Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. “Because bitterness becomes you!”
As Neil Gaiman astutely pointed out, you often don’t realize you have a migraine until it’s way too late. I have now been with my husband for more than half of my life, and a couple of years ago I realized that I don’t actually love him. Or even really like him very much.
Our relationship has never been easy, but for years I had blamed it on Things That Could Be Fixed—lingering distrust from long-ago infidelities, the typical working family’s imbalance of housework, a mismatch in communication styles. However, multiple attempts at couples’ therapy have never brought more than a modest thaw. It’s ,starting to hit me that there is something deeper going on.
We first got together when he was 17 and I was 15, going through my rebellious phase. We were inseparable: cutting classes to smoke weed and screw in his rad Buick Skyhawk. He was a too-cool-for-school stoner and I was a smart girl trying to fit in with everyone and no one. Inseparable soon turned into codependent. In retrospect, I was so terrified of being alone that I was blind to some serious problems: a complete and total mismatch in Life Goals and Ambitions, for one thing. (I have big ideas and I work my ass off to make them happen, while he seems content drifting along.) A pretty big gap in sexual desire, for another. (He has it, I have less. Or maybe I’m just not attracted to him. Hard to say.) I was thoroughly convinced that I enjoyed his company and all the things we did together.
However, 15 years later I’m discovering that I’m a terrible judge of my own desires: I can’t trust my own judgment between what I actually enjoy and what I think I should be enjoying. For example, I used to smoke tons of weed, then I quit, then I tried it again and realized I really hated how it made me feel. Then I realized that I had never actually liked how I felt when I was stoned, but I really liked the idea of myself as someone who smoked lots of weed. If that makes any sense whatsoever.
The tipping point (in my relationship with weed and with my husband, funnily enough) was the arrival of our baby. At some point it dawned on me that I felt very different saying “I love you” to my daughter versus saying “I love you” to my husband. With my husband, I always, always had this little doubting voice saying, “Are you sure? Is this what love feels like? I really do love him, right? Things are fine, right?” I remember having these thoughts even when I was reciting my actual wedding vows, which should have been a bright fucking scarlet flag but somehow was not. With my daughter, those nagging doubts became conspicuous by their absence.
So, fast-forward to the present. We have this terrific, beloved child. We own a beautiful house. I dearly love his family, and my family loves him. (The other night we had his mom, my parents, and a few of our neighbors over for dinner; it was a lovely time.) On a day-to-day basis, we function fairly well together: the bills mostly get paid on time, dinner gets made, the kid gets picked up from daycare, we accommodate each other’s recreational schedules. He holds down his job, he’s smart, we agree on politics most of the time; in short, he’s a really decent guy. On the other hand, there is little affection between us, little sex, a lot of tiptoeing around. There is also a fair amount of resentful and passive-aggressive mutual shaming, much of which revolves around the fact that we do not share tastes in music, food, friends, books, movies, standards of household cleanliness or personal grooming. (The short list of things we can agree on: good beer, macaroni and cheese, Stephen Colbert.)
If it were a hundred years ago, I would count myself among the luckiest women on earth; instead, I’m eaten up with resentment and self-flagellation and the fear of being alone and the fear of never being alone again.
A couple of years ago after a particularly vicious fight, I made a vow to myself that I would never again threaten to leave him unless I was really ready to do it. Since then I’ve just been keeping my head down and trying to cohabitate more or less peacefully. It sucks. Living as awful loveless roommates-with-baggage is unfair to him and to me, and it feels fundamentally dishonest.
The dilemma is whether to commit myself to making this work, somehow, or to move on. Logistically, splitting up would be pretty fucking tough: with two incomes (well, one and a half—I’m getting a degree this spring and working part-time till then) we’re barely staying afloat financially as one household. Even assuming my income increases after I graduate, becoming two households would entail actual poverty. The house we own is on land partly owned by his family, so splitting our assets would be pretty messy. And obviously, I don’t want to ruin my daughter’s life.
So as I mentioned, I don’t trust my own judgment at all. I’m at least 50% sure that I owe it to everyone involved to end it as quickly and amicably as possible, but I’m also at least 75% sure that splitting up would be a terrible mistake. I’ve been treading water for too long, and I’m sick of being a stone-cold bitch and hating myself for it. What the fuck do I do?
You met your husband when you were 15 years old, and now you’re 30, and you’ve never lost this haunting feeling that you don’t love him enough. It doesn’t really sound like your relationship is besieged by big problems (addiction, unemployment, parenting trouble). You just feel stuck.
