By Esther Mann

 

Dear Esther,

Most of my life, I’ve always done what was expected of me — as a child, wife, and mother — and I did it all with a good attitude. I recognized early on that life was all about stages and that each stage has its pros and cons.

But I always looked forward to the stage I’m at right now. My children are all grown and out of the house, my husband and I are both still young enough to enjoy our alone time together, and I’m finally at the point where I don’t have to feel guilty about taking care of myself for a change and having some fun.

I had visions of what this time would look like. I imagined that my husband and I would rediscover one another in a new way. For so many years, the majority of our conversations were about our children, our aging parents, siblings, and finances, all important and practical stuff. But looking back, I don’t think we managed to talk much about ourselves, our feelings, our hopes and dreams. Sometimes I wondered how well he really knows me and vice-versa.

I had high hopes for this stage of life. I pictured taking long walks as a couple, holding hands and relaxing into meaningful conversations and a great sense of togetherness. I imagined us doing simple things together, like watching TV together or going out to dinner, just the two of us … nothing fancy. Maybe I was imagining a life that resembled the one we had when we were dating, getting to know one another and feeling a real interest in what the other had to say.

Well, sadly, this is not the case. Now that everyone is out of the house, my husband comes home from work, eats a quick dinner, and wants to veg out in the den watching Fox News or sporting events. He knows I have next to no interest in any of those things. When I ask him if we can find something on TV that the two of us can enjoy together, he says he isn’t interested in anything else. When I suggest that we shut the TV and take a walk, he tells me he’s tired and doesn’t like to walk unnecessarily. When I say that it would be nice to go out to dinner together, he says he likes my homemade food better and prefers to eat at home.

I don’t know whether he is just trying to avoid any emotional intimacy with me, if he just doesn’t care about growing closer, or if he has zero need for any meaningful companionship. To say that I’m frustrated doesn’t come close to what I’m feeling. I struggle with trying to figure out how and when he got this way. Maybe he was always like this and I was so busy taking care of everyone and everything that I never even noticed? I try to remember what our dating was like, many years ago, and if we talked about anything important or if it was all just shallow and pointless like our present conversations.

How do I get my husband to understand that this is not a marriage, that this is not what our lives should be like at this point, and that there is so much possibility for us, if only we were both willing to put in effort and work on getting to know one another again in a new and fresh way? I’m not happy, and something’s got to give.

Frustrated

Dear Frustrated,

Any time I read the infamous line of “How do I get my husband to…” I know that I’m not going to give the writer the answer that he or she wants and probably deserves. We don’t “get” people to “do” anything that they don’t want to do. Nevertheless, you are not alone in your predicament and it’s worth taking the time to explore this matter, because sometimes, just sometimes, we actually get lucky and stumble upon a game-changer.

It seems that while you were both busy building your lives, raising your children, showing up for everyone and everything else, you were also asleep at the wheel when it came to paying attention to one another. It’s so easy for this to happen when everyone has their hands full and it feels like there’s barely enough time in the day to breathe. Maybe this was the first strike you had against you. Yes, as you mentioned, life is a series of stages that lead into one another. But they are never totally separate and distinct. As we are knee-deep in one stage, we should be thinking about and planning for the following stage so that it doesn’t suddenly sneak up on us and catch us totally off guard. Though your main priorities previously were targeted at your children, parents, and other responsibilities, there still should have been attention paid to maintaining a meaningful relationship with your husband. Turning it off and then suddenly turning it back on when the time is right is not a great strategy.

But I’m not here to lecture you. What happened is in the past; the question is how to reclaim your present. You have the right idea in terms of ways to spend special time with your husband. Your goals are practical and should be easy enough to reach. But your husband is apparently completely stuck in his ways and unable to see that there is a better way to enjoy life right now. He’s keeping things very simple, lacking vision or creativity. Maybe that’s just the man you married and you never realized that he was a plain kind of guy, with basic needs and uncomplicated thoughts. Is it possible that you are hoping to mold him into someone he is not even capable of becoming? Perhaps you are a deep thinker who enjoys serious conversations, and not only isn’t he interested in going there, he is not even capable. I suppose that’s the first question you need to figure out.

Meanwhile, as you struggle to light a fire under him so that he will at least try to accommodate you in some ways, perhaps there are a few things you can do to ruffle his feathers. For instance, you can try negotiating. Skilled negotiation is key to many situations where people are of different minds. Offer to watch his favorite shows with him and you will try your hardest to develop some interest in them, but he has to do the same for you. I’ll rub your back and you’ll rub mine. Sort of a tit-for-tat arrangement, but in a good way. See if that gets any traction.

Or you might decide to do the fun stuff you wanted to do with him, but with a good friend instead. Go for that walk on the boardwalk or out to dinner. You may find that your husband will start feeling a little neglected and left out and realize that he’s missing the boat by sitting home and vegging. That may enable him to rethink his priorities.

Use meal time, especially Shabbos meals, to stir up some real conversation. Even if it means preparing things to talk about, make sure that you ask questions, appear interested, and try to drill down as much as possible in areas that may surprise him, but will possibly trigger some thought and participation on his part.

Plan a getaway to somewhere exciting and fun. Call it a birthday present or anniversary present and do your best to make it happen. Again, if he refuses to go, find a substitute companion and go anyway. In that way you are letting him know that the status quo of your marriage is not acceptable and you are moving on — with him or without him. How far you want to take that is up to you.

Do your best to encourage, entice, even manipulate if necessary, your husband into living his life in a fresh, new way—the way that you always anticipated it would be. After you’ve given it your best efforts, you may be pleasantly surprised that you were able to actually change the trajectory of your marriage. But if you’re left feeling hopeless and powerless over his behaviors, the next “stage” of your life will be to figure out how to accept your predicament — or not — and how to live your best life either way.

Esther

Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at mindbiz44@aol.com or 516-314-2295.

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