My wife’s medical condition has been pushing us apart for years

Ask Ammanda Misophonia

I have been with my wife for close to 30 years. She has misophonia (a disorder where negative emotions like anger or disgust are triggered by specific sounds). After our latest child was born, it got worse. She cannot stand my breathing, the change of rhythm of my breathing, or me touching my face. If I am near her in bed, driving, eating etc then she focuses in and gets grumpy. For years, I have slept on the sofa.

My wife takes anti-depressants. She gets two or three hours sleep a night and even less when her job is stressful. Sex is sporadic and when we do it, I feel she is going through the motions, although we have a good connection afterwards.

The other day she told me not to look at her and this has been the last straw. I cannot stop thinking about leaving but also the damage it would do to our kids. When the subject of how we live comes up, I am accused of having a dig and making her feel bad. I love my wife, but it is hard work. I would love to know what a tactile loving relationship is like. My kids think the way we live is normal. I have been waiting for years for things to get better and I believe now they are now only going to get worse. This is affecting my kids, my work and my mental health.

Ammada says…

This must be unimaginably difficult for both of you. All the usual things we do as couples, including taking care of the kids and holding down jobs, can be stressful enough at the best of times. This must be seriously exascerbated by what you’re both experiencing with misophonia. You say that your kids believe the life you and your wife live together is normal. It sounds like – both for them and for you – that is what it’s become. But clearly, you feel trapped and in a downward spiral.

Misophonia has only been a formally diagnosed condition since about 2001 and is not yet well understood in terms of overcoming the problems it creates, although certain forms of therapy are thought to help. I think you’re in the classic bind that many people find themselves in when their partner has long-term physical, mental or psychological problems. Often, the focus is on the person with the condition – with very little support and guidance for their partner. Invariably, this leads to the partner feeling isolated and unheard, but also as if they have an enormous responsibility to keep the family show on the road. And meanwhile, the thought about getting out is constantly gaining momentum.

It’s a real credit to you that you’re able to say you work well as a family and that you’ve explained the nature of the condition to your children. But I do find myself wondering how they see you and your wife’s relationship when clearly your partner finds it so difficult to be anywhere near you as a result of this condition. Perhaps you’ve been able to help your children to separate out what’s ‘mum’ and what’s the ‘condition’, although I can only imagine how determined and well-motivated you’d have to be to maintain this position all the time.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there are any easy answers here. I’m not sure if you’re waiting for someone to give you ‘permission’ to leave – or even if you’ve already got this from somewhere – but, evidently, the pain you feel this would cause your family is something that you gives you a lot of anxiety. The fact that you would be able to manage financially must make the thought of leaving even more tantalizing, but it seems you can’t get past the guilt you’d experience if you actually went through with it.

But if I might say something that will sound a bit challenging here. Very often, the person who is experiencing the condition first-hand finds it tricky to understand that their partner is suffering too. This is because they are (understandably) so focused on just getting through the day that finding the energy to take on board someone else’s distress feels impossible. But, in the absence of any information to the contrary, I’m wondering if you’ve ever really helped her to understand your side of things.

I don’t mean responding to the latest issue – for example, her allegation that you were staring at her, but rather taking an overview and trying to have a conversation that is about giving everyone an opportunity to explain how they feel, rather than just pointing fingers. I can see you’ve slowly adapted your lifestyle to accommodate her needs, but I’m wondering if this has been something that just happened over time – perhaps without either of you really noticing – or if you both actually sat down and thought about the implications of, for example, you sleeping on the sofa.

I really would strongly encourage you to see a counsellor, perhaps in the first place on your own. I think the situation at home may be so difficult that talking with someone else will give you the space to think about your own needs with much greater clarity. The other option would be for you and your wife to attend together. I have a hypothesis that she doesn’t understand how you feel and may be upset and horrified in equal measure that you can now only think of leaving. You say you love your wife – and the care and consideration you are showing her and the children is commendable. So, although attending will not change her condition, it may help you both to hear each other in a way that means you can go on together.

Ultimately though, you have a responsibility for your own happiness too. When all’s said and done, it may be that a conversation about ending the relationship is the best way forward. But a full and honest talk about what’s been happening and how it’s made both of you feel would allow you to know whether this is the case with much more certainty – and, if you do separate, would put you, your wife and children in a much better position to adapt to a new kind of life together. Whatever the case, you don’t have to keep things as they are. It’s clearly no good for you, your wife – and most likely not great for your children either.

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