Although I thought I was done after Mr. Perfect and His Crazy Wife, The Ice Queen and the Martyr, and Mr. and Mrs. Just not Feeling it, I have realized that I have neglected the most common couple that I see in counseling: The Wife Who Wants More and Her Annoyingly Satisfied Husband.
The wife is a 40-something, attractive, intelligent woman with a tendency toward reading, some creative pursuits, and introspection. She has a lot of energy that she used in college, maybe grad school, and then raising her kids, and now her kids are in elementary school or older and much more self-sufficient. This leaves her with a lot more time to think.
The wife takes care of herself and loves expanding her mind and her horizons. If she works, she isn’t fully fulfilled with her job; if she stays home, she knows she wants to do more with her life.
The husband is a 40-something, attractive (often less so than the wife), smart guy who tends toward more practical pursuits such as business or engineering. He makes good money and is well regarded as a good guy, possibly even a Mr. Perfect. He loves his kids and would never cheat or make a bad financial decision. He is stable and generally satisfied with his life, although probably not with his sex life, but he’ll deal with it. He is happy watching TV, or on vacation, or exercising.
The relationship is not in crisis, but the wife is not happy. She feels lonely. She wonders if this is all there is to life. She may love her husband, but is not in love with him anymore.
She tries to initiate conversations with him, but they go nowhere. She thinks he is too passive. Having sex with him is exciting possibly every third or fourth month. She knows the kids love him, so she would never leave, unless they were already in college. But even if she left, she isn’t sure what she would be leaving for.
She worries that maybe the problem is her, and she just can never be happy. After all, her husband is a good guy. Everyone says so. She herself says so. But yet, she is unhappy. She often drinks too much, or exercises too much, or diets too much, in order to feel better.
The husband, in contrast to his wife, does seem pretty happy. This may seem strange, since every few weeks, his wife implies or directly states that she is dissatisfied with him, his ability to have an interesting conversation, his lack of desire to grow as a person, their sex life, their romantic life, or their emotional connection. The husband — no joke — usually thinks these conversations have something to do with the timing of his wife’s menstrual cycle. (If any men are reading this, they probably didn’t take that as a joke.)
He does not agree that he and his wife have no emotional connection, and doesn’t believe her when she says she feels this way. I mean, they have kids together and a history spanning decades. He still finds her interesting and attractive. And she seems pretty happy most of the time, right?
He thinks she should probably switch careers, or start a new career, or take a class, or really do anything at all, and he is willing to pay any amount of money to make her happy and set her up in whatever new life path she wants. Maybe then she would want to have sex more, too.
This relationship generally meanders on until the wife just can’t take her loneliness anymore. She initiates couples counseling, and the husband demurs until there is a veiled or open threat of divorce, real divorce, as in soon, and then he capitulates. So, what is usually discovered in therapy that explains this pattern?
- The wife usually has trust issues in regard to relationships. It is unlikely that she saw a happy marriage growing up, or else she herself felt mistreated by one or both parents. She picked a “safe” guy, one who would not leave or betray her, and to whom she was attracted. She may have felt more passionate about other men in her past, but wanted to ensure a secure and stable relationship, which is why she picked her husband.
- The wife is risk-averse with careers as well. She knows she is intelligent, but it is very hard for her to put herself out there and start a brand new career with a risk of failure. So she stays in a boring job, or stays at home, and feels frustrated and stuck.
- The husband is attachment-avoidant. He grew up always being told by a caregiver to go do his own thing and to be independent. So now he’s independent. At first, he really liked his wife’s fussing over him during their courtship and early marriage, because nobody ever really did this before. But now that she keeps her distance and periodically complains about him, this feels familiar. It is like how he grew up, with not a lot of warmth. So he doesn’t realize that it is actually an augur of doom for the marriage that his wife has retreated this much.
- The wife initially liked her husband’s implacable nature. She wished she could be as calm and self-reliant as he is. She liked what she saw as his confidence. But now, she is realizing that he is just as risk-averse as she is. His risk-averseness, however, is confined to not wanting to take emotional risks. And this is why he rarely takes the initiative to start a conversation, or to be romantic, or even to say something he hasn’t said a million times before.
This couple actually has a fairly positive prognosis if they get into couples counseling. Both partners are intelligent, they both really do want to make their marriage work, and they are usually highly committed to their kids’ well-being. And they usually don’t want to throw extended family into an uproar, divide assets, and lose mutual friends.
They are motivated and willing to work in therapy. They do particularly well if the wife seeks her own counseling, to examine her childhood and what she wants to get out of the second half of her life.
For couples counseling to work, though, the real keys are:
- The husband must genuinely acknowledge that his wife is sad and lonely, and not dismiss her anymore out of fear and discomfort.
- The wife must learn to empathize with her husband’s more closed-off emotional nature, to understand where it originated in his background, and to be patient while he tries to learn new ways of interacting with her, which will take effort and courage.