"My husband never listens to me," said Marcy, 42, a marketing director and mother of two. "Howard hears the little things, like if I ask him to turn down the TV, but when it comes to major issues he tunes me out. His indifference is why we are constantly at odds. I'm angry that he doesn't meet my emotional needs; he insists that my expectations are unrealistic.
"Howard's parents and older sister have always ignored me. Believe it or not, in the 20-odd years I've known them, none of them has ever asked me a direct question about myself. Yet whenever I complain to Howard, he says I'm too sensitive.
"But my biggest disappointment is with Howard's mismanagement of the three jewelry stores he owned. They began to fail two years ago, partly because of the weak economy, partly because of his own mistakes. It was clear then that the businesses were doomed, and I begged Howard to cut our financial losses. But he was convinced that things would turn around, and when they didn't, he became distant and argumentative. I was so frustrated by his stubbornness and terrified that we'd lose our life's savings. I didn't earn much as a part-time marketing consultant, so I began looking for a full-time job. Luckily, I was hired by my main client, a computer software company.
"Howard has been unemployed for two months now. He mopes around the house, channel surfing and 'polishing' his resume. He seems oblivious to our expenses and debt, as well as to the fact that our daughter's bat mitzvah, which will cost a fortune, is just nine months away. Sadly, our problems have affected the kids: Ellen has sleeping problems and is worried we'll cancel her bat mitzvah; Steven avoids us by sulking in his room.
"I'm the youngest of three kids from a troubled family. Dad was a dentist, Mom a school nurse. They divorced when I was 12 — Mom got sick of Dad's drinking and womanizing — leaving Mom to raise us alone. Money was tight, and her stress was so high that she either screamed at us or ignored us. I was estranged from Dad for 20 years, but he resurfaced after I had children; now we see each other at family events.
"Howard and I met at a college party. I was 19; he was 21. There were instant sparks — we discussed books, politics, movies — and I loved his shy smile and hazel eyes. Our personalities were different, but complementary: I'm outgoing, emotional, and blunt; he is reserved and laid-back. Both of us looked forward to pursuing challenging careers, living in the suburbs, and raising a family.
"We dated for five years while we each got an MBA. After our wedding, we moved to New York City, where I took a marketing job at an investment bank and Howard worked as a financial analyst. We played tennis, traveled, saw plays, and had great sex. Our life was conflict-free. Even now, when Howard is in a good mood, there's no one I'd rather be with. He's smart, funny, and a devoted father.
"Howard's family owned a jewelry business in Hartford, Connecticut, and after our second anniversary, he decided to join it. The two stores were successful; moreover, Howard's father, Max, was approaching retirement age, so we figured Howard would soon take over. The downside was that we had to move to Hartford. I'd never felt accepted by my in-laws, but the real trouble started when we had to spend more time together. I'd try to join their conversations, but if they didn't agree with something I said, they'd turn verbally abusive. I kept waiting for Howard to intervene, but he didn't, preferring to fight with me at home later rather than defend me to his parents and sister.
"The situation didn't improve even after we had kids. As grandparents, my in-laws play favorites. Howard's mother, Shirley, buys holiday clothes for her daughter's children but not for ours. Our kids see this because their cousins flaunt their new clothes at family dinners. But when I asked Howard to speak to his mother about it, he called me 'petty.'
"The worst episode occurred a year ago. Shirley and Max said they planned to give our kids their Hanukkah presents at Yom Kippur in October because they would be out of town in December. Howard and I asked them to mail the gifts instead — we didn't want Ellen and Steven to open gifts two months early. After dinner Max started distributing the presents, so I whispered, 'Say something,' to Howard. He remained silent, so I seized control. 'We're not doing this,' I declared. 'Get your coats, kids. We're leaving.' Shirley burst into tears, and my sister-in-law spewed obscenities at me. Still, Howard said nothing. We drove home in silence and I didn't speak to him for a week. I told him I'd never go to his family's homes again.
