Dear Captain –
I (she/her) am a middle-aged wife of a man (he/him). We’ve only been married three years (together 8) but it has turned out to be rather nothing like what I wanted marriage to be – and I was not unrealistic! He’s emotionally constipated and may also be more intellectually my inferior than he first seemed. He’s kind, not a monster, but he doesn’t manage stress well – at all – and I don’t manage money well. He’s sexually inexperienced compared to me, but he’s still interested whereas I am completely dead from the neck down. Right now hugging him is like hugging a pillow. I am so tired of managing his emotions, explaining things to him, taking the lead on any decision-making because he can’t manage it, quelling my frustrations, enduring his inept pawing, trying to explain my dissatisfactions and needs without somehow making him feel blamed, I’m exhausted. In addition, my work situation has gotten more isolated, difficult, and stressful. Plus there’s the news cycle grinding us all down slowly.
I believe strongly in the campsite rule of relationships, leave them better than you found them; I think if I vanished he’s in a better place: he’s in touch with his creative side, has a wide and non-toxic pool of friends who love him, and a homier home and healthier diet. However, I used to be creative and horny and enthusiastic and I did performances and made things and wrote things, I kept up with my projects and bills and friends, and now I just want to watch TV or maybe play World of Warcraft, though it’s too much bother most of the time. Definitely depressed! But, if he vanished, I would be worse than when he found me, but I’d feel free.
One day I had a dream, followed by another dream, which resulted in writing a 200,000 word book in three weeks. I didn’t want to do anything else, I was utterly engulfed in this project. He keeps asking what I am doing but I just can’t tell him, “Writing!” but he’s convinced I have to share every phase of any project like he does because he’s so insecure. Anyway, all I want to do is work on these books. I have control of that little universe on the page, and I don’t want to engage with him at all. He’s trying to be sweet but it’s too little too late. He’s always been terrible at communicating any kind of emotions besides stress. Any time he has stress he crawls up his own ass and neglects everyone around him, particularly me. I am exhausted beyond belief. We both have therapists, but it’s still too early to be experiencing results, and we definitely need couples therapy. A bitter part of my brain just knows he’s not asking her the right questions.
I am in despair and I just need to know how I can communicate “please fuck off” while I am working on this project, which is tantamount to an emotional affair (the first book involves me meeting and getting together with a famous person; the second is a meta response). I feel guilty not telling him, but I know he’ll take it personally and then those emotions he cannot express will be my problem too. I am his mother more than his wife and I don’t even know what a proper relationship looks like. But it ain’t this. If I knew it would be like five years from now, I would be gone. But I am hoping therapy/Wellbutrin will help.
I guess my question is: how do you tell the husband you are currently utterly burned out on that you are writing a story about being in love with someone else, and you’d much rather do that than talk to your husband? My book lover is not some Hemsworthian hunk but is the opposite of my husband in all the important ways, and a very nerdly sort of beau. My regular crush on him has definitely blossomed into something unhealthy, but I’m in no danger of acting out on it, so it’s more of an escape than a manifesto.
Writing A Book With Dream Boyfriend
Your email subject line suggested that your current work-in-progress constituted “an emotional affair” and if you don’t mind, I’d like to start by poking at that whole deal.
Your work as a writer is YOURS. You get to write about anything you want, literally anything, and you get to show it to people or not show it to people, talk about it or not talk about it, at your sole discretion. As a fellow creative type, your husband should be able to hear and accept that your process gets to be your process. You don’t have to share, and nobody has the right to insist that they get to read your work.
Additionally, writers can both love actual people and invent the fantasy people of their dreams (or engage in COPIOUS acts of fan fiction) without it being any form of “cheating.” There’s a whole amazing literary genre called “romance” you may have heard of, where people write fictional versions, often highly aspirational versions, of romantic partners and then write scenarios where, oops, there’s only one available inn or hotel room to be had in all the land and, crap, it’s got one single, solitary bed, guess it’s time for these protagonists to finally reckon with all their lovable flaws and get honest with themselves about what they want out of life at last to make themselves ready for the challenge of this new and exciting person…in bed! I laugh because I love, is there a romance book in print that is not some version of “Here is a vision of what love could look like and here’s what I think about what it takes to be a lovable person in the world?” i.e. a pretty profound question about human needs and human behaviors, which is why people write them and read and watch our favorite ones over and over again? If you’re trying to figure out what you really, really want from life, having a fictional canvas to work some of that out in is an awesome project, not evidence of infidelity. And if you end up writing your way out of this marriage in the end? That’s possible, but you also get to wait and see how the book turns out before deciding that. That isn’t cheating, either.
