'This Pandemic Is Crushing My Spirit'

How can I make it through this with a husband who's ignoring me?

The Raft of the Medusa (1818) by Théodore Géricault

Hi Polly.

Your column always gives me navigational skills for whatever direction my life is heading. However, we're in uncharted territory right now. I would love for you to post more relationship advice for people who are now depending on their significant other as their main social source. I know, I know: Zoom, Facetime, etc. I've been doing those things, but it’s not the same, at all. Maybe I'll get used to it and it'll feel the same eventually, but how to cope in the meantime?! 

My extremely extroverted husband is coping with this crisis by shutting me out, so… it feels like the only person I'm allowed to be within 6 feet of is not interested in my company. That's how he deals with stress, apparently. Things have been rough for the past year, since his mom died and he started focusing on a new, difficult project at work, but one rough year out of eight isn't that bad! My worry is that this quarantine will magnify all of our problems and kill whatever progress we've made so far in therapy.

Ugh. I just don’t know how to get through this.

Alone

Dear Alone,

A lot of people who are living alone right now will read your letter and say to themselves, “Hell, I’d love to have a busy and productive husband who’s shutting me out! That sounds like paradise!” Part of what makes this such uncharted territory is that we all have specific circumstances during this pandemic that make our lives uniquely difficult. It’s hard to feel compassion for other people’s troubles when you’re preoccupied by your own.

That said, I know how hard this must be for you. Feeling lonely in the company of another person is incredibly rough. I would rather be alone, personally. In my early 30s, I spent two years living with someone I couldn’t reach, and it took a daily toll on me. I tried everything I could to reach him and nothing worked. We were in couples’ therapy and it only seemed to make things worse (red flag). By the end of our relationship, I was sending him postcards telling him how great he was and how much I valued him and believed in us.

Looking back, I was trying way too hard to fix everything. I was trying to gain control of something that was irreparably broken. I had assigned myself the role of cheerleader for the relationship. When you say “One year out of eight isn’t bad!” that makes me worry that you’re doing the same thing. When you play the role of fixer, it’s easy for the other person to do nothing at all. It might be time to step back a little.

Now let’s talk about the practical limits of where you are. I’m assuming, based on your letter, that you and your husband do love each other. You’ve been in therapy and you’ve made some progress. That’s a good sign! You don’t just lose that. Have a little faith in what’s there. It’s not your job to take inventory, okay?

You want to connect with your husband, but he’s shutting you out. His mother just died and he probably feels like he can’t possibly slow down and be vulnerable right now or he’ll fall to pieces. Sometimes when a person feels that emotionally distant, they privately start to believe that their feelings for you aren’t strong enough. This is a very common emotional trap that married people fall into: they confuse their own private avoidance of feelings with an absence of feeling for the other person.

In your current state of focusing on your husband and on fixing your relationship, you’re in danger of believing that his numbness means he doesn’t love you enough. Let go of that story right now. This moment in your lives together is very unique, and it isn’t personal. Even if your husband said to you, “I don’t know how I feel anymore,” under your current conditions, I wouldn’t necessarily take that personally. I know that sounds fucking INSANE, but the man is trying to avoid mourning his mother. That is a specific, life-changing event. It is exceedingly difficult to show up for someone else when you’re going through that. And now the world is upside down. You’re going to have to take a deep breath and dig deep to keep yourself feeling good and safe and calm under these conditions.

You also need to take a second to explore his state of mind and his needs. As an extrovert, your husband is missing a lot of the daily interaction that he needs in order to stay glued together. Even though it looks shallow to some women, men are often buoyed by casual camaraderie. Bad comparison, but you know how men think their marriages are healthy as long as they’re having good sex regularly? Well, they also think that they’re doing fine and they have plenty of “friends” as long as they’re chatting it up with a bunch of different people every day. (Most married men don’t have that many real friends. Some do! Most don’t! Doubt me now, eat your doubt for breakfast later!)

Offices are for some men what dog parks are for some dogs: Sniff a few butts, bark, run in circles, chew a little neck scruff, and go home feeling satisfied. A soulful meeting of the minds is not required.

Why the gender essentialism right now, Polly? Of all times? Because THIS is what will help THIS married woman at THIS tough moment in her marriage. Everyone knows not all men are like this! Right now, we’re looking through a pinhole camera so we’ll notice something essential about this man. We’re getting reductive in order to understand how he’s functioning. We are locating our compassion for someone who is behaving in very simple, primitive ways in order to survive.

You love this man. It’s time to understand how simple his needs are under duress. This is one of the central challenges of being a straight married woman: accepting the extreme simplicity of the man in front of you. It’s important to appreciate and enjoy the adorable ease with which most men are satisfied. Yes, they have complex needs, too! But even men who are enthralled by philosophy or write poetry or paint or talk about their fucked up childhoods nonstop while crying big salty tears are ALSO, often, satisfied by the simple pleasures of chatting about nothing and doing their boring-ass jobs and fucking like a jackhammer until they come.

We are all simple animals! But women can run on fumes in ways that men can’t. We look for connection FIRST. Men don’t have the luxury of looking for connection until their basic needs are being met.

I want you to get what you need. But my Spidey sense tells me that it’s not the best time to tell your husband, “I NEED MORE FROM YOU EMOTIONALLY!” I’m worried that he can’t do more right now. He’s mourning his mother and he’s in a tough, emotionally avoidant space and he’s isolated with you. It’s a lot for him. I would tread lightly, for your own sake. He’s probably a little afraid of you, because you’re constantly threatening to push him off a steep cliff emotionally.

Instead, I would bring him to the dog park: Offer him some low-key terrain where you can just let off steam without digging into the heavy shit. Chat about work stuff. Watch TV. Play a video game. Cook together. Have some fun without trying to fix anything.

Chew on some fur. Sniff some ass. No threat. No growling. Nothing heavy. Let him rediscover his connection to you without any pressure. For that to work, you actually have to occupy a space of wanting less and respecting his boundaries completely. Meet him on the ground where he’s reachable. This man isn’t reachable anywhere else.

Try to have some fun. Stop fixing things and try to just enjoy being human together. That’s it.

Now let’s talk about what you need. Fuck Zoom. Pick up the phone and go to another room and talk to your friends. Cry to them if you need to. Phones are better for that. Explain where you are and how it’s affecting you. A lot of your friends are going to welcome your call. People like to feel useful, especially now. So reach out directly and ask for what you need. Ask your friends what they need right now. Show up for them.

You also need to exercise every single day. Under these conditions, it is so easy to feel sick. Animals attack when they can’t move. If you can exercise, then you must exercise. Don’t overdo it and injure yourself. Start small. But whatever your normal activity level is, you have to gently ratchet it up.

This crisis is enormously stressful for everyone. It doesn’t matter how used to working from home you are. Being locked up alone or with one person or with six people: All stressful. Small kids, big kids, good marriages, bad marriages, good roommates, bad roommates, alone, super alone, beyond alone: All hard. IT’S A FUCKING PANDEMIC. We are living through an unbelievably tough time. We need to acknowledge that, privately and together, repeatedly, and forgive ourselves for struggling with it, every single day.

Last night the wheels finally started to come off for me, and nothing was even that bad. I’ve been on solid ground for a month: Tough, productive, in control. Then last night, all three kids started asking me what was for dinner, and my husband had privately decided it was my turn to cook, but he hadn’t bothered to tell me that yet. So I got out some chicken pot pies and preheated the oven and then there was dirty laundry on the floor and wet laundry in the washing machine and as I’m moving the laundry around and my youngest wants to know when we’re going to make that TikTok together and my oldest wants to know what he’s going to eat since he’s a vegetarian (and a grown adult who can cook for himself, I might add!) and my husband is yelling,“Goddamn it! How does this thing work?” because he is inexplicably playing Zelda even though HE DOESN’T FUCKING KNOW HOW TO PLAY ZELDA.   

And suddenly I felt sick. I tried to tell myself, “This is fine, it’s all fine,” but I just shut down. There was no good action to take. I wanted to start yelling at someone. I felt terrrrrrrible.

So I said to my husband, very quietly, “I need to talk to you for a second in the bedroom.”

Thankfully, my husband has heard this tone before and knows that he shouldn’t ignore it. We went into the bedroom and I sat on the bed and stared up at the ceiling and said, “I’m struggling. A lot. All of a sudden. Out of the blue. The wheels just came off.”

At first my husband just stood there and looked defensive. So I said, “Please, sit down. This is an emergency. I am not functioning right now.”

I haven’t felt that bad in a long time. There was no solution. The world had suddenly become that level on Overcooked 2 where you’re frying chicken on one raft and you leave to get a plate from the other raft and then the one raft is on fire but you can’t get back to it so the whole raft burns down.

