“I want to change but have no clue about where to start. The house is quiet these days and I suspect she is waiting for me to move first.”
I’m writing this with my head hung down. Last week, my wife and I were watching a movie and the couple in the movie was contemplating divorce. I said something like “I’m so glad that’s not us.” She replied with “Well, it may not be you but sometimes, it is me.”
It was like a sucker punch. I didn’t know she was unhappy. We don’t fight very often, we seem to get along pretty well, and we agree easily on how we’re raising the kids.
She said the problem was that I was happy with the way things are but that she wants more. She wants someone who isn’t happy just sitting on the couch. She spoke of being bored, lonely, and on her own a lot—nothing I really disagree with.
I get it. I want to change but have no clue how, where to start, or what to do. What do you suggest? The house is quiet these days and I suspect she is waiting for me to move first.
What a rough week you’ve had. It sounds like that really came out of nowhere for you. While my professional experience and advice won’t work for everyone, I certainly hope you’ll find some help here.
Did it really, though? Come out of nowhere?
Has she said any of this before? Is this a conversation that you’ve had in various ways and various times, only to move on when the smoke clears and things calm down? It’s pretty rare for people to think about leaving without at least saying something first.
First, if you haven’t spoken about it since, I think it’s important that you tell her as soon as possible that you haven’t stopped thinking about the conversation and that you’re not just skipping it. Let her know that you take her words seriously, that you don’t want her to leave but know that you and your relationship needs to change.
Let her know that you get that this is a big deal and reassure her that you’re thinking it all through, that you know the next move has to be yours and that you are intent on making one but you just need some time to think things really through.
Assure her that you get that this situation calls for more than a band aid fix and that real change will be essential. Let her know that you’ll come back to her to talk more once you get a handle on your own thoughts and feelings. Perhaps consider expressing gratitude that she gave you the heads up and a wake-up call, that you’d hate it if she just announced she was leaving without you having an opportunity to change things.
Has your wife said something that you just didn’t really hear or pay attention to in the past?
One way to help yourself to stop feeling sucker-punched and blindsided is to go back to what you already know. Now that you’re awake and paying attention, what has she already said? What have you already observed? What do you already know about how she might be thinking and feeling these days.
- Has she asked to do something that you’ve kept putting off or minimizing?
- Is there a theme to arguments when you do have them?
- Is there a familiar complaint that she seems to repeatedly have?
Consider her statement about being lonely.
What part of her loneliness is your responsibility to own? Not all of it will be about you.
You might be tempted to take it all on or you might be feeling defensive and resentful, not wanting to take any of it on. That’s why you’re still just getting information.
You just went through what you do know. Now figure out what you don’t.
- Why might she be feeling this way?
- How much time alone do the two of you have each week?
- What has your sex life been like recently?
- How unplugged from various screens are you both?
- After you’ve asked her how her day was and she says “Fine”, do you ask a follow up question?
- Do you know what her life outside of you is like these days? What stresses her out, what her hobbies and interests are, who she spends time with?
What about you? Have you really been happy or just tuned out?
Check in with yourself. Have you really been content or have you been tuning out because of unmet needs of your own. If you have stuff of your own to bring to the table, it’s important to know that and acknowledge that as part of the disconnect.
It’s time to talk.
Touch base with her and let her know that you’ve thought things through and that you want to find some uninterrupted time where the two of you can start to talk and make a plan for getting back on track.
Before you start problem solving, validate her feelings and talk about your own.
Start by telling her what it felt like to hear her talk about leaving. Let her know what it made you think and feel. Tell her you’ve given her point of view a lot of consideration. Review with her what you think you already know about what’s been going on for her and check with her to make sure you have it right. Invite her to explain further if there is something that you’re not getting.
Ask about what you don’t know.
Don’t start problem solving before you have a clear definition and understanding of the problem. Think about the thought exercise I just led you through. What questions came up. What didn’t you know? What did you need more information about?
Reiterate with her your understanding of the problem and what you now acknowledge she needs. Make sure you’re really clear on this part before you move forward.
If you’ve been unhappy, too, share that.
Acknowledge your experience in the marriage. If you have been avoiding the relationship because of unmet needs of your own, talk about them. Acknowledge that you know her dissatisfaction is what brought this all to light but that a real fix has to address both of your concerns.
Start to make a plan.
If you’ve had ideas for ways the two of you can get started in a better direction, run them by her. What does she think? Does she have ideas and needs of her own that you haven’t considered.
Set realistic expectations.
Remember that you’re looking for a real fix, not a band aid so anything you come up with has to be realistic enough to implement into your lives regularly and consistently.
Set regular check-in times.
This will be an anxious time for you. You will be wondering if you’re doing enough. She’ll be wondering if this is just a phase that you’re going through and if you’re going to change back to the way things used to be. Knowing that you’ll be checking in regularly about how you’re both doing and feeling will keep your relationship a priority.
Make the fixes non-negotiable but flexible.
Life happens. Sometimes finances or time doesn’t allow for regular date nights. Sometimes kids get sick right when the babysitter arrives or work keeps you from a kid’s soccer game. Interruptions should be understood and expected but instead of writing off the conflict in schedules and assuming date night can’t happen, reschedule immediately. You may not be able to keep your agreement pristine from interruptions but you can keep it.
Learn from this.
After the two of you have gotten back on track, take a moment to reflect on your take away. How did things drift in the first place? How did you get off track and what’s your plan for insuring that you stay on track going forward. Having a united vision of your marriage that you share with your wife and a commitment to working on it together sets you both up for success.