The reason it’s weird in your house isn’t that you accidentally met Your Dream Man in a text file, or, it’s not just that. It’s that you, in the grip of your own project, awake and aglow with your story and your crush, have upset the relationship your husband expects to have with you and he doesn’t know what changed. You’re around less, or less present when you are around, because you’re occupied with your own thing. He can probably also see that you perked up, you’re not just playing WoW or falling asleep in front of the TV at night these days, you’re alight, but it doesn’t seem to be about him or include him in any way. Probably he’s used to doing his creative stuff and you “appreciating” it, and if you’re focused on your own thing you’re not appreciating him as much nor are you accepting his appreciation, and that’s not wrong of you but it is new information for him. Or, consider that he’s not as oblivious as you think about how disengaged you are from the relationship as a whole and is wondering, “What’s putting that sparkle in her eye? Not me.” So he’s trying to engage with you, the way he thought you wanted, and you’re not having it, and you’re being secretive, so of course it’s weird! The problem is that when someone behaves like there is some big giant secret that’s “no big deal” everyone, even very unobservant people, can tell that it’s a very big deal!
So, I don’t think you’re having an affair with your book or its star, but the secret thoughts you are having about your book and this incredible character are like a version of looking at your phone screen, laughing at a text that comes in, and when your spouse wants to know the joke, you’re like “Oh, nothing important” and when he asks “Who keeps texting?” you say “Oh, nobody important, just someone from work” and then “someone from work” keeps sending “nothing important” messages that buzz all evening from inside your pocket and make you smile a secret smile, a smile that doesn’t invite anyone else in, and you’re suddenly very careful to never let your husband see the screen, and you also don’t want to bother explaining the joke to him because it’s Too Much Work, which is what people who are having affairs do, in addition to suddenly volunteering to run the most mundane errands because they’re looking for excuses to be out of the house so they can secret-smile at their phone in peace, and “get cat litter” is suddenly a secret romantic mission they’re on.
So yeah, that thing where you could tell your spouse what you’re thinking and feeling, but it all feels like Too Much Work so you don’t want to? And where you want to spend your time not thinking about him or dealing with him because it’s intruding on your time thinking about your crush? You recognize this correctly as emotional territory where affairs can flourish, or as the wasteland people cross on their way out of a marriage. “I’ve pretty much given up on the possibility that this person will ever surprise me, or that any of those surprises will be good surprises, or that they’ll happen in enough time for me to still give a shit, or that it’s worth the bother of asking for what I need” = signs that a relationship is done. And I’m not gonna lie, you sound kinda done. Which is a painful but also perfectly okay thing to decide? After eight years with this guy, if anyone would know if it’s likely to get better, that person would be you.
But if you’re not done yet, or still deciding, while I don’t think you have to let your husband ever read your stuff, what’s the harm in acknowledging the general vibe of what’s happening and asking directly for what you need? You’re writing a book, take that seriously, make a writing schedule, and tell your husband what’s up and what you’d like to happen:
“Hey, I know I’ve been kind of preoccupied lately, I got this amazing idea for a book and I feel like I’m racing against time to get it all out on the page before I lose the thread. For the next month, it would help me to have until 9pm as writing time on weeknights until I get the draft done, so [can you get dinner on the table][can I camp out in the home office with some peace and quiet][Can you amuse yourself & catch up on your shows?][Can you work on your own creative stuff without my input?][I’ll be heading to the library for a few hours after work before I come home][Can you go solo to group stuff while I hang back and use that time to write] for the next month? I’m really into working on this and I don’t want to lose momentum, thanks so much!”
Clue him into the fact that your focus is occupied. Ask him for specific things he could do to support you. It would be reasonable for you to ask for this, and also reasonable for him to ask for something like, “Ok, but can Sunday night be date night, no work, no screens?” and for the two of you to figure out a workable routine. You can revisit it in a month. You’re not stealing time or hiding something if you block out the time.
The second script is probably:
“It’s so kind of you to offer to read it, but I’m not ready to show it to anyone yet, and I’m afraid if I talk about it too much I’ll jinx it.”
If it becomes necessary to repeat it, repeat it. “Thanks but I’m not ready to show it to anyone yet.” “I don’t know what it’s going to be yet, it’s very different from what I usually write, I’m not ready to talk about it yet.” “It’s kind of an experiment, I don’t want to analyze it until I’ve gotten it all onto the page, I definitely don’t want to show it to anyone else until I know what I’ve got.” These are legitimate, reasonable things to need when making creative work. He’s not your publisher or your editor.
