By Esther Mann, LCSW
This week’s letter is being answered by Jennifer Mann, LMSW.
My wife is always talking about your columns, so I figured I’d write in to you because we are having a problem. I’ve read your column too on occasion, but to be honest it’s not really my thing (sorry).
Here is the situation.
For the past 15 years, we’ve had a pretty good thing going. The wife does her thing, and I don’t ask questions. I do my thing, and she doesn’t ask questions—until now. My schedule has been fairly the same since we have been together. I go to work, go to shul nightly, and three nights a week I learn with my chavrusa. A couple of nights a month I have a guys’ night. We’ll go out to dinner and bowling, or have a poker game at someone’s house. I play ball Sunday morning. Saturday night is for the two of us because I know it’s important for us to spend time together and I enjoy it.
Though I am busy, it’s not like I’m out every night of the week. This year she has decided to make it an issue. She says she wants me home more because we are “losing our connection.” Those are her words, not mine. I keep telling her that I couldn’t disagree more because I feel connected with her. I have always been an independent person. I don’t need to be together 24/7 staring into her eyes to feel “connected.”
I see so many of my friends with marriages not as good as ours. Things are good in all the important areas. I’m not the therapist here, but isn’t it a good thing for spouses to have their own lives, including their own friends and interests? Isn’t that what keeps it alive? When my wife and I go out Saturday night, I still feel attracted to her and want to hear about her week. I am always complimenting her and listening. I tell her all these things, but it doesn’t seem to help. I’m not willing to give up the things I enjoy. I work hard and deserve them. Please don’t suggest going for therapy because I’m not into that. Thanks.
You are not someone who involves himself in therapy, so the fact that you have reached out to a therapist suggests to me that this is more than a mundane fight that will blow over any day now. You are going outside of your comfort zone in your attempt to find a solution to your dilemma.
From your point of view, the marriage has worked for 15 years. Along comes your wife, who you feel is trying to change a good thing. You enjoy your separate friends, separate interests, and activities. After 15 years, you still date regularly, are physically attracted, and interested in your wife and her life. Furthermore, I will concur that having separate interests and friends can be healthy and something to be encouraged. When I see couples spending all their time together and not pursuing their own interests, I wonder what, if anything, would feel unsafe about spending some time apart. These “closed couples” put a strict boundary around the marital relationship and do not let anything permeate it, perhaps at the expense of each spouse’s own needs and desires.
Speaking of marital boundaries, every marriage has its own. Some are closed and firm. Some marriages have weak boundaries. The couple rarely is alone; always with their children, friends, or extended family, or pursuing their own individual interests. This couple doesn’t nurture their connection and may be avoiding intimacy or issues in the relationship.
You are fine with the boundaries that have been established over time. They work for you. But it seems that the boundaries are no longer working for your wife. Your equation for a successful marriage: same “me time” as it’s always been, plus same “we time” as it’s always been, equals fulfilling relationship. Your wife’s new equation: “change in me time,” plus “change in we time,” equals fulfilling relationship.
I wonder what you perceive your wife to be asking of you. It seems as though your focus is on the practicalities of giving up an activity. As long as this is your focus, I don’t think there will be much movement on this issue. You will keep holding on for dear life to your routine and independence and your wife may continue to “make it an issue.” The fight becomes so circular in nature and may feel unavoidable, with no way out. Neither one of you desires this. You wrote in, so you certainly don’t!
If you momentarily remove the aforementioned focus, that frees you up to ask yourself, “What is my wife trying to tell me?” She has told you she wants more connection, but what does that mean? Have you asked her what she feels is missing, how she has been coping? Is she feeling lonely? Has something in her life changed that you are unaware of? When you drop your guard and your tight grip on your independence, you will create an atmosphere of vulnerability and trust, making yourself easier to connect with. (Interesting . . . there’s that connection she was asking for.)
She has already shared that she feels disconnected from you. Take pause and think about what her feeling conjures up inside of you. I will not assume to know your feelings, but some guesses are “trapped,” “resentful,” and “angry.” (Again, I can be completely off base here.) I am sensing that you guard your daily rituals and independence with a vengeance. I am envisioning a sentry outside a castle, blocking a visitor from entry. What is in that castle that warrants such strong protection? What, if anything, are you defending?
Or, perhaps you’ve simply fallen into a comfortable routine that your wife has accepted and even encouraged for 15 years, and you are left scratching your head, wondering, “Huh?” and “Why rock the boat?” The thing is, though, the boat has been rocked, whether you welcomed it or not. Something has changed for her. Should you attempt to resolve this, try to change the conversation up a bit. Approach it with curiosity and open-mindedness instead of an unrelenting attachment to the way things are and have been.
Wishing you much shalom bayis.
Jennifer Mann is presently working as a psychotherapist at Ohel. She also works as a relationship coach and can be reached at 718-908-0512.