Q: I love your site and advice and would love another perspective on my situation please. I’ve been with my husband for eleven years, married for nearly six, and we have a three-year-old. I never thought I’d be questioning my marriage, but for a while now I keep finding myself thinking about being on my own, having my own place, my own life. I know it would be hard, especially financially, but my mind keeps going there. Earlier this year I had the realization that I’d been forcing myself to have sex “for the relationship” and hating it, so I’ve stopped doing that. Reading the response to another reader’s question about the importance of sexual compatibility really struck a cord with me. I realized that I loved my husband from early in our relationship, but for me there was never any chemistry or physical attraction. Now I’m wondering if this is something I can live without forever? There are other factors at play, including postnatal depression and very different family backgrounds. Also, I feel like becoming a parent and the challenges I’ve faced have changed me. I’m finally starting to be able to listen to what I need, and this is causing issues in our relationship. Anyway, I hate myself for even thinking about hurting my husband like this, and I don’t know if this is a normal bad patch and I just need to try harder. But if what I really want is to leave my marriage, how do I give myself permission to do that?
A: Dear Anonymous,
The difference between a “normal bad patch” and “time to leave,” has nothing to do your circumstances (barring the extremes), and everything to do with you and your partner. It just comes down to, “Do I want to stay?” That’s it. Wholly, completely. Easy, right?
I know, answering that question can be really complicated, especially with all of these other factors you’re talking about (wee kiddo! bad sex!). To get to the big answer, try breaking it down into four smaller answers.
- What would need to change for you to stay?
- What work are you willing to do to make it change?
- Is your partner willing to undertake that work with you?
- How long are you willing to devote to trying to make it work?
Before we launch into answering those questions, I’ll ask one more. Why haven’t you talked to your partner about all of this? Based on your letter, it sounds like you’re unhappy with sex, but you’re trying to resolve it by yourself, without a discussion. It sounds like you’ve experienced some changes after having a kid, but they’re internal and introspective, and you’re not involving your partner in conversations about it.
I’ll be straight. If you want a fighting chance at all, you have to bring in your partner. A marriage only works if you’re facing problems as a team, and shutting him out is a surefire way to land on the short path to divorce. Loop him in on these questions. Tell him what you feel needs to change.
So, hey. What does need to change? You mention some sexual compatibility issues. Last time we chatted about that, Meg mentioned that there’s a lot about sex that can change with effort and communication. But she also pointed out that there are some things that just… will not change (a foundation of attraction may be one of those things). Does sex need to change for you to stay? What are you willing to do to make it happen? And then, if it doesn’t change, is it important enough to you that you’ll leave?
You also mentioned a whole pile of other stuff to sort through. But I was struck when you pointed to having a kid as a catalyst for some introspection. From my own experience, a new baby can throw a harsh light on any and all inequalities in what you thought was a happy, egalitarian relationship. That’ll make you real unhappy, real fast. Any change will shake someone, and when you’re in a relationship, that shaking jars your partner, too. Having a baby is a major, huge, tectonic shift level shake-up. Even three years later, you could be reeling from the way your life has changed. Are you guys facing some friction because of stuff you never addressed when your kid arrived? You mentioned that you’ve become more aware of your own needs as a result of becoming a mom. Does that also mean you’ve become aware that you’ve got a whole mess of them going unnoticed and unaddressed by your partner? If so, that’s totally normal! But what happens next is up to the two of you. The way you figure that out? Counseling.
As luck would have it, counseling is a great place to chat about the sex stuff, too. And the different backgrounds, and the depression, and all of the rest of it. You can start by asking yourself those four little questions I gave you, but even better if you find an objective professional to help you come up with the answers. I don’t know how much of your situation will need to change before you consider sticking around, or how much effort you’re willing to make to see those changes. But don’t get ahead of yourself. Grant yourself permission to ask these hard questions and to give some hard answers. Just involve your partner when you do.