues. But first, here is one helpful thing you can do with your husband. It's a technique that couples therapists use that is very simple and interesting to do.

The game is to sit for one minute and speak; the other person listens and repeats back what she hears. That's all. No interpretation, no argument. Just: This is what I heard you say. And then you reverse. Use a timer. Tell your husband you want to do this. Just ask him to speak for one minute. Listen and tell him as accurately as you can what you heard. Then you do it. Speak for one minute and ask him what he heard.

Try doing that every day for a while.

You don't have to say anything about why you are doing this. Just try it for a while, every day. See what happens. It may sound silly, but give it a try.

Eventually, I think you will want to involve a couples counselor in your marriage. But for now, do this one thing.

I know you are unhappy. I am not suggesting that you go on with this marriage the way it is. I am suggesting you change it. To preserve your chances of having a good marriage, it would be best if you dial back your interaction with this other person for now. First work to save what you have. Ideally, over the next couple of years, you will be changing your marriage so that both of you get what you need within the marriage.

Your marriage has drifted. It can drift back. There are ways to influence its course.

You need help. There is nothing shameful in that. You are not alone. This is not just a personal issue. It is cultural and political. Let us look at why your culture disapproves of those who seek help for "personal" problems.

Human societies are unfair. They favor the strong. Social conventions maintain this unfairness.
What do therapists do? They work to increase the autonomy and self-esteem of individuals. Which individuals in society need more autonomy and self-esteem? Why, naturally, those who have less of it. And who are they? They are the ones society has not favored.

Whom do therapists serve? Ideally, therapists serve the powerless and the unhappy. Rich people can be powerless and unhappy within their milieu and therapists can serve them. But when I think of the ideal role for therapists and marriage counselors, I think of people like yourself, of presumably average means, who are unhappy and are contemplating a disastrous course of action.

My view is that the highest use of the therapist's art is to restore dignity and agency to those who have lost it. The political implications of this are obvious. Couples can examine power inequities and abusive patterns that mirror larger patterns in society and they can set about changing them. Families can reveal secrets that serve to keep members from speaking out about private injustices that take generations to heal.

I am not surprised that your culture frowns on such activities. When individuals have insights they tend to make changes. Sometimes those changes are inconvenient for the comfortable and powerful. But they serve society's larger goals of progress toward justice and fairness and love.

When I think of social justice, I do not think first of politics. When I think of women's rights, I do not think first of laws. I think of customs in families. I think of private behavior. I envision social justice as a goal that serves all individuals and does not mean simply redistributing wealth from the haves to the have-nots. I envision a just society as a society in which men and women have learned to treat each other with love and fairness in the streets, at the ballpark and in the boardrooms. I envision a society of individuals who are not brutalizing each other, neither through crime nor through workplace hierarchies nor damning pedagogy. I see the healing arts as a vital component of this kind of social change. How can a just society possibly be built by individuals who are all starving emotionally?

Cultures discourage the act of going outside the family for help because individuals can use what they learn in psychotherapy to actually challenge family and state practices that do not serve their needs. So of course your culture disapproves of "getting help."

But to me, the highest use of psychotherapy is in situations like yours. This is an opportunity to make a difference in several lives, not just yours and your daughter's but also your husband's, the wife of the man you have fallen in love with, and their child as well. They need to care for their child. You need to care for yours. You and your husband also need to care for each other. So the available, functioning structures for that care need to be preserved.

In the subject line of your letter you ask, "Am I nothing else now that I am a mother?" If that is not a political question, I don't know what is. This is a political situation.

Your husband is obviously unhappy. But his is a privileged unhappiness. That is the awful paradox of how families preserve sexist relations in the larger society: Your husband is not happy in his bleak cocoon of numb anger but he is doing what he thinks he is supposed to do. Because he is the privileged one, he can sit quietly and watch everything fall apart to no one's benefit but no one will say that he was an asshat for doing so. They will blame you for what you have been driven to by your unhappiness, by your isolation in your marriage. That is what I fear will happen if you leave your husband for this man you have fallen in love with.

It does not have to happen. Instead, you can begin changing your marriage into something you can live with. It won't be easy. But it will be preferable to the choice you are contemplating.

You can be an agent of change. In fact, I think that is the mission that has come to you. You can embark on a mission of change that not only helps your marriage but nudges your whole society closer to an ideal of social justice. I think if you accept this mission you will be happier and so will everyone else.

So start changing your culture, beginning with your own family.

Make it work. Change your marriage. Change your world.

Cary Tennis

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