"I can't rely on Tom for anything," said Sara, 36, a director of career planning at a college in southeastern Virginia, where she lives with her husband of nine years. "Whether it's cutting the lawn, booking a hotel, or getting the cars inspected, he makes nothing but empty promises. And he rarely completes a project, even though he's extremely handy. Eight months ago he decided to reupholster the dining-room chairs; he's halfway done, and the fabric and staple gun are still sitting on the table. Whenever I complain about his poor follow-through, Tom, a high school math teacher, says I'm making a mountain out of a molehill and offers his usual lame excuses: 'I ran out of time' or 'I got too tired.' With the chairs, Tom claims that he didn't want to disturb the paperwork I'd been doing on the table. Yes, I had some files there, but the chairs are separate from the table! He could have moved them into the kitchen. The problem is now reaching a crisis point because we're in the process of adopting a baby girl from Russia, whom we're going to name Rebecca. We decided a few years ago to adopt rather than have a biological child. I had no urge to be pregnant and Tom didn't feel compelled to pass on his genes. We'd rather give a good home to a child who otherwise wouldn't have one. But I've begun to question how good a home that will be. I'm not sure I can count on Tom to be a responsible father. My disappointment in him has made me withdraw. At the end of the day, he wants to talk and watch TV together, but I'd rather go upstairs and read. I've also lost interest in sex, mostly because he's gained 25 pounds and I no longer find him attractive. Besides, he often falls asleep in front of the TV and comes to bed at 3 a.m. — hardly a time for romance. So, as the adoption day draws near, I've become increasingly anxious about our future.
"I grew up in a small town, the elder child of an accountant and a librarian. From the time I was young I felt pressure to excel in everything, because Mom derived so much satisfaction from my successes. She'd gush and beam if I made the cheerleading squad or first-chair flute in the school orchestra. I was in junior high when she said, 'I'm glad you're popular; I don't know what I'd do if you weren't,' and that statement guided me until college. I did whatever I could to please Mom, including sticking with the flute even though I wanted to quit at 16. Overall, though, my childhood was comfortable. Mom and Dad were teen sweethearts who never argued; they just celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary.
"After college I taught history at a high school in rural Appalachia. It turned out that I liked advising students more than I liked teaching, so I decided to go to graduate school to become a guidance counselor. Tom was a fellow student. I spotted him in the dining hall and was drawn to his boyish good looks. A few weeks later he struck up a conversation at the salad bar. We had so much in common: We'd both taught in rural schools, sang in our church choirs, and enjoyed biking. I also liked his shy, unassuming demeanor.
"But after a month of eating together and talking on the phone Tom hadn't asked me on a real date. Finally I teasingly asked him, 'Are you going to invite me to the holiday dance, or do I have to invite you?' Blushing, he promptly asked me to be his date."
"Slow dancing together a few weeks later, Tom looked into my eyes and said, 'I don't want to ever let go.' We both agree that we fell in love that night. Tom had everything I wanted in a husband: intelligence, sensitivity and, seemingly, a strong work ethic — he was putting himself through graduate school with scholarships and a part-time job at a bookstore. We got married after he'd completed his master's degree; I still had a year to go. While I finished my thesis, he substitute taught and worked in a bookstore. Newlywed life was hectic but mostly happy. It wasn't until my final semester that Tom's passive side surfaced. We'd agreed to move to his hometown, so I figured he'd use his connections to pave the way. But Tom just waited for job leads to come through the university's career development office, and there weren't many. I was worried about money. Late one night, as I wrote cover letters and he watched reruns on cable, I told him how disappointed I was. 'You're not the man I thought you were,' I said. 'It looks like I'll have to take care of you.' I felt guilty the moment I said it, but he just shot me a dirty look and changed the channel.
"After I found a job I asked my new boss if she knew of any openings for math teachers. She reviewed Tom's resume and helped him land six interviews. Ultimately, Tom found a position at a top public high school, where he still works.
"I soon discovered Tom wasn't an equal partner on the home front, either. We supposedly divide the chores, and Tom is in charge of the lawn, house repairs, taking out the trash, and car maintenance. But he either waits until the last minute — the kitchen trash can overflows before he dumps it in the garbage bin outside — or won't do the chores unless I nag. A few times, when our front lawn looked like a jungle, I came home from work to find a neighbor cutting it! I was unbelievably humiliated, but Tom just shrugged and told me I was overreacting.
"Last month, before I left for a three-week business trip, I asked Tom to pay the bills, do laundry, and keep the house neat. He assured me that he would. Unfortunately, I came home to find unpaid bills strewn across the kitchen counter, dirty laundry on the bedroom floor, and filthy dishes in the sink. But worst of all, he hadn't mailed the adoption paperwork, which I'd asked him to do. I had finalized everything before I left; we were waiting only for a copy of my birth certificate, which was to be delivered by FedEx. All he had to do was clip it to the rest of the paperwork and mail the envelope. Easy, right? I asked him about this every time I phoned home, and he told me the birth certificate hadn't arrived. When I got back, there was the FedEx package sitting on the counter, unopened! I just lost it. 'I can't believe you didn't do anything,' I said, tears welling in my eyes. 'I'm angry, hurt and disappointed. If I can't trust you to mail some documents, how can I trust you to feed our baby or pack a diaper bag?' Tom claimed he was afraid of messing up the forms and wanted us to finish them together. He also said he was too exhausted to care for the house.
