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My husband has found a new life direction – and I feel left behind

Ask Roe: I feel isolated in our relationship and I want to be able to communicate my feelings with my husband without fear of an argument. How to proceed?

Dear Roe,

My husband and I have been happily married for 15 years. In recent years, we have had a lot of personal challenges which have really tested our relationship and as a result we have both suffered mental health challenges. Through all of this we have both remained committed and supportive of each other. Lately my husband has found a new direction in life which has given him a new focus. I am broadly supportive but if I am being honest, I feel excluded from his new direction and am worried he has lost interest in the things we used to enjoy together.

I have tried to discuss this with him but he is dismissive of my feelings, and that hurts. I don’t want him to think I am not supportive, so now I don’t bring it up any more. I know this is not healthy for our relationship, but I don’t want to make things worse by stressing the point. Sometimes I feel I may be just jealous, but at the end of the day I feel isolated in our relationship and I want to be able to communicate my feelings with him without fear of an argument. How can I approach the discussion?

Relationships expert Esther Perel has a quote that I love: “Most people are going to have two or three marriages or committed relationships in their adult life. Some of us will have them with the same person.” It sounds like you and your husband may have already had several different relationships with each other, having supported each other through difficult times, and now you’re experiencing another shift in your relationship, with your husband’s new life direction altering the usual ways you were connecting and feeling close to one another. This presents you and your partner with a challenge, of forging a new relationship together – and this can be difficult, but incredibly rewarding.

What is vital to the success of this shift is that both of you are as committed to communicating with each other and making each other feel heard and understood as you are to exploring whatever new paths life may be taking you down. It sounds like you aren’t feeling connected or heard in your relationship, which is difficult. But before we get into some ways that you can express your feelings, I think exploring those feelings in depth might be helpful for you.

I want to flag immediately that if your husband’s new life direction is him addressing objectively negative aspects of his life such as any form of addiction, that will inherently come with big lifestyle changes including shifts away from regular routines, haunts and social circles which can of course feel destabilising – but can be necessary for recovery and indeed survival. If this is the case, I understand this could have knock-on effects on you which are difficult to navigate, but when it comes to health, recovery and survival, your husband needs to put his own oxygen mask on first.

While you deserve to seek out support to help you cope with those changes, your husband may not be in a position to give you that support. Groups like Al-Anon, Nar-Anon* or therapists who specialise in addiction and family dynamics could be hugely beneficial in helping you navigate this time of change and could put you in contact with people experiencing the same thing.

Susan Silk is a psychologist who developed the ring theory of support, imagining a person in crisis in the centre of a circle, surrounded by concentric rings. In the first ring, closest to the central person in crisis, is the person’s partner, in the next circle is their parents, the next circle is their close friends, then followed by their acquaintances, and so on. (The order of these categories may differ among individuals.) In Silk’s framework of support, she encourages people to “comfort in, dump out”, which means that the person in crisis can talk about their stress (‘dump’) to anyone, but those in other rings can only dump to those in larger rings than their own. When talking to anyone in a smaller ring than your own, within this concept, you can only offer support, as venting your stress or frustration can add to their stress.

This can be a helpful framework for thinking about how to support not only the person in crisis, but the people around them, who can of course be affected by their situation. Everyone deserves care and support, but who we ask for support matters. If your husband is trying to combat an addiction or similarly recentre himself after a major crisis, it may be a helpful framework to consider in terms of who to complain to or seek support from.

Tell your husband you’re excited for him discovering new facets of himself, and that because there’s been a shift in both your lives, you’d like to brainstorm ways of staying connected – together

If your husband’s transformation is more lifestyle- or work-focused and he’s not currently or recently in crisis, there are a few things to consider about your emotional reaction. If he’s on some form of “self-improvement” kick (in his individual definition of the term), I wonder whether part of you is also being made to feel insecure or worried that he will judge you for not meeting his new standards. I ask this because I wonder if it’s the distance created by his new focus, or the fear that you’ll be judged that is fuelling some of your desire for things to stay the same? If he was doing exactly what he was doing now but consistently expressing his admiration, love and respect for you, would you feel more comfortable? Is it the shift in lifestyle that is bothering you, or the fear that his lifestyle includes leaving you behind?

That feels like an important distinction, because if you feel secure in his affection for you, his changed routine might be easier to accept. I also wonder whether you could take some inspiration from him and use this time to try something new or invest in yourself? That might make you feel a bit more secure in yourself, but also, interestingly, give you something to bond over as you each explore new pursuits and connect over this period of learning. Novelty and learning new things are great ways to forge connection in relationships.

If it’s simply that he is no longer engaging in activities you used to enjoy together and that made you feel connected, it makes sense that you miss them and need to find other ways to connect. But there may need to be some compromise from both of you here; you may need to grow accustomed to some life shifts. He needs to offer you support, and you both need to be equally invested in finding ways to stay connected.

You could start conversations by framing them as a team effort. Tell him you’re excited for him discovering new facets of himself, and that because there’s been a shift in both your lives, you’d like to brainstorm ways of staying connected – together. Tell him that you want to support him, and that’s much easier and more sustainable when you’re feeling connected to him, loved and supported yourself – then ask him how he thinks you can work on feeling connected during this time of transition. Admit that you’re feeling a little thrown by the recent shifts and that just as he needs support in his new focus, you need emotional support as you both adjust.

If he doesn’t respond or argues with you, the issue may not be his new life focus, but his lack of commitment to connecting with you. In this case, a couples counsellor may be helpful in navigating this period of change. Good luck.

*This article was amended on Monday, June 10th, 2024. A previous version incorrectly referred to Narc-Anon.

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