Meet the Couple
Meet Laura and Matt, both 44, the parents of two boys, ages 4 and 2. Matt lost his job, and despite a long search, he still can't find the right position. Laura is worried about making ends meet during these rocky economic times — not to mention the toll the situation is taking on her husband's self-esteem. Matt and Laura turned to Susan Heitler, Ph.D., author of The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong & Loving Marriage, for help. LHJ.com contributor Margery D. Rosen brings us the couple's story and Dr. Heitler's advice.
Laura: I hardly recognize the man I married. My husband has always been so solid, a confident man who knew what he wanted and worked hard to get it. But in the last year, he's lost two jobs and it has thrown him completely. Something like that just doesn't happen to straight-A-Dean's-list Matt! He's shell-shocked: negative, pessimistic and floundering. I've never seen him like this and it worries me.
Heitler: Laura is right to be concerned. One in ten Americans suffers from a depression that is severe enough to require medical treatment; one in five will at some point in their life. Depression — or one of its many symptoms — is the most common complaint heard in doctor's offices. And while it has myriad causes — some biological, some environmental — there's no question that real-life events can trigger a depressive episode. Losing a job tops the list for many men.
Laura: Matt has an MBA in finance. He's worked for the past few years as a strategic planner for an Internet service provider. He loved the excitement of a start-up company, but when it was bought by a large corporation, many of the original staff members were let go. At first, we didn't think being unemployed would be any big deal, or that it would last very long. Though we didn't become instant millionaires when the deal closed, we did make more than enough to tide us over. Since he's always so methodical, I was surprised when Matt jumped at the first job he was offered. I expected him to take more time to think about his next move. But within two weeks, he'd started working for a man who has a reputation as a shark. How he could make such a choice is beyond me. Despite warnings from colleagues, Matt was convinced that the job was made in heaven. Well, a month after he started, and two weeks before Christmas, he was fired.
This time, Matt went into a downward spiral. He's distant and unresponsive to me and the kids. He used to love playing with them, but now, he gives them a quick hug then disappears into his den or workroom. Matt claims that parenting and household responsibilities are split fifty-fifty. Maybe they were, but not anymore. It's more like me doing ninety percent of everything. Only if I ask, does he do the marketing, change a diaper, or take the kids to my friend's house, where her nanny watches them while I'm at work. Though he's continued to look for work, it's been a desultory job hunt. After almost a year, nothing he hears about or interviews for is "the right fit." I've been patient and supportive, but I'm losing my confidence in him — and in us, too.
Before Matt lost his job the first time, I'd been questioning whether I wanted to continue living such a fast-paced life in a big city. I desperately want to spend more time with my kids. Until I was a mother, I didn't realize how much my priorities would shift. We'd discussed the possibility of me stopping work next spring. Obviously, I can't think about that until Matt figures out what he wants to do.
Heitler: Matt's job loss triggered a tidal wave of questions and indecision not only for him but for Laura, too. She was already feeling the pull of motherhood and the pressures of a job grown stale and she was eagerly anticipating cutting back her own work schedule. Now, she's forced to put her dreams on hold until Matt finds a job. She's done this willingly and lovingly, perhaps longer than was helpful for either of them. Right now she feels selfish asserting her own needs, especially since Matt is struggling. Yet resentment and anger have a way of seeping out sideways: Instead of saying directly how she feels, she hints, nags and complains. She feels like a shrew — and Matt feels henpecked and attacked. The groundwork is laid for small problems to mushroom.
Laura: We're arguing a lot lately, and that's never been our style. He doesn't seem to care about my needs. I know losing my temper is wrong, but I get so frustrated trying to communicate with him. Matt only gives me the silent treatment, or gets defensive and accuses me of criticizing him. Maybe he doesn't realize it, but he walks around like he's the only person on this planet. Now it's the job hunt, but before that, it was this huge renovation project on our home. The house — which we were both so excited to buy — has become a constant source of battles.
