Adapted from a recent online discussion.
DEAR CAROLYN: I waited a long time to get married because I couldn’t imagine spending every day with someone. My husband was that person.
Fifteen years later, I don’t know if that is still true. Every three to four months he emotionally/mentally checks out — spending hours each evening by himself, reading or playing video games. When I remind him he has checked out and needs to get back to “us,” he agrees it is the right thing to do, but the cycle continues.
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I’ve tried talking, yelling, threatening (to leave), marriage counseling. This week I’ve had it. I can’t imagine life without him, but can’t take this cycle. He wants another chance. Aauuuugghhhhh. What do I do now?
— Mostly Happily Married
DEAR MOSTLY HAPPY: Have you tried backing off?
Everything you say you’ve tried — from yelling to counseling — sounds oriented toward getting him to stop checking out. I wonder whether you’ve tried to change any part of your behavior.
For example, have you tried giving him more space in the months between his check-outs? Have you tried treating his check-outs as a chance for you to spend some time on yourself or other things you don’t do much as a couple — a chance to recapture a bit of the old you, who couldn’t imagine sharing your day-to-day life? Does he come back from these check-outs recharged? Could you?
Are you measuring him by your standards or his?
I could be wrong, of course, and maybe your first response to his withdrawing was indeed to wait it out, but what I’m reading into this is your husband’s need to retreat into himself occasionally. If that’s true, and if you can find a way to grant him that time in a way that you don’t perceive as a personal insult or threat, then accepting this need of his could be better for your marriage than eliminating these phases of his (which neither of you seems able to do anyway).
Flip side, the more shrill your responses get to these check-outs, the more frequent and enduring they’re likely to be.
RE: CHECKING OUT: I’m very confused about your acceptance of reading as emotionally checking out of a relationship. I see emotionally checking out as no longer loving a spouse.
DEAR ANONYMOUS: It’s about quantity and attitude, not about the thing itself. A person can emotionally check out of a relationship by nurturing the kids, scrapbooking the very relationship that’s being neglected, getting in shape, saving the world, playing the banjo, knitting, or knitting a banjo. If you’re not listening, caring, making eye contact, noticing your partner’s needs or valuing the other person’s place in your life, then you’re emotionally checking out.
If you are doing those things, then you can nurture, scrapbook, work out, save the world, play the banjo or knit one without taking a risk that your partner will feel neglected. Unless your partner is insecure, but that’s a whole other bowl of nuts.
You didn’t flag the video games, I see. Games, social media and work/“work” are the unholy trinity of partner neglect at the moment, but that doesn’t mean they account for all of it, or that all use of these leads to partner neglect.