You’re married to someone you’ve been friends with since high school. You have two young kids. Your husband is a kind person, unassuming to a fault, with no hidden agenda or malice in his heart whatsoever. Unfortunately, he is also completely ineffectual, incapable of making decisions or a planning anything, and unable to look within and see his part in things. He’s not a narcissist; he just has no self-awareness. He is simply not equipped, emotionally or psychologically, to dig below the surface of his thoughts and experiences. His primary concern is what others think of him. Image is everything in his world, but not pretentiously so. He is desperately afraid of not being liked and well thought of, which makes it almost impossible for him to be direct or say no.
He is self-employed and owns a business started decades ago by someone in his family. He works hard which you appreciate but lacks vision. At home, he gets to be the “fun parent” while you manage everything: kids, boundaries, schoolwork, activities, clothing, groceries, meal prep and cleanup, medical appointments, dental exams, social activities, home décor, home improvement projects, etc. You’re involved at your kids’ school. You get everyone to and from. You make sure everyone always has everything they need. You keep everything in order and stay on top of everyone’s commitments and schedules. You handle all of it except the bank account; he won’t allow that. Oh, you can spend money on most anything you like; you just have to ask him for it (unless you earned it with your business or job.)
In addition to your home, your kids, and your life, you also manage him. When you and your husband go out, he can’t decide what to wear; you must tell him. He can never pick a restaurant; you must choose. When he’s not familiar with the menu, he asks you what you think he should try. One of his cashiers at work is stealing money and he doesn’t know how to handle the situation; you must direct him. A friend borrows money under false pretenses and refuses to pay your husband back; you must tell your husband how to deal with it. Your son asks your husband if it’s ok to go play football with other neighborhood kids across the street; your husband calls you for an answer while you’re at the grocery store. Virtually every decision that could impact another person in any way, or possibly tarnish his well-guarded image as a likeable, sweet, kind-hearted person, he relies on you to make.
On several occasions, you considered ending the marriage. Physical intimacy disappeared years ago and emotional intimacy was never part of the equation. One night, after you forced the issue and insisted that he explain why he hadn’t touched you in over two years, he owned up to the fact that he was no longer attracted to you. He made it clear that your body no longer lived up to his expectations, and that he was put off by your appearance. He didn’t say any of this in a cruel or biting way; it was more of a frustrated and pitiful plea, as if he was genuinely trying to earn your sympathy. Three months later you told him you wanted a divorce and retained an attorney.
The idea of divorce was scary at first, and the process was tense at times. But when it was finally over, to both your credit, you remained friends and shared fifty-fifty custody of the kids, who are now young teens. You began to flourish the day you moved out of that house. You finally felt free to be yourself without fear of judgment or condemnation. You were no longer suffocating under the weight of the opinions of others. You evolved, and two years later, you married your twin flame and knew deep, authentic connection with another human for the first time in your life. It hasn’t been easy, but it has certainly been worth it, and now you’re thriving.
However, with no self-awareness, and no capacity for growth, your ex-husband’s post-divorce experience was quite different. He struggled with bouts of depression, drinking, felt lost, and had no idea how to take care of some basic things. You became aware of this through conversations with your kids and interactions with your ex as you worked with him to maintain as much consistency in the lives of your children as possible. Your new and amazing husband understood the situation. He didn’t like it, but he understood it. Everyone in that house depended on you to handle things, make decisions, take care of everything for over a decade. Your husband may not have known the extent of your ex’s dysfunction, but he knew that particular dynamic was not going to change overnight. Damn, you love this guy! Your husband is truly is the most wonderful, handsome, brilliant, kind, loving, and attentive man ever, and you are totally hot for him!
Now imagine this…
You’re several years into your new life. You have your kids every other week. Your husband loves them both like his own. Your kids are comfortable with you and their stepdad. When they are with their dad, they are FaceTiming and texting you almost daily to ask you questions and update you on their latest experiences and needs. Try as you might to point them to their dad while they are under his care, they feel much more comfortable talking through things with you, or even their stepdad. So, you end up constantly having to intercede on their behalf to make sure they have what they need over there. It’s not that he completely ignores them or refuses to care for them. He’s just clueless. It doesn’t occur to him that his teenage daughter needs tampons and might not be comfortable asking him to buy her some. He doesn’t think to check the kids’ bathroom to see if they’re out of toothpaste or low on toilet paper, and when they run out, they text you because “he won’t remember to buy any.”
You want more than anything to never have to interact with him again, or depend on him for anything, or deal with him for any reason. Yet every week he has them, you have to constantly remind everyone over there of the dates and times of their doctor appointments, dental appointments, friends’ birthday parties, haircuts, etc. You have to manage their schedule remotely because he simply cannot handle it, and when he screws up or misses something, the kids don’t call him, they call you. At her dad’s house, your daughter has to play the role of daughter, big sister, and even mom at times. Your kids love their dad, and they should. He loves them dearly. He’s just severely lacking in, among other things, basic communication and parenting skills. He has always relied on you to provide those.
Whenever he has a parenting question, or one of the kids gets in trouble at school, or he can’t decide how to handle a situation involving them, he’s doesn’t call or text you to give you a heads up. He reaches out to you because he needs you to tell him what to do, to make the decision because he simply can’t do it. He also has a hard time setting boundaries with the kids. He’s afraid saying no to them will make him the “bad guy.” On the rare occasion he is forced to say no, he immediately calls you so he can explain every consideration that led to his decision. Why? Because he desperately needs you to validate the choice he made, reassure him, and / or direct him from there.
You might be reading this now and thinking, “Well… if I really were in this situation, I would just tell my ex he’s on his own and tell the kids to ask their dad. Turn off my phone and live my life. Force him to grow up.” But these are your kids, and they are at a crucial time in their development. They need a strong parent during their pre-teen and early teen years to help them navigate life, something their father cannot do for himself. They need to feel grounded and connected to the adults closest to them, and they are not going to get that from your ex. They want that from him, but he’s incapable of providing that kind of emotional support. If one of them makes a poor choice or finds themself in a difficult situation, he doesn’t know how to help them through it, he only wants to know whose fault it is.
So, there you are, stuck in the middle between your old life and your new one, driven to the brink of madness by your ex’s extreme co-dependence. And there sits your ex, a hardcore nebbish still relying on you to manage parts of his life. There sit your kids, the ones who suffer if you don’t take care of things in both worlds. And there sits your husband, who loves you deeply, passionately, and authentically as he patiently waits for the day when he no longer has to share you with your ex on a weekly basis.
Sound like hell? It certainly does to me. Thankfully, this is fiction. The situation described above exists only in your mind. Surely no one out there in the real world has ever had to deal with anything like this before, have they? Thank God for this poor woman’s husband; he sounds like the best!