Question: I have been in a relationship with my wife since we were both in our mid-teens, almost 30 years ago. Our lives have been very busy. All of our four children are now independent, with only one living at home. Since we met, our entire focus has been on other things – our education, getting married, buying a house and then on our children, and we have spent very little time on our own.
I cannot think of one time in the past 25 years when the two of us have gone for a drink or dinner together, let alone a holiday. We both have very demanding careers, but under Covid-19 restrictions we were deemed non-essential workers, meaning we both had to work from home.
It sounded promising at first, but over the course of several months – having breakfast, dinner, tea and several chats in between with my wife – I realised that I found her cynicism to be quite obnoxious and I did not enjoy spending time with her. In fact, I began to dislike being around her.
I thought a lot about our conversations and realised that it wasn't she who had changed, it was me. She had expressed similar opinions when we first met and again over the years. I just had never really paid much attention to her outlook on life. My beliefs and perspectives have altered over the years and it would seem that we have not aged in unison.
When we first decided to get married, my parents objected as they thought we were too young, and perhaps they were right. Of course, I still love her, but apart from our children we have very little in common.
In the coming years we are going to be spending a lot more time together, and from this recent experience, while I think this will be difficult, I do not want to separate.
Answer: You are giving very contradictory statements: that you love your wife, do not want to separate but at the same time you do not like her very much. It does seem strange that in the 30 years you spent together you did not go out for couple dinners or take breaks away, and I wonder if this was a subconscious method of not creating a crisis.
Most couples have a huge influence on each other, but for you this influence seems to have been minimal: her lack of change did not impinge on you, and your change in beliefs and perspective had no impact on her. So it seems that you have a type of acquaintance where you do not know each other very much. You agree on the importance of education and career, and possibly family, as there is evidence that these things have been given strong attention from both of you. The difficulty now is that you sound sad and a bit shocked to realise how little you share.
In terms of coupledom, there is some truth to the saying that “opposites attract”, but while this often leads to curiosity, interest and a mysterious spark, it can also seem like hard work. You do not automatically get where the other person comes from, and it can be a struggle to set aside your own opinions so that you can really listen to the other person. But this is what you have to do if you plan to continue in this relationship and have some chance of companionship. You will need to talk to your partner. Perhaps go out for regular walks together and ask her how she sees the relationship and what she thinks the issues are.
In your letter, it seems that you assume she will not be able to change or grow, but that might be very unfair to her. The danger is that she will hear the disapproval and disappointment in your voice, and this might create a resentment or shutdown in her. Accept her fully as she is – this will release your disapproval – and find out about what is going on for her, and then inquire further. When she feels heard, she will be open to hearing where you are at, and then you have a real conversation going.
Of course, your years of circling each other have provided a level of stability, and questioning this may introduce huge uncertainty about the future of the relationship, but you have now woken up to dissatisfaction and this must be dealt with. If your patterns of not engaging seem too entrenched to dismantle, you can work with a couples therapist to assist with the conversations; pick one who is registered with a professional body (the Irish Council for Psychotherapy, the Psychological Society of Ireland or the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy).
Because Covid has reduced our social and emotional connections, it is important that you speak to a friend about what is going on. The intensity of never getting away from your partner needs to be balanced with the release valve of another support. Your partner should also seek this backing and both of you agree to these confidences.
In this way, you can begin to tackle a relationship that is more central to your life that you had previously known.