Dear Captain Awkward,
You know that breaking up is a
possibility necessity the highly probable and recommended outcome and that remaining is a choice, and you understand that this is a form of emotional abuse, so I’m going to try my best to give you some strategies that aren’t about breaking up. Remember, I am trained in exactly NOTHING, so I am making these up, partially from lessons I’ve learned dealing with babies and cats.
First, I am confused – do you work from home or do you go to work at your job? Does your wife get upset when you go to work, or is it only when you’re doing something social away from her? Does she get upset when SHE’S at work or school or out?
Because it’s hard not to see her episodes as a form of controlling you.
I mean, really hard. Because she’s controlling you.
Anyway, here’s a list of suggestions:
1) A therapist for you. No matter what the fallout, you’ll need one. If you don’t find a safe place to talk about this stuff you’re almost definitely going to explode and leave one day, so think of this for now as your best chance of making something work.
2) Maybe a different therapist for her. Or some joint counseling sessions where you talk about this issue in particular and try to work on it.
3) You said you haven’t talked to your mutual friends about this issue. Do they know ANYTHING? Because bringing a few of those friends in on the problem might be a good idea. It doesn’t have to ruin the social dynamic and in fact might be a way to help you with the problem.
“Friend, (wife) and I have a problem where sometimes she gets massive separation anxiety when she’s away from me. I want to go to this professional conference/work happy hour/archery competition this weekend. Could we plan to have her hang out with you for some of that time so she feels less anxious?”
You can decide how much or how little you want to tell the friends.”Wife, I’m going out on Friday after work. Why don’t you go to the movies with Hansel & Gretel and have a good time yourself?” might also work. But tell them. Tell somebody. Stop hiding this. It’s a real problem in your life and they can maybe help you carry some of it.
4) My cat has massive separation anxiety, and one of the things I do is feed her wet food & give her treats only when I’m about to leave the house. She gets dry the rest of the time. She’s learned to associate me leaving with something she likes and has chilled way out. Can you arrange “treats” – social time, something fun to do, etc. for when you need to be away?
5) My good friends are training their 5-month old to sleep and to comfort himself if he wakes. So they ignore his cries at night (unless they go on for a certain duration and intensity = more than a few minutes, a sharp upset cry vs. a “Hey, come hang out with me” cry) so that he’ll learn to soothe himself.
You said something about developing a routine where you slowly separate. What does this routine involve? Could you start with short things that are spontaneous (so she can’t build up a lot of anxiety or derail you ahead of time). Don’t ask, tell. “I’m going for a run.” “I’m going to the library for little bit.” “I’m going to grab some coffee and get out of the house for a while.” Give her a 15-30 minute window of when you’ll be back and stick to that time frame.
Then, in front of her, take your cell phone out of your pocket and put it on the table and walk out the door to wherever it is. We didn’t always have these magic always-reachable devices and they are not necessary for living. Stay out for increasing amounts of time. 20 minutes. 30 minutes. 1 hour.
I think this will be incredibly hard for you, but also, incredibly necessary. There will be fallout. But because her emotions are not caused by you and you don’t have to take them on as your own. Let her wail and beg. Let her fantasize the worst. The best way to take power back from people who throw tantrums is to let them know that you will do what you’re going to do even if they get sad. You’ll come back because you love her, but not because she is making you, and it’s okay to shield yourself from it. As you expand this to going out with friends, tell her “I’m turning my phone off for a while, so call X friend if there’s an emergency” and then do it.
Here’s the irony. She’s worried that you’re going to leave her. Her worry manifests so violently and so toxically that you will actually leave her. You are contemplating leaving her. You do have power in this situation, though I get why it feels uncomfortable to wield it. Her power is that if you don’t do what she wants she’ll be upset at you. Your power is that if she keeps clipping your wings in this way, you’ll leave. You actually get to force some discussions about this. “Wife, we have to work on this and find a solution. I never, never want to leave you or be without you. But I need to have some space for my own friendships and professional interests or I will suffocate.”
“I know you are genuinely upset, but to make me so responsible for that pain is controlling and abusive. If you want to save this relationship, we will need to try some things my way for a while and see if we can make it better.”
As for “critically disrupting her life” as she leaves school, I can see why that’s a concern, but her career & education are her own. There will always be a reason she needs you and doesn’t think she can function without you, so if you want to go and it’s time to go, go. Maybe now when she’s right at the start of something new for herself is the best possible time.
Right now the two of you are co-dependent as fuck (I believe that’s the clinical term) and I wish you luck in separating one way or the other. Hopefully some of the baby (or cat) steps in here will work to help you make the relationship more bearable or begin the long process of letting go.