After 35 years in an unhappy marriage, debt is all that’s keeping us together

Tell Me About It: ‘I don’t ever remember a time when we were truly happy. It’s the hostility I find difficult’

PROBLEM: I’m living with my wife of 35 years. We have spent the last three years living in the same house, but apart, in separate rooms. I’ve been through MABS and a PIP adviser (Personal Insolvency Practitioner) for financial advice, as well as family mediation and counselling.

We’ve tried to agree a separation, but she never really engaged meaningfully. Her terms were unrealistic in my opinion and the meditator had no option but to suspend mediation as we were so far apart.

We have nothing in common. We have struggled financially most of our married lives. I have been self-employed since the mid-1990s and have lived through two recessions and now Covid-19. I’ve been living with debts I haven’t had a hope of servicing, plus the pressure from financial institutions, Revenue and all that goes with that.

I can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to leave me, or at least a time when she said otherwise. I actually don’t ever remember a time when we were truly happy and content. It’s the hostility at home I find very difficult.

I’m 60 this year and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in a relationship that’s not working for either of us. I’m not miserable, I have pastimes, that keep me positive which I love. I’m a glass half-full person. I’ve always supported our family, both financially and emotionally.

My wife has never held down a job outside the home. I guess I resent the fact that I have been the breadwinner for the past 35 years. She has had a number of part-time jobs over the years, but there was always an issue and they never lasted long.

Our kids are adults, and they are all living their own lives; they all have good careers and are in stable relationships.

I’m reaching out for any guidance, and maybe a route to a happier life.

ADVICE: Well done on trying all those options – from mediation to counselling and getting financial advice. It truly sounds as though the marriage is long over and all that remains is to figure out a way of separating without too much cost or struggle. It seems it is debt that is the main thing keeping you together. I know it is costly, but a conversation with a solicitor who works in the area of divorce and separation might be money well spent. There is also the free legal aid centres and accessing this might give you a sense of how separation can be done when there is little money and differing positions taken by the partners.

It will take energy and optimism to break out of the 35-year stagnation

You suggest that your wife will not have options in supporting herself should you separate and maybe this is why she is not demanding more immediate action, but perhaps she is full of fear and this is freezing her in an unwelcome situation. It may be that to separate successfully, you will need to engage with her about how she might live, post marriage.

Could you draw your adult children into this conversation? They know you both well and may be able to come up with suggestions for you both so that your futures are not intertwined. This will take time and planning, but many people have found themselves in a difficult situation like yours and exit pathways have been found.

If you want another chance at romance and love, then you will have to be very clear and adamant in your demand to end this marriage. You have had over 30 years of sharing an existence where neither of you feel that the other is the light of your life. What we want from our relationships (see Enduring Love in the 21st Century research) is companionship, true friendship and knowing that the other person has us as number one in their lives. It appears that the lack of these things has left your marriage running on resentment and disappointment, and this has created great sadness for both of you. It will take energy and optimism to break out of the 35-year stagnation and it appears that it is up to you to push this to a conclusion.

Be clear and convincing in stating that separation is happening and that a route out of the marriage will happen regardless of financial pressure. If you are genuine, then a way will be found and you will need to trust that your wife can find her own supports and advice through this time. In other words, you cannot and should not do her thinking for her.

When this is done, you will need to engage in the possibility of romantic relationships, and this will bring its own challenges and joys but right now your attention should be fully on separating as quickly and fairly as possible.