Life coaching expert Tal Fagin responds to a reader’s dilemma of a marriage that has lost its spark. She offers sound advice, techniques, and a path to clarity in an all-too-familiar situation.
My marriage has become a cliche – and not a good one. To be blunt, my husband is weighing me down! He is a good enough guy, devoted and reliable, but somewhere in the last few years he seems to have lost his mojo. I used to feel like we were a real team—working toward similar goals, enjoying each other and our growing brood. And we laughed a lot. Now, with him consumed by work and my focus on the children, I feel as if the kids and I are on one team (Team Fun!) and he on another (Team Gloom!). I still love him, but when I hear his key in the door at the end of the day, I deflate. I have regular fantasies about life without him, and have even experienced bouts of jealousy when others divorce. But the truth is, that is the last thing I want.
What can I do?
Missing My Man
Dear Missing My Man,
Cliches exist for a reason—they convey universal truths. Some might read your post and scoff, dismissing you and your woes as just another casualty of that common perfect storm: marriage, motherhood and middle age. Others might wonder if you aren’t actually that pesky fly on their kitchen wall, describing a scene that is all too familiar.
I read your post and sense both deep suffering and great possibilities. Clearly you are disappointed, but beyond the note of loss and despair in your story, I glean loving concern for your husband, a deep desire for renewed connection and a glimmer of hope that your marriage can improve.
So. What can you do?
An advice column is not the appropriate place to evaluate an entire marriage. It sounds like you and your spouse might benefit from a serious heart-to-heart (or two or three or fifty). You can also try some of the commonly known strategies for putting the spark back into a marriage (date nights, weekend getaways), or even try couples counseling. Beyond that, I do have a few tried and true techniques for helping clients shift their perspectives and make positive— and previously unthinkable—changes.
Begin at the End. When it comes to fraught situations and complex decisions, try beginning at the end, utilizing the good old fashioned “process of elimination” technique. Life is not a multiple choice exam—there is rarely just one right answer—but there may be a few that feel plainly wrong, so why not ditch these options as soon as possible to help clarify your perspective?
You mention having “regular fantasies” about life without your husband, as well as divorce envy, but then immediately say that is “the last thing” you want. Are you sure? Are you truly ready to eliminate that option? Is it wise to do so? What would be so bad about life without him? What would you lose? What might you gain? You yourself said your husband was “weighing you down,” which implies that your life feels more like a slog than a tango. I seriously doubt you’d elect to run a marathon with a boulder on your back, why live your life that way?
I am certainly not advocating that you – or anyone – blithely walk away from a marriage. I am simply asking you to more thoroughly investigate why it is not the correct choice for you. This will help you gain some clarity and take a more engaged approach to problem solving. It will allow you to stop fantasizing about an easy escape, and channel all of that frustration, imagination and energy toward actually doing something about your situation.
Stop Being a Victim. I find it curious that you posed your question the way you did. Asking “what can I do?” implies that you lack choices, or at least feel as if you do. You are not stuck! Framing your approach to life’s big decisions as a matter of choice is empowering. The difference between “I can’t” and “I can, but choose not to,” is subtle, but significant. Telling yourself that something is not possible (“He’ll never change!”), or that you simply can’t do it (“I can’t blow up my family!”), leaves you feeling trapped, helpless and out of control—like being stuck in bumper to bumper traffic with no possibility for movement or escape. One approach renders you a passive victim of your own life, the other makes you captain of your own destiny. You always have choices. These choices may be imperfect, and they may carry consequences you would rather avoid, but they are still choices. Recognizing that—and owning it—helps you feel more in control, and allows for a more positive, direct and action-oriented approach to problem solving.
Consider All Possible Options, No Matter How Outrageous. Go ahead, let your imagination run wild. You have already indicated a knack for fantasy, so go for it. Dream away. At first glance, you appear to have two imperfect choices, but perhaps there is more to it than initially meets the eye. Maybe it’s not your marriage that is the problem, but your lifestyle. I don’t know if you work or are at home with your children, if there is extended family that adds stress to your relationship or financial burdens that are straining your romance. Perhaps selling all of your belongings and moving off the grid might help? I am not suggesting this, per se, but I am willing to bet my own wedding ring that there are all kinds of creative solutions to your dilemma, you just haven’t allowed yourself the stillness, space or freedom to go there. And speaking of stillness…
Meditation, Not Mediation. Try adopting a regular meditation practice, if you don’t have one already. Maybe even make this a joint commitment. It may not seem like an obvious fix for marital woe, but I assure you, it is something of a magical cure-all. Meditation aids in developing, among other things, greater patience, less reactivity, more detachment from perceived slights, reduced stress, enhanced creativity, a deeper sense of trust and greater overall well-being. Add to that list more presence, more connection with others and—according to recent studies on the benefits of loving kindness meditation—increased love, joy, contentment, gratitude, pride, hope, interest, amusement and awe. What marriage couldn’t use a little of that?
Get Out of Your Head, and Into Your Heart. You say you still love your husband, but what does that mean to you? Loving someone means paying attention to them, showing compassion and understanding. It sounds to me like your husband is suffering. Maybe even depressed. What might he need from you? Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “True love includes a sense of responsibility and accepting the other person as [he] is, with all [his] strengths and weaknesses. If you only like the best things in a person, that is not love. You have to accept [his] weaknesses and bring your patience, undersatnding, and energy to help him transform.”
Be The Change. If you are truly missing your man — and I believe that you are, and that he probably misses you, too — then go get him back! Find a way. As Mahatma Gandhi famously advised, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” I regularly apply the notion to my own life—especially my relationships.
Rather than react to your husband’s end-of-day bad mood by sinking into one of your own, try to elevate the marital vibe. Create a virtuous cycle, instead of a vicious one. You said that when you hear your husband come home at the end of the day, you “deflate.” Why such dread? Close your eyes. Recall the experience. Relive it. How does it feel in your body? Do your shoulders hunch? Does your brow furrow? Does your throat constrict? Do you feel guarded? Defensive? This is your body’s fight/flight/freeze response, a biological sign that you sense an “attack.” We tend to believe that it is our circumstances in life that drive our feelings, but the truth is, it is our thinking about our circumstances that does so. Perhaps that heavy, weighed down feeling is more a function of your thinking about your husband than your actual husband. Perhaps you perceive his gloomy demeanor as a personal affront. In these moments, what are you telling yourself about your husband? That he doesn’t love or appreciate you? That he should be happier or more affectionate?
Now consider this: When you are reacting to your inner “bad husband” story, how do you treat him? What do you say or do? Do you lash out? Go silent? Do you get snarky or sullen?
Now, imagine the opposite.
What if, when your guy came home you greeted him with a smile, a joke, or even a kiss. You say you and the kids are on “Team Fun,” why not ask hubby to join? If he resists, persist. Not in a demanding, off-putting way—you don’t want to trigger his defense mechanisms—but in a playful, inviting one. What have you got to lose?
We humans are naturally very defensive creatures, wired more for survival than bliss. But if you want more out of life—and marriage— than that, you will have to take some action. Brave, decisive, positive action. All too often, we act out of fear. The alternative? Act out of love. Rather than racing each other to the bottom, try to lighten things up. Stop letting him weigh you down, and lift him up instead.
And since you started all of this with one cliche, please forgive me as I conclude with another:
A rising tide really does lift all boats.