Emily: 42, Stay-at-home mom
Greg: 49, Internet startup owner
Married: 10 years
Kids: Pati, 8; Violet, 6; and Ben, 5
Susan Heitler, Ph.D., Denver, Colorado
Greg runs ultramarathons and training takes all his free time. Emily feels like she's a single mom. After years of asking him to cut back, she's done. Recently she announced that she wanted a divorce. Greg was totally blindsided.
Emily: I can't breathe in this marriage and I have no desire to work on it for even one more day. I've contacted a lawyer and I'm looking at houses to rent.
Everyone thinks Greg is so amazing, and I thought so too when we met. He's smart, successful, generous, and adventurous. But 10 years later I'm over that. Now all I can see is that he's selfish, bossy, and judgmental. I've had it.
When Greg makes a decision he focuses like a laser. A few years ago he became obsessive about running. He doesn't just go for a jog. He runs ultramarathons, which are 50- or 100- mile races. You start at 4 a.m. and run for 30 hours straight. Even elite runners who make their living doing this don't run as many races as Greg does. And when he's training for a race, Greg can easily average 20 hours a week just running. Add another 20 hours of weight lifting and cardio on top of the time he spends at his fulltime job. He's never around, and I'm left with three little kids, doing everything and trying to keep it all together.
He's so self-centered. He thinks that whatever he thinks and feels is what I think and feel, too. Well, hello! That's just not true. When he decided we needed a bigger house — I was fine with the one we had — he built a huge new addition. Guess who supervised all the work? Even my mother, who put up with a lot in her own marriage and never once complained, said I couldn't go on like this.
Greg: I feel like I've stepped into an alternative universe. When Emily said she had something to talk about, I thought she was going to ask where I wanted to go for dinner! Until a week ago I thought I had an amazing life — a happy marriage, healthy children, a successful career and a nice new house, which I renovated so the kids could have their own rooms.
I did that for the family, not for myself. I want to fix this but I can't wrap my brain around what went wrong. How am I supposed to know my wife's miserable if she doesn't tell me? Emily always wanted to be a full-time mom. She said it was her calling.
Before we had kids we were always on the same wavelength. The first year of our marriage, we backpacked around the world and loved every second of it.
Emily: I do love being a mom but I thought I'd be raising my kids with their father! Every time I try to explain how I feel, Greg just laughs and makes a joke, like, "I don't smoke, I don't drink, I don't go to Vegas. Ultramarathons are my only vice! You're a lucky woman!"
I know he's not doing this to be hurtful. I ran competitively in college, too, so I get that winning is addictive. An occasional marathon was fine when it was just the two of us. But now, while he's training, competing or at work — he started an online sports website that's been a big success — I'm with the kids. On weekends I pile everyone into the car and drive for hours to watch Daddy run. It's exhausting and lonely. I'd like to have a conversation and spend some quality time with the guy I married. But even making love feels like another item he needs to check off his list.
Greg: Look, I'm around a lot more than Emily gives me credit for. When the kids were babies we had a full-time babysitter who did laundry and grocery shopping, so I couldn't help out there. Even so, I did my share of diaper changes, baths and bedtime stories. And I'm a good role model. I'm teaching them it's important to stay active, work toward a goal and bounce back if you fail. I never had that guidance as a kid. My dad took off and my mom struggled to support three kids on a secretary's salary.
Emily: Greg's a great dad when he's available. But even if he's here physically — in his office upstairs or his gym in the basement — he's either working, training or setting up his race schedule. Now that the kids are older and have their own activities, I'm pulled in even more directions. They'll start resenting that their dad is never around.
Greg: I really don't understand. I'd never purposely do anything to make Emily's life harder. Once in a while she'll get upset and tell me I'm "taking my extreme events to the extreme." But she knows that running is the way I dial down my stress. I never thought she meant for me to quit. Whenever I ask her how she's doing, she says "10-plus." How did she go from 10-plus to talking to lawyers and looking at houses?
Emily: It's typical Greg that he's talking about his stress. Everything's always about him and his needs. What about my stress, taking care of the house and our three children, all day every day? As for the "10-plus," that's because he always asks how I'm doing when I'm about to collapse at the end of the day. I say I'm fine because I'm desperate to sleep and don't want to end up in a long debate.
Greg's obsession with marathons isn't our only problem. He's also judgmental about my friends. Thank God for my girlfriends, who keep me sane! But Greg sulks when I spend time with them. He never likes doing things with other couples, either. If we get invited out, it's easier to just decline than try to convince him to go.