Before I go any further, though, let me just say that I don’t think it’s fair to compare your love for your daughter with your love for your husband. We’re animals who are wired to love our children and feed them and keep them safe. They are innocent little rabbits with giant eyes and adorable high voices. (Or at least that’s how they look to us. To other people, they’re loud, grubby stinkbombs.) Our love for them is uncluttered and largely unconditional (at least until they’re teenagers and they start digging shitty bands and pointing out how lame we are every few seconds). Not only that, but there’s a period right after you have a baby when your partner just seems superfluous and clumsy, like “Stop getting in the way of my gorgeous baby, you gigantic, hairy idiot.” You still have to be careful to yield some control, let the hairy idiot into the picture, and form a family bond. If you feel that you allowed something precious between you two to sever in the wake of the baby, you should probably go back to couples’ therapy (I know) and talk about that. Even if that’s not the case, just keep in mind that love for different people (youngest kid vs. oldest kid, spouse vs. ex, mom vs. dad) isn’t comparable, and all comparisons are destined to yield guilt, confusion, and the drawing of unjust conclusions.
If the kid came between you somehow, that’s something to consider. But I’m not really hearing from you that you’re shut down and just need to warm up to him or forgive him for some bad behavior in the past, or that you’re waiting for him to show you more love or to finally understand something fundamental about your experience. Instead, it sounds like there’s a generalized contempt in your relationship, the contempt that comes from two people who feel trapped by their circumstances.
If this were the 70s, you’d be halfway to Venice Beach right now. But these days, many (most?) couples in your situation stick together until they just can’t take it anymore. That usually happens when they hit middle-age, and they start thinking about whether or not they want to spend the balance of their days on earth with someone who condescends, has a saggy ass, and can’t admit she’s wrong. (Or, who picks fights, has bad breath, and always thinks he’s right.) It’s all about attitude, of course; these insults describe pretty much anyone in their 40s. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and even after I primp and prune and paint on a better face on top of the bad one, I still look like an angry caveman who just got molested by Fancy Nancy, then run over by Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boat Ride. That’s when I feel really fucking sorry for my husband. (Also because I stink and I hog the guacamole and I talk to the dogs like they’re people [important executive-type people] and I have back fat [fuck me!] and I am only going to get uglier and uglier until I get sick and die some day.) He’s seven years older than me, but because he’s a man and we’re all soaking in this wretched sexist tween-girl-loving American fucktwat culture, to me he still looks youngish and sexy and I look like somebody’s overweight, cross-dressing uncle.
But you know what’s nice? He thinks I look great. When I look in the mirror, I see flatulent sea monster, but he sees juicy slice of ass steak. (Objectification, snowflakes. It Keeps A Marriage Strong.) He thinks that he’s a creaky old sad sack with bad knees (And he is kind of whiny shit about his stupid knees. You think we’re all not in constant pain? Shut up about it already). He thinks he’s gross but I see him and I wonder, “What is this super-hot guy doing in my hairy house with me, a wizened, hormonally-addled ogre?”
And THAT, my friends, is exactly what you want to be asking yourself as you get older and uglier and even older and soooo much uglier, uglier, uglier until you fucking die a painful death in your wonderful spouse’s exhausted arms. As you grow old, you want to be standing next to some witty, spicy-hot man who can’t tell that you’re transforming into a horsey, weathered demon with circular thoughts and ass trouble before his eyes. I know that sounds super fucking romantic, and you know what? It IS. My husband and I bicker occasionally, but we really like and love each other, and when you feel that way (and you try to be as honest and as generous in spirit as possible, about every fucking stupid thing), you tend to enjoy each other more and more as the years go by.
I’m telling you this not because I love to gloat (although, I do) but because I’ve been in Pretty Good and Just OK and Pretty Bad relationships, and in the Pretty Bad ones, I knew the whole time it sucked but “working on things” was our little way of punishing ourselves, like trying to lose that last 5 pounds when you look better not-skinny anyway. If you believe, in your heart, that you will never, ever get there with your husband, then you should listen to your heart. (And look, I’m not talking to those of you with perfectly great husbands who need a good talking-to and then they’ll stop being dipshits about a few crucial things [not all things, of course] and maybe then you’ll have sex a little more often and everything will look brighter because, at some basic level, you really do love and care about each other, and things are generally improving, or they will if you put a little energy into it anyway.) If you feel pretty clear that this marriage is not going to improve even if you go to some amazing marriage retreat and fall back in love and have great sex again and learn to overlook books and music (because, ppfftt, who cares?), then I say take a step in a new direction. You’re so young. Maybe you’d rather be alone, and eventually date or not, and maybe someday you’ll fall in love and feel great about it, really, truly great, without nagging doubts clouding shit up every single day of your life.
