That mean roommate? That's my wife!

The sex is gone. The love is gone. All that's left is the carping

Published August 30, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

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

Dear Cary,

I'm the last man I thought would ever write to you for advice, and here I am doing it. Here's the executive summary: I immigrated to the U.S. from Britain in my early 20s for graduate school, followed by green card, followed by citizenship. I married an American woman here and we've been together 26 years now. The problem is my wife clearly no longer loves me, and I have become increasingly disillusioned with the way right-wing extremists have polarized politics and society in America.

The greater and more immediate problem is my loss of my spouse's affections. Even as I write this, I realize most people are going to think "Huh! First world problems!" I've been quite successful in my IT career, and we don't have arguments over money. Neither of us has been unfaithful, and since we're now both in our late 50s, dumpy, overweight, sagging, neither of us is likely to.

I've always had a higher sex drive than my wife. So loss of sex a couple of years ago was the first thing I noticed about her changing. She just gradually phased sex out. Menopause was a part of it, obviously. Sex clearly wasn't enjoyable for her, and that ensured it wasn't enjoyable for me. When I found myself essentially masturbating into an unresponsive partner, I was horrified. I switched to actual private and discreet masturbation, rather than try to involve an obviously unwilling, uninterested partner in something that was now just selfish pleasure for me. Attempts to discuss the situation were met with denial, followed by her anger, followed by her complete rejection of my perspective.

She unilaterally gave up full-time work three years ago, so I am the sole breadwinner, and will thus have to work several extra years to provide for our retirement. My wife spends her days enjoying her various hobbies and caring for the house. I spend my days in drudgery as a wage slave, and I feel a little resentful. There should have been a discussion about planning to cease paid employment, and there was not.

She cooks, cleans the house, and provides me with clean clothes. But I feel that I am living with an overly sarcastic housekeeper, not a partner. I adjusted to the withdrawal of sex by quietly taking care of my own needs. I find her constant sharp remarks damaging and hard to bear, though. When I talk to her, my first thought is always to be supportive, encouraging, and look for something to praise. (And that's my style at work too). When she talks to me, it's almost always to criticize, to undermine, to denigrate, to ridicule.  

If I offer here an example of such a remark, in isolation, it will sound petty and incredibly silly. But here goes. We're in France right now; she is accompanying me on a business trip. As we left the restaurant last night, I took a second to compliment the restaurant owner, as we passed by the open door to the kitchen. The owner happened to be washing dishes as we passed. Later, my wife, out of nowhere, commented how stupid I was "to praise the restaurant to the dishwasher." I pointed out that he was actually the owner of the bistro, but she was having none of it. Why would she even make a comment like that? What is the benefit to anyone of making a comment that essentially says I am stupid?

When I point out hurtful remarks to her, I am (in her words) "giving her a stupid lecture" or "making a big deal out of nothing" and it involves much eye rolling, sighing and denial on her part.  I'm unwilling to force a confrontation over everything. As a result, I only object occasionally, and in a couple of brief sentences. It clearly falls on deaf ears.

From my perspective, there has been a complete breakdown of the relationship. I don't think it can be put together again. I don't relish the drama and devastating emotional cost of divorce. But I don't want to live out my remaining years with a sarcastic, hypercritical, affectionless harpy as a roommate, either. For her, the deal is much better: live out her remaining years with a sensitive, pleasant, educated, tolerant man who makes no sex demands on you whatever. I've had much better relationships than this in my early 20s (when I was a much less giving, mature partner, too). What a shame I didn't marry one of those women.

If my wife were writing this letter, what would she say? She'd probably say that I'm a creepy masturbator who drinks more than she does, doesn't give her enough back rubs (the one form of physical contact she can tolerate). And I "blow up over nothing," causing her to "walk on eggshells all the time."

We have very different politics. With the horrible reactionary politics in the U.S., I am increasingly alienated from my government, too. I was aghast to learn that the government was spying on everyone's phone calls and emails, but she laughed it off, and said it didn't bother her. Well, it bothers me. The whole thing bothers me. How did we end up here? How did I end up in a loveless and diminishing relationship? How can I change this situation so it is better for both of us, when my opinions, views and perspective are plainly of no value whatever to my partner? Perhaps I have to bite the bullet, divide all our savings in two, return to Britain alone, spend six months getting in shape, and hit up eHarmony for a genuine and sincere partner. At 59, such a prospect is frightening, with the possibility of causing much worse outcomes than my present situation. I don't have the "runway" for more mistakes.  Huh! First world problems!

Would be glad of your comments, and even those of your more thoughtful readers, Cary. Thank you,


Dear B,

Your wife is really angry at you. That's why she's being mean. She's angry and she's not going to tell you why she's angry even if you ask her nicely because she's too mad at you to tell you why she's mad at you.

It's no fun telling somebody whom you're mad at why you're mad at them. That makes you less mad and you don't want to be less mad. It feels too good to be mad. It feels too good to have somebody wondering why you're mad.

So she won't tell you why she's mad at you if you ask her while passing her in the hallway on your way to the kitchen to get something to eat but maybe she will talk about it in therapy.

Plead with your wife: Come to therapy with me! Find a top-notch marriage and family therapist. Find the best! Plead with her to go with you. She doesn't have to wholeheartedly endorse the idea. She just has to go there with you for a period of time. That's all.

There has been a breakdown of communication but that doesn't mean it's permanent. Communication can stop and it can start again. Just like you can get out of shape and then start working out, you can get out of communication and you can get back in communication. But just like getting back in shape, it can't be done in one session. It is a process of strengthening and stretching, of losing and gaining.

Seriously: I predict your wife will open up. She might not get all touchy-feely and weepy but I do think when asked some direct questions in a receptive atmosphere she will reveal what is going on.

The reason I think this is that the desire to communicate and to be heard is irresistible. It is just too hard to resist the urge to talk and be heard. An unwilling partner may at first fear that therapy is going to be embarrassing or that it's going to be combative, that you are going to use it to gain an advantage over her, or that she is going to be challenged and made to feel small. But eventually she will find the lure of having a receptive audience too strong to resist, and she will begin to speak of what she is actually feeling toward you and the relationship and about her own life. You will learn the real reasons she unilaterally quit her job, and why she is so angry at you.

This will be useful information. In some instances what you hear may surprise. In other instances it may confirm your suspicions. In any case, it will be useful. You will better understand what is going on. It may make it easier for you to leave and it also may make it easier for you to stay. Having this knowledge will free you up to make better decisions, and will give you some breathing room during which you can assess your own life apart from your marriage.

That's the main thrust of this answer: Not to try to expound on what I think is going on, or how you might fix it on your own, but to say that if you can get your wife to accompany you to a talented marriage and family therapist or some equivalent person, and keep going for a while, you can make some progress. That I am almost sure of.

Now, on a related topic, since you brought it up: I, too, am sick of American politics. I am seriously, seriously sick of American politics.

At least, with your wife, you can go to therapy.

America will never go to therapy. She has too many secrets.

By Cary Tennis

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