Barriers and Emotional Distance — Should We Try to Save the Marriage?

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Reader’s Question

I got married following a whirlwind long-distance romance. It was working perfectly and we were over the moon. So we got married and soon after, I started to erect a barrier between me and my hubby. I later saw that this was because my dad had been emotionally abusive most of my life and it had impacted me. We have now been married virtually 20 years and I still have the barrier up and know I’m not in love with my husband. How can I change things for the better?

Hubby also has a barrier up between himself and the kids and is in denial about his responsibility as a father. In fact, I would say he is emotionally absent and won’t admit the damage it is doing to our kids. How can I fix all this? Or is it even worth saving when I am not in love with him anymore?

Psychologist’s Reply

There is a reason why Hollywood end its romantic movies after the whirlwind romance is over: real life is tough. Relationships take a lot of hard work and the daily grind of figuring out is not the stuff of movies. As you discovered, previous relational patterns rear their heads and it makes what is already difficult even harder.

I congratulate you on figuring out why you erected this barrier between you and your husband. That is definitely the first step towards changing things. However, you may not have gone the next step which is discovering how he responded to your barrier. Did he withdraw from you and erect one of his own? Did he decide that he doesn’t know how to be in close relationships and stop trying? Given how perfectly the two of you worked at first, it seems like there is hope that the relationship can be saved.

One of the best and worst things about couple-hood is that each person has a role to play. No one lives in a vacuum, so we all respond to those around us. The good part about this is that you have control over your part of the equation and, thus, can change some things about it. The bad part is that there are parts you have no control over and you have to either accept them or leave. People change only if they are willing and not just because you want them to. It has to be their choice.

So, the big question here is whether you want to change your part of the relationship. You say that you are no longer in love with your husband but I wonder if you know why that is the case. Since the barrier is still up, it seems like you may not be giving him and the relationship a chance. If so, the next step would be taking down your barrier to see what the relationship would be like without it. It’s possible that your husband would respond positively to your vulnerability and the two of you could get closer.

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A good couple’s counselor would be invaluable with this process. If the two of you can fix your relationship, it’s possible that the learning process would extend to your husband’s relationship to the kids as well. If not, at least you’d have a safe place in which to gently confront him about the damage you see in the kids. Perhaps you could use your experience with your father to emphasize why it is so important to you that he have a good relationship with them. However, once you tell him your concerns, it is up to him to change.

If you take down your walls and learn some healthy relationships skills only to find that you still are not in love with your husband, then you have some decisions to make. Some people are fine with living in a friendly relationship with their partner. The fire and passion may no longer be there but the trust and companionship more than make up for it. Others want the whole package and will not be satisfied with less. If you find yourself in the position of being unsatisfied, you will have to weigh the pros and cons of sticking around and then decide what will be best for you and your family.

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