Marriage to an ‘Empty Shell’ Must Change

By Amy Dickinson | July 29th, 2022

After 40 years, he still refuses to connect emotionally, and his wife has had enough

wife and husband in therapists' office. Photo by Prostockstudio, Dreamstime, for Ask Amy advice column on woman married to an 'empty shell' of a husband

For 40 years, she has been married to an ‘empty shell’ – a man who refuses to connect emotionally with her or their children. See what Amy Dickinson of Ask Amy advises.

Dear Amy:

I’ve been married to my husband for 40 years.

I have always felt like something was missing.

Every time I try to reach out and connect emotionally, he becomes angry and withdraws.

Frustrated with his distance and indifference, I recently said that I needed to know if he loved me enough to work with me on improving our relationship.

He stated that he doesn’t know if he loves me because he doesn’t know how to feel love, because of the way he grew up.

He did grow up without a father. His mother had five kids and no education.

Her menial jobs kept her away from home and the kids had to fend for themselves. She was briefly married to an abusive man, but I don’t know the extent of the abuse.

Knowing this explains his empty shell, why he has been distant and indifferent to me and our children all of these years.

My sons and I had nothing to do with the way he grew up, yet we are the ones who are being punished, with a father and husband who cannot feel or express love and connection.

I know that childhood trauma and neglect can greatly affect a person in adulthood, but isn’t it possible to work through this to be a better partner and parent, if you want to be?

We went to joint counseling once several years ago, and that did not go well, so he is not willing to try again.

I have been in counseling by myself, but I never seem to get much out of it.

I feel like my only choice at this point is to walk away from a 40-year marriage, and that makes me sad.

What do other women do when married to an empty shell of a man who is unwilling to be a better partner?

Lonely Wife

Dear Lonely Wife:

You know from your own experience that good parents create a sense of security, safety, and well-being – so that their children can grow to be resilient, brave, and secure – even with their most challenging emotions. And love is the most challenging emotion of all.

Children who grew up with neglect and trauma protect themselves by forming a hard shell around their feelings. It’s all about survival.

I wonder if you and your husband are aware of any ways he does try to show love. Maybe it is through work, supporting the family, or pride in you.

You have spent 40 years trying to show your husband that it is safe to feel deep emotions that would render him vulnerable. He isn’t able to get there, he and is too afraid to try.

Some spouses married to an empty shell cope by retreating into their own shell, co-existing in an angry standoff. You’re not willing to do that, and I think it is quite brave of you to lean into your own needs, diving into a different future.

I suggest that you explore a trial separation, and that you give therapy another try.

Want to get even more life tips from Amy? Read more of her advice columns here!

In the tradition of the great personal advice columnists, Chicago Tribune’s Amy Dickinson is a plainspoken straight shooter who relates to readers of all ages. She answers personal questions by addressing issues from both her head and her heart – ranging from a wife married to an empty shell to DNA surprises. A solid reporter, Dickinson researches her topics to provide readers with informed opinions and answers. Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068

© 2021 by Amy Dickinson

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