An irreconcilable problem?

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

I”m in my 50′s and I want to feel compassion for my husband’s need for relationships with other women
I’m basing this question on Love and Stosny’s work (saving your marriage without talking about it). I think their theory about women experiencing more fear and men experiencing more shame is probably very true, but I have what seems to be an irreconcilable problem here.

We were separated a few years ago for a few years. He came back, but maintained friendships with many women (some he had dated during our separation, one he had been engaged to) and has also formed new, emotionally intimate friendships with women since being back with me. Some are just email relationships, others are people he sees, has coffee with, etc. — but they all make me feel threatened. These women send him gifts, call (even late at night) to discuss problems and he can get quite furious if I express negative feelings about this. Or sometimes he just shuts down. To his credit, sometimes he also shows compassion to me and after I found one note where the woman said she went to bed thinking about cuddling him, he said that he agreed it *was* out of line and he promised to tell her that they could be friends but he didn’t want her to have those ideas about him.

I try to understand that he needs this attention. Other women confiding in him (and adoring him) is a boost to his self-esteem which is important to him because he is still feeling injured from our breakup (which he now says was my doing — although I’d certainly tell the story in a very different way). I have had counselors tell me that he is a narcissistic personality and I tend to agree with this. At least to some extent. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to expect from him.

And it feels like it is impossible for me to compete. The “fresh faces” — the women with no baggage (he’s hurt some of them but he doesn’t seem to feel any guilt about it) have so much power to make him feel good because he can make an effort to help them without feeling too much responsibility for the results. In contrast, I seem to be a source of shame because he sees himself as responsible for my well-being, but the catch is that if I am too self-sufficient, that is also a source of shame to him. He recently told a mutual friend (a woman — one that I believe doesn’t have romantic ideas about him) that there are things he resents about me, including the fact that I kept my own name when we got married. That was 30 years ago!

I need a strategy to deal with all of this. Where I’m at right now is basically to acknowledge in my own heart that I’ll always feel insecure. I’ve been walking on eggshells for a long time.

A: For some men, 10 relationships are fewer than one. For whatever reason, your husband isn’t willing to take the emotional risks that go with putting all of his heart with one person. Of course, that means he will also never know the intimacy and closeness that is possible when two people truly commit to one another. I’m assuming (maybe wrongly) that you’ve tried couples counseling and it wasn’t successful. If you haven’t given counseling a try, I certainly urge you to do so.

If you were 20 years old, and counseling didn’t work, I’d suggest that you drop this guy and look for a man who could respond to your love in kind. But (being of a certain age myself) I know that once we’re in our 50s, life is much more complicated. There may be many practical reasons why you got back together with him rather than stay separated. There may be reasons why you are willing to accept the blame for the separation and the pain of never being someone’s most important someone. You might be willing to walk on eggshells rather than walk alone.

I can only suggest to you that half a loaf isn’t necessarily better than none. But only you can decide if that’s the case for you. I do believe that you deserve better. I’d like to think there is a man out there who knows how to love completely and who has been looking for someone just like you to spend the next 20 years with.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 28 Feb 2010

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2010). An irreconcilable problem?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 30, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2010/02/28/an-irreconcilable-problem/