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Partners are Emotionally Divorced
Since Baby's Birth

QUESTION: My relationship with my husband has gone terribly wrong since the birth of our daughter two years ago. We have been married five years. I feel like a mother to a toddler and to an adult. My husband has literally jumped up and down yelling, "I need attention!" And he means attention without our daughter. He pesters me constantly for sex, yet he doesn't want to spend family time with us. On his days off he finds it impossible to even come home for dinner. I guess I could find a way to pay more attention to him, but I don't want to find a way anymore. (My husband did have a difficult childhood. He was adopted by a couple who were abusive to him and he has been on his own since he was a teen.) I am spread thin emotionally and physically. If it weren't for my daughter I would have packed it in by now. Please help!

ANSWER: Without change, you and your husband are quickly becoming emotionally (if not legally) divorced. Share your feelings with your husband. Let him know what you need in order to continue in the relationship. If he continues to believe that there is nothing is willing to change, consider what your options are. You may want your own therapy to look at what you need at this point. Your husband clearly needs to explore his own childhood experience and how it is affecting his relationship with you, his daughter and take into account his contribution towards recreating family breakdown instead of family cohesion.

You are at the crux of a crisis in the development of family. First, your husband may be expecting you to make up for his childhood neglect. This situation may have compounded his ability to give attention to his own child, and so he left that in your hands. In this way he abrogated responsibility for developing his role as father in the family. This led to the second difficulty, that your role as wife and mother became overloaded, leaving you tired and resentful. At this point you are both suffering from feelings of abandonment which threaten the marriage. The central breakdown here, is that your husband has not met the challenge required of him in creating a satisfying and fulfilling role for himself as a father in his own family.

Your husband's unavailability to his wife and daughter on his days off indicates that he is separating himself out from the family. This separation leaves him lonely and cut off from the nurturance that being a part of a family unit can bring. He feels left out and blames his spouse for these feelings. He does not see his own contribution to his loneliness -- that separating himself from the family is causing his pain. His ability to perceive himself as a part of a family whole and to act in the best interests of the whole is lacking. This may be the way he survived as a child in an abusive family -- to separate himself from it. This is a common protection that children learn in surviving toxic family situations.

When we embark upon family again, ghosts of childhood haunt us. Defenses established in childhood are reactivated and difficult to penetrate, as in your husband's case. Your husband does need to take a walk down memory lane if he is to learn to be included in family in an adult role now. Though as a child such inclusion might not have been safe, he now has the power as an adult to make things different. But to do so, he must be willing to see that his retreat from the family is at least in part cause for his loneliness in the marriage.

Ask your husband if he wants to be a part of a family. Be clear that you feel your marriage is threatened and why. Accept responsibility for bringing these things to his attention and that you are losing respect and affection for him based on his lack of time and attention to his family. Tell him you are lonely for him too! And invite him to take his proper and rightful place beside you as a co-parent. Let him know that this would warm your heart and would no doubt naturally increase your affection for him.

Your spouse may have had little in the way of role modeling to even understand what positive involvement in the family would look like. Be compassionate to the fact of his childhood neglect and abuse, but do not take responsibility for what must be his work, and his work alone...to reflect and comprehend the impact of this past parental abandonment and how this affects his ability to include himself in family now. Often, people recreate their own childhood environments. This is the work of the unconscious in trying to break through to seek healing in a new situation. Your husband experienced abandonment at birth. He may now be recreating that abandonment with his own daughter. He needs to wake up to the fact of his non involvement in fatherhood and what this means not only for him, but for his daughter and wife as well!

Your husband must take credit for his lack of connecting to his fathering role which may be at the heart of destroying the only real family he has ever known! Ask him why he would hurt himself in this way. Why would he want to destroy the very thing he needs the most -- family.

If your husband is willing to do the deep soul searching that is in order for him, he may be at the brink of the deepest healing he will ever experience. Far deeper than what he has already enjoyed with you as a couple before parenthood. Taking an adult place in a functioning healthy family can bring profound healing to a ravaged childhood. But it is neither easily nor automatically achieved. Coming to terms with past parenting relationships is a prerequisite to accepting your own parental responsibilities.

Your husband has already benefited from the healing that came from your love and nurturance in the first years of your marriage. Now the challenge is to develop a positive and nurturing father in the family. One that contributes instead of detracts. It is your husband's job to reflect on his past relationship to his own father or father figures. Becoming a parent means he must forge an identity of himself as a father, which includes a journey back through the pain of childhood, in order to see if there is anything given him that he can salvage in creating his own fatherhood identity. If he experienced his adoptive father as a negative influence, he may be attempting to be a "good" father by avoiding fatherhood responsibility. He may be at a loss to conceptualize a father as a powerful positiveinfluence on his family, if he suffered abuse at his own father's hands. And, he will indeed need to learn and develop the skills of positive parenting which he may already be learning from you. However, he needs to forge his own positive definition of the father role, its meaning and contribution not just to you and his daughter, but also to himself. Fathers' groups as well as individual therapy would provide a framework for him to change, if he can see that change is not only necessary, but in his best interests!

By retreating from the task of developing himself as a father, he is destroying his family relationships. It is as if he is trying to keep things standing still when time has moved forward. His time to contribute to the family is here, and the window of opportunity is closing fast. It is not too late to catch the train, but he must be willing to buy his ticket!


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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