I Used to be Her Rock, but Now I’m Drowning

Dear Dr. Deb.

Last week I had a sinking sense that I was lost.  Lost in myself and my life, that is. Nothing seems to make sense anymore.  The thing is, I can’t shake this feeling that the only way to find myself is to get out of my marriage.  NOW.

Am I having a mid-life crisis? I’m a 43-year-old biracial man married to a white woman.  We’ve been together for 12 years, and we used to be happy.

I always thought we were a good match.  I’m a tech entrepreneur and she’s an MBA student, always on the Dean’s list and still manages to juggle a part time job as an accountant.  Early on I did recognize that she can be emotionally needy.  She would have crying jags and bouts of anxiety that would affect both our routines and our social life.  I couldn’t go to my parents’ 40th anniversary party because she was anxious about the people there.  It can be exhausting and I feel like I am dealing with a troubled child.

To be honest, I think I’m partly to blame for her behavior.  I liked being someone she looked to for strength and guidance.  I’m very empathetic and have always found it hard to turn down people who need my help, even when I sometimes feel like I’m running on empty.

But, now I feel trapped.  Helping her with her emotions has taken over my life.  I love her, but I feel like I’m at the end of my rope.  All I want to do is get as far away as I can from her and her meltdowns because I feel like I’m drowning.  Dr. Deb, is leaving my wife the only way to regain a sense of myself?


Dear Drowning,

Let me begin by saying it’s time to come up for air and start breathing again with your own lungs.

I can see a familiar “formula” from your story:  your wife’s emotional 

instability + your enabling personality = a recipe for a rocky marriage from the beginning.  People like you who give away their power suffer from the dysfunction of codependency.

There’s an old therapy joke:

Q:  “How do you know you’re in a codependent relationship?”

A:  “When you’re about to die, someone else’s life flashes before you.”

To make progress on this road to recovery, you first have to shift focus from your wife and her issues to your behaviors.  You have a mystery to solve:  How did you become codependent?  Take a good look in the mirror. What do you see, a stranger perhaps?  Try thinking of yourself as a fascinating person you want to befriend, then set yourself on a path of self-discovery.

Codependent behavior usually starts as a response to childhood trauma, when being vulnerable was unsafe.  Maybe you’ve learned that being “good” and pleasing your parents – often at the expense of your own needs – would ensure their love and protection.  It could be that adaptive behavior like this from your childhood had become a trapdoor that leads to the same adult relationship patterns.

As if that wasn’t enough to work out, add to that equation the biracial factor. Empaths and people like yourself who straddle racial worlds tend to expend an extraordinary amount of energy trying to fit into their environments.  Consider the confusion of forming your own identity and really believing your feelings matter as much as everyone else’s.

Let’s consider the question of what a successful marriage looks like and should you remain in yours. Unlike codependent relationships where the focus is on the needs of one’s spouse, the goal of a happy relationship is to be close and interdependent while still maintaining your separate identities.  A balanced partnership means that each person must have the freedom to express themselves and have the opportunity to grow.

For your marriage to succeed, I would say both you and your wife need to embark on some self-exploration.  If your wife truly loves you, she will accept your need to make changes in yourself, even if this requires taking some time away from her.  Once she understands that you will no longer be catering to her moods as you once did, she too may seek the help of a therapist to establish a more grounded sense of self that doesn’t depend on your affirmations.

Dr. Deb

Do you have a burning question – Your comments in response to a column are welcome. ​I will do my best to answer as many of your questions as I can. Please email me at deb@drdeborahhecker.com