"I told Chad when I met him I wanted to go to college and get my degree," said Kelly, 25, who has been married for four years and has an 18-month-old son, Charlie. "I want to do it not just for me but for all of us. But Chad's always got some reason why I shouldn't. He says a degree is just a piece of paper, you don't need school to learn what matters. I've been given that kind of discouragement since I was a kid.
"My sister, Kim, and I were adopted together when I was 2 and she was 4. Everyone in our small town thought our parents, who owned a grocery store, were fine churchgoing people. But they were abusive, physically and mentally. One day when I was 8, for example, I was dancing to music on the radio. My mother apparently told me to stop, but I didn't hear her. So she hauled off and smacked me so hard my ears rang for days. That was typical. My parents had three biological children who were several years older than Kim and me. It was like two different families — the 'real' kids had phones and carpeting in their bedrooms, participated in loads of extracurricular activities, and didn't do chores. Kim and I shared a tiny room and weren't allowed to do anything except go to school and work in the store. We fantasized about running away, and when Kim was 16 she left to live with a friend's family. About a year later I went to live with a friend, too. Mother threatened to call the police. 'Tell them I'd like to talk to them, too,' I replied. There was no way I was going back.
"The next few years were harder than I ever imagined. I moved countless times and supported myself by waitressing, cleaning house, or working as a salesclerk. Then I met Chad. I answered an ad for a receptionist at his landscaping business and he hired me. He was divorced and his two teenage sons were the light of his life. I was touched by his love for them, as well as by his generosity and kindness toward me. He treated me like a princess! Before long we fell in love, and I found myself telling him my story — something I'd never done with anyone. I was 21 and Chad was 35 when we got married. The age difference raised a few eyebrows but it didn't bother us.
"Having another child was not part of his game plan, but I'll admit Chad's a good dad to Charlie, who comes to work with us every day. Chad worries constantly about money and how he's going to expand the business since he also pays alimony and child support. His ex calls him morning, noon, and night and he feels obligated to talk to her and help her start her car or fix an air conditioner. I wish he treated me that well. When I talk about why I want to go to school, he'll cut me off and tell me what I should be thinking instead. He also criticizes me in public. Last week he claimed I gave customers incorrect information about their new hydrangeas — which I didn't. He gets jealous if I have dinner with my girlfriends, and I have to twist his arm to watch Charlie so I can go. I get so frustrated I lose it, and we'll have a horrible argument, with Chad freezing me out for days on end.
"Even though I'm now the office manager, I stopped getting a salary when we got married. So every week, I have to ask Chad for money for groceries, gas, or drugstore expenses that are really 'ours,' not just 'mine.' He even gave me a hard time when Charlie was sick and I needed another $10 to cover the doctor's copay! I do love Chad, but I need to feel good about myself, too. That's why I want to go to school. I'd like his support, but if I can't get it, I'm prepared to go it alone. I did it before and I'll do it again."
"I don't know why my wife is so upset," said Chad, 39. "We have a healthy child, the business is on track, our lives are good. Suddenly she makes this announcement about going back to school and we're fighting like cats and dogs. Kelly seems intent on painting me as this ogre who's trying to keep her down. Well, that's nonsense. I have valid reasons why now isn't a good time for her to go back to school.
"First of all, it'll hurt us financially. In this economy, people are not rushing out to landscape their property — they're worried they could lose their home altogether. But Kelly is terrific at getting new customers and keeping old ones happy. She's figured out ways to save money and discovered that I was undercharging for my services compared to competitors. She started quoting higher prices -- nothing exorbitant, just more realistic — and no one blinked. I was worried that we'd scare away customers but the opposite happened. Losing her would be a tremendous blow.
"And what about Charlie? He spends the day with us now — we fixed up a little room in the back of the office as a nursery and playroom — and I can't stand the thought of him being in daycare all day. Maybe I'm old school, but I think a mother should look after her own children, at least when they're as little as Charlie is.
