Being angry is a natural response to a mid-life crisis but it builds a wall between the two of you. So what’s the alternative?
A Reader Writes…
I bought “I love you but….” after my husband gave me that exact speech in April last year. I found it very helpful, but my husband didn’t want to read it. We got together when he was 17, I was 22. We’ve been together 17 years, moved in together after 5 years, got married in 2001, have 2 young boys aged 6 and 5. He said that he felt like in the blink of an eye it was 2011, 17 years later and he didn’t know what he’d done with his life. It sounded like a typical mid-life crisis to me – his life had gotten humdrum, work had turned particularly pressured (and in a way made him powerless) and he seemed to blame me for his lot in life. We had a fantastic marriage in truth – always good to each other, always in love, we were “the” couple. He now says that he always backed down to me before I even knew there was anything to back down about – I am quite principled!
He thinks that he made all these sacrifices for me, but I gave up a lot for him too – I just wasn’t as audible about it, nor was I keeping score. I gave up on the notion of pursuing the career I had always wanted – for him, mainly because it would have meant that I had to give up my role as breadwinner, and go to university. He earned half my salary at the time. The things he “gave up” for me were things like going to restaurants where there were good vegetarian options because I am a vegetarian and he eats meat. I think he feels emasculated because I was always the Doer – I had to do the complaining if we ever got short-changed in anything, from restaurant service, to more major things. I did the household finances, I took care of the house, shopped around for the best deals on things like mortgages, insurance etc which meant that we got to live a more lavish lifestyle because I am savvy with things. I did the grocery shopping, cooked, did most of the housework. He couldn’t be bothered with any of that bar a bit of cooking and housework, and left it to me. He took the easy road every time, and sat back to let me do it, and now he is complaining that I took the reins. I often said to him that it would be nice not to have all the responsibility, and that he should be more involved. He had no inclination.
We tried to talk things through after the speech – following your advice that moving out doesn’t help people to work on anything. But he was adamant that he would move out and in July he got himself a flat and has been there ever since. Just before he moved out, he started to really mess me about – even on the day we’d agreed was his moving out day, he decided to move it back a week saying that he’d told the boys that he’s stay for the week – but hadn’t told me!!! Consideration for me had vanished into the air!
When he did move out, despite the reassurances that we would still see each other, spend time as a family and go on the odd date, he proceeded to completely ignore my existence! I tackled him on it, but he said that he just didn’t know what to say. To this day he says that he didn’t have an affair, or leave me for someone else, but I found out that in February this year (so 8 months after our separation) he was having a fling with “some tart” those are his words, not mine, I still don’t know who she is as he won’t tell me – it’s none of my business apparently! Our marriage was over, so it’s fine – in his eyes. It only lasted a couple of months apparently. To me it nearly destroyed me – I didn’t eat or sleep for a week when I found out about it (through a friend who saw them).
I asked him why he didn’t want to work on things – after all, in your book there are plenty of examples of couples who worked on things and made their marriages even better than they had been before! He said that he just didn’t want to!
I have been incredibly angry with him, understandably so I might add, although I admit that getting angry was most certainly not steering anyone or anything in the right direction. I have now let go of that anger. However, we all meet this week with our solicitors to go over our finances with regard to the divorce that he has coerced me into giving him (if you don’t divorce me, I will divorce you).
He wrote me a long email yesterday which was had a very bitter and angry tone to it – starting with “the truth, this is going to hurt but here goes” in which he spouted out the above reasons. He seemed to be very protective over his family as every reason centred around them – either his mum, his dad or his sister. “you said nothing to my family when we all went out for dad’s birthday” was one such example – he forgot that I was worried sick about a pain I had in my lower left side at the time (I hadn’t even mentioned it to him, for fear of what it might turn out to be) All he could think of was his family and their offence! Also, his mum and dad tried to blackmail us into having some guests at our wedding that we didn’t want because they didn’t know us, we didn’t know them. This was over 10 years ago. I stood up to them, but in the end he wanted to back down to keep the peace. I stood my ground. In the end, we cancelled the wedding plans and got married in vegas instead, just us two, without telling any one. He says that is his biggest regret – that I wouldn’t back down for him!!!!
