Dear Rabbi Bernath,
My husband and I have been married for 16 years and we have two wonderful children together.
Over the years, we have grown apart and today we “live with the enemy.” Yet, we are two decent people.
Our expectations have failed us. I am a driven, educated and busy professional who’s trying to juggle work and family. My husband has slipped into an absent role: he sleeps, plays video games and doesn’t feel the need to work to support his family. He gets upset when I ask him to participate or to take care of anything.
Is there a way to re-balance the situation, considering that he doesn’t see that we have a problem? Or, since we have grown so much apart, is separation the only way out?
I’m sorry that you and your children find yourselves in this unhappy situation.
Your husband is not the only person in the world to fall prey to this kind of social withdrawal. By most estimates, there are over half a million Japanese people who behave much like your husband. They are called the hikikomori.
Google it and I’m sure some of the descriptions will sound familiar.
In Japanese culture, the parents shoulder the burden. There are middle-aged people who’ve lived with their parents, in isolation, since adolescence.
In your case, you carry the burden, but you enable him, as well. You justify this to yourself – you lie to yourself – by using double-speak.
You say you’re “two decent people,” but that’s not true. You say he has “an absent role,” but a role can’t be absent. You haven’t “grown apart”; you grew and he regressed.
Your husband may have a serious mental illness. If you can stop sugar-coating it with deceptive language, you’ll come to face it.
Now that we’ve clarified the problem a little bit, we need to think about solutions. In order to do that, we need to look at the deeper causes. Some of the root causes of hikikomori include: anxiety, nihilism (lack of meaning in life), as well as gaming and Internet addiction.
As a first step, try to have a therapeutic conversation. See if he will talk about his deeper emotions. How does he feel when he thinks about working or interacting? Does he have any real joy in life? Is he happy? If he doesn’t want to talk to you, will he talk to someone else?
Try to come to him with some real concern for him. If you’re lucky, showing him that someone cares about his feelings just might open him up.
If he opens up, you might be able to open up, as well. How does it feel for you to have him around? Does he know your raw emotions? This conversation could open the door to treatment.
If all of that fails, you’ll need to make a decision. Is it worth it for you to have him around and maintain the status quo? You also need to consider the effect he might be having on your kids. Do they show you a lot of disrespect? It’s possible they’re picking it up from him.
If the decision is negative, you can introduce the idea that he may lose you unless he begins to seek treatment. And losing you means losing his ability to loaf.
Hikikomoris don’t react well to that idea. They can become angry, or even violent, when their isolation is threatened. If you think he’s capable of something like that, please contact a competent counsellor and create a plan for how to safely get out of the situation.
It’s not lightly that I open the door for a couple to consider breaking up. But in this case, he’s not fulfilling the basic requirements of the ketubbah, the Jewish marriage contract. So if you’re OK with how things are, fine; but if not, you have the right to demand change or leave.
I will continue to pray for your family. Ha-Shem should protect and guide you and bring peace into your home.