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An affection imbalance threatens a marriage

Carolyn Hax

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

I’d like to warn my husband that I’m unhappy enough that it could destroy us, but I’m not sure how to do it without an ultimatum. I’m unhappy with a general lack of affection, especially the G-rated kind. That bothers me all the more, like I’m only worth an effort when sex is involved.

We’ve had different versions of this conversation every few months for two years — everything from the serious and tearful, “I’m lonely,” to a joking, “Pay attention to me.” When I raise the subject, I’ll enjoy the sweet forehead kiss, random hug or backrub for a few days, but it never lasts.

Am I overlooking a way to broach this subject? It doesn’t seem fair to blindside him with a separation, but I don’t want to be a “do this or else” kind of wife and won’t stay in a lonely marriage.

— Unhappy

This isn’t about ultimatums or even what you’re “worth.” This is about who you are and who your husband is, period. You are about regular, G-rated affection. Your husband is not. That’s it. You did the right thing by articulating what you wanted, and he did the right thing when he tried to provide it. But his inability — don’t torture yourself with “willingness” judgments — to show sustained affection contains essential information: His daily-affection set point is below what you want out of life.

So, tweaking your original question: Knowing he’s not affectionate, what do you want next? To make one last request? To try living in the marriage for a while knowing this is how it’s going to be? (Never underestimate the burden of believing a marriage will change if you only do A, B or C just right. It’s exhausting. And embittering.)

Do you want to separate?

There’s no “blindsiding” someone after eight discussions in the past two years. That’s a lot of notice. Say this, even. And: “I’ve run out of ways to ask. I also don’t think it’s fair for either of us to stay in a marriage where we’re being asked to be people we’re not.”

Before “seeya,” you can also say you’ve contemplated leaving over the affection problem and may still, but you want him to know this is how seriously lonely you feel.

He’ll either change permanently or he won’t.

That after all is the ultimatum problem: It’s basically a threat to make someone do something to keep you, and you certainly wouldn’t want someone marrying you, for example, under threat. But this is a case where the source of the result isn’t as important as the result itself.

Re: Unhappy:

I had that exact issue, and after WAY too long deliberating, I ended it. I’m now engaged to a man who WANTS to give and receive similar affection.

You did the first step by asking for what you need. The second step is the hard part.

— Anonymous

Understatement. And true, thanks.

Re: Unhappy:

If I need a hug, I don’t wait for hubby to hug me. I go to him and put my arms around him and we hug. Giving affection to him freely makes it easier for him to give me affection freely. If he is shrugging away from a hug repeatedly, that’s another story.

— Two-Way Street

Email Carolyn at [email protected], follow her on Facebook at or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at

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