Dear Steve and Cathy,
For the past five years my husband has mentally abused me into thinking that I can do things his way or no way. I've been married for 22 years and have two kids who are 18 and 21. I have a job, but he says it's not a real job. I asked for a separation, but he said he would kill himself if I left. I'm no longer in love with him, but I do love him. I also feel used, but think about him more than I think about myself. I'm confused and don't know what to do. Please help ... --K.
You're at a classic fork in the midlife marital forest. And as Yogi Berra says, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." In your case, with exiting kids, you're ready to take it -- and lift off from the nest yourself.
The empty nest is a hallmark time of marital reevaluation and change. Couples sense, rightly so for the most part, that they no longer need to stay together for the sake of the children. And for those who've been limping along for a period of time, this is their chance for a fresh start.
How do you know when it's time to throw in the towel as opposed to working on your relationship? That's a question we hear a lot, especially at this juncture. In your case, five years, a considerable length of time, is one hint that you're ready to go. Feeling used and no longer in love are two more reasons. With three strikes against you, don't waste your time trying to repair your marriage. Anything's possible, but the odds are long and the road to recovery is too steep given your level of exhaustion and motivation.
You might consider relationship counseling to help you leave. However, don't tell your husband that you're leaving him yet. He'll bolt as soon as he senses you're out the door. Stay long enough to get him hooked up with the therapist, then let the therapist hold his hand. That's not your job.
You describe a common trait, ignoring or minimizing your own needs in order to take care of another person. We do this out of habit or due to strong messages learned as children. It might work with other people, but you're overdoing it with your husband.
The first step is to take charge of your own life. Become as financially and emotionally independent as possible. Create a good social support system, take care of your body, develop hobbies and craft a one-year action plan. This will give you the strength to end the marriage or the evidence that by changing yourself, the relationship can change.
Pay attention to your own thoughts, needs and feelings. Keep a journal to better know and validate yourself, and attend a support group or class on codependency. If that's too scary, pick up a book to get some pointers on how to distance yourself from an abusive relationship.
You say you're not in love but do love him. I often hear people say the same thing. It usually means that they care and feel comfortable with the familiarity. Also, you might be afraid of an old belief like "I can't make it on my own." So update your personal resume, learn how to be assertive and see if you like the new you.
One final warning: Don't have an affair or meet someone new until you're well out the door. That'll just be salt on the wounds for your husband.
The Bottom Line From Cathy and Steve:
1. Expect that the empty nest is a classic time of marital reevaluation.
2. If you've contemplated ending your relationship for several years and have felt "out of love" for that long, the odds of renewing your marriage are against you, especially after the kids leave home.
3. Become less dependent on your relationship for personal happiness. Develop your financial and emotional independence, create a support system and avoid having an affair. Then decide whether to stay or leave.
Source: Relationships & Love