"And frankly I'd miss having Kelly around all day. She's like a breath of fresh air, always positive — at least until recently. That's been wonderful for me, because I've been lonely most of my life. My dad was a farmer who worked constantly, and my mom was overwhelmed with housework and kids. She was disappointed when I was born — I have two older brothers and she desperately wanted a daughter. When my younger sister came along two years later, Mom focused all her attention on her and I got lost in the mix. When my parents did notice me it was mostly to tell me what I was doing wrong. My grades weren't that good, so college wasn't an option.
"After graduating from high school I went to work for a landscaping business. The owner taught me everything he knew and when he retired I took over. I got married at 19 — way too early. It was never a good relationship, though we do have two great kids. I feel guilty about ending the marriage after 10 years and being able to move on with my life while my ex-wife can't. That, and the fact that she's the mother of two of my sons, is why I start her car or fix the air conditioning. But Kelly has a fit, yelling and threatening to leave me. I feel ambushed and it can take me upwards of a week to calm down afterward.
"Yes, Kelly has often mentioned a desire to go to college to me, but it has always been in a wistful, wouldn't-it-be-nice way. I just wonder what this sudden urge for an education is really all about. On my bad days I suspect she doesn't love me anymore and wants out of the marriage."
The Counselor's Turn
Kelly and Chad wanted their relationship to work, but the marriage had become a series of subtle power struggles that neither was fully aware of, let alone knew how to defuse," said the counselor. "Whether the issue was money, childcare, or Kelly's return to school, they were jockeying for power and control on a daily basis. 'Whenever someone feels powerless, resentment brews,' I said. 'That's why you're arguing all the time.' Before they could end the emotional tug-of-war, however, they had to understand its source.
"Both had strong self-sabotaging streaks that are typical of people from highly dysfunctional families. Just when things were going well they'd find ways to stir up the pot. As children each felt unheard and unloved; neither believed he or she had a right to be happy, then or now. To protect herself Kelly had resolved not to let anyone control her or prevent her from achieving her goals. Deeply resentful of what she saw as her husband's attempts to keep her under his thumb, she reacted with anger and threats to walk out. I helped her see that Chad's responses had nothing to do with punishing or controlling her but sprang from a deep-seated fear of losing her love. To feel safe, calm, and more in control, he needed to be in charge of every decision — unfortunately in ways that undercut her.
"'Resolving a conflict doesn't mean you must think or feel exactly the same,' I explained. 'It means accepting and respecting inevitable differences in opinions and priorities.' To build a foundation of trust, I told Kelly she had to stop yelling and threatening to leave. At the same time Chad had to reconnect after an argument instead of going into an emotional deep freeze. I suggested that, when he felt himself pulling away, he had to remind himself that his fears were based on the alienation he'd felt as a child, not on the reality of today. 'If you want Kelly to see your point of view, you have to acknowledge hers, and you can't do that if you distance yourself every time you clash.' I taught them how to discuss their differences respectfully, using phrases such as 'what I hear you saying is...' instead of going on the attack. I also urged them to touch each other physically during these 'discussions,' especially when they got heated.
"Kelly and Chad were surprised at how quickly they were able to sort through their feelings once they understood each other's motives. In one breakthrough session Chad took a deep breath and admitted, 'I've been a jerk. I don't want to hold you back but I'm scared that school is the first step you'll take away from me.'
"This brave confession touched Kelly deeply. Reaching for his hand, she said, 'I'll always be here for you, Chad.' Feeling more secure that he would not be diminished by his wife's success, Chad decided to look for someone to replace Kelly at work, even though she wouldn't be leaving for several months. This gave her plenty of time to train the new person. As for Charlie, in the fall he'd be old enough for half-day nursery school. Kelly agreed that she'd take morning courses and pick up her son on the way home. Chad would be in charge of evening childcare so Kelly could study. She then broached the topic of money, explaining that she felt like a child asking for her allowance. Together, she and Chad expanded her role in the family's day-to-day finances. She opened her own bank account, into which Chad deposited several hundred dollars a month so she could manage her own spending. Her gripes about Chad's ex-wife evaporated once she felt fully supported by him.
"With her confidence high, Kelly applied to and was accepted at several local universities. 'I'm a college girl!' she said happily the last time I saw her.
"'She is irreplaceable at work,' said Chad, 'but I'm so proud of her achievements! We're happier now than we have ever been.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2009.