Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Case of the Abandoned Husband

In mid-Victorian England when people who could not cope with the demands of urban life suffered nervous exhaustion they were labeled neurasthenic. They tried to deal with the problem by taking to their beds. They thought that extended rest would replenish their energy reserves.

Times have changed. Take the case of the modern woman who takes to her bed after a hard day at graduate school. She is not trying to restore her energy; she is medicating herself with repeated episodes of Millionaire Matchmaker, Top Chef, and the Real Housewives of Wherever. I would even say that she is getting in touch with old and faithful friends.

This is the case of a woman whose distraught and emotionally abandoned husband recently wrote to Emily Yoffe,'s "Dear Prudence" columnist. What could this man do about a wife who spent all of her evenings engrossed in the Bravo network? Link here.

He had tried everything he knew to awaken her from her Bravo-induced trance. He had begged, pleaded, and cajoled. He gotten angry and sulked off. To no avail.

Aside from that problem, the couple was happily married.

It may not serve as an explanation, but the only thing we know about this couple is that they had recently moved to a new town so that the wife could pursue a graduate degree.

The woman appears to be troubled. The husband seems to be overwhelmed by a situation he does not know how to manage.

But Yoffe does not label her an addict and does not suggest that she or he or both of them dash off to the nearest therapist. She does not assume that something is wrong with the marriage and does not assume that the woman has undergone a crippling trauma.

Her approach is radically different from the one prescribed by the therapy culture. Which is all to the better.

For all we know the wife may simply feel socially and geographically dislocated. She may be suffering from anomie. Or, she may have discovered that the graduate program is too demanding, that she made a mistake.

Of course, given the fact that she has so much time free to watch television, the chances are better that she finds that the program is not demanding enough.

Yoffe begins by saying that this woman is rude. Not sick, not addicted, but downright impolite.

Rather than affixing guilt on either wife or husband Yoffe offers some better ways for the husband to deal with his wife's rudeness.

She suggests that the husband reach out to his wife, that he try to connect with her, that he not make an issue of Bravo, but that he try to negotiate a compromise. This is easier said than done.

This means that if you are feeling emotionally abandoned, you should not complain or attack, but should reach out to offer an emotional connection to the person who has abandoned you.

Where the therapy culture would propose dramatic confrontation or intervention and would tell the husband to find out what severe mental disturbance is causing his wife's Bravo addiction, Yoffe recommends that he invite her out to dinner.

There the husband can negotiate a compromise over the wife's bad habit.

Note well how Yoffe articulates her proposed compromise. She does not tell the husband to make his wife watch less Bravo. For all we know that would be like depriving her of a major part of her social world. Instead Yoffe tells the man to recommend that the wife record her favorite shows and then watch them all in something like a Bravo marathon a couple of evenings, or even a weekend.

Then she would be able to watch all her shows while also carving out some time for her husband.

It will be far more difficult for her to reject advice that will not cause her any Bravo deprivation.

Next, Yoffe suggests that on the evenings that will have been freed up, the husband should invite his wife out on date nights-- to a movie, a concert, or to dance.

As a negotiation tactic this is brilliant. It tries to help this man to be a better husband and to help him to reconnect with his wife... not in front of a glowing television screen, but in a milieu that facilitates adult conversation-- a restaurant. And it tells him not to get into a fight about how much Bravo she watches, but to engage her in a negotiation.

Yoffe is offering a lesson in managing a marriage. Isn't this a better idea than farming out the problem to a professional who will decide that the woman's bad habit is really a sign that her marriage is troubled?

Clearly, Yoffe's approach has everything to recommend it. It is low cost, and has very little downside. This man will be hard put to come up with reasons not to follow it.

Dare I say that it nicely parallels the approach to managing a marriage that I took in an interview I did with Meridith Levinson at Link here.

For some further remarks of mine, see also my follow-up post. Link here.

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