Do I love my wife enough?

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAR 4, 2005

I’m a middle child, abandoned by my eldest brother. Did I marry just for security?


Dear Cary,

I am the third of five children. My oldest brother, by six years, ran away from home repeatedly during his teenage years. When he finally reached adulthood he flew the coop for good. As far as I know, my parents weren’t abusive, irresponsible or neglectful. We were a typical middle-class family in a typical middle-class town. By all accounts my brother was a smart fellow. Yes, he dabbled with pot and hung out with some rough kids but nothing beyond the norm.

Twenty years later I’m a 35-year-old husband and father of two. Looking back, I believe I may have responded to the incidents involving my brother by developing an exaggerated need for acceptance based on a deep fear of inadequacy. After all, my thinking goes, if my brother wasn’t able to stand up to this world, what hope have I? Granted, this is all navel-gazing self-assessment, but it feels right to me … this week.

So here’s where it gets sticky. I think I may have gotten married simply because my wife loves me. The prospect of a doting partner seemed too good to pass up, so I didn’t. And the life we’ve created together is wonderful in many ways. She’s a fantastic mother to our miraculous children. We live a very comfortable life and spend more time together as a family than most. But I’m not sure that I love my wife. It pains me to say it. I like her very much, but I don’t miss her when she’s gone. I don’t know if this makes it any clearer, but I don’t yearn for her. And I don’t think I ever did.

Where does this leave me? I cherish my family and don’t want to lose it. Should I soldier on under the “Nothing’s Perfect” banner? I think I could be happy enough. But is happy enough … enough?

Reluctant to Run Away

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Dear Reluctant,

It may not be necessary to your happiness to love your wife in the way you think you are supposed to. And it certainly would be foolish and cruel to announce one day that you are abandoning your family simply because you’re not sure your passion is of the correct wattage. So I think the wise and thoughtful thing to do is to delve into this absence you have discovered, to come to know its nature and its meaning.

What if it is true that you married your wife less because you loved her than because you wanted to be loved by her? That would not necessarily be some shameful revelation upon which the union and all its issue must perforce be scattered to the winds. It would be, rather, a fortunate realization — one that complements your larger sense of yourself as a middle child deeply wounded by your oldest brother’s desertion. Sometimes we seek to be desired rather than to be the desiring one because we cannot risk another idolized, idealized figure walking out on us. It would be too much. So we seek safe harbor.

I’m a middle child myself. I’m next to the youngest of five. I find comfort in the confines of compromise; I say, I’ll go if you’re going. I wait for a traffic signal before walking. But all the while — and I’m not sure if this is just me, or if this also is part of the middle child’s dilemma — I’m keenly aware of the opposite of nurture in my nature, the jealous will to extermination buried under an affable skin, the drive to excel that threatens the order. We do tend to explode, don’t we? We do so much for others and then we blow up, suddenly, when we don’t get enough in return — when our unwritten contract is violated.

So I express my crazy will to excellence as service to others. It’s safer that way. Hence, duh, big surprise that I would become the empathic writer of advice, no? — aching to dazzle and amaze, but all the while maintaining that virgin face of humble service!

Ah, the middle child deluxe!

I recognize your doubt about the intensity of your own emotions, but I wonder if it may not be so much related to your birth order itself as to your grief over your brother’s departure. Did you ever grieve his going? I mean really grieve it? Perhaps there is more feeling there than you thought. Postponement of such a thing can sort of put everything on hold, as though all our feelings were in line at the post office, waiting to be weighed, stamped and canceled. Maybe you have a lot more feeling to do yet before you can feel everything you feel for your wife. When was the last time you broke down and cried unexpectedly?

So, just to be clear: If you were to leave your wife and children, you would be not only be repeating your brother’s abandonment but also setting out on a likely fruitless journey. Whatever feelings you seek reside within you already.

You’re at a crucial point in your life. You could easily make the wrong decision. So I urge you to look at your history and understand why you’re stuck. You seem right on the verge of understanding. Somewhere close at hand, perhaps among the stifled tears over a brother’s departure, I think you will find the passion and yearning that you seem to have misplaced.

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