When should a midlife woman leave her marriage?
During the HerStories Project relaunch, we announced that Gen X women at midlife is the new focus for essays and classes at our site. The relaunch included a call for questions for our resident advice columnist, Nina Badzin, that goes beyond friendship dilemmas. Although Nina will take questions related to friendship as they pertain to midlife women, we couldn’t think of a more representative dilemma for our site’s relaunch than the one presented in the question below.
Nina is always accepting anonymous questions here.
I’ve been married to my college boyfriend for almost 20 years, and we have two kids — a teen and a tween. I’m in my mid-40s, and I’ve been experiencing a mid-life crisis in good and bad ways. One of the good ways is that I have a sense of this being a turning point where I can let go of past failures and insecurity and move forward with a better sense of myself.
An uncomfortable symptom of this sense is that I’ve become more and more aware of disappointment in my marriage. My husband is a nice guy and an excellent provider and (I’m pretty sure) has always been faithful. But I think I knew early on in our relationship that we had very different interests. In recent years, he has gotten more intensely interested in three (count ’em, THREE) different hobbies. When I ask him to go on a date or do something with the family, it often feels like he’s pulling himself away from his practice or study because he knows he should, not because he really looks forward to time with me or the kids.
We have been in and out of marriage counseling and recently ended therapy because I was feeling like what I really wanted was for my husband to be a different person with different priorities. Even when he tries hard to be a good husband and dad (which he sometimes does), I feel like he’s doing it out of obligation, not enjoyment or interest. In our last session, he admitted that he was probably never going to value his relationships as much as his hobbies.
Although I’ve worked part-time for most of our kids’ lives, I’m currently not working. I enjoy being able to devote time to family and volunteer work, and the thought of going back to work full time makes me nervous about work/life balance…especially because my fields of interest and experience are not very lucrative.
I’m struggling with whether to stay in the marriage or not. On the one hand, I so often feel disappointed by the lack of interest and intimacy in our marriage. And I worry that our lukewarm relationship is not a great role model for our kids. There’s rarely real conflict between us, but sometimes I’m sure they sense disconnection and resentment.
On the other hand, we have a good symbiotic relationship: He makes a comfortable living for us and has time left over for his hobbies. I enjoy taking care of the household and family relationships and not worrying about money.
Should I leave my husband and change the entire dynamic of my family, with no guarantee that things won’t be worse for all of us? (The thought of living, even part-time, away from our kids and pets, is horrifying to me…and I would almost certainly end up with a lot more economic insecurity.) Or do I stay in a relationship that I know will never fulfill my deepest desires?
Dear Ambivalent Wife,
I let this question sit in my inbox for weeks. It’s one thing to opine on the safe terrain of friendships. Yes, friendship problems lend themselves to permanently hurt feelings, resentment, and disappointment. (See the many variations of friendship dilemmas I answered right here.) But hard as it is to hear this truth when we’re upset about a faltering friendship—we can replace the hole left by a friendship disappointment with another friend. And we all get to have more than one close friend at a time.
Spouses are (obvious statement alert) not so simple to replace, especially spouses with whom we’re currently raising children. Which is not to say you should stay. And marriages 20 years in the running with long-held resentments are not so simple to change. Which is not to say you should leave.
Let me be clear: Other than situations of abuse in any form whatsoever, I would never outright tell someone to leave a marriage. But I’m also not going to tell someone who seems to see her husband as a roommate, at best, that staying is the only choice.
You were brave to share your situation and give voice to a reality felt by plenty of couples who’ve been together for two decades or more. (Or less!)
While I cannot give a direct answer—really, how could I?—I’d like to at least further the conversation you started and encourage other HerStories readers to add their thoughts.
I suspect many people reading your letter will come down in one of three camps.
#1. Life is short and you should leave him.
#2. You should stay, at least for now.
#3. You need more information from yourself, from your husband, and for sure a new marriage counselor.
Let’s start with the temptation to leave.
I think the fantasy of starting over with a new partner with all the self-knowledge we’ve earned in two decades of adulthood is relatable.
I personally have a recurring dream of going back to high school or college with the 41-year-old version of comfort in my skin I enjoy now. Would I have made vastly different choices as this version of myself? Would I have put up with less from other people and experienced less self-doubt at every turn? I suspect the answer to all of the above is yes, but I’m also glad I went through those growing pains. Weren’t those awkward and sometimes painful experiences all necessary to make me the person I am now? But those are just dreams. Let’s get back to reality.