"His job loss is the last straw. Seven years ago Max had yet to give him a raise and showed no inclination to retire, so I endorsed Howard's decision to leave his dad's business and open a jewelry store in the suburbs. I was involved from the start, handling the bookkeeping, helping out behind the counter, and offering suggestions on hiring and marketing. The first store did well, so four years later he opened another. The next year he added a third, even though I thought he was expanding too quickly. Then a chain store moved into the area, and Howard couldn't compete. His poor hiring decisions became a time-consuming problem. Despite declining sales, Howard thought customers would return for the personal service his staff provided, but over a two-year period, he kept losing money, customers, and employees — until he finally closed the last store.
"Since then he has been bitter and despondent. He isn't interested in job hunting, and he just zones out if I offer to help with networking or writing cover letters. The more passive he is, the more aggressive I become, screaming and slamming doors. I hate myself for acting this way, but I can't seem to help it. Last week, after another blowup over his job search, I fell apart. 'I'm tired of being emotionally abandoned,' I sobbed. 'Come to counseling with me, or it's over.'"
"My business failure has aggravated the long-standing conflict in our marriage," said Howard, 44, with a heavy sigh. "Marcy says I give too little; I say she expects too much."
"Marcy portrays me as the source of our problems, but she bears half the blame. One minute we're having a simple disagreement; the next she's calling me hateful names and dredging up my past transgressions. I've been hurt by Marcy's unfair and hostile criticisms — most of which center on her anger that I don't follow her instructions for running my business or handling my family. If I think Marcy is right, I'll act. But if I don't, I won't. This drives her crazy.
"Losing my stores has caused me deep anguish; I feel as though I've failed Marcy. The worse things got at work, the more my mood soured and the more we argued about how I was managing the stores — or, as Marcy believes, mismanaging them.
"Growing up, I was on good terms with my parents, but their shortcomings frustrated me. Mom is self-centered, demanding, and hard to please. Dad is domineering. I gather they paid a lot of attention to my sister when she was small, but by the time I came along — I'm eight years younger — they were so involved with the jewelry store they had very little time for me. They never encouraged me to speak up for myself, and they refused to discuss anything negative.
"From the moment I met Marcy I could barely tear myself away from her. She's petite, with auburn hair, blue eyes, and adorable dimples. As we talked about our college classes and debated current events, she asked challenging questions, defended her opinions, and was a great listener. This was the type of conversation I'd been starved for my whole life! I knew immediately I wanted to marry her."
"Marcy is right that I haven't defended her to my family. That's because I think she often overreacts. If Mom annoys me, I walk away. That's my style, my way of keeping the peace. So what if she buys holiday clothes for my nieces and nephew? Life's not a scorecard. My parents have been extremely generous to us in other ways, and I won't make a fuss over a dress. I admit they acted atrociously on Yom Kippur, and so did I. It was wrong of me to stay on the sidelines, but in the heat of the moment, I felt overwhelmed. I didn't know how to restore order, let alone smooth hurt feelings. Although I've repeatedly apologized, Marcy refuses to visit my parents' or sister's homes — an extreme response, in my opinion. What kind of an example are we setting for our children?
"In terms of my employment situation, I wish Marcy would stop berating me about my business failure and badgering me about looking for a job. I need more time to mourn my loss before I launch an aggressive search. What I don't need is her pressuring me or helping me write letters. Still, in spite of everything we've endured these past two years, I love Marcy and don't want to lose her. If marriage counseling will help, I'll gladly try it."
The Counselor's Turn
"Job loss creates tremendous emotional and financial stress," said the counselor. "It's particularly difficult when people find their lifestyle jeopardized. Many in this situation become angry at the world — or at their spouse, especially if that person's behavior has contributed either to the loss of the job or the continued lack of one. The problem for this couple was compounded because to Marcy, Howard's refusal to listen to her business advice was one more manifestation of the core problem in their relationship: He ignored her concerns about important issues.