By the way, it’s pretty crucial to me that you’re not talking about finding someone else. Because even though I’m saying that finding the right partner is a world apart from finding the not-quite-right partner, I don’t think it’s smart to leave a marriage in search of an upgrade. I guess it’s tough to scrape that thought from your mind sometimes, but in general, the promise of falling in love and having great sex isn’t a good enough reason to scrap 15 years and a kid and a house and intertwined families with someone who’s really great but not very exciting. That’s why cheating is so fucking obnoxious and screwy—it distorts the facts on the ground, makes it look like there’s a beautiful, verdant land waiting for you, one with nothing but laughter and hot sex and someone who LOVES YOU FOR YOU! Rarely does that particular fantasy play out according to plan, and indulging it before you extract yourself from your marriage (or even focusing on it while you extract yourself) can really end in ruin. You aren’t even talking about the prospect of another husband. You’re just saying: Maybe being alone would be better than this.
Do people regret divorcing their perfectly acceptable husbands who they maybe don’t really like anymore? I think they sometimes do. I know a woman who met her husband when she was really young, had an affair after 20 years together, dumped him, and now he’s remarried to a younger woman and she says she regrets leaving him. She hates what she put them through and misses their life together. Will you miss your life together? I’m sure you will. How much will you miss it? Do you feel strong enough to tolerate a few years of that? Is it too awful to contemplate living in a small place and supporting yourself? Cutting back on a lot of stuff? Eating potatoes a lot? You don’t strike me as someone who, over the years, wouldn’t warm to your circumstances, make the best of it, paint the walls bright colors, plant a little garden and feel happier in your own humble space. If I were you, I would construct a vision of what you might want, and a budget for that, and mull that over a little. Try to extract the fear from the picture and see if you can’t view it in a positive light.
I know that the guilt around your kid must be crushing. But I don’t see what good it is to grow up with parents who are grumpy and don’t enjoy each other’s company. I was pretty frightened and sad when I was very little, because my parent’s were really ugly to each other. After they got divorced, my life improved substantially. My parents seemed much happier, we had more fun, and day-to-day life improved dramatically.
Again, if there’s any part of you that suspects that you could revive some lost spark or enjoy each other’s company more, you should work on that first. If you’re not totally sure, you should go to couple’s therapy again and sift around a little, even if it’s painful and repetitive. Don’t picture a little house of your own without also picturing rediscovering your feelings for your husband and making more space in your current house for YOU. Try on both possibilities. Keep an open mind.
If that feels impossible or fails, you could try to broach the subject without blame. “I love you and care about you, but do we really want to live this way for the rest of our lives? Do you think this is best for our kid, and for us?” I can’t say enough how important it is that you keep your head in this conversation and avoid saying a single blaming thing, no matter how pissed off he is. Mistakes were made on both sides. Keep this thought in mind at all times: “This is my very nice, responsible husband and friend. His heart is breaking.” He is entitled to get angry, cast blame and many other varieties of hard-to-handle shit. Just be patient and see if you can’t stay as positive and kind as possible without being a robot. “Imagine that we could raise Junior separately, and be really good friends. Wouldn’t that be better? This is a horribly sad thing, but it doesn’t have to be torturous for everyone involved.”
Then expect it to be torturous. But stay positive and kind.
I don’t know you well enough to know that this is your best move. It’s just so fucking complicated, and you never know how you’ll feel once the wheels start turning and you’re broke and panicked and you hate splitting custody with your husband and his adorable new wife. Being a divorced mom most definitely sucks in an infinite variety of ways, and maybe you should look around online and read about the ins and outs of that, at the very least to avoid common pitfalls from the outset. There are so many reasons NOT to get divorced—very, very good reasons.
But I keep coming back to this: You’re young and you’ve tried hard and it’s never been that good and you have a lot of years left to paint a new picture. And I think you sound pretty solid, and pretty committed to not fucking with him or standing in the way of his chances at happiness, separate from you. You might be able to convince him of this, but only if you talk through it when you’re not angry. (Don’t talk at night, or when one of you has just messed something up, or when you feel anxious.) If you think it would be better, try to see a couples’ therapist. Stay open, but be honest about your agenda if you can. Work hard to make space for his perspective.
And try not to feel guilty for how you feel. Sometimes guilt can keep you from seeing how much you actually love a person. Sometimes it can keep you from seeing how much you want to start a new life without that person. Go to therapy alone if you can swing it, in addition to whatever you decide to do as a couple. (There are sliding-scale therapists out there, you just have to be firm about how much you can afford.)
You can love your husband and your daughter and want the best for them and want the best for you at the same time. Take the risk of imagining all of you living happily, whether you’re separate or together. It’s not impossible.
Best of luck.
Previously: Ask Polly: Why Are People Such Assholes?
Are you happier than ever, but still not nearly happy enough? Write to Polly and fix everything!
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl’s existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by Stéfan.