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Man: Wife keeping me from my ideal woman

What happens when "settling" in love leads to contempt for one's partner? Dr. Gail Saltz advises an unhappy man who feels trapped inside a troubled marriage.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Q. I am a 42-year-old man who married for the first time last year. I was given an ultimatum to marry her or she would leave. I weighed my options and took the leap. I felt that I might never find my ideal woman and settled for her. In other words, I settled for hamburger thinking I might never get steak.

My career was (and is) a catastrophe. I was out of work for several years, living on credit cards and savings. This only added to the pressure. She did not seem to care that my career was in tatters. My wife has many good qualities: She's a great cook, looks OK, stays in shape and would never cheat on me.

However, I feel a lack of excitement around her. Our sex life is boring. She was a virgin before we met and I taught her everything she knows. Her negative qualities are: She likes dumb sitcoms, Hollywood gossip, knows little of my culture, has different taste in music, speaks somewhat broken English, snores (I'm a light sleeper) and does not share my life's passions (literature, history, etc.).

Now she wants to have a baby. Being 39, her biological clock is ticking. I told her that I can barely take care of myself, let alone a wife and baby. I dread having sex with her because of this.

Also, after a year we are still not living together since she lives in Canada and I live in the U.S. We are still doing the immigration paperwork. I feel that I may harbor a slight resentment that she forced me into marriage, is forcing me to start a family and is keeping me from finding my ideal woman. I feel trapped. What can I do?

A. Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like there is much hope for this marriage. Your theme of unhappily eating hamburger while yearning for steak runs through your letter. You view your wife with contempt and disdain. Those are about the worst emotions you can have when it comes to reviving a troubled marriage.

If you don’t even start with at least some admiration and respect for your spouse, it is unlikely you can gain it, let alone regain it.

You assumed you would never find the perfect woman, so you married someone imperfect. I agree that this is the right thing to do. It doesn’t make sense to hold out for the perfect person, because the perfect person doesn’t exist.

Often, older bachelors wait years and years for their ideal woman, who never comes along because she doesn’t live anywhere but in their fantasies. They never marry and spend their lives as “confirmed bachelors.” Sometimes, they aren’t very good husband material anyway or marriage isn’t really something they want.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there are no women who are compatible with you. That’s what people wanting a mate should strive for — someone whose positive, lovable qualities outweigh the deficient ones. There will always be some things you dislike about your partner.

Often, these dislikable things are unimportant. In your note, you list your wife’s negative qualities. Not everyone considers these things, like taste in television shows, to be of great significance. Some people might say their wife has a charming accent; you say yours speaks broken English. Again, your distaste for her is evident.

Taken together, you view these as signs that your wife is uncouth, less educated, less worldly and generally not up to your high standards. You see yourself as erudite and cultured, with a love of history and literature and a disdain for sitcoms and gossip. In and of itself there is nothing wrong with your self view; the issue comes with your view of her relative to yourself.

And yet your contempt for your wife is especially curious because you admit your career is a catastrophe. When you say she didn’t care your career was in tatters, it’s unclear what you mean. That she wasn’t supportive of you in your time of need? Or that she was? That she is forcing you to take on burdensome financial responsibilities? That she thought she couldn’t meet her ideal man so she settled for an unemployed bum?

Your career is your responsibility, not hers. You seem to be using her as a scapegoat — she is to blame for your failure to have all you deserve in life. And yet, it is unrealistic for you to believe that your dream woman would choose a man with a failed career.

It isn’t unreasonable that, at 39, a woman would give her boyfriend an ultimatum. If this approach didn’t work for you, you should have said so and exited her life. Now, your wife probably doesn’t know she isn’t good enough for you. She wants a baby with her husband, which is a perfectly normal desire. She is right to be thinking about having children if this is a life goal that matters to her.

It is hard for you to have a valid opinion of your spouse if you two live in different countries. If you were in a more normal living situation, you might be surprised when you find out more about her strengths, such as being a good cook or a caring friend. There are ways to cope with snoring and to spice up a sex life. Since you take credit for teaching her everything she knows in the bedroom, you can now teach her to be less boring in bed.

If your wife cannot get into the U.S. quickly, you might consider moving to Canada to be with her. It might also be helpful for your career — you might be able to get a better job there than in the States.

So what you can do is twofold: Give things an honest try with your wife. And examine your own thinking so that you view your expectations more realistically and objectively, with less of a self-focus.

Your condescending attitude toward your wife is extremely corrosive, and it is difficult to reverse such feelings. Still, if you are uncertain because you haven’t given the marriage a real test, it’s worth giving it a try by moving in with her. I strongly suggest you not bring a child into this unstable situation.

If, after a true effort to make your marriage work, you cannot see your wife as a worthy partner for you, do both yourself and her a favor and set her free so she can meet a man who does.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: Contempt for one’s spouse is truly destructive and often serves as a marker for a troubled marriage.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .