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6527212 November 06, 2009

Midlife Wife: An Aberration Story

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Here's a topic I (unfortunately) know a thing or two about: midlife. Why is it that we spend so much time urging our kids to make good choices, work hard and smart, study, be careful, etc.? Well, of course, it's because we know how quickly the years pass. There's only a short time to achieve success, to set the stage, and pick a road ... or so we were told. Instead maybe, just maybe, we should tell them to deal with their issues, go after their dreams, don't give up ... There are certain things that get lost in the shuffle after awhile. Maybe we should worn them about that.

Sure, it's never too late but life has a way of crowding around us, narrowing our opportunities, fresh starts, and do-overs. Some wake up one morning with the frightening thought that life is half over when just yesterday there were 15 candles on the cake. How did that happen?

It's one of those WTF moments. You realize the very life you worked so hard to create sucked you dry and left you empty. Wasn't all that supposed to fill up the 15-year-old who felt so barren, you ask? "Get a life!" they told you. Well you did that--and it filled you up so tightly that you somehow lost track of yourself. Time is ticking, destiny is calling, parents are aging, youth is fading.

It's a crisis. And maybe you haven't had an identity crisis in so long that the idea almost feels good. The heart pounds, the blood flows. There's a desperation that's so bad it feels marvelous. You're suddenly alive again, barren like a 15-year-old ... and you don't want to lose that. Not again. Problem is everything around you, all the old stuff, seems dead. You have an overwhelming urge to run, jump the train, fly away, and get the heck out of dodge. After all, isn't that what killed you?

Maybe not.

So what's the answer to this dilemma? Not sure I know but I do suspect it's different for each person. My guest today, Jeff, is trying to deal with a wife who looked into the WTF mirror to find a lot she didn't like after being married for over three decades. Jeff is a spouse-left-behind (SLB). He's still in the thick of it, but has bravely offered to share his experience. He believes that those going through midlife difficulties need each other. Sharing and expressing the pain and understanding that a spouse's behavior isn't necessarily about your failure helps. He's taking one day at a time, staying strong for his family. This is his story.

You're in the midst of dealing with your wife's mid-life crises. Can you tell us what is happening?

To make this part of the long story short, about two years ago my wife’s mother passed away after a year or so following a stroke. It was determined at the end of her physical and speech rehabilitation, and a year in an adult day program, that she was then suffering from the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Once it was determined she could no longer live with us due to the daily care needed and for her own safety and protection, she was admitted into an adult residence facility which catered to a senior population for Alzheimer’s and other memory related issues. Less than two months after being admitted she passed away. My wife, an only daughter, was grieving the loss. In the months following, she and I tended to her funeral affairs and estate issues.

Later that year, my youngest daughter graduated high school and went off to college leaving us an empty nest. Additionally, about a month after my mother-in-law’s death, a younger, single friend of my wife had lost her father. My wife and her friend were often conversing and supporting each other as they had something very much in common. During the year post death, something seemed different about my wife. I attributed it to grieving as anticipated but it was more than that. She and her friend were conversing regularly, texting, instant messaging, emailing and this would go both early morning and after I had gone to bed as well as multiple times during the day. From some of the conversations I heard laughing and whispering which I thought was strange but nothing more.

After a while I approached my wife about the excessive conversation with this person. She stated that she had few friends and this one was close now due to the mutual losses they both experienced. She reinforced that they needed to connect with each other to cope. In my naiveté I believed her but became suspicious. I started noticing overages on the cell phone bill, extensive computer use, her minimizing the computer screen when I walked by, and basically a secretive type of behavior. Family members of mine noticed her behavior being different, co-workers wondered what was changing with her, she became distant to me and not interested in conversation, intimacy or spending free time together. This was very atypical of her as we had a great social relationship between us for most of our 30+ years of marriage.

How can you be sure that this is a mid-life crisis? Based on your research and years of working in the psychiatric health care arena, help us understand.

At first I didn’t know what to think. This “illness” does not have a formal psychiatric diagnosis. I started to research on the internet and described it to my older female relatives, their thinking it may be the onset of menopause. More research brought on more questions. I spoke to a family counselor, minister and family physician. I stumbled across some websites and forums that spoke of similar situations (www.PathPartners.com, www.divorcebusting.com). (Also see the list below.)

In my estimation, it started as midlife “transition” since it has much of what I had read on midlife sites. Death of a family member occurred, an empty nest situation came to fruition, my wife seemed confused and short tempered at times, she lost her pleasant personality and began to attack things I had done for her, things I hadn’t done, the length and quality of our marriage, being married too young (21?), my career path, my formal education, the house we bought, the cars we own, being unhappy for the longest time, re-writing our marriage history to describe my never being there for her, saying we have grown apart, blaming me for just about everything!

She added that she was confused, needed time to be alone and possibly away from me to work things out. She asked me to move out of our bedroom which I did for a couple weeks then realized I did nothing wrong and moved back again to her dismay. She was isolative, sleeping far over the other side of the (queen) bed, no physical interaction at all (including kissing or even touching, certainly no intimacy). After two weeks she decided to move out of the bedroom to a spare room I had been using. She made this smaller room her own, changing lighting, reorganizing furniture, keeping the bed very neat and orderly. Occasionally I would hear her speaking on the phone late night or early morning, laughing and joking. She was protective of my entering this room with her there or not, basically concerned with control issues even though it is also my house as well as hers. We never had issues like this before, very protective.

