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‘After 55 years together, my wife has left me. How do I get her back?’

Ask Roe: To my mind I have not changed – for better or worse – but she has

Dear Roe,

I am a 72-year-old man and my wife, to whom I have been married for almost 49 years, has left me and is seeking a legal separation through the courts. Adding in the six years before our marriage, we have been together 55 years. How can this happen? Nothing of a serious nature ever occurred – no adultery, no deprivation, no addictions. We raised a wonderful family together – all successful in their own lives. Just when I thought we were on the home stretch, my wife has apparently simply got tired of me. The cracks began to appear a few years ago as her whole focus on life switched to our many grandchildren.

To my mind I have not changed – for better or worse – but she has and has now rewritten our long, successful marriage as one in which she was unhappy. She refuses to talk to me or to consider counselling. I do not want a separation of any kind yet the whole system seems to favour the spouse who wants to end the marriage. How can I persuade my wife to change her mind?

I’m so deeply sorry that you’re going through this huge shift in not just your marriage, but your life. It sounds like it has been a shocking, hurtful, and utterly destabilising time, which has been compounded by your wife’s lack of desire to clearly communicate with you. I hope you have a support system of family and friends. You suggested couples counselling to your wife, but seeing an individual counsellor might help you as you navigate this difficult time.


I cannot offer you any suggestion that will definitely persuade your wife to come back. Sometimes people leave. Sometimes even the longest, most seemingly stable relationships end. It can be simultaneously incredibly difficult for the person who is left, and the right decision for the person who leaves, and both of those processes and experiences need to be respected.

What might be most helpful for you right now is to try to understand what may have happened. This will serve two purposes. First, it will start you on the mental and emotional process of dealing with this huge upheaval. Second, should your wife later decide she is willing to talk – whether to reconcile or simply explain – you will be more equipped to hear what she has to say and respond.

That you have adult children together may benefit you, as they may be able to speak to their mother and get some insight into what happened; and if she is later open to the idea, possibly facilitate a conversation between you so you at least get on speaking terms.

It’s interesting that you describe your marriage as “long” and “successful” – and yet you don’t actually use the word “happy”. You do mention that the “cracks” began to show several years ago, which indicates you were aware that you weren’t connecting. A few years is a long time not to feel your wife was focused on your relationship, and I wonder if you ever had conversations around this, or actively tried to reconnect? I don’t say this to place all the blame on you – from your description, your wife did start emotionally pulling away from the relationship, which is very difficult. But it would be worth examining both how much you were emotionally connecting before this period, and also how you reacted to it. One person can pull away – but also, another person can let them.

Healthy, long-term relationships require work, and conscious, concentrated effort. Partners have to actively connect with each other emotionally, show affection for each other, and communicate with each other – three things that couples in long-term relationships can take for granted. There’s an assumption that the longer you are with someone, the better you will know them and the stronger your understanding of each other will be – but this isn’t actually always the case.

At the start of most healthy relationships, couples are curious about each other; eager to learn about each other’s values and how compatible they are. We invest in learning about our partner’s opinions, values, desires; their vision of a happy, fulfilled life. But all too often, over time, couples stop communicating about these important, fundamental things. We stop asking questions, because we assume we know the answers. But the reality is that many people change and evolve over time. So if those conversations aren’t an ongoing part of your relationship, you may end a relationship knowing far less about your partner’s current mindset than you think.

You say you haven’t changed much over the years – which is fine – but your wife may not have had the same experience. Your values and desires may have begun to diverge a long time ago, but because you weren’t communicating, this was never made clear. If your wife becomes open to talking about her experience, it might help for you to express that you regret the lack of communication and connection that grew between you, and that you are committed to understanding both what her experience was during your marriage, and who she is now. This will hopefully lead to an illuminating conversation about your relationship, and you as individuals – whether with a hope of reconciling, or so that you can start creating a new relationship as friendly co-parents.

But for now, you need to respect her desire for space – so focus on your needs. Use this time apart to examine your experience of your marriage, and how fulfilled and understood you felt – and how you feel now. Being left without an explanation after so long is very hurtful, and you are entitled to feel that pain and confusion; that sense of loss. Lean on your family and friends for support – and use this as an opportunity to strengthen your bonds with them, to ensure that they feel understood and appreciated, and to ask for the same in return. Good luck.

Roe McDermott is a writer and Fulbright scholar with an MA in sexuality studies from San Francisco State University. She is researching a PhD in gendered and sexual citizenship at the Open University and Oxford

If you have a problem or query you would like her to answer, you can submit it anonymously at