Because I’ve written about my marriage—and particularly a memoir about my past problems and how I’ve solved them—many, many different people tell me about their own marriage issues. Often friends tell me about arguments or rough patches. And, frequently, strangers that I meet in hotels, on busses and, once, in an airport, unload and then ask me for guidance. It has become so commonplace that I now welcome emails from people I don’t know, and I publish my answers to them so others can either learn from them (assuming they are helpful) or, at the very least, feel normal. Take this email:
“Is it wrong of me to be upset that my wife wants to go out, closes down bars and comes home at 3 a.m.? I worry about her, but she tells me she will be okay and will make good decisions. When I ask her to check in with me from time to time, she says that I am too controlling and that, if I don’t stop, she’ll get a divorce. I have to be okay with what she does and keep my mouth shut or she’ll leave me. I love her too much to push her away like that. The whole situation simply crushes my spirit. I feel like exploding and imploding all at the same time. She thinks counselors are a joke, but tells me that I need to go get my stuff worked on because I’m the one with problems. I understand that nothing I say or do will change her actions or attitude, but I do feel that I should be able to voice my concerns and at least have them heard. What should I do?” — Crushed
This is what I wrote back.
At first I wanted to get really mad at your wife. I mean, seriously. Who does she think she’s fooling, right?
But then I began thinking over my life, and, in particular, about a period of time during my 30s when I used to go out once a week, alone, to a bar.
I did not take my husband with me. Nor did I meet a single girlfriend. Every bar night was different from the last. There was something about the idea of that — of not knowing what to expect when I walked in — that I found positively thrilling.
Now, granted, I only ever had two drinks and I was always home by 11 pm.
This confession sure doesn’t make my marriage sound like a free vacation to Italy’s Lake Como, does it?
Unlike you, my husband never complained. I even asked him a few times if it bothered him. He swore it did not. Looking back on it, I’m pretty sure he was lying. Plenty of male acquaintances asked me, “Your husband lets you do that?”
At the time, I thought such comments were sexist. After all, my husband often went to bars without me. No one ever asked him, “Your wife lets you do that?”
Though I wouldn’t admit it to anyone or even to myself, I knew there was a difference between him going to a bar without me and me going to a bar without him. My husband, you see, is a beer connoisseur. He genuinely goes to bars just for the beer. He often stands there and sips it, saying very little. My husband does not dance. Nor does he get drunk. And flirting just isn’t wired into his DNA.
Me? I went to bars because I couldn’t bear the thought of being home. Parenting our toddler left me feeling bored, restless, and starved for grownup attention. And, if I am forced to be completely truthful, I didn’t particularly enjoy hanging out with my husband, either. Things between us back then weren’t terrible, but they obviously weren’t as fantastic as they are now, either. When we ate a meal together, we both studied our smartphones like Jane Goodall studies chimps.
I could also feel my youth slipping away. I wanted to be noticed, appreciated, and fawned over, and these desires weren’t being met at home. So I went to bars, and I struck up conversations with men I didn’t know. I let them buy me drinks. I laughed at their jokes. They laughed at mine. Around 10 pm or perhaps 11 pm, I’d have my fix, and I would go home, feeling satisfied.
I never once felt tempted to go home with any of the men I met, never once gave one of them a phone number, and often was evasive about my personal details, including my name.
Still, I look back on those years and one word comes to mind. It’s this: dangerous.
I’m glad they are over. Yes, my Crushed friend, at some point between my late 30s and my early 40s, my urge to be seen and noticed evaporated. Maybe it’s because I no longer feel remotely young. Or maybe my husband now satisfies that need.
What I can say for sure is this: had my husband taken issue with what I was doing back then, I would have listened. Even if I’d thought he’d been trying to enforce a double standard, I would not have threatened divorce. While I enjoyed those jaunts out to bars, I never valued them more than I valued my husband. Yes, I would have been disappointed to put an end to them, but I would have been even more disappointed to put an end to my marriage.
And that seems to be what separates me from your wife.
Confused: lots of people go through mid life crisis years. During these years they get needy and they do irrational things. Often they look back on those years with a mixture of amazement (Who was that person?) and regret (I wish I wasn’t that person!) The fact that your wife goes to bars until closing isn’t what’s distressing.
No, what’s distressing is this: her refusal to talk about it without pulling out the “let’s get divorced” card. In talking with countless couples over the years, I can tell you something with great conviction. The difference between happy couples and unhappy ones often comes down to transparency. Happy couples have nothing to hide. Neither partner erases their web history or password locks their phones. As one husband told me, “My wife is welcome to read all of my emails, but I don’t know why she would ever want to. I don’t even want to read them. They are that boring.”
For unhappy couples, though, it’s the reverse. Every question is met with a “why do you have to be so controlling?” counter question.
Crushed, no, it’s not wrong for you to be upset. Your wife has something to hide, and it’s time for you to call her bluff. Ask her, “What do you get out of going to bars alone? What is it that you enjoy?” Maybe, like me, she’s missing something at home and if you only knew what that something was, you’d be able to provide it.
But, I have to say, it’s also possible that your wife is having an affair. Next time she wants to go out, say, “Honey, you know what? Let’s go out together. I’d love to spend some time with you.” How she responds will give you your answer.