Just after I had our first child, we bought a rambling Victorian that needed tons of work. Very quickly we discovered that Matt loves stripping, sanding, varnishing and painting — and that I don't. For the first year, we couldn't even sit in the living room since all the furniture was covered in drop cloths. Finally, the house was in decent enough shape that we could order our first living room furniture. By this time, I was five months pregnant with our second child. But one day I came home from work to find Matt ripping up the flooring in the upstairs hall. Why didn't he consult me? I was livid.
And why doesn't he ever tell me what he's feeling? Maybe he never did, but I was just so in love I didn't realize it. He doesn't even share important information with me. About a month ago, one of his brothers was in the hospital for two days. He's fine now, but he had some intestinal bleeding and had lost a lot of blood. I found out in a casual conversation with my sister-in-law and felt so stupid. Now, isn't that the kind of information a husband would share with his wife? When I asked him why he didn't, he shrugged and said, "This is the way I am" and, "Well, my brother never told me when my great uncle died." What kind of an answer is that? Does the fact that his family was dysfunctional make it okay?
Heitler: Right now, Laura is understandably upset, but for her own sanity — and the sake of her marriage — she needs to clarify her goals. Telling your partner, "We need to communicate better," especially when that partner has simply never learned what that means, is too vague. Better: "I'd love it if you discussed topics that are more personal, such as our feelings" or "Asking me about my thoughts on different subjects shows me that you can about me."
Laura: I was an only child and I grew up in a suburb of St. Louis. My dad worked as an accountant. I know there were periods when he was unemployed, but I'm not sure why. Suffice it to say that he never made much money and my mother, a nurse, basically supported us, much like her own mother had done before that. I love both of my parents very much, but I've always been closer to my mother. She's a bundle of energy, the true offensive line in my life. Mom was the one who plunged right into things with me and gave me the confidence to try.
Heitler: Laura comes from a family of strong women and weak men. However, she possesses her mother's energy and drive, and enough self awareness to know what she doesn't want from her own marriage. Determined not to repeat the mistakes her mother made, she chose a man she thought was dependable and sharply focused on his future. But now, she's beginning to doubt her own judgment and choices: Was Matt the man she thought he was? Was this the life she wanted after all?
Laura: My parents had a very volatile relationship — a lot of yelling, slammed doors and tears. Although Dad was usually mild-mannered, he could be vicious when he was mad. Several times, he moved out of the house, only to move back a few weeks later. I suspected infidelity on his part, but to this day, I've never been told the real problems. In any case, those battles frightened me when I was little, but by the time I was in high school, I accepted them as par for the course. They divorced during my senior year, and I was actually relieved.
In spite of all that, I remember having a fairly happy childhood. I was athletic and very involved in school activities. I had a lot of friends and did well academically. When I was fifteen, I decided to be a lawyer when I grew up. I was impressed by a young woman attorney who came to our school on Career Day. She made the law sound exciting and meaningful.
Matt and I were introduced by friends about nine years ago. I'd recently passed the bar exam and had started a job as in-house counsel for an environmental engineering firm. Matt was adorable and athletic, funny and wise. He had such down-to-earth family values, and I was impressed by how ambitious he was. He talked excitedly about running his own company and working on high-risk deals. But he also dreamed about having a family and a lake cabin to retreat to on weekends.
We married eleven months later in a small ceremony and then had a big party that night. And for many years, we were very happy. Our sex life was really good, too. Now, it's non- existent. At first, I attributed that to preoccupation and exhaustion with the kids. But I think we're both too upset to want to make love. I feel as if Matt and I have been on hold for a long time and I don't want to wait forever. But I don't know how to help him anymore.
Matt: I guess I don't get it. I try to be there for her. I try to fix up our house and make it a real home. I try to help with the kids. But she's always mad at me. I sense it the minute she walks in the door. She has a look on her face that says, "He screwed up again." Often, I'll say, "Honey, what's wrong?" and all I get in reply is, "Nothing." Then, out of the blue, she'll turn on me and start screaming about something minor — like the time I left the clothes in the dryer too long. I'm not used to being yelled at and I can't talk to her when she's attacking me. But I do know that's not the real Laura. She's been incredibly supportive since I lost my job. I can't help feeling like a complete failure.