I have a lot of very specific stressors at the moment. Everyone does. But I remembered that my husband does, too, so I didn’t yell about Zelda. He’s been making dinner a lot, and doing a fuck load of dishes. I didn’t need to criticize him. I just needed to explain that I couldn’t deal. And I needed to say: OK, this way we’re living isn’t working for me suddenly. We have to ask these kids to step up a little more, but we have to be very careful about how we do it. Because they are all – even the adult one! Maybe especially the adult one!  – under a lot of stress. We need to tread lightly. We need to gently steer this raft in a new direction without burning it down. And WE NEED TIME ALONE. We need a date night in our stupid fucking house, and those kids will have to make dinner together. It will be good for everyone. But I don’t want to shout at them about it now.

My husband agreed. We had a calm talk. We both felt better. We got through it.

I will fuck it up worse at some point, I’m sure. I’m going to go ahead and forgive myself for that shit in advance. I can feel the sadness out there start to crawl under my skin. I’m trying to keep it out but it’s getting in. I think a lot of us feel that way right now. There’s darkness in the world that we can’t just ignore day after day, no matter how hard we fight against it and turn our backs on it and turn toward the light.

So look, I feel you. I’m sorry you’re starting to reach your limit, too. You can feel lucky and grateful and still start to lose it out of the blue. We’re all in that boat together right now. And I hate the fuck out of those commercials on TV where everyone yells with a smile: GLOBAL PANDEMIC, WHEEE! WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER! I want to scream: THE RAFT IS BURNING DOWN AND WE’RE ALL ON THE OTHER RAFT, WATCHING, AND THERE’S NOTHING WE CAN DO!

We have to dig deeper than usual right now, just to survive. We have to tolerate watching the other raft burn down. That’s what happens in Overcooked 2: You have to figure out how to keep one person on each raft, sure. But when you fuck up? You have to let go. When everything goes to shit, my oldest kid sometimes picks up the fire extinguisher and spins around in a circle while he’s spraying it like “HURRAY, WE’RE FUCKED!”

Nothing is easy right now. Sometimes you bite your tongue because you know everyone else is struggling, too. Sometimes you bring the dog park straight to your limited, avoidant dog of a husband. Sometimes you say, through gritted teeth, “This is an emergency. I need your help.” Sometimes you pick up a phone and say into the phone, “The other raft is on fire and there’s nothing I can do about it!” Sometimes you cry and you wish you were tougher. Sometimes you raise your voice and you wish you hadn’t. And sometimes it feels good to just to say to a friend or a stranger or to no one at all: “Hurray, we’re fucked.”

Even though we’re all trapped – OH WOW, YES INDEED, WE TRULY ARE! – there are good things and bad things here. We are each surrounded by blessings and curses, saviors and oppressors, gods and monsters. We all have to tolerate this devastation and somehow look for hope in spite of everything. We have to slow down and breathe, even as things are catching on fire. We have to reach out for help.

If you’re calm enough to meet your husband where he is, do that first. If you aren’t, look him in the eyes and tell him you need him. He’s your husband. It’s hard, sure. Maybe this is the worst moment of his life so far. Keep that in mind. But he’s your husband. You can tell him the truth, can’t you? Be calm about it, but be clear. Be gentle. Ask for what you need.

I’m sorry for all of us. The fear and the sadness are just too much. I didn’t even want to answer a letter this week. I’ve been avoiding this. I’ve been just like your husband. I knew that once I stopped being tough, I was going to start crying and never stop. I don’t want to read about more dead people every day: mothers and brothers and aunts and grandpas and dads and kids. It’s so fucking sad. I don’t want to tell you to do more yoga or to look on the bright side. Fuck that. This is too terrible. I just want to tell the truth: This is just crushingly, impossibly hard.

Be gentle. That’s the main thing. Look around and notice how much stress and darkness everyone is wading through. Cut them some slack.

Be good to yourself, and give this world every bit of love you have left to give. We need each other so badly right now. Hurray, we’re fucked. I’m with you. Say it to your husband. Say it to your friends: Hurray. We’re fucked. I’m with you.

Polly  


Heather Havrilesky is the author of What If This Were Enough? and writes The Cut’s Ask Polly column every other Wednesday. The new, free Ask Polly newsletter runs on the other Wednesdays. Write to Polly: askpolly@protonmail.com.