Thursday 22 March 2018

Dear Mary: I'm fed up with my wife's behaviour, can I change her or should I leave?

Unhappy couples
Unhappy couples
Illustration by Tom Halliday

Mary O'Connor

Q: My wife and I have been married for almost 15 years now but I am really fed up with her. When we got married she was bright, vivacious, slim and very attractive. But soon after we got married she gave up her good job and she has rarely worked at all since.

Even when she has taken on a part-time job she always leaves very quickly because "they don't appreciate me"!

We have two kids and her excuse at the beginning was that she wanted to be at home for them. But all she did was watch television and complain about how exhausted she was with their constant demands.

So when I got home from work I would have to look after them until bedtime, often including making the dinner and always doing their homework with them and then trying to tidy the house which was always a mess .

I was doing an extra degree at night when they were young and she complained about that too. She has also put on about four stone, never does any exercise and has almost no friends outside the house, apart from a school friend who lives down the country so she is on the phone to her twice a day moaning about me, the kids, her life etc.

I just feel like packing up and leaving but I can't leave the kids. I really adore them and they are bright and the light of my life. I am writing to you in desperation. Can I change her - or should I just leave?

Mary replies: I read your letter with mounting disbelief that anybody could put up with this lifestyle for so long. But you have done and so your wife's behaviour has continued without question. So what happened to the lovely attractive woman that you married? And why did she change so much? These are questions that only she can answer but whatever the reasons you have been colluding with her in maintaining the status quo.

This is a hugely negative way of life for your children to experience. It is also very bad training for them to learn that the male does literally everything both inside and outside the home and the female does as little as possible.

Not exactly the role model that you would want them to follow as they grow up, but if you don't do something to change things then that is exactly the pathway they will choose.

You have three options. You can keep things exactly as they are and incredible as it may seem this is often the option that people choose. However it is the least desirable.

Secondly you can separate, live in two different places and share the parenting, and try to get on with having a life. This of course has all sorts of problems, not the least being financial and is not one that you would enter into without a lot of thought. But it may be the only way forward for both yourself and the children.

Your last choice is to have a talk with your wife and explain how profoundly unhappy you are with how things have worked out for you both. There must be some reason - depression perhaps - why she has changed so radically.

Tell her that you are seriously considering separation and as you need things to change if you are to stay together you will have to ask that you seek help in the form of relationship counselling. Her refusal or not engaging in counselling if you do start will mean that option two is the route you will have to go down.

All of you deserve a better life than the one that you currently have.

I have to do all the caring for my mother-in-law

Q. Like everyone else I have laughed at the mother-in-law jokes and for most of my life I had a pretty good relationship with my mother-in-law. But she became very ill about six months ago, refused to go into a nursing home and my husband insisted that she come and live with us. He is an only child. She has now become a monster.

She shouts at me, complains about everything, is incontinent and hates being ill so she takes it out on me and our children. I have complained to my husband but it does no good at all. He used to have long days at the office. They have now become even longer and he is rarely home before it is time for bed. He also is no help in looking after his mother and refuses to change her nappies because he says that's women's work. He has now taken up golf so that he is gone almost all day on Saturdays. I desperately need some practical advice before I pack up and leave myself. This is not fair and not the life I want to live.

Mary replies: It certainly is not fair and your mother-in-law is very lucky to have you there, as her son seems to have opted out of all responsibility, other than telling you what you have to do. It is simply not good enough that all the caring for his mother is up to you. Your husband has to take his share of the load no matter what he says. It is certainly not women's work - some of the very best carers and nurses are male. If he cannot afford to pay for home help - even a few hours a day - he will have to help with caring for his mother. He is using both golf and work to avoid being at home so perhaps it is time that you find some reason to get away for at least a long weekend, with the children, so that he can see just how difficult it is.

Caring for an elderly relative can be very hard work and those who do it should be acknowledged and helped whenever possible. In a way it is similar to looking after a small baby, but whereas the baby grows and their development is wonderful to behold, somebody getting towards the end of their life is not going to get any better. So there is a lot of sadness if one is emotionally involved with the person being cared for. Perhaps your husband is unable to cope with seeing his mother become quite a different person to the one she was in his youth but it doesn't excuse his behaviour. You need a lot of support from him if you are to continue looking after your mother-in-law. So arrange to have some time away - let him take annual leave if necessary - and let him see the reality of living and caring for her on his own. Hopefully this will help him see reason.

You can contact Mary O’Conor anonymously by visiting or email her at or write c/o 27-32 Talbot Street, Dublin 1. All correspondence will be treated in confidence. Mary O’Conor regrets that she is unable to answer any questions privately.

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