Ask Polly: I Had a Stillbirth and My Husband Totally Lacked Empathy


Dear Polly,

I think my husband is spineless, selfish, and prioritizes his convenience over my emotions.

Background: My husband is from another country. We visit for a month or so every summer, when he catches up with friends and family. I am cool with this. (I do wish he might also, I dunno, set some time aside for his *wife* during our only vacation time, but that’s another letter). However, he has this one friend whom I would actually happily feed to rodents of an unusual size.

I had a stillbirth almost five years ago. It took a year to figure out what the problem was, during which I had two more miscarriages. They diagnosed me, I got pregnant again, I was considered high-risk, and I spent the next nine months giving myself shots once or twice a day and getting ultrasounds every week or two. The next time we went to his hometown, his dickweasel friend spent a good half hour merrily lecturing me on how American women abuse the system; how healthy women in *their* country only get two ultrasounds during their entire pregnancies; and how American kids are probably all going to have brain damage.

Assuming this idiot had completely forgotten the stillbirth of one of his supposedly closest friends’ firstborn, assuming he’s too fucking stupid to do the math and think, huh, the lady I’m talking to might have some health issues that necessitate additional care, there’s the fact I’M AMERICAN, five months pregnant, and he’s assuring me my kid will be hideously damaged. I was feeling some pretty severe anxiety about the whole situation at the time. (For context, after a lifetime of avoiding psychotropic drugs, I went on anti-depressants a week after I found out I was pregnant, when my doc asked me if I was happy about the baby and I burst into tears out of sheer terror that something was going to go wrong with this one, too). So the fact that my husband sat there while his buddy went off on his little spiel, missed the fact that I was so upset that I spent the rest of the night on the porch desperately wishing I still smoked, and refused to drive me back to where we were staying so we slept at the dickweasel’s house — none of that went over well.

Nevertheless, we came home, and it eventually blew over. Our son was born, and is delightful. Two years have passed, and I’m pregnant again. My husband is planning to celebrate his 40th birthday at the dickweasel’s house (in keeping with his charming personality, the dickweasel refuses to go out anywhere during the annual get-togethers and makes people go to his place out in the boonies). I’m not going, and my husband is trying to guilt-trip me by whining about how he only sees his friends once a year.

I’ve never wanted a knight in shining armor, but I feel like my husband massively let me down by not intervening or speaking up for me after the fact, or even calling me a fucking taxi so I could get out of there. I’m usually pretty mouthy, but I was, a) out of my element in a foreign country where I don’t speak the native tongue, b) kind of in shock that anybody would be so fucking cruel and insensitive, and c) vulnerable. Just plain vulnerable and hurt. I feel like he’s compounding this every time he tries to bully me into letting it go and just making nice with his bro. I feel like he’s placing the convenience of his having a feel-good reunion over the fact that I am PREGNANT again and ANXIOUS again and the thought of having to smile at that douchebag and grit my teeth and try not to punch him/cry if he makes any further cracks on this go-round is giving me massive agita. Hence this letter. Any tips on how I can convince my husband to get his head out of his ass? I will pretty obviously not be going to this party, but I’d like to figure out a way to dredge up some shred of respect or understanding for the father of my children.

P.S. Yes, we are in counseling. No, no common ground has been found on this issue.

The Ultrasound & The Fury

Dear TU&TF;,

That sounds terrible and it couldn’t be more of a perfect storm. You have PTSD, or similar feelings of extreme anxiety and stress around the stillbirth. Women who’ve been pregnant before can ALMOST attempt to understand how deeply traumatic and horribly sad that experience might have been for you. But I’m guessing that most of us can’t touch the extreme hell of it. The physical and emotional recovery must take so long. And maybe it’s never really complete. Because when you’re pregnant again, it’s pretty easy to conjure it all up: The vulnerability, the fragility, the fear.

So first, I want to say that I feel for you and I’m so sorry that you had to experience that kind of trauma and sadness. I’m also sorry that your husband hasn’t done a good job of trying to understand and adjust to the full force of your pain and anguish — in order to show solidarity, to have your back, and to demonstrate that you’re in this building-a-family thing together.

