Older Couple Stuck in Bad Pattern

Q: My wife of 37 years and I are entering possibly the last phase of our lives. I'm now retired and my wife retires in two or three years. This is not the venue for psychoanalysis, but one recent troubling result of some low-grade depression in me was my procrastination in paying a few significant bills. My wife discovered the late mortgage notice and exploded, surfacing long-standing disappointments and hurts. After several days of her grieving, not eating, and being in deep thought, she now insists on taking over the bills, and I can only wonder what other unspoken plans she may be contemplating. I am sure her disillusionments in marriage equal mine.

I've always seemed to be intimidated by confrontation and fearful to communicate honestly with my wife about money issues and sexual needs. My pain-avoidance of her expected disapproval and potential rejection has created its own unique pain within. How foolish and ironically tragic! We have not been sexual with one another for several years now and not sexually "intimate" for God-only-knows how long. We both, I am sure, have been living in our own intense, silent pain with our very different, individual sets of unfulfilled needs, wants and hopes.

Our religious faith would never allow us to consider divorce, and I guess our foolish pride would never allow us to go for marriage counseling. I was always afraid it would result in divorce. I love my wife (a mother and now a grandmother) very much and would like to spend the last years of our lives with some level of delight in the married life this world affords before I die and go to heaven.

My question: Is there any hope late in life for a couple in a long-term marriage with an extended "relationship shut-down"? -- Teddy, 62

Dr. Susan: You're incredibly articulate, and yet one of your main problems has been your fear of telling the truth to your lifelong mate. That is indeed tragic. Much has been written about passive-aggression and other ways of avoiding confrontation, so I'll keep it short. Have you told your wife that the reason you haven't been able to be as frank over the years as you'd like is because you have a phobic terror of hearing her say No? What I like to do personally is take the responsibility onto myself. I tell my husband that I realize it's my own neurotic issue, but it would make me so happy if he would please blah-blah-blah.

In your case, perhaps you could try saying something like this to your wife: "Honey, now that we're facing this phase of our lives, I would love to be more open and honest with you about my feelings, but I'm so reluctant to hear you just say No to me. I'm sure it's my own craziness, no doubt leftover from my childhood, but when I hear No, I feel rejected and when I feel rejected, I habitually shut down. And then we both feel hurt. So if you want to say No, could you do it gently and maybe come back at me with an alternate suggestion, so we can work out ways for both of us to be happy? I know I've had my disappointments in our life together, and I'm almost certain you have also. Now we have the time, and it's our last chance really, to help ourselves be happier with one another."

At least that might open a conversation. I do believe that it's possible for couples who have been together for any length of time to improve their marriage. Forget about divorce, and don't give up on the idea of marriage counseling. A good counselor won't push you into divorce if your religion is against it. Or, since you seem pretty sharp and insightful, gather a few good books on marriage (I recommend a few in my own Loving in Flow) and put some effort into the project. She doesn't have to read them also if she doesn't want to, but you can use the ideas to begin conversations. I'm assuming she'd welcome the chance to improve things. As to whether she'd equally welcome the chance to resume sexual intimacy, that's hard to say. You have nothing to lose by broaching the subject gently, and by being willing to offer her the pleasures of massage and affectionate touch and see where it goes from there. There are all kinds of products and medications that might help her enjoy the process more. Don't give up. I wish you luck and hope to hear from you again with at least a small success story.

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