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Unequal Responsibilities in a Marriage

QUESTION: My husband and I have been married for over five years. We have a five-year-old daughter, a house in the suburbs and everyone thinks we are the world's happiest couple. But we have grown apart over the years. My chief complaint is that my husband takes no initiative in anything, including housework, financial management or caretaking of our daughter. I just can't continue being his "mother." I love him very much, but I am constantly miserable. Do I pursue ending the relationship or tough it out?

ANSWER: You and your husband have established a relationship in which you seem to be the decision-maker in most areas. No wonder you are feeling like you are his mother, too.

Your stress is no doubt a result of feeling alone and overburdened with the adult responsibilities in your marriage. You have lost respect for your husband. And your self-esteem is no doubt lagging, too. Your misery and stress will continue to wear you down and deteriorate your marriage -- and perhaps even your health -- if things do not change.

Recent research by Robert Levinson at the University of California in Berkeley has found that women who stay in unhappy marriages have greater incidence of health problems, while men who are married stay healthier regardless of whether the marriage is experienced as happy or not. Perhaps this is due to the greater sense of emotional responsibility that women experience for the emotional health of family relationships.

So, yes, you should take your constant stress and misery seriously and consider leaving the marriage if you cannot get through to your husband. But first, open a heart-to-heart dialogue with your spouse about your feelings before throwing in the towel!

Although it is likely that you have complained to your spouse about his lack of initiative, you may need to be clear that unless something changes, you do not see yourself staying married to him. Ask him to go to marital counseling before calling it quits.

Counseling will likely bring the situation into a reality focus for him and for you. And if you do end up leaving the marriage, you will need time, and perhaps guidance, to do so in a way that assures a continuous relationship between your daughter and her father.

Take your time to evaluate the marriage and look ahead to the future. Clarify what you need in a partner and work to address your needs within the marriage. Get help to let go of the mothering role in your relationship, whether or not your husband has yet relinquished his role as a son. Ask your husband to consider how his life will change if you are not married. Being single would cause him to make his own decisions and initiate a primary relationship with his daughter, for starters. If he sees this reality, he may choose to grow now, rather than later.

When respect and partnership are not forthcoming in marriage, passion and friendship wither. Let your husband know that you need him to be your partner, not your son, if your marriage is to remain viable.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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