It’s fundamentally crazy-making to be aligned with someone who doesn’t automatically jump to your side and protect you when something HE KNOWS and YOU KNOW was truly awful for you is being dredged up and treated clumsily and idiotically by an utterly clueless (and aptly named) dickweasel. It must feel almost like an out-of-body experience. Here you are, married to/intimate with this man, and he would rather shrug off what was probably the singular most traumatic event of your life? And there you are, all big and pregnant and anxious, and he’d rather chuckle along with his bro than make a gesture of solidarity? That’s the kind of moment when you feel like you must be going crazy. Like your sanity is being tested. “Wait a minute. Shouldn’t he… Am I nuts, or should he defend me on this one, no matter what? Isn’t this a little wrong? Doesn’t anyone else see the wrongness here?”

But let’s put on our empathy caps for the sake of improving this very bad situation. What compounds your problem is that your husband lives far away from his country and his family and his dickweasel bros and therefore romanticizes them a lot. He isn’t good at simultaneously grappling with your extreme trauma and his sense of loyalty to his longtime friend. This may be a simple matter of convenience and overload — feeling feelings seems much harder than just barking, “LIGHTEN UP, BABE!” and moving forward. Or, he may be plagued by his own feelings about the stillbirth — feelings he wants to shut off, and in addition to that, he may have a sense of having lost all steady connection to his home. He may feel (unfairly) that you’ve taken over his life and on those rare occasions when he can go home, he wants to do it full-on, without taking the smallest sliver of his new life and new responsibilities into account.

(I’m not implying that his behavior is okay; I’m just trying to make it easier for you to weather this perfect storm. He’s being a baby, of course. He knows exactly what’s up and he’s STILL being a dick about the whole thing. For christ’s sake, when this thing with the dickweasel happened, you hadn’t had a successful pregnancy yet. You were floored and upset and he ignored you and made you sleep in the dickweasel’s house. He should be ashamed, but instead he’s being stubborn.)

Why? Let’s assume it involves heavier stuff for him. You’re not saying, “My husband is constantly undermining my feelings.” If that were true, you’d have bigger fish to fry. I don’t doubt that it’s symbolic and representative of overarching troubles in your marriage. But there’s also something fundamental going on — some reason why he feels that yielding to you on this front would mean giving up his last shred of independence and his last tie to his bros and his homeland and his roots. We can’t help but wonder, ”Are his roots a wee bit dickweaselly?” Not clear. But somehow his pride and his sense of self and his bromantic delusion are on the line.

Still, it’s pretty fucking stupid that he’s choosing THIS battle, though, which is related to you HAVING HIS CHILDREN SUCCESSFULLY WITHOUT FALLING APART. You’re pregnant again, vulnerable, full of feelings about the stillbirth and the last traumatic bullshit visit with the dickweasel, and all you’re saying is “I can’t be around that dude in this state, BUT YOU ARE WELCOME TO LEAVE ME BEHIND ON YOUR 40TH BIRTHDAY AND GO HAVE YOUR FUN.” That alone is pretty generous of you, if you ask me. You could say, “You know what? Fuck you. I’m pregnant and fragile and we’re going to have a family birthday party with our son, and it’s definitely not going to be on this creep’s turf. You’re just going to have to accept that you have a family now and this is what a birthday looks like.”

So this is your gift to him. His bromantic birthday doesn’t have to get trampled on by the actual human being about to bear his second child. But he needs to recognize that this is a very generous gift, and stop pressuring you to go to the dickweasel’s house with him. And at the dickweasel’s house, when other people ask why you’re not there, he needs to defend your choice, because that’s what a good human being who cares about his partner’s feelings does.

Maybe, in order to thank you for this gift, your husband should consider trying very hard to finally grasp what you’ve been through — with the previous pregnancies, and this one. Maybe it’s time for him to finally recognize how these things shape your experience. And when he finally recognizes this, or at least tries to, it will make your marriage stronger and happier. So you need to ask for this, and be very specific. If you just keep saying, “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND YOU DON’T GET IT FUCK YOU!” it won’t sound like a request. It will sound like an attack on his character. Like a way to fight him.

You don’t want to fight. You want him to conjure up his best, most honorable self. You want to remind him that he’s a good, loyal man who loves you and wants to protect you and your kids, who cares about your feelings and will defend those feelings even when it’s not all that easy to do.