"Well, I'm exhausted, too — mentally and physically — from having to do everything. I hate nagging him and I feel overwhelmed and alone. I still love my husband, but I'm terrified that I'll never be able to count on him, and I don't have the energy to take care of two children — Rebecca and Tom."
"I'm glad my wife admitted she's a nag — at least she can't accuse me of calling her one," said Tom, 38. "Sara acts like an annoying mother, always nudging me to do this and that, and then calling me a 'slob' or 'couch potato.' It's true that I don't finish my chores as quickly as she does. I don't share her sense of urgency, but I get everything done, eventually.
"Unfortunately, that's not good enough for Sara. She expects me to follow her timetable. So what if all the dining-room chairs aren't reupholstered yet? We only entertain in there twice a year. So what if the lawn gets a bit overgrown? If our neighbor thinks the height of our grass is an eyesore and wants to cut it, that's fine by me. The fact that I'm not fazed by that stuff only upsets Sara more. Sara is a neat freak, but household disarray doesn't bother me. I can't understand why she gets so worked up over petty things.
"Sara portrays me as the bad guy, but that's her perspective. She's right that I didn't pursue my job hunt as aggressively as she would have liked, but I had enough connections to find a good job. I wasn't worried that I'd end up unemployed. I had no idea how upset she was until she went on a tirade about how I'd disappointed her and how she'd have to take care of me.
"As for mailing the adoption forms, I was leery of making a mistake because the paperwork was so complicated. Besides, after she left for her trip, I realized it was something I wanted us to do together. But she's furious at me and has been giving me the cold shoulder ever since. Well, she's not the only one who's miserable and anxious about our future. I'm excited about becoming a father, but our recent spate of arguments is making me wonder what kind of mother Sara will be. Is she going to nag our daughter the way she nags me? Will she scream at her and give her the silent treatment?"
"I had a decent childhood. Dad was a telephone repairman; Mom stayed home to raise my older sisters and me. I was very attached to my mom, who had a loving and generous nature. She never missed my school plays or soccer games, and she always had an encouraging word about my performance. Dad worked hard to provide for us, but he offered little praise or emotional support. He was bossy and controlling, which put a wedge between us. When Sara orders me around, she reminds me of my dad — and the image stirs up a lot of anger.
"I was instantly attracted to Sara: With her radiant smile, intense green eyes, and wavy auburn hair, she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. But I'm shy, so it took me a month to work up the courage to introduce myself. I still remember our magical first date: We were already close from our dinner conversations, and as I held Sara in my arms on the dance floor I knew I'd marry her. We talked freely and our personalities complemented each other. I'm quiet, serious, and laid-back; Sara is outgoing, witty, and assertive. Her sharp sense of humor made me laugh — and laughing together felt good.
"Unfortunately, it's been far too long since Sara and I laughed — or did the things we once enjoyed. In my opinion, this is our chief problem — not my failure to complete chores on her schedule. For the past few years Sara has been absorbed in her job, working late hours and traveling every month, and I miss her when she's not home. It's really a vicious circle: The less time we spend together, the more neglected and the less motivated I feel. Out of loneliness and laziness, I surf the Internet, play video games, and watch TV until I doze off. I've gained weight and as a result have no energy to exercise. I'm sad that Sara no longer finds me attractive.
"Our problems aside, Sara is the love of my life. I'm devastated that our marriage is in trouble, but I agree that we must work things out before we become parents. It's wrong to raise a child in an unhappy home. I know I need to make changes to become a better husband, but Sara needs to take responsibility for what she's doing wrong, too."
The Counselor's Turn
"When Sara and Tom started therapy she accused him of being too passive, and he said she was too aggressive," the counselor said. "It's very common for people with inherently different personalities to be drawn together. But after I heard this couple's complaints it became clear that Tom's behavior wasn't passive, but rather passive-aggressive.
"An assertive stance is, 'No, I won't pay the bills'; a passive one is to just do it, even if you don't want to. A passive-aggressive stance is saying, 'Sure, I'll pay the bills,' but then 'forgetting' to do it and apologizing, which is cowardly and deceptive. Either way, the bills don't get paid. Being passive-aggressive is an indirect way of expressing anger and exercising power. Tom was angry with Sara for being a controlling caretaker, but to avoid an argument, he acted out by not keeping his promises. This is a fairly common behavior: Many people wrongly assume that if they say no when their spouse makes a request, they'll set off an immediate conflict. In fact, the spouse may well say, 'Fine. I'll find another way to get it done.' People need to have the freedom to say no to their partner without creating ill will.
