Dear Dr. He Said, Dr. She Said:
My husband is involved with a very important humanitarian cause that keeps him very busy and preoccupied. We have been married for 20 years, and we continue to go through these cycles where he seems to check out of the relationship and another part of him takes over to “run the show.” I know this is a very important cause for him, but I also feel he loses touch with the bigger picture of his life, which involves me and our two children. We have spoken of this many times in our marriage—a few times to the point of me threatening that I would leave him if he didn’t see the importance of the relationship.
The cycle is that he steps up for awhile and then he backs off again, I complain and threaten, and he eventually steps up again. I never see the cycle coming, though when I look back, it is when something new hits his plate that he is unsure about and that leads him into his head and off into another direction. Can you please help us?
The first point that comes to mind is that we all need to get a lot better at remembering why we are in relationships in the first place and take responsibility for that choice. A good relationship is a rare commodity because few know how to keep their relationship a priority. Few grasp the concept that a relationship requires time and attention, as does anything we want to grow and develop into something successful. It seems so basic, right? We see so many couples in our office who were lulled into a false sense of security during the “high” of the honeymoon period and now believe the relationship “shouldn’t be this much work”. Our need for immediate gratification as a society pulls us out of our relationships (which require consistent, ongoing attention) and into distractions that fill our ego and sense of importance without all the due diligence.
I’m wondering if your husband might be caught up in how important the humanitarian cause not only is, but perhaps also how important it makes him feel to be a part of. It could be a highly gratifying position to be in which easily pulls him away from a place he might not feel as important (at home or in the relationship). Although a good humanitarian cause does address the “higher good”, having a strong family at home is a crucial foundation for society at large. If your husband, for some reason, is not feeling or finding a sense of self-worth in the relationship or family, his attention might easily be swayed to a different cause.
I’m also wondering if your husband has a good sense of self-esteem or does he need a lot of emotional stroking to feel good about himself? On your part, Sarah, how have you done at helping your husband feel that he is an important part of the relationship? An important part of the family? So many fathers feel they play a minimal role when the wife has charge of the household (a whole other topic of conversation!). How have you done at telling him what you need without pushing him away in the process? These are a few factors that could be addressed as a starting point to get to the deeper issue of the pattern so it doesn’t continue to repeat itself.
Your letter points out both the good news and bad news of this kind of relationship issue. The good news is that you are married to a great guy who has a great vision for humanity and who is probably making the world a better place to live in. The bad news is that you are married to a guy who doesn’t know how to apply that same sense of serving a higher purpose and vision he has to his own personal life (which makes me wonder how effective he really is at his humanitarian cause, but that is a different topic to talk about at another time!). What seems to be lacking is that thing about walking his talk in serving the greater good of the world that starts by first being an example of how to best serve the greater good of his family.
Specifically, your major complaint is that he does not stay consistent after attempting some level of change regarding his attention to you and your children. The cycle you describe of him “stepping up” actually sounds more like he is placating you as opposed to attempting any real, authentic change for himself. No wonder he can’t sustain this “change.” It’s all for the wrong reasons! He changes (temporarily) because you are demanding that he change, i.e., he changes for you, not for himself. He’s not doing this because he believes the type of change his family needs from him would make him a better person! Until he makes that kind of internal shift for himself, you both will be caught in this endless loop.
The irony here, Sarah, is that anyone who is effective at serving an important humanitarian cause understands the essence of what real change is and how it can only sustain if it is done in an honest and meaningful way. My hope is that there can be some way that you can point this out to him so that he can approach this very important issue from a perspective that will serve him personally in a wonderful way. Best of luck!
Hanalei Vierra, Ph.D. (Dr. He) and M’Lissa Trent, Ph.D. (Dr. She) are a married couple who have worked together for over 15 years coaching troubled relationships to clearer communication, deeper intimacy, and healthier partnership. See their web site at
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