When the transition became a “crisis” was when I found definitive proof of an affair in what I had read on our family computer. My wife and her friend had planned driving trips together, weekends at a shore house, plans for seeing shows, movies and anticipating upcoming meeting times- I also found documentation of emotional sharing and intimate liaisons between the two which caught me wildly by surprise. During this time she had become obsessed with bills and expenses, wanted all credit cards to be divided, joint accounts split, to pay her own bills and take care of her own car maintenance, many of the tasks I performed since marriage. She started changing passwords for the computer and email as well as keeping her cellphone at hand. Once confronted with the proof from the computer my wife immediately denied it, then blamed me for intruding into her “personal” data that wasn’t supposed to be read by others.

Later she stated they were just friends, didn’t know how it happened but is over now. Two months later my wife moved out to her own apartment.

When your wife left you, how did you initially cope and how are you currently coping? Have your methods and attitudes changed?

It has been about three months now since she moved. Initially I was devastated but kept a straight face and stayed positive saying things like “you need to do this to feel better” when she left. It was my proactive way of letting her know I cared I guess. I was coping by speaking with my elder siblings and other family members, trying to stay as active as possible both around the house and in social events, trying to eat and sleep right. I continue to research it as that is just my nature. I try to take each day as it comes as many on the forums have suggested since my wife’s mood may change significantly on any given day. A frequent motto is that you can change yourself, you cannot change another. You must take care of yourself and your children (if applicable) since that is the only thing you can control. I am practicing detachment which is a method of keeping me away from the emotional feelings I have for her. Not that I don’t love her, just that I don’t want those feelings to consume me.

Most people who share their stories have struggled through their aberrations, and come out on the other side. I realize that you're still in the thick of it. What value have you found in sharing your emotions and thoughts with others, here and in other forums?

It is cathartic and can often get you through a bad time. Sometimes you need the help of others on the forum; other times you help them by your experiences. It is also good to get suggestions on what you might be doing right (or more often wrong) in dealing with your spouse.

You have several children. How are they dealing with the situation? Sometimes that is the worst aspect of marital issues. As parents, we can't bear to see our children suffer. What approach have you taken thus far, and is it helping?

Fortunately my “children” are all adult aged. This made it a little easier for them to “understand” and for my wife to tell them. She did not want them to be told but since they saw the bizarre behavior in their father (investigating the computer files and phone bills, wondering why she was always on the phone, checking out when she didn’t come home on time) I made it a point that they needed to know and were certainly old enough to handle it, if not understand it (which I continue to struggle with). I saw some pain in them but I think they see more in me as their lives are actively unfolding and maturing.

I'm certainly not an expert on it, but my understanding is that at mid-life we often get smacked in the head with unresolved issues from growing up. Sometimes people joke about mid-life crisis, but isn't it important to deal with unresolved issues? Maybe it's life's way of telling us that time is getting short--get down to business. What are your thoughts on this?

Absolutely- unresolved childhood issues come to the forefront (such as lack of independence, control, mental or physical abuse) but manifest as control issues against the spouse. Normal “life” gets in the way (careers, home purchase, pregnancy, child rearing) and postpones those issues until something jogs our brain and we start looking at the other half of life (downhill stretch) and possibly the endpoint comes into view. In my situation, my wife wanted to do many things that she believes (in an irrational way) I kept her from doing. Not only did I not prevent those things from happening, I encouraged them to be pursued. It was her reluctance to go after her “dreams” (but in truth, they may not have been a strong influence at the time).

What are the top three things that we can do when someone we know is faced with this aberration? Sometimes it's hard to know what to say. What do you wish, hope, or welcome from others?

1) Be supportive of the person’s need to vent without judgment- it is a devastating development, often brought on by surprise. The left-behind-spouse (LBS) doesn’t know where to turn or who to speak with.

2) Don’t start a campaign against the person in crisis so that the LBS feels comfortable and vindicated. You are speaking about their wife/husband who they have been living with and possibly raised a family, often for many years.

3) A multi-faceted reply- Obtain professional help in the form of individual counseling or medical help, take care of self and children, keep active in your church, community, work, do whatever makes you feel good about yourself.

We all want a happily ever after scenario but life doesn't always work that way. Do you think that changing our expectations about what happily ever after means helps us cope?

That is the intention and just one of many coping mechanisms but it is often easier said than done. Many joke about midlife crisis but I would question those who joke if they ever had to deal with it themselves. Some of my friends have described coming from broken homes. When they explain the situation, it is frequently due to a parent having a midlife crisis while they were young and they didn’t understand it but the family got through it. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Today as you walk through this quagmire you didn't expect to find yourself in, are there any words of hope that you cling to? What keeps you getting up each morning to search for positives?

I look at life a little more positively now. I reflect on what enjoyment I have with my friends and family and life in general since my BFF (my wife) is very distant and for the most part, no longer in the picture. I seek support where I need it, try to stave off depression and expect to look for professional help if it gets too overwhelming. I realize I can only do so much and that I cannot change someone else’s behavior, just my own.

Here are some resources that Jeff found helpful:


http://midlifeclub.com/

http://www.midlifecrisismarriageadvocate.com/midlife-crisis.html

http://www.fortysixty.org

http://counsellingresource.com/distress/mood-disorders/understanding-depression/index.html

http://womensinfidelity.com/

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