Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: My lovely wife and I have been through a lot. But there's no spark at all
Monday 01 February 2010
I've been married for 20 years, and have two wonderful daughters of 12 and 15. My lovely wife and I have been through a lot – redundancy, depression, illness. But there's no spark at all. Sex has been once a year for the last two years, and if I suggest going on a date, my wife says she doesn't want to go anywhere. When I protest, my wife says she'll die soon and I'll be free, or I'll find someone else – but I don't want anyone else, and find the idea of divorce too painful. Can you suggest anything?
Yours sincerely, Peter
Poor old you. But also, your poor old wife. I can't help feeling sorrier for her than for you – and I think that if you felt the same way you might find that everything else would fall into place.
What is all this talk of "I'll die soon" and "You'll find someone else"? These are not the statements of someone who is chirpy and full of beans, someone who gets up in the morning looking forward to each new day. These are the words of someone who is pretty depressed. Someone who needs help. You don't say in your letter who it was who was depressed, when you say what you've been through together. But I suspect it wasn't you, or you'd be more sympathetic to your wife's low mood. A lack of interest in sex is one of the commonest symptoms of a depressed person, and I do think you need to ask your wife if perhaps she oughtn't to go back to the doctor again to deal with her gloom. It can't be nice for any of you, having a person in the family who is so unhappy, least of all your wife, and she needs to talk to someone who can understand how she's feeling and, perhaps, prescribe something that might get her back on the road to recovery.
After all, most women, however uninterested they are in sex, can usually manage to drum up the faintest of interest and go along with sex once a week or once a month, just out of friendliness and good manners. Indeed, there are many husbands in the same situation, though for them to perform is rather more difficult. Loving couples want to please each other now and again, even if they're not exactly in the mood themselves.
But your wife is too low even to do this. She clearly just feels utterly dead, undermined, useless and like someone who'd be better off out of the way. So not only must you get her to a doctor, and bolster her with compliments and kindness, but try to lean on her a bit, even if you don't have to. Discuss some problem you're having and, when she offers an opinion, exclaim that it's made all the difference to you. Make her feel needed, and wanted. Ask the odd favour of her, and when she complies, explain how without that help you don't know what you would have done, how you couldn't do without her and so on.
Take your daughters into your confidence and tell them that your mother needs to feel wanted and loved more than anything at this time. It'll be hard for them, because they're at the age when they're dying to show everyone how capable they are without needing anyone's help (all of which must make your wife feel even more redundant). But the odd remark or expression of how lucky they are to have her as a mum would be an incredible boost to her feelings of low self-worth.
Forget your own needs
If your wife says she'll die soon, she's either very ill or (more likely, I guess) very depressed. Either way, she needs some form of medical help, and with two teenagers to bring up I'm afraid your desire for some spark is going to have to take a back seat. Marriage, after all, is to be lived through "in sickness and in health", so you are going to have to focus on your wife's needs rather than your own and get appropriate professional advice. You'll have to be patient and not be demanding about sex or a date – and, much more important, you'll need to reassure your wife how much you love her and put any idea of divorce out of her head and yours. Of course you'll need to get out for evenings out, but it'll have to be with other friends. Finally, take the long view. The last two of your 20 years have been rough – but they may be just an interlude in a long and happy marriage.
Get her some help
Your wife is still suffering the effects of all the trauma your family has been through – she sounds very depressed.
This is why she is rejecting you physically and why she has no interest in anything. Please consider going to your GP (you could go together) and getting the help you need. I'm sure she doesn't want a divorce any more than you do, she's just too miserable to think straight at the moment.
Eastbourne, East Sussex
Show some warmth
What a cold man you do seem to be. The lack of sex is not the important thing here. That is just a symptom. And why does your wife think she is going to die soon? Have you asked her? She may be so depressed by your very coldness that she only stays with you for the sake of your daughters. You describe them as "wonderful", so maybe you are not so cold with them.
Here is what you should do. Be a little warmer with your wife, a little more loving and less demanding. Suggest she see a counsellor for her depression. And stop thinking about sex all the time.
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Build her self-esteem
You obviously find communication difficult. When did you last praise your wife on her appearance or cooking? If you feel awkward making compliments, watch How To Look Good Naked on the television with your wife and see how Gok Wan achieves this. It really is more about self-esteem and self-image than nudity. Talk about her views of what she sees and get her to open up to you about her feelings.
You feel physically remote from your wife. Try to get in touch with her by gentle grooming, combing her hair, or massaging baby lotion into her back and shoulders. At this stage a positive reaction from her should be all the reward you need.
With children the age of yours, unless she has a diagnosed terminal illness, she cannot possibly know she will die soon. Rather, she is so unhappy that she no longer sees the point of living and wishes it was all over.
This is a tragic situation for her, for you and for your young children. If she does not want help for her own sake, or yours, perhaps the thought of her children will make her consider it, or does she have family or friends whose opinion she would trust? There is a lot of life still to be lived; much better for it to be lived happily.
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