"This couple needed to accept their basic personality differences, become more accommodating to each other, and improve their communication. Significantly, Sara and Tom identified each other's positive traits and both said they were still in love — two keys for improving their relationship. What's more, impending parenthood provided the kick in the pants they needed to change. Our counseling sessions provided Tom with a neutral forum in which he felt free to assert himself with candor. 'I don't want Sara to be the sole decision maker anymore,' he admitted in an early session. 'I've let that happen, but I want to be equally involved in shaping Rebecca's life.'
"We discussed how their families of origin had affected their personalities. Tom developed his passive-aggressive tendencies in childhood. He resented his controlling father, who ordered him around. The more his father pushed, the more Tom said yes to placate him but then acted out by not following through and making excuses. It was his way of asserting independence. Once he married, as is so often the case, he re-created this pattern with his wife.
"Meanwhile, Sara's mother, in expressing pleasure at young Sara's popularity, sent the implicit message that her daughter was responsible for her happiness. It's not really surprising that Sara would assume a caretaker role in her marriage or that in her treatment of Tom she would inadvertently mirror the controlling tendencies of his father."
"Tom and Sara's behavior patterns had been established decades earlier, but the urgent questions facing them were: Could Tom become an equal partner in his marriage, and could Sara back off? When I suggested that Tom was reluctant to follow through because he harbored unresolved anger at his wife's controlling ways, he acknowledged that the more she nagged him, the more he resisted. 'I don't like to be pressured,' Tom said. But he also hated conflict; hence his habit of making false promises. 'You're eroding Sara's trust,' I explained, 'and you only delay the inevitable fight.'
"Tom needed to be honest with Sara about what he was and wasn't willing to do. 'If you refuse to do something, for whatever reason, explain why upfront. Don't raise her expectations and then disappoint her,' I advised. 'However, if you want a loving, intimate relationship with your wife, you should do some things that are important to her. For example, an unmowed lawn may not bother you, but it clearly bothers her — not to mention other people in your community. By maintaining the lawn and keeping clutter to a minimum, you'll be making a loving gesture toward your wife.'
"As for Sara, she needed to be less demanding and critical. While Tom vowed to do better at straightening up and finishing household tasks, he freely admitted that he'd never be as neat as Sara. I agreed that Sara should be more tolerant of his basic personality. 'Yes, Tom can improve,' I told her, 'but he can't be you. Accept him for who he is.'
"To prove to Sara that he was serious about becoming more responsible, Tom offered to oversee a series of renovation projects that had to be completed in advance of Rebecca's homecoming later in the year. He hired and supervised the contractors who replaced the furnace; on his own, he painted and tiled the bathrooms, cleaned the basement, prepared the nursery, and negotiated a good deal on a new car. He also finished reupholstering the dining-room chairs and handled his regular chores, after telling Sara that it might take him a while to get everything done. Sara was thrilled with Tom's initiative: 'When we started therapy I thought he was a hopeless case. I can't believe the way he's stepped up.'
"From there we talked about their need for more couple time. Sara agreed to stay downstairs and talk to Tom when she came home from work, and I urged them to go on a weekly date. In honor of their 10th wedding anniversary, they bought new bikes, which they ride on weekends at state parks. As for their sex life, Tom needed to stop falling asleep downstairs and go to bed when Sara did in order to facilitate intimacy. I advised Tom to exercise, not only to make himself more physically appealing but also to boost his energy level. As the couple followed these suggestions, they felt more loving and their sex life resumed — and improved. 'Now that I no longer resent Tom all the time, I feel the spark returning,' Sara said."
"Finally, I encouraged the couple to adjust their communications style. They'd never seen their parents disagree, so neither had learned how to appropriately express anger, disappointment, or frustration. As a result, they'd fallen into an unhealthy cycle: Sara held her emotions in check for a while, but upon reaching her breaking point would lash out and then punish Tom with the silent treatment. Tom, meanwhile, withdrew when upset. I recommended that Sara express her feelings in a timely manner, rather than suppress them and eventually explode in rage.
"I stressed that when asking Tom to do something, she should use supportive language to convey the task's importance to her: 'Tom, I'm excited about our upcoming trip, and it would mean a lot to me if you could book our flights this week. I'm swamped at work and likely won't be able to handle it.' To avoid misunderstandings, I recommended that Tom tell Sara if he couldn't honor a request. And if he slipped up on a promise and Sara lapsed into name-calling or excessive criticism, he should be direct: 'Sara, it's hurtful when you speak that way. I'm sorry I disappointed you, but we need to move on.' So far, this approach is working. 'We're not afraid of anger anymore,' Tom said. 'Counseling taught us to acknowledge our anger and verbalize it in a positive way.'
"Sara and Tom are rightly proud of their progress. The adoption was recently completed, and they are enjoying parenthood more than they ever imagined. The last time I saw them they were positively glowing about both their baby daughter and their own relationship. 'Tom is a devoted and active father,' Sara gushed. 'I can totally rely on him now, and our future looks bright.'
"Tom agreed. 'I love and appreciate Sara more than ever,' he said, 'and having Rebecca has made our family, and our happiness, complete.'"
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?®" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews with clients and information from the files of Marc D. Rabinowitz, LCSW, a marital therapist at the Psychotherapy Center, in Norfolk, Virginia. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?®" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2007.