The truth is, as far as I can see, he wanted yet again to take the easy road, but unfortunately I was tied into that particular situation and I don’t take the easy road, I take the “right” road.
But he now blames me for the ensuing damage that was done to his relationship with his parents – although we patched everything up, he felt that things have never quite been the same.
All he did in that email was pluck out a very few instances where maybe I’d had an off-day, or he’d misunderstood something and drawn his own (incorrect) conclusions – he was feasting on the crumbs! Those few examples were all he could extract in a negative light from our 17 years together. And that was worth ending it all for in his eyes. Personally, I don’t believe people can “act” that happy for that many years. Something would have shown, or alarmed me. Plus there’s no way I would have had children with someone I had the slightest doubt about.
He says that our sex life fizzled out – well, we’d sometimes go for a month with no sex – I was exhausted – my days were very hectic – buzzing around work, the boys, cooking, running the house, etc – My husband didn’t get home until their bed time because we had to move our shifts around to cope with the kids and their pre-schooling and schooling. My confidence wasn’t particularly great at the time – I wanted my pre-baby body back and didn’t feel great about how I looked. He did nothing to assuage this feeling and so I admit that I exacerbated the situation – when you are so incredibly busy you have to make the time for things like exercise and sex, it’s all too easy to let it slip. Plus, I knew that this phase was temporary, our children were about to start proper, full-time school, meaning that life was about to get a lot easier in terms of our working hours. We had already booked a week off work during term time so that we could spend it as a couple (one day was already earmarked to spend in bed!!) But that was to come several months too late and never happened.
I know that he is in turmoil – he has turned into someone else I don’t recognise – if you told me that an alien is occupying his body I would almost believe it! Like I said, it seems to be a cliché mid-life crisis and that’s the one thing that I feel your book could elaborate on further – he doesn’t seem to think our marriage was great any more – he has re-written history to justify his actions and he thinks there was nothing worth saving. Our poor boys are going to grow up without him – he’ll only be seeing them every other weekend – so that means that all the parenting gets left to me, and he gets to be mr funbags twice per month.
Is there now wisdom out there that can make a guy realise what he is throwing away? It is frustrating because he has never had any trouble in his life – no one close to him has died, he’s never had health problems, we’ve always been okay for money, we have good jobs, our lovely beautiful, healthy kids, – his life has been so trouble free that I wonder whether he sees minor things as being major because there’s nothing to put it all in perspective. I think that if he truly faced up to what he has done to our family he would jump off a bridge! He has been so awful to me since moving out.
All he wants is divorce, that’s all he can see – the easy road – run away. What can one possibly do to make him realise what he has done? What can bring someone out of a midlife crisis?
I’m picturing you delivering this letter with your hands on your hips, your voice is really angry and from time to time, you’re shouting and you’re wagging your finger. So I’m left with slightly different questions: How can I make you realise YOUR part in all this? How I stop you making his mid-life crisis 100% worse? How can I stop you from driving him to the bridge and throwing him off!
Before I go one word further, I reiterate what I put in my book. This problem is six of one and half a dozen of the other. If he was writing to me, I’d be telling him to stop running away from your anger, to listen and accept that you have lots of legitimate reasons to be angry…. but it’s not him that’s written it’s you. So I know this is going to be tough but I’m going to put a mirror up and hopefully you will stop and think. At the moment, you are heading not just for a divorce but a bitter and horrible one – the sort that your children will talk to their therapist about in the future. (I know I’ve heard it a million times.) When I’ve finished, you could decide that you don’t want to try and save this marriage and that he’s hurt you too much (and that would be completely understandable) but if you want to save this marriage, you will need to make changes yourself.