If you don’t feel safe or comfortable even asking for time and privacy? Or if he won’t take no for an answer? Those are very big red flags. But if you ask and he backs off? Time to write! Get yourself on a writing schedule. Defend it from all interlopers. Plus, password protection is your friend.
Know also that a million writers are in your same shoes, counting the hours taken up by their uninspiring day jobs and their home life that isn’t all it was cracked up to be, struggling to stay present in conversations when their characters are talking about much more interesting things in the background, saying the dialogue out loud in the shower or in the car on their commute to see how it rings out in a room, hoping the baby will stay asleep until the end of this sentence, marking time until they can get back to a page where something somewhere might be made to make a sort of sense. Some of your colleagues are also writing escape routes, daydreams about famous people dead or alive, sex they imagine but don’t know how to ask for, the love they wish they had but don’t, worlds where they are in charge and the things they need are reasonable and real and readily available, worlds where there is enough to go around, hard decisions from the point of view of people who don’t have the same things to lose that they do, roads not taken, all the things they wish they’d said or that someone said to them, and other attempts to work out how they feel and think about the world in real time on a blank page. You’re not alone in finding solace there, or maybe the opposite of solace, the sharp shock of recognition, whatever it is, a good idea and the words and will to realize it are gifts, so get to work! You are allowed to imagine other lives for yourself. That’s not a zero-sum game with the life you have.
Maybe your marriage can wait this out for a while. Or maybe it will die in slow motion while you’re writing better things, because without you giving 100% of your focus to the relationship it can’t survive on what little he brings. Write anyway.
Also, tell your therapist what’s really going on. Use the word “divorce,” like, “I am unhappy and exhausted and I’m starting to think that divorce might be the right answer,” and see how it rings out in a room. Research couples’ counselors and divorce attorneys. Visiting one for a consult is not an obligation to buy.
Check in with your job/career/resume/network/money possibilities. You sound stuck right now. Do you need to get unstuck? What could you do to set yourself up well financially if you ended up living alone? Think through some of that and make a plan. Beef up savings. Don’t take on big new debts or large purchases. Just because you make a plan, doesn’t mean you have to use it, but making one is a way of taking care of yourself.
Most of all, get honest with yourself about what you really want in your marriage and how much effort you would want to put in to fixing whatever this is or starting over in a new, solo life. Because here’s the choice the protagonist of the story you sent me has in front of her:
You’re either going to hand your husband a copy of your beautiful manuscript when it’s finished and say, “I don’t actually want any notes or critiques from you, but I do want you to see what I’ve been working on all this time. Sometimes it’s hard for me to talk about feelings with you but I put a lot of my heart out here in the book, and I want you to see it true” and hope that he’ll surprise you by loving it and getting it, or, you’re going to get on with the business of getting divorced. You’ll have your publisher send your ex-husband a copy of the book someday, maybe he’ll recognize himself in the dedication, something like “For [HusbandName], who pointed me in the right direction and then gave me the space to find the way,” and maybe he’ll understand it all then but maybe not, oh well, you tried your best for eight years and you’ve got a jillion more books to write.
There are loads of middle options I’m leaving out, including continuing as you are now, but you already said you didn’t want that and honestly until you’re ready to either invite him into your thought process or commit to figuring out the next stage of what your marriage should be like (“Is this marriage what you hoped it would be like? Because I don’t think it is what I hoped for. Can we talk about that?”), my recommendation is: Keep Dream Boyfriend all to yourself for now, but be honest and forthright in letting your husband know that you’d like some time and space to write and be clear that you’re not comfortable sharing your pages just yet (if ever). I think you get to possibly be done with the marriage and still ask for what you need while it holds together, and you get to still hope that your husband will surprise you. You say he’s kind, so what if he says, “Okey-doke, babe, I was just curious because I like your writing so much and it’s awesome to see you so excited about something, I just wanted to be part of it if I could possibly help!” and then closes the study door to give you some peace and quiet?
Maybe that won’t work, or maybe he’ll whine and keep insisting on reading it or cling to your time and attention tightly and you’ll be one step closer to the end. But maybe it will work, and maybe your B-story just got an interesting character, is what I’m saying: The person who was almost the love interest but not quite right in the end, still, he’s a decent chap, he’ll be a good match for someone, just not our heroine, who needs different things than she thought she did when the story began.