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‘I don’t see my wife as a friend and want to leave my marriage’

Ask Roe: ‘I’m wondering what type of friend you’re expecting your wife to be and what kind of friend you are’

Dear Roe,

My dilemma is that I don’t know if should I stay married. To give you the background we have been married for 17 years, we have two kids over 10 who I absolutely adore and treasure my time with, even though the young teenager can be a bit tough going at times! However, I am not in love with my wife and even though she says I am her best friend, I don’t think of her as my friend. If she had not been mother to my kids, I feel I would have left a long time ago. We did couples therapy about four years ago, she was reluctant to go until I said I would leave her if she did not attend with me. We learned a few lessons and were able to speak freely in the sessions eventually. I don’t feel those lessons are strong enough to bond us back as a couple but at the time they gave us the tools to survive the pandemic.

I did some counselling in January when I was unhappy with everything and I learned a few tips to enable me to cope with the stress and to be happier in myself. Despite all the therapy I am still unhappy in my marriage and I now feel more therapy would not help. I am confident that neither of us has cheated on each other. The root of the problem, I feel, is that I don’t think of her as my friend. When she phones me I reluctantly accept the call, she always wants something, it is never just to say hello. Do you think I should stay in our marriage?

Regular readers of the column know that I’m not in the habit of telling people they should stay in relationships that they want to leave. I don’t think our purpose on Earth is to stay in relationships that diminish us, make us miserable and show the children around us that love or marriage is a cold, loveless burden. And I think you’re right that if you’re at the point of not wanting to answer the phone to your wife, the issue here may be insurmountable.


The Gottman Institute, which researches intimacy and relationships, name four traits in relationships that they refer to as “the Four Horseman”; signs that a relationship is in serious difficulty and are, if unaddressed, often predictors of the end of a relationship. These are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. From your description it seems like you may have elements of contempt for your partner and are engaging in stonewalling by shutting down and not wanting to communicate.

I do acknowledge that it seems like you have put in the work to keep your marriage going. Seeking out couples’ counselling, undertaking individual therapy and navigating Covid as a couple with children are all signs that you have put some work into the past few years and those are feats in and of themselves. I understand that after years of feeling stressed, disconnected, of working hard at parenting and your relationship that you may simply be exhausted and no longer have the energy to maintain a facade in a relationship where you don’t feel fulfilled. That sounds incredibly difficult and I’m sure the sense of guilt and responsibility that comes with considering ending your marriage when you have children weighs heavily. That’s a lot to bear and I think you should stay in therapy to help you deal with those emotions and the future, whatever it looks like.

Whether you choose to stay with your wife or leave, I think getting to a place where you can be kind and respectful is going to be vitally important, particularly as you have children and so will have some form of relationship or contact even if you do split up. And what strikes me about your letter and your description of the relationship dynamic is that you don’t indicate anywhere that your wife is unkind or unenthusiastic about you – in fact, you write that she describes you as her best friend.

You do write that she rarely calls you just to chat – but if you live together, see each other daily and are raising two children, I can understand how she could see phone conversations as the form of communication needed for task management and co-ordination throughout the day when necessary, whereas she views your time together in person at home as the time for some connection. And while you feel the sting of her calling only when she “wants something”, I do wonder how hard it must be for her to have a husband who doesn’t think of her as a friend, and who has emotionally checked out of the marriage. I wonder when you stopped viewing your wife as someone you liked enough to answer the phone to, and how obvious that has been to her.

Again, I do acknowledge that you went to therapy and made sincere efforts but I’m wondering what type of friend you’re expecting your wife to be, and what kind of friend you are to her. If your definition of friend is someone who brings excitement and entertainment to your life, that could be an unfair demand from a woman who is not only raising two children and has been navigating Covid with the rest of us, but whose husband has no affection or enthusiasm for her, to the point of not wanting to answer the calls she makes to manage the necessary daily tasks of partnership and parenthood. I also wonder how much entertainment and excitement you’ve been offering her, in terms of arranging quality time together or bringing joy to daily interactions.

Do you not consider her a friend because you no longer have romantic feelings for her and have let any other feelings of affection go, too?

If your definition of a friend is someone who cares about you, is invested in your happiness and wellbeing and supports you – she has said that you’re her best friend, so is she offering you that in ways that you’re not acknowledging? You don’t mention anything other than the transactional phone calls as a sign that she isn’t your friend any more, and if we’re placing such an emphasis on them, then I wonder if someone openly didn’t really like you, how often you would call them just to chat? And I wonder when was the last time you just called her or had a conversation where you were genuinely invested in her thoughts, opinions, feelings, experiences and needs?

Basically, I’m wondering how much of a friend you’ve been to your wife. Do you not consider her a friend because she doesn’t offer you any affection, support, kindness, respect, partnership (and maybe this is true and just isn’t clear from your letter) or do you not consider her a friend because you no longer have romantic feelings for her and have let any other feelings of affection go, too?

I ask these questions not because I think you should stay in a marriage where you are miserable, but because I think if you’re considering ending a marriage, you should be clear-eyed about the issues. You should be able to view your partner as a person who deserves empathy and kindness and respect, regardless of your romantic status, because you’ll have to interact with her about your children for years to come.

You and your wife deserve happiness and a loving relationship, and your children deserve to see affectionate, respectful, loving relationships modelled to them. Do what you need to do to find that in your romantic life, but to also get to a place where whatever relationship you have with your wife is affectionate, respectful and loving – whether that’s within a marriage, a friendship, or simply a respectful co-parenting partnership.