Greg says he's just happier being together as a family. Please. For the last five years I have done nothing but focus on this family. It's a miracle I can find time to take a shower by myself. He's winning races but I haven't been to the gym in four years. I'm ready to get some of my needs met, and this marriage isn't doing it.
Greg: I don't know what to say. About her friends, I guess I'm jealous that she opens up to them more than she does to me. The fact that I didn't have any idea that she was so unhappy is proof of that. I wish it were different. I love Emily and if I've been an idiot, I'll change. But let's not walk away from this marriage before giving it our best shot.
The Counselor's Turn
The problems Greg and Emily had are certainly not unique to elite athletes. Workaholics, politicians or anyone whose profession or hobby is as all-consuming as Greg's is bound to feel a tug between their marriage and their outside passions.
"Feeling passionate about your work or your hobby is great — up to a point," I told them. "But when your commitment to an outside interest becomes obsessive or addictive, your spouse is bound to feel neglected." Greg's running was sucking up all his energy and time. Emily legitimately wondered, "Is he married to me or to the marathons?"
When Emily and Greg got married, their interests and goals meshed well. Life was relatively easy. That all changed once they started a family. Since they were already "older" parents, they had their kids as close together as possible, though they knew they were in for some very stressful years. But without realizing it they had allowed the relationship to develop in ways that were mostly about Greg and rarely about Emily. To change that she had to learn how to speak up so he could hear her. He had to listen fully and respond to her concerns in a meaningful way.
For all his charm and social ease, Greg was a loner. He ran the ultramarathons by himself. He started his business by himself. People like Greg enjoy and need solitude, and that's fine. The problem was that he was also operating solo in his marriage. Although he thought he was making choices that were right for everyone, he mistakenly assumed that his wife's feelings and needs were the same as his. His motives were loving but his actions felt controlling and dismissive to Emily.
Meanwhile, Emily wasn't communicating with her husband. "Instead of saying how you feel and dealing with difficult issues in a candid conversation, you store up all your complaints, whether about dirty clothes, renovation debris or too much time watching Greg race," I explained. When she couldn't handle it anymore, she'd explode in a way that seemed out of proportion to the crime and left Greg feeling ambushed.
Greg was determined to understand what went wrong in his marriage so he could repair the damage. He took copious notes about everything we discussed, approaching the problem with the same zeal he applied to training for his marathons.
In our first session I explained that childhood experiences strongly influenced how they acted and reacted as adults. When Greg's parents split, he felt responsible for helping his mom raise his younger sisters. But when teens step into a parenting role, they tend to overdo it. Greg continued this pattern as an adult, believing he knew what was best for all, not realizing that Emily needed to be an equal partner. Meanwhile, Emily's childhood had taught her to put everyone else's needs before her own and to avoid conflict. But after years of feeling ignored by Greg, she couldn't take it anymore and concluded that she'd be happier on her own.
The beauty of couples' therapy is that relationship imbalances often become clear quite quickly. In this case, whenever Greg explained how he felt about something, Emily kept quiet. Each time I had to prompt her: "So, how do you feel about that?" After this happened several times they both saw the pattern and Emily understood that her silence wasn't fair to Greg or to herself.
Once the problem was clear, we discussed practical changes. Greg and Emily agreed to set aside time once a week to review the upcoming week's activities, mapping out her time, his time, family time and couple time. Greg rearranged his work schedule so that Emily could go to a 6-o'clock yoga class every morning while he got the kids up and out. He suggested a new bedtime ritual: They take turns lying down with each child and reading before lights-out. Tuesday night and all day Friday is also Emily's time to do whatever she wants. Greg holds down the fort once the kids come home from school. "I used to feel that going to an exercise class or meeting a friend for a movie in the middle of the day was selfish," she said. "Now I realize I can focus on me. And I'm loving it."
Since Greg understands how important it is for Emily to see her friends, he's trying not to feel threatened by it. And they're building in couple time early in the evening. When they unwind over a glass of wine, Emily finds it easier to bring up something that's bothering her, which they can work through before it becomes a real problem. She has started to push herself to be more up front about her feelings and Greg makes a point of checking in.
Greg and Emily continue to see me every few months. I'm confident — and they are too — that they know what to do if problems crop up. As Greg said at our last session, "Marriage is a lot like training for a marathon. And even the pros need coaches."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2012.