Ask the Expert: Our girls blame me for our marital problems

Teenagers can get drawn into their parents’ conflicts. It can often feel like they are taking sides or blaming one parent more for the problems. Photograph: Getty Images

Teenagers can get drawn into their parents’ conflicts. It can often feel like they are taking sides or blaming one parent more for the problems. Photograph: Getty Images


Q I h ave been married for 20 years and have two teenage girls. Although my husband is there for the girls, we have not had a happy marriage for years. All he seems to want me to be is a housewife and a cook; he has no interest in being a real companion to me. He spends all his free time away from me. I feel so angry and fed up with him.

When I try to talk to him about how unhappy I am, he cuts me off or we end up having a row. The last time this happened, I threatened him with an ultimatum and he said he was looking forward to leaving as soon as the girls were settled.

I have tried many times to get him to go to marriage counselling and, under duress, he did attend one session last year but this did not go well. He accused me of usi ng the meeting to “have a go at him” , but I was trying to be honest about all our problems.

There is great tension in the house and the girls are often angry and seem to despise me. I think they sense the problems between me and my husband, and blame me for them. This is despite the fact that I do all the rearing and housework. I try to defend myself but I just can’t win.

Friends say I should end the marriage, but that is easier said than done. I am just so angry and upset. Things seem to be getting worse. I feel so disappointed that 20 years of marriage have come to this.

Is there anything I can do to change things or to save my marriage?

A I’m sorry to hear that you are so unhappy in your marriage at the moment. It is extremely difficult to be in a marriage that is unsatisfactory for an extended period and even harder when you are putting lots of effort into trying to change things, to no avail.

Sadly, as you have discovered, stressed marriages can have a negative effect on children and can drag down the quality of family life.

In addition, children and teenagers can get drawn into their parents’ conflicts, if only subconsciously. It can often feel like they are taking sides or blaming one parent more for the problems. This can add to the upset and distress.

Focus on what you can control, particularly your own happiness
The first thing I would suggest is that you take a step back from trying to change your husband, or anyone else, and instead focus on what you can control. Instead of trying to care for everyone, redirect some of that energy into caring for yourself.

Don’t wait for your husband to pay attention to you. Instead, focus on what you can do to make things happier for yourself.

Think about what things could bring more joy into your daily life. These can be simple things such as going for a walk, eating well and making contact with friends; or bigger things such as taking up new activities or interests.

Set some goals for your happiness that are not dependent on your husband’s participation.

You might find it useful to seek counselling for yourself. Try to see yourself in a period of self-discovery and learning as well as stress and crisis. The goal is to try to reach some acceptance of where you are, and to let go of some of your anger.

From this position you will be more able to make the best choices about how to move forward. Of course, working to improve a marriage is a shared decision, and you can do only your part, but you are at your most influential when you are happier and content in yourself.

Understand your relationship
with your husband
Focus on trying to understand what might be going on for your husband in the marriage. Try to see things from his perspective.

What do you think is at the source of his withdrawal or lack of engagement in the marriage?

If you are interested in improving the relationship, look for times of connection and daily conversation with your husband. This could be just a conversation about everyday things or talking about your daughters’ lives and parenting together.

Although I acknowledge how hard this might be, try to break patterns of criticism and anger in the rows between you. Try to listen carefully and nondefensively if he talks in any revealing way as this will give you a sense of what is possible in your marriage.

If you do reopen the conversation about your marriage with him, pick a good moment and start by first asking him how he thinks things are going.

Try to reframe your own upset, not just as a criticism but as a specific goal or wish for things to be better between you.

Attend to your

with your daughters
Take time also to attend to

your relationship with your daughters. Seek to create times of connection with them, such as engaging in shared interests and anything that you all enjoy.

Make the most of any daily conversation with them. If they raise an issue that gives you a sense of their upset at the tension in the home, try to listen nondefensively. Encourage them to say a little more: “I’m sorry you are upset. What makes you say that?”

When you do speak, try to provide a balanced perspective: “You are old enough to realise that there are some problems between me and your father, but that is between me and him. All you need to know is that we are trying to work on it and we both love you.”

Depending on their age and understanding, it may be appropriate to raise these conversations directly with them.

Dr John Sharry is a s ocial w orker and f ounder of the Parents Plus c harity. His book , Parenting Teenagers , is available from Veritas.