Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Case of the Disconnected Empty Nesters

Thirty years into his marriage a man discovers that he and his wife have nothing in common. It sounds like a concept for a movie. It does not quite sound real, but he writes to Carolyn Hax to ask her how to reconnect with his wife.

This couple has raised children successfully. The children have moved away. Perhaps far away. Strangely, the man tells us nothing about where the children are, what they are doing, whether they have children of their own, whether they ever visit or communicate. Nothing whatever. Parents who have gotten beyond parenting often engage themselves actively in grandparenting. His wife is clearly miserable. Will she become a grandmother? Does she care? We don't know.

And the man says nothing about work and career. Is either spouse working or retired? Are they financially solvent or has one or the other gambled away the family fortune at Las Vegas.

Hax does not ask the question. She sees his problems on the terms he presents: namely that he and his wife do not communicate. Wife seems to resent her husband. For all we know something might have happened, something bad might have happened, the children might be alienated or in jail… they could be facing financial ruin. We do not know, so we do not know whether what the husband calls his wife’s bad attitude, her refusal to compromise on anything, is her way of telling him that he has disappointed her?

We do know that the two come from markedly different cultures. She is from Central America and he is third-generation Japanese-American. We do not know very much about the cultural mix or the possible cultural conflicts. We do not know about other family members, how the different families mixed, and how the children navigated their dual cultural heritages. 

We do know that the man has aging parents and that he makes decisions about how to care for them. We know that his wife gets upset when he does so without asking her. This seems strange and discordant. We do not know how well or poorly his family accepted her... or vice versa.

Again we do not know. And, thus we are flying blind. Without further ado, here’s a portrait of a marriage that seems headed for divorce court:

After 30 years of marriage, my wife and I have come to the realization that we have nothing in common. It hasn't always been this way. Even with our cultural differences — my wife emigrated from Central America at 20; I'm third-generation Japanese American — there was an instant connection. We had kids right away and were always in agreement about how to raise them, and there were always school events and sports to keep us busy.

As the kids grew up and moved out, our problems became more apparent. She can be self-centered and controlling, and gets very upset if things don't go her way. We can't dance at parties because she only wants to dance her way. She got extremely upset when I made decisions on care for my aging parents. She gets upset if I ask her what she wants to do on a weekend; she wants me to find something she'll like.

There were early signs. When we first started living together, for example, she would complain if I read a book while she watched Spanish-language TV.

My wife also doesn't show any interest in things I like. Even though I don't speak Spanish well, I have fun watching her soap operas and going to Spanish-language concerts. If I try to talk to her about current events, sports, movies or music, I'm met with indifference. She only seems concerned with what I can do for her.

Therapy hasn't really helped. I think I've made changes; my wife doesn't feel like she needs to change. It's always what I need to change. We've talked about divorce, but it seems like we should be able to work through this. There are no dealbreaking issues like cheating, just a serious lack of communication. I'm not sure what to do.

— Looking for Something More

You might wonder whether they ever got along, at all. You might be imagining that they only had one common interest, bringing up their children, and that when the children left home, they discovered that they had nothing, culturally speaking, in common. They do come from radically different worlds.

By all appearances, wife is in a permanently foul mood. We do not know why. We suspect that she has a reason. She is seriously angry at her husband. Apparently, therapy has been of no real use. So, he reaches out to her. She slaps him down. Time to stop reaching out.

Anyway, Hax is more willing to absolve wife of all blame. As she sees it the problem is too much communication:

With all due respect, I’d say there’s an excess of communication.

At least, there is plenty on the negative and futile end of the scale.

You are trying and trying to converse — on news, sports, arts, and in therapy — and in the process communicating your hopes of converting her into an engaged and chatty companion. Your efforts to share her interests and meet her needs communicate this, too, in their ways.

She, for her part, is communicating with you all over the place. The emotional outbursts, the indifference to your conversation attempts and the stubborn resistance to change are all forms of communication and her message is clear: She is available to you strictly as is, so don’t look for anything different from her.

For my part I can accept that wife is trying to say something. I do not accept that the wife is trying to say that she refuses to become someone other than who she is. I do not accept that a man who wants to talk with his wife about music or current affairs or sports is forcing her to change.

It seems more accurate to say that his wife is shunning him, is tuning him out, is punishing him him… and refuses to explain herself.

In the past they apparently conversed all the time, about children, children’s school, children’s sports and so on. Now, she has completely shut down… and wants to do things her way. Has she drunk too deeply of the feminist ethos? Hax suggests that he should simply accede to her demands and cease trying to get through to her.

This contains some wisdom. If she is shunning him, he should stop trying. Perhaps he has reached the point where he is simply wasting his time.

If that is the case, not to be overly obvious, but would it not be better for him to ignore her imperious and closed-off nature, and develop more and better friendships with people at work, in the neighborhood, in the extended family. Hax does not propose this solution, but one thing that might bring the wife to her senses would be her husband's developing a better set of relationships outside of the home. True enough, he should stop pestering her. But, the chances are that she will react-- perhaps positively, perhaps negatively-- to being ignored.

Then again, it might be the case that she is looking for a way out of the marriage. Husband suggests that there is no problem with cheating, to which we might add that there is no problem that he knows about. Might we also mention that he does not mention conjugal relations in his letter, and, if her behavior is consistent, the chances are good that she has lost interest. If she goes along for the sake of going along, one can easily see that it would provoke her resentment.

Hax then says that wife’s behavior is not acceptable. It’s about time that she got to the point. She proposes that the two find a project or a purpose that can unite them as a couple. Of course, this sounds good, but it does not feel like anything more than a band aid.

As for her controlling and selfish nature: It’s emphatically not okay. But if I read things correctly, she was controlly before kids and after but not (problematically) during. If so, then maybe the project — the purpose — really is the thing. Maybe she’s bored and adrift; people sometimes micromanage less when there’s more to do. Maybe your marriage needs something to do.

It has high mileage and “instant connection” pheromones well out of warranty, yet you’re asking it to be enough, alone, to keep you both happy — which you’ve never asked of it before. Why not use your happier years as a script? Find a purpose and put it to work. Divorce can wait while you give it a try.

We are always willing to give anything a try before divorce. And yet, he has been doing nothing but trying. His wife is completely self-absorbed and refuses all communication, which would probably include collaboration. I would only mention that, for all we know, if his wife’s behavior has changed that radically, then perhaps a physician can shed some light on what is wrong with her. Biology might not be destiny, but it certainly counts.

1 comment:

Sam L. said...

Hax seems way off-topic on this case, as well as having no clue as to what's really going on (strike one on the hubby), but at least she didn't go all "Ask Polly" on him.