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Carolyn Hax: Little things can revive marriage

Hi, Carolyn: I have felt for a long time that my marriage is effectively over – no animosity, just no connection, no love, no intimacy. I suspect if it was just us, I would have had the courage to end things and deal with the trauma of ending a 20-year relationship, however empty it has become. But, we have two daughters, 6 and 8. I cannot bear the thought of bringing them such pain. The whole situation just depresses the heck out of me.

Things are not so bad that it is clear it would be best for everyone if we separated. The trouble seems related to our focus on jobs and children, aging parents, the rush of day-to-day life. At the end of the day we haven’t anything left for each other. As a result, there is a gap – at first a mere crack, but now a gulf so great that neither of us seems to have the wherewithal to bridge it.

Sometimes there’s a simmering anger, directed at nothing in particular, that erupts in snapping at each other, yelling at the dogs, or sadly, the children. Other times the latent anger lurks as stony silences that drag on for days. More often it’s simply indifference.

So, what’s the calculus for deciding how to proceed? Is there some threshold of miserable that I have to hit before I can contemplate such upheaval for my family? I’m trying to figure out the right questions to ask myself to decipher these difficult decisions. – M.

If there were a chance to bring the intimacy back, would you welcome it? Can your husband still be pleasant company? What (or who) has changed since you married him – or since you decided to have a second child?

This isn’t a comprehensive set of “right” questions, by any means – it’s just a start.

Carolyn: Would I welcome a return to intimacy, sure; do I have what it takes to make it happen, I just don’t know. – M.

In general, if internal forces are driving you apart, that’s bad news. When you recoil at a spouse’s touch, cringe with humiliation at your spouse’s behavior in public, when his or her quirks can drive you from a room – it’s tough to come back from that kind of acquired distaste. If you recognize this as your marriage, then you face a huge decision: Which will be better for your kids: estranged parents who live together, or apart? If you find yourself struggling to prioritize conflicting needs, a round of counseling, solo, might help.

But if the forces separating you are external, then your marriage has a decent chance. That’s especially true if those forces are demands that will eventually pass, as yours will. If you recognize this as your marriage, then I would suggest not thinking big, deliberately.

Instead of staring at the whole daunting gulf, try to come up with one small thing you can do differently. Can you find one night every week to go out to dinner? Can you hold hands when you walk somewhere? Can you outsource some of those exhausting responsibilities? Have you told him you miss him?

The “small change” could include an appointment with a marriage counselor, but I think you might be surprised by what simple, affectionate gestures can do.

E-mail Carolyn at, or chat with her online at 9 a.m. Pacific time each Friday at