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ASK AMY: Marriage to an ‘empty shell’ must change


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Dear Amy: I’ve been married to my husband for 40 years.

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I have always felt like something was missing.

Every time I try to reach out and connect emotionally, he becomes angry and withdraws.

Frustrated with his distance and indifference, I recently said that I needed to know if he loved me enough to work with me on improving our relationship.

He stated that he doesn’t know if he loves me because he doesn’t know how to feel love, because of the way he grew up.

He did grow up without a father. His mother had five kids and no education.

Her menial jobs kept her away from home and the kids had to fend for themselves. She was briefly married to an abusive man, but I don’t know the extent of the abuse.

Knowing this explains why he has been distant and indifferent to me and our children all of these years.

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My sons and I had nothing to do with the way he grew up, yet we are the ones who are being punished, with a father and husband who cannot feel or express love and connection.

I know that childhood trauma and neglect can greatly affect a person in adulthood, but isn’t it possible to work through this to be a better partner and parent, if you want to be?

We went to joint counselling once several years ago, and that did not go well, so he is not willing to try again.

I have been in counselling by myself, but I never seem to get much out of it.

I feel like my only choice at this point is to walk away from a 40-year marriage, and that makes me sad.

What do other women do when married to an empty shell of a man who is unwilling to be a better partner?

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– Lonely Wife

Dear Lonely Wife: You know from your own experience that good parents create a sense of security, safety and well-being – so that their children can grow to be resilient, brave, and secure – even with their most challenging emotions. And love is the most challenging emotion of all.

Children who grew up with neglect and trauma protect themselves by forming a hard shell around their feelings. It’s all about survival.

I wonder if you and your husband are aware of any ways he does try to show love. Maybe it is through work, supporting the family, or pride in you.

You have spent 40 years trying to show your husband that it is safe to feel deep emotions that would render him vulnerable. He isn’t able to get there, and is too afraid to try.

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Some spouses in your situation cope by retreating into their own shell, co-existing in an angry standoff. You’re not willing to do that, and I think it is quite brave of you to lean into your own needs, diving into a different future.

I suggest that you explore a trial separation, and that you give therapy another try.

Dear Amy: I have enjoyed reading your column for years, and have mostly agreed with the advice you have given people.

I am wondering if you can help me out with an etiquette question.

When attending a wake, the family of the deceased usually says, “thank you for coming” to the service as you go through the receiving line.

I am trying to come up with an appropriate response in return. “You’re welcome” or “My pleasure” really don’t seem to be heartfelt.

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They seem like a standard response for other situations that are less somber. Any suggestions?

– Trying to Say the Right Thing

Dear Trying: First of all, showing up for people in this way is the most important thing of all. Words often fail in situations like this, but you could make eye contact and say, “I’m very sorry for your loss,” “I was so fond of Uncle James,” or even, “I don’t really know what to say, but I’m glad I came.”

Dear Amy: You mistakenly wrote that if an officiant at a wedding is clergy, he would not be interested in attending a bachelor party.

Most of the clergy (me, too) in my church (Episcopal) would be fine going to such an event. I don’t like being thought of as being against fun.

It is written that Jesus “ate and drank with sinners.” If he can have a good time with food, drink, and fellows, why shouldn’t I?

– Fr. Steve Norcross, Portland, Oregon

Dear Fr. Steve: Nobody parties quite like the Episcopalians. Rock on!

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