Heitler: As benefits and staffs shrink, and whole companies fold or are swallowed up, experts talk about a national epidemic of job stress. If you come home from work physically or emotionally drained, with little energy or enthusiasm for dealing with family or person matters, you may be a victim, too. Job stress and burnout is a motivational problem, caused by a feeling of helplessness and powerlessness. To regain a sense of control over your job life, as well as the feeling that what you do really does matter you need to think hard about who you really are, what you enjoy doing, and find small, attainable goals that give you a sense of mastery. Like many burnout victims, Matt lives by the mantra, "What's the use?" He's not yet at the point where he can focus on what triggers his feelings of powerlessness and re-think a better solution.
Matt: I'm surprised how hard this has hit me. When I was out of work the first time, I was riding on a wave of good feeling about the company I had been with. It was started by guys I'd known casually in business school. We knew that when they finally sold the company, we'd all be out of jobs. But as Laura said, my severance package and stock options — which I can't use for awhile, but at least I know they're there — gave me a cushion of financial confidence. But after I was fired — right before Christmas, with no chance for discussion — I felt as if I'd been discarded like yesterday's newspapers. I'd been warned that this guy, a venture capitalist, was tough, but I thought I could handle him. It looked like a great opportunity to be where the action was, and I figured that if I could just hang in for five years, I'd not only learn a lot, I'd be in a terrific position to head up my own company. That's always been my dream. Well, from the moment I walked into that office, I felt totally incompetent. My boss was unscrupulous and verbally abusive, not only to his own employees, but to everyone — from the CEOs of other companies to the man who delivered lunch. Still, I kept thinking that somehow I could straighten things out and please him. Then, with no warning, he told me to clear out my desk.
It's very demoralizing to be looking for as long as I have. It's even worse knowing that Laura has had to put her plans to quit work on hold. I know she's unhappy with her job and that she misses being with our sons. Several times I interviewed with firms that I was excited about, but I never make it past the second interview. I don't know why. One thing I have learned, though, is that the person you work for is just as important as the kind of work you do. I want to work for someone I can look up to and learn from. Someone like my dad.
Heitler: Matt feels downtrodden. He looks and sounds it, too. I suspect that one reason he is unable to get past his initial job interviews is that he is unwittingly projecting a needy, hang-dog attitude, rather than one of an efficient, take-charge executive. His frequent references to finding a mentor in his work prompted me to point out that he might be unconsciously searching for a father figure in every new boss. "Remember, your prospective boss isn't looking to adopt a child; he or she wants someone who can help her business grow."
Matt: I grew up outside of Chicago, the youngest of four by seven years. Dad was a sales director for a major national company and my mother was a homemaker. When I was six, we moved to the Denver area. My parents had always dreamed of living near the mountains and Dad was finally able to arrange a transfer — but only by taking a huge pay cut. Money was tight from then on. I was always aware that it was easier for other people, that other kids had more than I did — but it didn't matter. My father made things happen: If I said I wanted to play baseball, he went out and signed me up for Little League the next day. If I was discouraged about something in school, or had a problem with a friend, he helped me work it out. All the kids used to hang out at our house because everyone loved my dad.
But when I was ten, my father was diagnosed with cancer and I watched helplessly as this man I adored withered before my eyes. Mother was never the same. We were never an openly emotionally family, but after Dad's death, it was as if we all dried up inside. Since my brothers and sister were either away at college or in law school, I learned to find my own way. I kept my grades up, went to a good college and business school. But until I met Laura, I didn't realize how closed off to people I had become.
Heitler: Matt may have initially projected an image of a confidence, but deep down, he's convinced that any success he's achieved was a fluke. His recent job setbacks have caused him to doubt his ability to sustain the level success he had achieved early on. Here's a good example of how your family of origin can impact the direction your life takes: Laura's life had been marked by lack of trust, Matt's by loss and benign neglect. His father had been an encouraging force, but his mother held out few expectations for her son. Matt established his own standards for himself, but they were often unreasonable. Not surprisingly, he frequently feels he never measures up.
Matt: Laura was a breath of fresh air for me: cute, smart and eternally optimistic. I know I tend to draw inward — when I get busy with one of my projects, I can be very self -contained; people tell me it's as if I have blinders on. But that's how I get things done: I make a timetable, take notes, and go step by step.