You asked at the end, “Do I stay in a relationship that I know will never fulfill my deepest desires?” I wonder if defining and analyzing your “deepest desires” is a good place to start. Have you adequately reflected on how realistic those desires are? Are they reasonable enough to find? Is there already someone out there you have in mind? Whatever those desires are—sexually or otherwise—are they sustainable for, say, two decades with someone new? The answer may be—yes. I cannot say.
The rest of my answer will combine options two and three, not because I think staying is the only option, but I do think it’s one to consider.
Judging your husband based only on your letter, I’d say, yeah, he has tons of work to do. But I want to defend him on one of your biggest complaints. You said, “ . . . it often feels like he’s pulling himself away from his practice or study because he knows he should, not because he really looks forward to time with me or the kids.”
I bet my husband could say the same about me, and yet, I know I’m a very dedicated mother and wife. I am physically where I need to be for them. Most of the time, I’m emotionally there, too.
But at 10:00 at night when all the kids are finally in bed, I can’t say I’m terribly enthused when my husband wants to talk to me just as I’ve sat down to read, write, or watch a show. (In other words, I wouldn’t mind if he had three hobbies to call on in that exact moment.) I can’t say when I jot down the many dates of my kids’ games, activities, and school events, that I don’t sometimes sigh and panic about all the time parenting requires. I can’t say I don’t sometimes wonder, aloud, in front of my husband, when my life will feel like mine again. I know he wishes I had a cheerier attitude about all the transporting and face-showing that comes with parenting. I know, for a fact, that he doesn’t love it when I text him self-pitying notes letting him know I am once again cancelling an appointment or interrupting my work time to pick up a kid at school who convinced the school nurse she has a stomachache.
I could go on and on.
You said your husband is generally a good husband and dad, but it bothers you that he seems to show up out of obligation. I guess I feel like by that standard I am not a good mom and wife, and I know that is simply not true.
And now for some meatier advice, I’m sharing my mom’s email to me about your letter because my mom is smart, has been married to my dad for 52 years, and has successfully added her two cents to some of the friendship letters on this site.
Here’s Kathy, my mom, writing to me about you.
I think Ambivalent Wife’s feelings are very understandable and common for someone married around 20 years. Some people call it the second seven-year itch. Many women feel “disappointment” in their spouse at this time of life. It doesn’t seem like this is what we signed up for when we first got married. I had those exact feelings at her age, though divorce did not occur to me. I felt Dad was unavailable in a lot of ways—busy at work, traveling, playing tennis twice a week. The way I got through it was to find something for me that did not include him or the children. I was about Ambivalent Wife’s age when I took a course and started a consulting business. The business was time-consuming and removed me from my daily life into a different universe. Finding something that was just mine and completely absorbing was a good way for me to get through the rough times.
There are things we do not know about this marriage. We do not know whether there are big communication issues, whether there is still a sex life for this couple, and if they even still like each other. Assuming that he is not abusing her, does not have another woman, and does not have a severe emotional problem, there might be some good reasons to stay in this marriage, or at least consider options and issues that might occur if she were to leave.
First, if she goes, she will have to work, and it doesn’t sound like she has or had a career. Second, her children’s lives will be completely disrupted, and does she really think the grass is greener anywhere else? Third, a continuation of item two, another man her age will also be busy with work and hobbies and may have his own children.
She might consider finding wonderful new hobbies for herself, especially now that her kids are older. She should also maintain close relationships with her friends. There is no substitute for long-time women friends.
The divorced women I know left for the following reasons:
- Another woman
- Severe emotional problems such as untreated mood disorders.
- Terrible communication problems. For example, one woman told me if she and her husband disagreed about something, he would not speak to her for a week or more. I asked her, “Not even pass the salt or pass the pepper?” She said not even that. She found that intolerable.
- Another friend said her husband worked long hours. When he came home, all he did was criticize everything she did from the smallest housekeeping issue to other things. No detail was too small for him to criticize, and she felt demoralized all the time.
I don’t think any one person can advise another to get a divorce. I hope that Ambivalent Wife explores some other options for herself before deciding to leave her husband. Lots of couples have different hobbies. That can make a marriage more interesting. In my opinion she needs to find an activity that consumes her before deciding her next step.
Okay, I’m back. And I will only add that as someone married for over 17 years who is surrounded by friends married for around that same length of time, I promise you are not alone, which does not make your next step any easier.
But I do feel comfortable saying that the status quo is not an option.
Maybe, once you find a new marriage counselor, you can bring your letter to me with you and read it aloud. That might be a good place to begin (again) to work towards a happier marriage, if that is possible with him.
Wishing you peace whatever you decide to next,
Nina Badzin is a freelance writer and a writing workshop instructor at ModernWell in Minneapolis as well as ModernWell’s book club host. She has been the advice columnist for the HerStories Project for three years. Learn more about Nina at her website.