My Marriage Stinks But We Have Kids. Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

Dear Sober Dad,

We have children in middle school and our marriage is not in very good shape. We don’t fight a ton, but there is not a lot of intimacy. I’m afraid that it is affecting the kids. It’s certainly affecting me.

I’m not sure that my wife has either the interest or the capacity for emotional intimacy. My wife is a stay-at-home mom by choice. I think she’s burned out on me, on parenting, maybe on life in general. I’m sure we’re not the only ones, but it’s deeply frustrating.

I’ve thought a lot about leaving, but I realize I cannot be as good a parent outside the home as if I stay.
So I stay, primarily because of the kids. Thoughts?

– Mike S., Astoria, New York


Dear Mike,

Thoughts? Many.

Sober Dad is not a therapist, but he is a husband and father who has been through many struggles in his own marriage along the lines that you are describing in yours.

I once remember hearing a study described on the radio to the effect that women who work outside the home were happier and more fulfilled than those who stayed home with the children.

It might be better for the kids to have mom at home, but it certainly isn’t easy for mom.

She may well be burned out on some combination of you, parenthood, or life in general.

What Sober Dad knows about intimacy, he learned in meetings and not from his own home, where his parents were locked in a deeply alcoholic cage match of a marriage.

Sober Dad once heard that intimacy means “being yourself with someone else.”

This is hard, especially for spouses of alcoholics. We are brutally critical of ourselves and others. Maybe you wife is simply tired of your impossible expectations – the ones you place on her and the ones you place on yourself.

I’m not saying you do this intentionally, and it’s possible that you don’t do it at all. But Sober Dad thinks you probably do. It’s just so alcoholic to expect too much.

So here’s a new way to think about your marriage.

Recently, Sober Dad journeyed to Minneapolis, to visit Hazelden.

On his return flight, he was seated in the next-to-last row with a blessedly empty middle seat separating him from a businesswoman returning from her travails.

Toward the end of the flight, Sober Dad and she struck up a sort of brief, cordial, non-intimate conversation typical of strangers on flights – where are you going, what do you do, that sort of thing.

The conversation lasted about five minutes and that was that.

Sober Dad, not being involved with this particular woman, did not place any expectations on her in terms of behavior, attitude, or anything else.

She was an all but perfect stranger, and a stranger she remained.

What if you were to imagine that your wife were a passenger on a flight from whom you were separated by an empty middle seat, as was Sober Dad from this particular traveler?

What sort of expectations would you put on your wife if she were that person? What sort of demands?

Would you get angry if she did not do things your way?

But would your anger and expectations be inappropriate, given the limited nature of the relationship?

It’s said that alcoholics and addicts don’t find partners; we take hostages.

Maybe your wife is tired of being a hostage.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t share your fondest hopes and dreams with your wife-cum-stranger on a plane in our little metaphor.

I am suggesting that if you treat her with the same courtesy, kindness, lack of expectations, and total unwillingness to blow up over the slightest thing, as you would treat a stranger on a plane, things will be much better for you.

Those things include how conversations go, and also the frequency, intensity, and duration of sex.

Instead of treating your wife as a “wife,” which often doesn’t end well for folks like us, treat her like a stranger on a plane.

Maybe help her get her bag down from the overhead bin.

Let Sober Dad know how it goes.