Even if he doesn’t get it, he needs to take your word for it. That’s what I told my husband right after our first kid was born. He would do things with the baby that didn’t seem safe to me, and if I spoke up about it, he’d always say, in the same exasperated tone, “JUST RELAX, IT’S FINE!” He knew everything because he’d already had a kid, see? So I had to get very calm and sit him down and look him in the eye and say, “Listen. I know you feel like it’s fine. MAYBE IT IS FINE, IN FACT. But I’m having a heart attack just watching you. That’s not fine. And you have no way of really grasping how NOT FINE it feels for me. Having a baby is like lopping off your own head and handing it to someone else to take care of. My fucking cells want me to protect that thing you’re holding. I can’t help it. I can’t say, ‘Hey, cells, relax, it’s fine, he’s not going to drop my fucking head on the floor… I’m pretty sure he won’t, anyway.’”

And then I said this: “I have a RIGHT to be uptight about this fucking baby. That’s MY right. I’m going to try not to be controlling forever and ever. But right now, with a giant scar in my gut, feeling emotional, trying to make sure that baby survives? There’s no physical way that you can understand this feeling. No fucking way you can touch it. So just accept that you don’t get it, step back, and grant me this fucking right.”

I sound like a lot of fun, don’t I?

The point is, your husband needs to grant you the RIGHT to be extra sensitive and weepy and needy and intense and anxious when you’re pregnant. And maybe you need to spell it out for him. Because having a stillbirth must feel like having someone cut your head off and then smash it with a sledgehammer while you watch. I’m sorry to be so brutal. I’m just trying to put this in terms that your husband MIGHT understand, at least enough to understand that he doesn’t fucking understand. He needs to give you the benefit of the doubt and trust you on this. I don’t know the big picture for you. But right now, in your circumstances, you want your husband on your side. Pick a calm, happy moment, and tell him you need him as an ally. You need his help. You need him to respect your feelings.

The really terrible thing about being with someone who doesn’t empathize well is that 1) it makes you harder on yourself which 2) makes you harder on other people and 3) instead of seeking out more caring people on whom you might lean occasionally, you tend to preemptively write people off or globalize or overgeneralize and assume that NO ONE will empathize with you at all. These things are subconscious, mostly. What happens is, you feel isolated and sad and lonely and you struggle mightily within your marriage to explain, express yourself, and get a toehold emotionally, and one day you wake up and you realize that, instead of seeking a wider circle of support, you’ve actually been isolating yourself. Because you’re tired! And overwhelmed! And you’re angry at yourself, and sad, too. You don’t really want to expose any of your friends to all of these things. And maybe you don’t want your friends to know what a dick your husband can be sometimes.

But listen to me. I’m sorry for everything. I’m sorry you feel so vulnerable right now. I know this birthday thing is awful. Talk it out with your friends. Don’t let anyone say it’s just this thing you’re “stuck” on. But try to be calm. Try to take care of yourself. Keep going to counseling and do your best to express yourself there. Be patient with yourself and everyone else. You have to cultivate a peaceful home life right now, for your own good, no matter what’s going on with him.

Do you have female friends to lean on? If not, you need to work on that. You need a lot of support from women in your life when you’ve got a husband who struggles with empathy the way yours does. You can’t walk around angry and anxious all the time. You need to let off steam and feel supported by other people. I’ll bet that’s hard for you. Don’t stay in this angry place. Let yourself feel sad. Ask for help when you need it. And don’t do the dishes every night when you’re visiting your husband’s country. Explain that you’re trying to take it easy and stay positive and you need to be careful. Don’t try to live up to other people’s expectations of you, or battle their ideas about American women. Just be kind to them and take care of yourself.

You aren’t putting up with shit this time. You love yourself too much for that. You’re growing. You’re getting stronger. You know yourself better than you ever have. Take pride in who you are and how far you’ve come.

Do your best to make him understand. But no matter what you ask for and don’t get in this world, you always have yourself. You are smart and resilient, and you deserve to feel happy and loved. Give yourself what you need, and don’t let the dickweasels get you down.


Does your life feel like it is on hold but you want to zip through it like a DVR recording of that soccer game where America lost? Write to Polly and discuss!

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 Ron Dunnington