I know this is a sore point for Laura, but renovating the house calms me down. She keeps bringing up that incident about the upstairs hallway as this supreme example of how I don't care about her. That's not it at all. When I realized that there were wide-planked floors under the stained linoleum, I knew it would improve the look and value of the house if I sanded and finished them. I just had to do it. I wasn't trying to pull a fast one on my wife.
Heitler: Since his mother had been emotionally distant during much of his childhood, Matt has a tough time with his emotions and he finds it hard to show his empathy for others. Frowning, sulking, walking away or burying himself in home improvement projects protects him from his real feelings, which are unfamiliar and sometimes scary.
Matt: Still, I know Laura's right. There aren't many things I find pleasurable anymore. I'm starting to question a lot of things, too. But I'll never question my love for her. I just wish I could make her see that.
The Therapist Says
Heitler: Laura and Matt are each stuck in a personal and professional crisis of confidence. Their story illustrates how one person's problem can balloon into a couple's problem when partners are unable to tell each other how they feel or what they need. I suspected that Laura's super-supportive role in some ways indulged her husband, allowing Matt to procrastinate in his job search and wallow in his depression. And the longer it takes Matt to find his professional direction, the more unsure Laura becomes about him and the marriage.
We spent several sessions discussing the kind of work for which Matt was best suited. Many times, when someone is searching in vain for the "ideal" job, it's because they're not listening to their true self. Matt needed to do some serious soul-searching. "If you don't learn to listen to yourself," I told Matt, "you'll climb out of the frying right into the fire — witness what happened when you took the job with someone you knew would not be compatible with your style."
When Matt considered this, he realized that the living-on-the-edge life of the entrepreneur was not a realistic goal for him. I told him to take the time to notice what he loved about a job, not what he thought he should do. Matt had been so caught up in the hype of his industry that he'd lost sight of the fact that he didn't have the same goals as many of his colleagues. I asked him to think about what he enjoyed doing, not just at the office, but in his leisure time, as well. What kinds of activities filled his idle hours? What books did he love to read, which movies fascinated him? What kind of work environment made him happiest and challenged him the most? I also suggested that he use Laura as well as his friends and relatives as a sounding board to talk about his interests and ideas. By articulating his desires, Matt clarified and refined them, zeroing in on the ones he felt comfortable with and discarding the ones he didn't. Soon, he was entering job interviews with the confidence he needed to stand out from the pack.
Step by step, we worked on verbalizing feelings instead of acting them out. At this point, I was able to help them both learn to break their pattern of arguing by using four steps to guide themselves toward resolution. Whenever any issue, large or small, was up for discussion, I advised them to first state their feelings — without hinting, coaxing or expecting the other to read their mind. Then, take the time to examine the specific concerns underlying those feelings, giving equal weight to each of their interpretations or needs. Step three involved summarizing the points each had mentioned so they eliminated the possibility of misunderstandings. Finally, they were to create new options by modifying their positions until they both felt acknowledged. Although this was clearly a stilted way of communicating, it gave their discussions a much-needed structure.
In fact, once Matt and Laura started to take time to reconnect at the end of the day and actually talk about what was on their minds, it became invaluable. Slowly, they both came to the conclusion that they no longer wanted to raise their children in a big city. "We dared to let ourselves stop talking the talk," Laura reported. "And we decided to relocate to a small university town in the Midwest where I'd spent many happy summers. I have an aunt and uncle there so it's not as if we don't know anybody." Laura applied for a part-time teaching job at the law school, which will allow her to spend time with her sons without stepping out of the working world entirely. Matt drafted a new resume and re-focused his job hunt on finding a strategic planning job in a mid-sized company. "I think I finally realized that my strengths and personality are better suited to long-range planning and growth of a company rather than high-risk deal-making," he said. The last time I spoke to him, he was deciding between two, equally good, job offers. "We're leaving at the end of the summer," he told me. "And we both know it's the right move."
Most importantly, Laura and Matt realized that, even in a good marriage, you must expect and anticipate change. However, every crisis brings with it the possibility for new hope. By learning to manage their individual stressors, these two reinvented their relationship — and their life.