My husband and I have been married for nearly 30 years and have three grownup children. About seven years ago, my husband began going to the pub with colleagues after work and not coming home until late. At first I challenged him, but he would say he was under a lot of pressure at work. I was left to run the home and family on my own. After a while, I gave up trying and the kids got used to not seeing him during the week.
Now we are on our own, except when our youngest comes home for the holidays, and some weeks we can go a whole week without speaking because we don’t see each other. I go to bed before my husband gets back and leave for work before he gets up.
At weekends, he stays in and drinks. He generally doesn’t get drunk, although sometimes during the week he can be very drunk.
He isn’t at all unpleasant, but he is detached and only marginally interested in what has been going on at home. He’ll mostly spend the weekend lying on the sofa watching television, oblivious to all around him.
He seems on the surface to be a functioning alcoholic, but last year he abstained for two months and didn’t seem to have any withdrawal symptoms.
I am at my wits’ end. He seems depressed at home but is obviously the life and soul of the party at the pub, from some of the things he’s told me. I feel extremely foolish at having let the situation go on so long, but I wanted to maintain some stability for the children and this is still the case. It seems to me that he “checked out” of our life once our youngest son was at senior school. I also feel that he is punishing me for not being the wife he would have liked (I’ve put on weight, become too “mumsy”, etc) although he denies this.
I don’t want to break up the family and force a sale of our home as this would be very difficult for us financially, and the children would lose the house they grew up in. I am stuck and the thought of going into old age with my husband is daunting.
You are living such a half-life. When children come along, things do shift in relationships and some couples cope with it better than others.
You both seem to have disconnected from each other some time ago and sought solace in different things – you in the family and home, your husband with work and socialising/drinking. I wonder how things were with you before the disconnection? I wonder if, actually, you were already looking for places to go and hide from the relationship, either real or metaphorical.
I consulted Gill Wyse, a family and couples psychotherapist (aft.org.uk). Wyse feels that your husband is “expressing his emotional need for closeness and support, but this is framed in a blaming way. His way of helping himself to feel better, filling the emptiness he may feel, seems to have been to find companionship with his colleagues. His drinking may also serve a function of blotting out his disappointments about the way the marriage has evolved as well as managing stresses from work. His disengagement at home may be his way of protecting himself from further hurt. He may find the home environment a place where his sense of aloneness is most acute. Couples in this state can experience each other as threatening and find safety by withdrawing from each other.”
In the same way, I think you are hiding in your reasons not to “rock the boat” – by saying you can’t sell the family home, for entirely understandable reasons – but this is becoming your prison and this situation is not going to get better on its own.
Your husband could still be an alcoholic: a lack of withdrawal symptoms isn’t a sign he isn’t; it’s the dependency on alcohol that matters. He could also be depressed.
You say your husband isn’t in “the slightest bit unpleasant” yet he is almost completely absent, even when he is there and has in the past said things about your weight and how you look.
There is nothing worse than doing nothing in a bad situation and even the smallest amount of action will make you feel better. Go to your GP (it would be great if your husband would go, but you can’t make him) to discuss what is available in your area to support you as the wife of a potential alcoholic and also to find out what counselling there is available for you. There may be a waiting list but it may take you a while, anyway, to feel “ready” for it.
Wyse suggests you make a time to talk to your husband, not about all the things he’s doing that annoy you, but about how you are feeling. “Could you talk to him about your feelings, your fears, your unhappiness, your loneliness without alluding to or criticising his actions?”
This may open up a conversation that I think you’ve avoided out of fear but it’s one you really need to have.
He may surprise you, or he may not. If he doesn’t then only you can decide what to do next, but remember that the pain of survival is greater than the pain of growth.
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 18 June 2016.