By Esther Mann, LCSW
I’m trying to figure out where I fit into my family right now. My wife, Mindy, and I have been married for 25 years. All in all, I would say it’s a good marriage. However, I can’t help but think back on how our lives were when we first met and the early years of our marriage, before we had children.
Mindy and I had a lot in common. We loved to spend as much time together as possible. On Sundays we’d enjoy walking around Manhattan, finding flea markets to investigate, eating out. It was great just being together and enjoying one another’s company fully. We did have friends, but our best times were those spent alone with each other. Those were the days.
Once we began to have a family, like every other family, everything changed. We were busy raising our children and busy with schools, homework, doctors, and everything else that keeps parents occupied during those years. I realized as soon as my wife and first child came home from the hospital that I would be taking a back seat for a while. I was fine with that. Sleepless nights and crying babies certainly weren’t a recipe for fun and games, and they didn’t provide many opportunities to sit down and have a meaningful conversation. I figured all that could and would wait for a little while.
As our children started getting older, it seemed their needs continued to grow rather than diminish. I also noticed that my in-laws started becoming more demanding of Mindy’s time. Mindy is an only child, and though her parents are relatively young and in good health, they began to ask Mindy for all sorts of things. For instance, if my mother-in-law had to go shopping for something special, she would ask Mindy to go with her. Which is fine, except for the fact that even if Mindy and I had made plans for that day, Mindy would have no problem canceling our plans in order to be available for her mother. And the same goes for our children. They call, Mindy runs—no matter what. Whether for her mother or father or one of our children, Mindy has no problem dropping me like a hot potato in order to make herself available for everyone else.
I’m not an aggressive kind of guy. I think people would probably describe me as mild-mannered. I don’t look for fights and I tend to go along in order to avoid confrontations. So when I felt disappointed because my plans with Mindy were canceled, I never made a big deal out of it. I just went along.
At this point, I am really feeling like the low man on the totem pole. As my children got older and one is even married, I thought for sure we could get our old life back. On the contrary. Mindy is busier than ever with the kids and her parents. And now, with thank G‑d a grandchild on the way, I can’t even remember the last time Mindy and I spent any significant time by ourselves.
Mindy seems to be as happy as can be, being there for everyone. I’m not so happy. I feel neglected and have been feeling sorry for myself for quite some time. I don’t think Mindy notices how lost I am feeling. She’s probably too busy to notice.
So here is my question to you. Is there some sort of steadfast rule that determines who should come first in a wife’s life? I kind of thought and hoped that it would be her husband. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m just being selfish. Maybe I shouldn’t expect my wife to put me before our children and her parents.
If I build up the courage to say something to Mindy, I want to at least know whether I have a case to present or whether I’m being unrealistic.
I believe in a certain pecking order when it comes to loyalty toward various members of one’s family. A person’s first loyalty should be toward one’s spouse. After that comes one’s children, and finally one’s parents. No doubt some of you may disagree with me, and obviously there are many exceptions to this rule.
For instance, when raising young children, their care is of supreme importance. Or, when parents are elderly and have special needs, though I still don’t believe that one’s spouse should be totally neglected, there often comes a time when the situation becomes unmanageable, and everyone’s life is thrown into chaos. Hopefully, an effort is made to find additional help to assist in such a situation, but it’s difficult to maintain normalcy during these times.
In general, when a crisis occurs, everyone is in survival mode. During those times, all bets are off regarding who comes first. It boils down to triage—whoever needs the most urgent help first, gets it.
But under normal circumstances, you absolutely should be number one in Mindy’s life. Mindy’s mother’s desire to shop with her for something special shouldn’t be reason enough for Mindy to drop you and the plans you had made together. It’s not right. You deserve better. Your marriage deserves better. The problem is that either Mindy never figured out the error of her ways by herself, or by being passive, you’ve given her a silent nod of approval, that all is well with you. All too often, people behave the way that they do because they can. You made it very easy for Mindy to neglect you.
You seem like a really nice guy, but I think it’s time for you to turn up the volume on your marriage. Clearly, Mindy has forgotten what the two of you had going on together years ago, before you had children and before your in-laws started getting so very comfortable putting demands on Mindy’s time and attention.
Obviously, you can never re-create the carefree days of your youth. Life is forever more complicated than it once was. After bringing a child into the world, a mother never again sleeps with both eyes shut. That’s just the way it is. But that doesn’t mean that you and Mindy can’t and shouldn’t honor one another to a much greater degree.
Therefore I urge you to show Mindy this column and ask her out on a date for this coming Sunday. The only excuse you should accept is that she has her hands full with Pesach cleaning. And even that should allow time for a nice brunch out together. Explain to her that you miss your private time with her and must insist that you both work on reinstating actual dates back into your lives.
It might feel a bit awkward at first. Maybe even stilted. But it sounds as though the two of you have a wonderful foundation on which to build, and also excellent memories of the way it was. Therefore, there is no reason why, with a little effort and perseverance, you can’t be Number One, once again, in Mindy’s life.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.