Dear Emma – WTF?!
I’ve been married to a great guy for 25 years. He is kind, responsible, makes a good living, and has been a really fantastic dad to our daughter who is about to graduate from college in December. I love my husband and consider our marriage to be a good one – but we never had that rocket-passion that everyone dreams of, and our sex life has dwindled to once-every-so-I-can’t-remember-when. We always prided ourselves in being hard working and financially responsible, and I really am proud of what we’ve accomplished in that regard.
With no more tuition bills, the house paid off and very comfortable savings, I am taking an early retirement, just like we always agreed (I’m a mid-level hospital administrator – a career at which I excel but look forward to leaving). My husband will continue to run his law practice, which has always been solid and a huge part of his identity, and frankly, ego.
Everything sounds fine, right? That’s the problem! With our daughter about to be launched into the world, our finances settled and my career coming to a close, I want to party! Over the past few years I’ve been nudging my husband to plan vacations, take up a hobby we could share, volunteer, enroll in classes at the local college — as well as expressing my growing urge to sell our huge, historical home and downgrade to something smaller and more efficient. He is stone cold on all of this. But it’s more than that: he actively discourages my interest in trips and endeavors, pointing out the expense and how my being gone will mean I will neglect certain household responsibilities. He has started subtly pointing out that he has to continue working after I retire so we can continue with our financial plans.
I handle our personal finances and am confident that we can start to really enjoy this time of our life without compromising our financial security. He won’t even engage with me on the topic. As each month gets closer to my retirement, I start to resent him more. How can I get him to loosen up?
–Super-frustrated in Boringtown
You and your husband had an agreement, and you are breaking it. You agreed to work hard, save up, then die. Aside from the enviable finale, you both stuck to your spoken contract: Focus on financial security and child rearing. This is indeed something to be proud of. And – to your credit – you acknowledge this success.
But you are changing. You have changed. You face a new chapter of your life and a different part of yourself. You want to explore. You have an urge to explore the world through travel and donating your time. You want to explore yourself through learning and experience. I think you also want to explore yourself as a woman — sexuality and romantically.
Your husband is not able to provide you with any off this at this time. Not only that, he is not open to discussing it – and is clearly threatened by your desire to deviate from Plan A. He is not wrong. He is adhering to the agreement. He is being true to the marriage and himself, which is a financially conservative person who is terrified that your new ideas will bankrupt his bank account.
You are not wrong, either. Life is not always linear. It is normal and healthy to want to grow and explore. And you should. But you must expect that it will come at a cost. If you pursue your dreams of travel and exploration, it will cause conflict in your marriage. Know this. It will happen. Maybe you and your husband can work out an agreement in which you act on your whims while he maintains status quo. Will you be OK with that? It means further separation in a relationship already disconnected in terms of interest, goals and intimacy.
There is always the chance that he will see you having such a great time and be inspired to join in. He might miss you while you’re living in a yurt in Tibet for a month, or motivated to give back after seeing you spend weekends tutoring single moms for their GEDs. Be open to the possibility he will change. But don’t count on it. That is not likely.
What is likely is that you will turn towards the sun. It will feel spectacular and you will crave more. You will meet new people living in that light – people on a similar journey. These people will become your friends and mentors. Some, you may find, are available to be your lovers. And every step of the way you must make the decision – all alone, without input from your husband – about which fork in the rode you will take. It will be hard. And it will hurt like hell – for you, for your husband, your daughter and other people in the very solid, reliable life that you so proudly created.
There are financial matters, of course. If you do pursue your own path, and that ends the marriage, you will have far less money than you do now – and so will your husband. That is what happens in divorce: Everyone ends up with less. It sounds like there are significant assets, which will be divided in half. It also sounds like you may be entitled to alimony and a good share of your husband’s law practice. But it may also mean that you have to return to work in order to afford to live comfortably. You cannot take for granted that you will be able to enjoy the relative comfort afforded you by marriage while simultaneously enjoying the freedom and adventure of retirement as a single woman. Something has to give.
You did not come here asking about divorce terms, but you are naïve if you do not call a divorce lawyer. Ask specific questions about your situation and what your future will look like in the event your marriage should end. That call does not commit you to anything – except starting this next phase of life with clear eyes and head.
There is little room for surprise in your situation. By writing me this letter tells me you know deep down what your choices are. And you feel scared, because big, giant changes are always scary. But sometimes in life we do things because we just must. Because staying put will only make us resentful and angry towards people we want to blame for holding us back. But the thing that is at the same time maddeningly frustrating, and blissfully liberating – is that no one can hold you back but yourself.
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.