"Howard, for his part, thought Marcy was too hard on him. He wanted time to grieve the loss of his stores and felt she was unrealistic about how quickly he would be able to land a new job.
"Initially I convinced Marcy to change her communication style. She verbally attacked Howard about everything, and in some early sessions he interrupted her by saying, 'Are you going to let me talk?' Observing their interaction, I could easily visualize how their conflicts played out at home. The more Marcy criticized Howard, the less he responded. Nothing could be accomplished with the emotional volume running so high. To help Marcy calm down, I allowed her to vent — in a quiet voice — and share examples of Howard's transgressions, rather than make wild accusations. The more I listened to her, the more I agreed that she had some legitimate grievances. That reassured her, and she relaxed enough to have productive counseling sessions.
"Next, I urged the couple to make the link between their behaviors and the attitudes they developed from their parents. As a girl, Marcy's emotional needs were not met, and she hoped to fill that void in her marriage. She had unresolved anger at her father for abandoning the family, and she directed some of that toward Howard. Whenever she discussed her past, Marcy sobbed for several minutes; I gave her permission to grieve the loss of a happy childhood, and over time she came to see that her high, and sometimes unreasonable, expectations of Howard and his family were the result of her past. Once she understood the depth of her anger toward her father, she was able to stop projecting it onto Howard.
"Howard claimed he kept quiet in order to avoid confrontation. I explained that he learned this behavior as a boy, when his parents would not allow disagreements. Yet this approach was counterproductive: The more he avoided discussion, the more enraged Marcy became. After Howard complained about his demanding mother, I helped him understand that by distancing himself from Marcy and ignoring her concerns, he was unconsciously punishing his mother. 'You need to cut Marcy some slack,' I told him. 'It's not as if she's demanding material things. She's asking you to be more fully engaged in your relationship and to respect her judgment enough to heed it.'
"I urged Howard to mourn the loss of his business and look for work simultaneously. With a family to support, he couldn't mope indefinitely. Marcy was entitled to 'expect' Howard to conduct an aggressive job search, and she was justifiably worried about finances. I advised Howard to approach his job search as if it were a job in itself, and after a few weeks of counseling, he did that. Two months later, he found a new position as a financial analyst in the retail industry. It's not ideal — the commute is long and the salary is half what he earned at his peak — but he feels better about himself, and Marcy is relieved to have stabilized their finances. I advised both of them not to dwell on Howard's business failure. 'Marcy shouldn't continue to lambaste Howard,' I said, 'and Howard shouldn't beat himself up emotionally. Otherwise, you'll remain bitter and never move forward.'
"Most important, each spouse had to accept responsibility for their marital problems. Over time Marcy realized that screaming at Howard was fruitless; he realized that tuning her out was equally destructive. When she toned it down, he began to listen.
"Another thing that had to stop was Howard's allowing his parents and sister to pick on Marcy. He was upset by Marcy's refusal to go to their houses again after the Yom Kippur incident. 'You don't defend your wife, then get mad because she won't return for more abuse?' I asked. 'What do you expect?' Eventually Howard called his mother and sister to discuss the problem; they apologized to Marcy (albeit a bit grudgingly) and their relationship has now improved sufficiently that Marcy celebrated Passover with them. Howard has promised to defend Marcy if his family gets out of line again and she realizes that even though they'll never be close, they can be civil to one another.
"Today Marcy and Howard's marriage is back on track. Once the couple's hostility subsided, their daughter overcame her sleep issues (and celebrated her bat mitzvah, paid for with money saved before Howard's business collapsed) and their son stopped withdrawing. 'I've learned that relationships require constant nurturing,' Howard told me recently. 'Counseling helped me rediscover the Marcy I fell in love with so many years ago. I'm glad we got this second chance.'"
"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 Stephen Betchen, DSW, a licensed marriage counselor and certified sex therapist in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and author of Intrusive Partners — Elusive Mates: The Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic in Couples. 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 magazine, August, 2005.