Alone In The Nest
By Esther Mann, LCSW
The last of our children got married last year and moved out of the house. At this point, it’s just my husband, Hershel, and me left at home together. During the week, we both continue to be busy with work, classes, and other interests and obligations that keep us running till late. I often feel that we’re like two ships in the night, passing each other by. This has been our style for many, many years.
I find now that Shabbos is a point of concern for me, and I start worrying early in the week about its arrival. I often try to invite company for Shabbos or at least for Shabbos lunch. Often our married children come and sometimes I’ll invite friends over. It’s always nice and even though it’s a lot of work, I welcome the distraction and entertainment.
On those rare Shabbosos that it’s just Hershel and me alone, I find it unbearable! It’s not that we fight or anything, but it has become starkly obvious to me that we have nothing to talk about! If there’s something going on with one of our children or grandchildren, that will give us something to discuss for a little while. After that, I look at him and wonder, “Who is this man, and why is it that I have to struggle so much to find something to talk about?”
All those years when we were so busy raising our children and keeping up with the community and life in general, I think I didn’t pay too much attention to our relationship. Everyone was running around doing their thing and somewhere along the way, Hershel and I lost track of each other.
Now I start getting nervous on Thursdays, thinking about the long Friday night ahead of us and how awkward it will feel. I don’t even know if Hershel realizes how absurd our meals are together. I sometimes prepare possible topics for discussion, but when it comes down to it, and I ask him a question or two, his answers tend to be short, and there we are again with this huge span of time between us and absolutely no connection.
Last Shabbos was particularly painful. We had no company and after we washed and sat down to eat, Hershel actually brought a newspaper to the table and started reading, as if I wasn’t even there. It wasn’t that he was mad at me for some reason and wanted to ignore me or hurt me. It’s just that he obviously was as bored as I was and figured he might as well do something to make his mealtime a little more interesting.
We are not old people—we’re in our mid-fifties—and, G-d willing, we’ll have many years ahead of us, living together without the distraction of others. I can’t imagine that this is what it will look like. I don’t know what happened to us, but it scares me. We don’t fight, but we also don’t seem to know one another anymore. It makes me so sad to think that this is what my future will look like with Hershel.
I’m not even sure he understands how ugly our marriage seems to me right now because, as I said, it’s not like we ever argue. Maybe he welcomes the quiet we have after a busy week and thinks it’s perfectly normal. But I don’t. I know what it’s like to have a stimulating conversation with another person, where you are on the same page, connect, and enjoy another person fully. I experience that with plenty of friends and other family members.
I wonder if there is some way to bring that into my marriage with Hershel. And I wonder if we ever had it in the first place. It’s hard to remember back to our conversations when we were first dating and newly married. I was such a different person then. Maybe at that stage of my life, I didn’t even understand what it meant to connect with another person. Hershel seemed nice, polite, and bright. I’m not sure I took the time to wonder whether he was someone I could have a lot in common with in general. But all that is now water under the bridge. How I do I get through the next 20, 30, maybe 40 years together with this stranger?
You’re not as alone as you think. Many couples at the same stage of life in which you find yourself are struggling with similar feelings and experiences. During those marathon years of just trying to stay on track with the enormous responsibilities of raising a family, paying the bills, and keeping up, it’s sometimes easy to put your relationship with your spouse further down on the “to-do list.” Schmoozing with a spouse is often a luxury that some young couples hardly find the time for. This is part of the reason why it’s so important for a young couple to figure out a way to steal some quality time away—even if it’s just for a short weekend—so that they have an opportunity to reconnect without children and life in general tugging on them constantly. But for now, that’s neither here nor there, as that chapter is over. You and Hershel seem to have lost track of one another, and the divide between the two of you seems palpable. Shabbos, without all of the usual distractions, is the perfect time to see life for what it is.
I have to wonder whether you and Hershel ever had much in common in the first place. It seems that you’re not too sure about that yourself. When you dated and got engaged, you were young and probably didn’t have the intensity toward life that you presently have and therefore were possibly clueless about what it means to connect deeply with others. You and many of your contemporaries simply weren’t on that page yet, which is understandable. Life may have been simple for you and there was no need to dig deep.
I think your first mission is to get to know your husband as an individual. Not just as a father, provider, or member of the community—try to get to know him in the way that you’ve gotten to know your friends. How does he think and feel; what are his concerns, weaknesses, strengths, joys, etc. Who is this man? A quiet Shabbos meal together is the perfect time to start asking provocative questions that will probably make Hershel’s head spin. And that’s OK. Be honest with him. When you ask him something seemingly out of left field and he looks at you as though you’ve lost your mind, simply respond that it’s time you two started to get to know one another on a deeper level. Be brutally honest with Hershel and let him know that you feel unhappiness over the state of your relationship now that it’s just the two of you, and you’d like to begin this new stage of life together with him in the best way possible. Explain that it’s not acceptable to sit together at the Shabbos table like two strangers with nothing to say to each other. There’s got to be more. You did mention that Hershel is “nice, polite, and bright.” Those are certainly important qualities from which to launch something meaningful.
The question is whether Hershel is unable or unwilling to give you what you want and whether Hershel is simply not wired to emote and keep a conversation “real.” Obviously, those deeper conversations are probably what you are starving for from him. But if that’s not possible, what about conversations that are not quite so heavy but can still be interesting? How much do you know about one another’s daily life? Do you fully understand his job, the requirements, the highs and lows, his possible struggles and rewards as he goes through his day? And the same for you. Does Hershel understand what it is that you do all day, what you feel satisfied with, and what you think about changing? Do you know much about one another’s outside relationships? It sounds as though the two of you have plenty to talk about, since you probably presently know so little about one another.
Do the hard work. It may initially feel uncomfortable, unnatural, maybe even a little ridiculous. But stay with the program. Welcome those Shabbosos spent alone with Hershel and view them as a wonderful opportunity to explore each other’s lives, so that you can understand and appreciate each other in a way that you may never have in the past. Even if Hershel is resistant at the start, keep plugging. It’s hard to change the tide, but it’s well worth the effort.
If several months of doing everything in your power to open up the doors toward communication with Hershel produces little results, then I would agree you are “alone” in your marriage. That’s a shame. Back to plan A—keep that company coming in full force! And try to appreciate Hershel’s positive traits as you accept that his reticence is part of your lot in life, while you make the most of those satisfying relationships that you can always depend on.
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 email@example.com or 516-314-2295.