Relationship column: Ignoring the warning signs before the crash
October 15, 2012
Dear Neil: My ex-husband of 26 years, and the father of our two teenage boys, had been distant, withdrawn and angry with me for 3 years before he told me he was moving out. He said he had been miserable in our marriage for years. He also had developed a “friendship” with a younger female co-worker, who he claimed was not the cause of our breakup, but she made the transition easier. He was with her two weeks later, and filed for divorce almost immediately after that. Does this sound like a midlife crisis?
– Trying to Make Sense Of It in Highlands Ranch, Colorado
Dear Highlands Ranch: No. It sounds as if he was unhappy in the marriage, and decided he wanted to make changes in his life.
What is missing from your description is about whether there was any serious attempt at addressing what was wrong in the relationship, and whether the two of you ever attempted to repair what was broken. If he had been distant, angry and withdrawn for years before he left, it sounds as if you were given ample warning that things were going downhill and that he was not feeling happily married.
If you’re ever in a similar situation in the future, pay very close attention to how well connected you are, and what an intimate partner says (and how he behaves) regarding how warm the relationship feels, how affectionate it is, how close things between the two of you feel, and when there are expressions of hurt, anger or discontent.
Every troubled relationship gives warning signs that things are going poorly. Things are said or done which indicate disappointment or discontent, and it’s easy enough to sense when someone becomes resentful or angry. Pay very close attention to these signs the next time around. If they pop up, they need to be addressed and resolved right away.
You would do that by asking questions designed to ferret out how a man is feeling about you and the relationship he has with you. Questions such as: “Are you getting your needs met in our relationship? If not, what would you like different?” or “When do you feel most connected with me, and when do you feel the most disconnected?” or “Tell me three things that I could do that would make our relationship even better than it is.”
By the way, you get to answer the same questions as well.
Dear Neil: My marriage ended very abruptly and bitterly in 2006. My husband was having an affair, and there was a lot of damage, as well as pressure from the other woman. Just before we separated, he told me for the first time that, years earlier, he had been sexually abused for three years by an older brother. This information had been kept secret from me throughout our 31 year relationship.
I decided not to tell our three sons, who are a bit homophobic (they are now 30, 27 and 23). But none of our children have a good relationship with their father as a result to the devastation to our family. So I have begun to wonder if it may help them understand more about him and the effect his abuse has had on our family. I do not wish to harm the already tenuous relationship he has with his sons, but I wonder if this information may help my boys repair their relationship with their dad. Your opinion?
– Wanting to do the Right Thing in Wellington, New Zealand
Dear Wellington: You sound like a most gracious lady. You are trying to assist your ex-husband in having a better relationship with your three sons, even though he had betrayed you. The world needs more people like you.
It might help to tell your sons about their father’s sexual abuse. They may feel greater empathy or sympathy for their dad. Then again, it’s possible that this may further the alienation your boys have with their dad, because they could respond negatively to this information instead of positively. In addition, your ex-husband might hate you for revealing his very personal and private secret. It may look to him like you have revenge on your mind, because this very well may feel to your ex like a public humiliation.
So instead of revealing his secret, encourage your grown boys to communicate with and have a relationship with their dad. Then let your sons choose what they want to do, and permit your ex-husband to reveal his own secrets when and if he is ever ready to do so.
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder, Colorado. His column is in its 20th year of publication, and is syndicated around the world. You can reach him at 303-758-8777, or email him through his website: http://www.heartrelationships.com, but he is not able to respond individually to queries.