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posted: 8/5/2012 2:56 AM

Avoid stereotyping spouses in rough relationships

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Q. My wife and I have been together for 16 years, married for 14. We had children late and have two lovely kids. We both never wanted children, and then suddenly she wants a child and I acquiesce, consequently I fall in love with said child. Eventually one child is not enough and we must have another -- and do.

Now I feel trapped and resentful. I do love our second child, but suddenly really resent my wife. Our love life sucks and is totally up to her. I do try to add romance to our lives with notes, flowers, dinners out; the extra effort seems to matter none. I feel a hostage in my own skin, bed and marriage. I want to scream.

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My wife is good, kind and a great mother. Since our children, I seem to not matter. About me: I am a leader in business, manage a large staff and love my wife. Help.

A. I've left this question in my queue for a couple of weeks, because it's radioactive. One of the worst things we do to each other, as humans, is stereotype each other. We see a couple of familiar details, say, "Ah, s/he's one of those," and relieve ourselves of the burden of giving it any more thought.

What you're talking about in your letter is a favorite one of those. You've heard it, right? "Women have children and then, bam, their husbands get the couch." If I show any signs of sympathy for your wife, I'll hear about it.

But even though you happen to be living an exact replica of the cliché -- and no doubt it has crossed your mind -- I urge you to resist any temptation to go Mars and Venus with this issue, because, like all stereotyping, it oversimplifies and vilifies.

I'm sympathetic to you, but your hopes lie in your sympathy for her.

I also suspect this isn't so much about husbands and wives and moms and dads, but about roles and emotional limits.

Since you're a "leader in business," and make romantic overtures that sound heartfelt but more formal then homey, I'll wager your wife is the primary caregiver.

If so, then here's something to consider: Not everyone is comfortable with the abundance of noise, speech, color, smell, touch -- especially touch -- involved with small children. They're in your lap, your arms, they're tugging your hands, your shirt, your hair. Again, this affects men and women, introverts especially, older more than younger, and leads both men and women to withdraw (though women still tend to be the parent in the thick of it).

So, maybe your wife is among those who have only so much sensory capacity on any given day, and by the end -- with even the most beloved spouses -- just want solitude, silence and a cradle of cool sheets.

Flowers here are tone-deaf, and may even translate as pressure.

Obviously, not every freeze-out breaks this way. Sometimes there's just a plain, old-fashioned alienation of affection. If she's not only sex-averse but also short-tempered and distant, then skip the rest of this and find a marriage counselor skilled enough to get you talking, and qualified enough to diagnose depression in either of you.

However, if your freeze-out is a matter of your wife being as good a friend as ever but having nothing for you physically, then it would explain why your romantic gestures go thud. A more, er, results-oriented gesture might be to steal a weekend (or overnight) together at a nice, local hotel while a trusted relative or sitter cares for the kids. Or, to offer her weekly, scheduled her-time for physically restorative things (kickboxing, yoga, painting ... needs do vary).

Or, skip the gestures altogether and just talk honestly about how badly you miss this part of your life with her -- not in a begging, blaming or end-of-tether way, but in a what-can-I-do-on-my-end-to-understand way, besides be patient till the younger's freshman year ... Though, well, that will be part of it. I won't promise it will happen with your marriage, but in some others with the problem I'm describing, the physical connection does grow back. Don't expect it -- it's your expectations stoking your resentment -- but do open your mind to a multiyear solution.

Thinking long-term about sex isn't an area of human excellence, but you love your wife and your family's on the line.

Tough as it is, look across the table today and frame your neglected love life not as a rejection or withholding, but a depletion. A depletion of a resource that's renewable as long as you're both communicating and patient with each other, and willing to give what you least want to give when you least want to give it (you: space; she: sex) -- just as a gesture of sportsmanship, good faith and long-haul love.

• Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her online at 11 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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