She Said, He Said: I Stay Because I'm Afraid Of Being Alone
Dear Jeff and Lori,
I'm a middle-aged woman with two adult children. I've been unhappy in my marriage for many years. I told myself I would stay in it for the sake of our kids, but they're grown now. My husband works hard to provide, but he's very disconnected. Over the years, he has become increasingly more absent, and when I try to talk to him about it, he turns it around on me saying I want too much, and he is who he is. My friends are tired of my complaining and say I should move on. But I'm afraid of being lonely, of failing to provide for myself, and of not ever finding someone else. How do I get past the fear and do what I know is really best for me?
Afraid of Going Solo
Lori and Jeff: In our work with couples, we're always careful about not directing partners to leave or to stay together. We can say, however, that if you have been unhappy for a prolonged period of time, and your partner is unwilling to explore changing with you, taking the reins to create some type of shift in your life is warranted.
Jeff: When couples have kids, they often accept more traditional roles as parents — he as the provider and she as the caretaker — putting aside their personal needs for growth and self-actualization. One of the biggest transitions for couples is when their kids leave home, quickly changing the roles that defined each individual. This kind of shift creates two options. One is to remain stuck in the defined role, resisting change and growth. Stagnation can spell doom for the health of the relationship (according to the Gottman Institute, growth is ultimately the point of marriage). The other is to embrace the opportunity to discover new aspects of oneself, to flourish and thrive as an individual and within the relationship. It sounds like your husband has chosen the former and you'd like to chose the latter. Perhaps if he understood the dynamics of your situation, he might be able to give you the space and support for your personal journey — counseling might provide him with this understanding. If not, you may need to create that space for yourself.
Lori: Whether you stay or go, you'll have to connect to your sense of self-worth to create a life that is fulfilling. It's possible that you're using your husband as a scapegoat for your unhappiness and not pushing through your own barriers to be who you want to be. How would you be different with someone else? Have you put in the effort to change within the relationship? If you're certain the solution is to move on, there are steps you can take to build confidence.
The Stages of Change Model (Prochaska and DiClemente) suggests change happens in a series of phases. Between contemplating the change and actually implementing it, you need to spend some time preparing. Start by visualizing who you want to be and how you want to feel. Then explore the stepping stones you need to put in place in order to get there. If you're worried about making it on your own and being alone, create an inventory of your resources: who are the friends and family members who have your back? What skills do you have and what professionals might you need to help fill in the gaps (a financial planner or plumber perhaps)? What organizations, activities and volunteer opportunities are available in your community to build meaningful connections so time alone feels like solitude and not loneliness?
Lori and Jeff: If fear is keeping you from taking action, understand that curiosity can be the antidote. Imagine the possibilities that may await you as you embark on this new phase of your life — married or solo. Uncertainty, although fear-provoking, is the foundation for adventure and opportunity.