Help me save my marriage

Dear Meredith,
It's very painful for me to write this letter because I'm a middle-aged man who is considering leaving a loving but troubled wife, and I would like to have primary custody of our two young children. My question to you and your readers is: When is it time to leave?

I'd describe myself as introspective, serious, and shy. I've always had a few friends and people generally like me, but until recently it has been hard for me to make friends out of acquaintances. By the end of college, I had never had a girlfriend. My self-esteem was so low that I honestly thought I might never find someone who would love me.

I was in this miasma when I first met my wife. I saw immediately that she's extremely intelligent, caring, attractive, athletic, and that she really liked me. She saw me as an honest and true person and admired my kindness. But from the start, she was also very critical of me, was constantly upset with me and tried to change almost everything else about me. Our relationship was completely imbalanced and I took all of her criticism to heart. After a year of trying to appease her and absorbing her anger, I finally meekly began to defend myself. She'd always say that things would get better after certain situations had passed -- like the death of a loved one, or a difficult apartment situation -- and I'd hope that she was right because she is an extraordinary woman.

If things hadn't gotten better bit by bit over time, we wouldn’t have stayed together, and there were a few golden periods. As is often the case, one of those golden periods led to the conception of our first child. But then, my wife immediately decided that independence and fun were now completely out of the question. Her anxiety and foul treatment reached new highs. Again I rode out the storm, hoping that life would improve as our little one grew up. Our second child is much loved but was unplanned.

Currently our relationship has recovered to some degree but we are struggling. Last week, my wife took a much needed four-day vacation with a girlfriend and I took time off from work to take care of our kids. To say I enjoyed those four days would be an understatement. With some help from family and friends I fed them, got them to their appointments, played with them, got them to bed on time for naps and the night, and generally had a great time. I expected my wife to return with new energy and the patience necessary to attend to our children, but have been sorely disappointed. Nothing has changed. She's constantly battling with them, me, and everyone else close to her.

So when is enough, enough? I am in therapy. She is in therapy. She's still miserable. I'm miserable when I’m around her and ecstatic when she's gone. Tom Waits sang "I wish to God you'd leave me, Baby, I wish to God you'd stay." We've lived that song, "Please Call Me, Baby," so many times that our movie would be a comedy not a drama. The inner peace I experienced during her absence last week came like a revelation. I even stopped reading Love Letters for that time. When I came back to work, I told myself why spend the time. Well, today, two days later, I remember why. Because my inner being is desperately searching for answers, and I want to do the right thing, but the world and my options all seem wrong.

– BG, I can't …

BGIC, I wish she hadn't taken that trip with girlfriends. I wish she had taken it with you. Because I wonder if she'd be capable of enjoying herself with you, even on vacation. It's not as though you guys were having a ball before the kids came along. Your golden periods sound like blips.

You say that you're in therapy and that she's in therapy. If you're not already in therapy together, you should be. Because in therapy you can ask this big question: "If we had all the money in the world for babysitters, would you want to stay married to me?" If she says that she would, it's time to make a list. Tell her what you need to be happy, whether it's specific help with your kids, a certain amount of positivity, date nights, etc. Then, with her help, come up with a second list of practical ways to make those things possible. Maybe you need hired help around the house (I know, it isn't cheap), more vacations, or more involvement from friends and family. The lists give you specific goals. And if those goals aren't met, you can feel better about whatever choice you need to make.

Tom Waits sings, "I wish to God you'd leave me, Baby, I wish to God you'd stay," but that's not your lyric. You sang, "I'm miserable when I'm around her and ecstatic when she's gone." You're not longing for your relationship to return to what it used to be. You're longing for brief, unexplained golden periods.

Get to therapy with her if you haven't already. Ask her if she wants you. Then make your lists. Check those lists twice as you move ahead. In the end, if your needs can't be met, remember that doing "the right thing" should involve being able to smile in front of your kids -- and in front of a mirror.

Readers? Any ideas for this LW? Is there something to save? Was his euphoria during his wife's vacation about her being gone -- or about not working and having so much extra help? Is this about the stress of kids or a marriage that was wrong from the start? Help.

– Meredith