Every week, Dear Prudence answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. Not how I thought this would go: I’m lonely. For one, my relationship with my wife is not good. I think the best analogy for how she treats me is as if I’m a mediocre employee whom she finds a bit charming somehow. She is so dismissive of anything I say—she interrupts me in the middle of almost any statement, whether to start arguing before I even finish my sentence or to just start talking about something else. We haven’t had sex in years, and I sleep in the guest room. We moved to a small town for her job a few years ago, and my career, which was sustainable before, has really floundered since. I’ve been in and out of self-employment, looking for jobs, failing, making a go of self-employment again, rinse and repeat.
This leads to my other two problems: I’m broke and I have no friends. Between parenting, doing the lion’s share of household duties, and desperately trying to make some money, I have managed to make not a single friend in over three years here. The one person who regularly reaches out is a fellow dad who would be a great candidate if he weren’t a mask-denying libertarian type who is just not a good fit. Everyone else I’ve tried to connect with is so flaky—it takes months of effort to grab a single beer after work, and they never return the effort. It is so frustrating and I feel pathetic!
My wife and I tried counseling for a while, but it didn’t go anywhere. I would like to leave, but I worry about our child, and I am also not at all sure I could make enough money to continue living here. The nearest city where I would probably have more opportunities is a couple hours away. My wife and I have a cordial relationship most of the time, and I feel like if I had some other positive friendships in my life, living in a loveless marriage wouldn’t be so bad until our kid is older. But I have no idea how to make that happen, especially when social activity takes both money and, often, child care. I’m leaving all the pandemic-related factors out because it just gets too murky, but of course this last year has exacerbated all of these issues. How do I make any of this better?
A: As you say, you’re facing three serious problems at the same time, and I recognize there’s no single solution that will address all of them in equal measure. I’ll start small and try to work my way up. Since you don’t really like the one guy who’s trying to establish a friendship with you, save yourself some time and energy that could be better spent elsewhere and stop responding to his overtures. As bad as it can feel to have no close friends, it’s worse to spend time with one friend you don’t actually like or respect. You don’t mention whether you had friends in your former city, but even if you’ve lost touch over the past few years, if there’s anyone you used to be close with, I’d suggest starting by trying to reconnect with some of them. Even if you can only catch up over the phone or try to schedule a virtual happy hour, it’s easier to renew a lapsed friendship than it is to start from scratch. If you haven’t spoken in a while, don’t front-load the conversation by disclosing all your problems at once, but do be frank about how lonely you’ve been lately and how much you miss them. Once you’ve reestablished some regular contact, you can work your way up to discussing some of your bigger problems, making sure to leave room to ask them questions and hear about how they’re doing and talking about fun, neutral subjects too. If you’re able to afford individual therapy through your wife’s insurance plan, you might find that proves more helpful than couples counseling; if nothing else, it’ll give you a consistent time each week where you can vent and strategize your plans for the future.
If you can’t leave your marriage now without compromising your ability to support yourself or see your child, it makes sense to hold off until the future, but it’ll feel a lot less frustratingly distant if you can start to plan your next steps. You don’t have to know how you’ll get from Point A to Point Z all at once, either. Schedule a phone consultation with a divorce lawyer (making sure to take the call when you know you can do so privately and without fear of being overheard) to get a better sense of what initiating a divorce might look like. Depending on where you live, you may be entitled to child support payments or even spousal support, especially if you’ve been the primary caregiver for your child for years. You might also look for remote work in other cities, since many companies are newly open to work-from-home arrangements during the pandemic. Just knowing you’ve taken a small step or two in the direction of planning a different kind of future might take some of the pressure off now. Good luck.