“My husband is over at his ex-wife’s house at least two or three times a week. She calls whenever she has a problem, and he goes over to fix it. He says she’s helpless, and he feels guilty for leaving her. I say she’s manipulative, and she’s ruining our marriage. What should I do?”
My advice would be to talk to your husband about the situation as soon as possible. If you don’t communicate your feelings and needs, he may take your silence as tacit approval of his actions.
How you approach him is very important. You need to be thoughtful: choose a good time for both of you when you’re both free, calm and alert, and when there will be no interruptions; and then express your feelings and concerns, telling him what you need from him.
For example: “Honey, I’m really upset about how often you see Teresa and how much you do for her. I love you and love spending time with you, and I feel your relationship with her takes away from our time together. Her needs and demands are coming between us, and I’m afraid that if your sense of responsibility to her continues, my frustration will become intolerable. I need you to set some boundaries with Teresa so that we can move ahead with our lives. Perhaps we can come up with a plan that will gradually decrease the time you spend doing things for her — and increase our time together.”
This is just an example, which you should tailor to who you are and what would feel appropriate coming from you. However, please note that you should not attack him or start hurling accusations. Try to adopt a more collaborative approach (see the example, above). If you adopt this technique, you probably won’t trigger his defensiveness — which greatly increases his chances of actually hearing what you’re saying.
When all is said and done, he may listen to you and still choose to do nothing to change the situation. If so, you’ll probably feel betrayed, threatened, and very angry with him. If he refuses to discuss or implement changes, I’d strongly suggest couple therapy to see if you can resolve this impasse. You should know that all marriages experience conflict; however, sometimes couples reach a gridlock and need assistance in order to reach a resolution.
It also sounds as if your husband may not have finished his grieving process at the end of his previous marriage; perhaps he could benefit from some individual therapy to help him work through his guilt and/or sadness about “abandoning” his ex-wife. If he wants to reduce the friction at home — and have a chance to create a long and rewarding second marriage — he needs to realize that his first loyalty is to you.
On average, a couple waits about six years before seeking outside help after trouble surfaces in their relationship. The longer you wait, the more damage is done to your relationship. So I’d certainly encourage you to speak with him sooner rather than later. Remember: expressing your feelings in a sensitive and honest manner can only strengthen your bond and create intimacy.
Andrea Brandt, Ph.D., is a licensed Marriage, Family and Child Therapist specializing in couple counseling, divorce, custody issues, and women’s concerns. She is a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.