“My wife was in a relationship many years ago with an abusive person who also cheated on her. This caused major trust issues for her, and in the two decades that we’ve been together, I’ve given up many of my friends and hobbies so as not to stoke the flames or make her feel anxious. Still, after all this time, I feel I’ve earned the right to go see a movie or take a motorcycle ride on my own without questions. I don’t know how to get her to believe that I am not her ex, and I feel suffocated and under attack when I’ve been nothing but a trustworthy partner. How should I approach this?”
A good relationship should feel mutually uplifting, not suffocating. It should be based on believing the best of your partner, not assuming the worst. And, after 20 years of support and honesty, yes, you deserve your freedom back. I’d argue you should have gotten it back a long time ago.
It’s admirable that you’ve given up a lot to be such a supportive partner. But that doesn’t mean you don’t get to have a life.
As for what to do, the approach is twofold: Help your wife address her demons, then wean her off your 24-hour support line.
First, she needs to get therapy
If you’re her only sounding board, that echo chamber can keep her from seeing the truth—that the problem is her perspective, not her spouse. Start with couples therapy. After all, your relationship is not working for you, which means it’s definitely time to enlist an independent, well-trained third party to identify the problems. If she refuses to go with you, then ask her to go to individual therapy.
The point is that your wife has unhealed wounds that she needs to take care of, and by working so hard to make her feel safe in this relationship, you’ve actually enabled her to go about her life without actually addressing the hurt.
After all, abuse frequently becomes ingrained for victims, who can learn to move beyond the situation without addressing the parts of themselves that feel unworthy of love, broken, scared, anxious and vulnerable. It’s great you have empathy. But you need to express that you cannot live this way anymore, and you need more time to do the things you once loved.
Second, she needs to become less dependent on you
You can’t throw a person into the deep end with no swimming experience or skills. But you can ask her to wade into the shallow end and practice swimming on her own.
How does this look? Try doing more things solo, but check in a lot. Call her when you hop off your motorcycle to get a bite to eat. Text her to check in when you’re with your friends at happy hour. If you’re away overnight, schedule a one-hour FaceTime to catch her up on what she’s missing. Hopefully, her need to be in touch nonstop will dwindle when she sees there is no reason to worry.
The idea is to take back some of your independence, a little bit at a time, all offset with radical transparency about what you are doing, when and why.
Kudos to you for empathizing with your wife and working so hard to earn her trust. That’s love. But not all behaviors are healthy, so start making moves to get your freedom back and teach her some independence. It will be good for both of you in the long run.
Jenna Birch is a journalist and the author of The Love Gap: A Radical Plan to Win in Life and Love, a relationship-building guide for modern women, as well as a dating coach (accepting new clients for 2020). To ask her a question, which she may answer in a forthcoming PureWow column, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.