So please re-read your letter with the following thoughts in mind
1. I’m not surprised that he backs down. You come across as more than ‘quite principled.’ In fact, you put even stronger yourself….. your husband takes the ‘easy’ road and you take the ‘right’ road! You don’t just challenge that your husband was unhappy in your marriage but tell me ‘we had a fantastic marriage IN TRUTH’. I’ve had hundreds of letters from women in your position – just a bewildered and angry – but they write ‘I THOUGHT we had a happy marriage’. How can your husband debate, discuss and suggest alternatives to someone on the RIGHT road who knows the TRUTH. You either march behind or leave!
2. Like lots of couples that reach this point, you are both doing the very thing that you’re accusing the other of doing. For example, you complain that he’s been keeping score and then give me the score on your behalf. What I’d like you to think about is…. not who got us into this hole (because you will argue about this until the end of time) but how do we get out of the hole? (I will explain how later…)
3. Please stop catastrophising. Not only does it make you angry and more distraught but it makes you push him further away. For example: ‘My poor boys are going to grow up without him’ – you make it sound like he’s moving to the moon or truly jumping off the bridge – and it is logically incompatible with him being ‘Mr Fun Bags’ (while you are what, Mrs Discipline?) No wonder, you’re upset but you’re also making a bad situation into a catastrophe.
Let me stress, I would like him to change too. To be assertive rather than passive (under point one) to stop running away and face the music (under point two) and I bet he is catastrophising too. (I’ll have a guess at what’s going on in his head in a moment.)
Here’s what I’d like you both to do (but I’ve only got your attention, so you’ll have to start and model a way forward and he’ll follow)….. put yourself in each other’s shoes, for just a moment, and imagine every word he/you say is true. Let’s start with sex (and my example of how his catastrophising might work.) He has only know one woman his whole life and she will grudgingly give him sex about once a month and if he’s really good, he might get it again at some distant week in the future. But he’s never going to have passionate sex again! No wonder, he’s having a mid-life crisis, he’s retiring from sex and not even 40! At best, he’s scheduled after the children and everything else for an occasional week once in a while. (If I was writing to him, I’d be asking if he was doing enough to help you feel sexual as having children does nothing for a woman’s body image.)
If you think I’m blaming you for this sorry situation. I apologise. I could just as easily blame his mother for treating him like a golden child who could never do any wrong or for being depressed and unpredictable so he learnt to tiptoe round women rather than being honest. I could equally blame his father for running away – either emotionally (shutting down) or physically (by leaving) – and not teaching him how to communicate effectively with women. I could blame the people who make millions from running ‘adult dating sites’ who promote the idea of a guilt free affair which will ‘save’ marriages. I could blame our society that values men more for what they earn rather than who they are – which makes men overwork and self-medicate their stress with alcohol and porn. I could blame all men for thinking that being strong means bottling up our feelings and for not talking to each other. If the men at his work were honest about their lives post-divorce, no sane man would rush blindly into junking his marriage. I could go on but what I’m saying is blame is pointless. It makes everybody angry and defensive and makes a bad situation worse.
If he’s blaming you, what should you do? Think of blame as being a parcel, just because he’s handing it to you it doesn’t mean that you’ve got to take it, hold it close and believe it! You don’t have to throw it back in his face either. Just imagine leaving it where he put it – it’s not something you want – and walking past.
So how do you move forward?
If your children fall out with each other, do you ever ask one of them to be the ‘big one’ and make the first move. In this case, that’s what I’m asking you to do.
If there are things that you’d wish you’d done differently, apologise (without explanations as this can sound like justifications) and instead of trying to push down or dismiss his unhappiness as a mid-life crisis (and belittling it further as a cliché one) listen to him, tell him how you’d like to make his aspirations for the future come true. In this way, you will be on his side – rather than the enemy. After all, everybody has the right to want to do something different at 40 and be someone different than at 17. There’s probably things you want differently too, so why not talk about them together?
Good luck, brush up your communication skills and be more flexible and there is no reason why you can’t turn this round.
My new book
Dealing with a partner who is having a mid-life crisis is really tough. That’s why I have written my new book: It’s NOT a midlife crisis, it’s an opportunity’. My aim is to help build bridges and help explain how your partner is feeling to you and why you’re so angry to him or her. In the final section, I help the two of you form a stronger relationship.