Adapted from a recent online discussion.
When wife gets new boss, shut-out spouse fears the worst
Q: My wife and I are in our early 40s with two young teenagers. We have had a good marriage, friendship and sex life up until six months ago when she received a promotion at work. Her new position requires her to travel a day or so each week and usually with her boss, who is our age. Our sex life has gone to nil and the friendliness has also disappeared. I didn't at first suspect that it was anything more than being tired and under stress from the new job requirements, but I am not sure anymore.
I have tried to talk to her about it, but she gets angry and defensive. I tried to be funny by joking that her libido seemed okay because we needed new batteries for a marital aid but that made her furious. I probably have had the wrong approach, but I am embarrassed and confused and don't understand why our relationship dried up just as new responsibilities and a new person came about.
Is there some other way I should be talking about this? Do you have any clue what's going on here?
A: This might be the most volatile combination in couplehood: serious issue plus "I tried to be funny by . . .''
You have something to say, so please say it. Don't mince or joke or backpedal, don't accuse, don't pick a hectic or symbolically charged time, such as when you're about to leave for something or just climbing into bed. Pick a moment, tell her how you feel. Emotional honesty or bust.
Then, don't escalate things when "angry and defensive" is the way she initially reacts. It makes me think of the line we use on the kids, "Use your words." When she gets defensive or has some other unproductive reaction, say its name, calmly: "Please don't get defensive/go silent on me/turn this on me. I'm not angry, I'm just trying to understand what has changed."
And did I mention not to accuse? Do not accuse. Even if it logically adds up to an affair, you don't have all the facts, so she still could just be distracted and tired.
No matter what it is, huge or trivial, she does owe it to you to tell you what's going on in her mind. Even if she doesn't know why she's being unfriendly to you, she owes you an "I don't know why I'm being this way." Being the shut-out spouse is really, really hard.
Unfortunately, it's common for a harried spouse to see only how harried s/he is, and to get angry at the shut-out spouse; what you see as a legitimate request for a little respect and conversation, she may see as your picking a heck of a time to pile on.
If you can anticipate her seeing it that way, it might actually help you make your case for your side: that you understand, but you're feeling really lonely these days. Communication isn't the answer to everything, but this is a case where only truth can set you free.