Dear Thelma: Stuck in a loveless marriage, but guilty thinking of divorce


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Dear Thelma,

I am a 55-year-old woman at a crossroads in life.

From the beginning, our marriage was far from smooth-sailing. However, I chose to stay in the marriage for the sake of our children, enduring the rocky road in silence because he was the primary breadwinner and I believed it was the best thing for our family.

Now, our children have grown up and started their own lives, and the excuse of staying together for their sake no longer holds water. Financially, I am in a stable position, having started working after the children entered high school. However, emotionally, I feel drained and suffocated in my marriage.

My husband, now retired, continues to be overbearing and controlling, showing little regard for my emotional needs while expecting me to fulfill his physical desires. Every time I attempt to communicate my feelings to him, he listens momentarily and then promptly forgets about it, leaving me feeling dismissed and invalidated.

I am tired. Tired of feeling unfulfilled, lonely, taken for granted, and trapped in a marriage that offers me little joy or companionship. I have come to realise that my husband is unlikely to change his ways, and the thought of spending the rest of my life in this state of emotional emptiness fills me with dread.

Yet, despite my unhappiness, I cannot shake the guilt that gnaws at me when I consider the possibility of divorce. Is my situation so bad that divorce is the only answer, I ask myself. We made vows to each other when we got married, and the idea of breaking those promises weighs heavily on my conscience. Maybe there's a way to make things work, but we're both too tired to try.

I feel torn between my desire for happiness and fulfillment and my sense of duty and obligation. How does one reconcile such conflicting emotions? How does one find the courage to break free from the chains of a loveless marriage without succumbing to guilt and remorse?

In a difficult position

Thank you for your letter. Other people are in your situation, so this should open useful discussion for them too.

You don’t feel connected to your husband. You’ve tried to talk to him, and he dismisses your feelings. In addition, he thinks it’s OK to demand sex from a person who has told him repeatedly she is emotionally disconnected from him. You also describe him as overbearing and controlling.

At the thought of more decades of this, you use the word "dread" and that is not surprising. To be with a man who is interested only in his own needs is thoroughly unpleasant.

I’m not sure why you would feel guilt. Vows are about being good to each other, even when life is difficult. It’s not just you who has made the vows; your husband has too.

There are typically over 45,000 divorces every year in Malaysia, proving that many people have marriages that don’t work out because they are mismatched. While that’s sad, blame is a waste of time.

Read: Marriage a lesser-known victim of the Covid-19 pandemic

The adult approach is to acknowledge there are issues, to try and fix them, and if that doesn’t work, we act nicely while splitting up and hope that the next partner is a better fit.

You are unhappy, you have expressed it repeatedly and tried to fix it. But your partner is not putting in the effort.

Common sense suggests that you’ve done what you can. You should not have to suffer because he won’t make changes.

As you’ve had years to think this through, and you’ve not come to this conclusion, consider where the guilt comes from.

We sometimes aren’t very clear on difficult emotions, especially those that worry us. So the first question is, are you certain it is guilt you feel, and not other emotions such as sadness and frustration?

Another possibility is that you may have been trained to feel guilty. Many of us were taught that if a relationship isn’t working out, there’s something wrong with us. Clearly, that is not right. There are many lovely people who are not good matches. However, emotions can be illogical.

Given that understanding where your emotions come from is a first step to managing them properly, I would book a few sessions with a therapist to talk over your emotions.

In addition, talk about what a separation would look like.

Please be aware that this is not a black and white situation; it’s not marriage or divorce. There is also legal separation, living together part-time, and living apart together where you live in separate homes but have a partly shared life.

As you have been unhappy for so long, you may want to start with a temporary separation. If you live apart for three months, and then have a joint session with a couples counsellor in the fourth and fifth month, you may find an opportunity for change – or not. Either way, it will give you a better idea of your options.

In addition, take advice from a lawyer, so you know your rights in terms of divorce or separation in terms of your property, pensions and so on. You may not need it, but it’s best to know exactly where you stand.

You’ve been unhappy for years and there is no sense in staying in a relationship that makes you miserable. So, book those appointments and move towards effective change. You deserve happiness. Know I’ll be thinking of you.

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