By Esther Mann, LCSW
This week’s letter is being answered by Jennifer Mann, LMSW.
My wife, Sarah, and I have not been apart for one night since we were married five years ago. I have always enjoyed our close relationship and having Sarah on board with this idea, and I think it has been important to both of us. No judgment here, but I think couples who spend summers apart in the country, travel separately, or go on business trips are putting their relationships at risk for “intruders.” I am also of the belief that we are creatures of habit. When spouses see that they are fine on their own, then it enables spending more time apart. People develop different interests and eventually may not make spending time together a priority.
Recently, my wife mentioned taking a “girls’ trip” with some friends. This is creating a rift between us. I am upset and hurt that she would be into this idea and also that she would think I would be OK with it. I told her I was against the idea, and after a week or so she let it go, but she has been distant from me. Before you say it, I will cut you off at the pass and let you know that I am not a controlling man. I love when my wife sees her friends and family. I welcome them in my house and encourage her to have “girl time.” But the idea of being apart for three or four nights is a different animal.
Here is what I have done so far to try to make this go away. I offered to go away with her. I thought some time together is in order anyway and she wants to go to an island, so why not with me. She is still distant and icy. I got her a gift certificate for a massage and facial. She was grateful, but still icy. I told her she should go with her friends to Broadway and dinner. I hate to see my wife upset, but I don’t want to budge on this issue. Aren’t there times when a person doesn’t have to compromise on what he believes is right? Aren’t there basic rights that a spouse has in a marriage? This is important to me. It would be like if she asked me to eat treif or not keep Shabbos. What do I do?
Dear Lonely Guy,
Every marriage has its own unique set of rules and customs. Each one is a culture unto itself, and only those who belong create and implement its values, principles, and beliefs. There is no universal instruction manual. Wouldn’t it be easy if couples could say, “Turn to page 8, section 7 of the manual, honey: roast beef for dinner on Tuesday nights. And section 10 clearly states, ‘no separate vacations.’”? When spouses are in sync in the creation and implementation of the culture, they can experience blissfully wedded matrimony. However, when people disagree, or once agreed and then no longer see eye-to-eye, this can create tension, as you are well aware.
I’m glad you cleared up the “control” issue, because one spouse not allowing the other to pursue his or her interests (family, friends, career, etc.) can be a red flag of a controlling or abusive spouse. But you understand the importance of your wife’s pursuing her interests because it is instrumental for her well-being and ultimately ensures the comfort and security of your marriage. When wifey ain’t happy, hubby ain’t happy. You know this age-old wisdom and apply it to your relationship, but there is something about spending three or four evenings apart that bothers you greatly, and you have drawn your line in the sand. You are also suffering because of it.
I am taking a bit of a different approach with this response in that I am going to play devil’s advocate. I am not discounting or belittling your beliefs, as I think there is merit in your ideals and some might even say it’s sweet. The following is a conversation I imagine would take place between you, Lonely Guy (LG), and the devil’s advocate (DA):
LG: I am upset and hurt that my wife wants to go away without me. How could she want this or think I would be OK with it? She is breaking the rules.
DA: It’s OK that you are hurt and upset. Those are natural feelings. However, aren’t people allowed to change their minds or have a change of heart? Does that mean she doesn’t care about the marriage or about you? Or, could the simpler explanation be that she just wants to get away with her girlfriends?
LG: Going away without me will open my relationship up to “intruders.” If not now, then eventually.
DA: “Intruders” are lurking everywhere. They are in the supermarket, in the office, and at the park. “Intruders” don’t need to wait for your wife to go on vacation. And why do you give all the attention to the intruders and none of the credit to Sarah? If Sarah isn’t interested in their advances, then she isn’t open to the intrusion. And in that case, you may as well call these people “unwanted guests.” Sarah can ask these guests to leave. Have you spoken to Sarah about your concern? Is this more about a deeper trust issue than it is about her going back on her word?
LG: If this becomes a habit, my wife and I will grow apart. I don’t want that to happen.
DA: Certainly understandable. However, what if this brings you closer together? What if your telling her, with a full heart, to go actually brings the two of you closer? What if fulfilling her wish and understanding and respecting her desire brings the two of you to a new, more intimate level of your relationship? What if she spends some of her time missing you on the vacation? You’re thinking “separate vacations, separate lives.” I’m thinking “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
And finally . . .
LG: Aren’t there some things that I shouldn’t have to compromise on?
DA: Yes. Your integrity, your safety, and your personal belief system that you live by. In a healthy marriage, mostly everything else is fair game for compromise, if you want a happy marriage. People change; needs change. You can either roll with the punches and adapt (this includes conversations and expressing your feelings about the change) or hold on to something that no longer works, thereby creating tension, hostility, and resentment (which, from the looks of it, is what both you and Sarah are feeling).
If you don’t give her space, she is likely to grow to resent you. So you have a serious choice to make. If you decide to have a change of heart, and she winds up going away with her friends, I’d like to see you pursuing your own interests during that time. Is there a book you’ve been meaning to read, an old friend you haven’t had time to see? My opinion is that it is healthy for couples to have their own interests and even spend some time apart (if that is what one spouse wants). When spouses are resentful, it is then that intruders are more likely to surface. Your wife may just come home refreshed and grateful for her wonderful husband, who understands how important this trip is to her. Women love that. Good luck and well wishes.
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.