"I feel as if I'm the male in this relationship and my husband is the female because I need my space and he needs a lot of attention and affection," says Marlene, 44, the mother of three sons from a previous marriage, only one of whom is still at home. "I'm a litigation attorney, so my days are pressure packed and followed by a long commute from Boston back to our small town. Roy is an art teacher at our local high school, so typically he gets home by 3 p.m. and spends the rest of the afternoon working on one of his paintings. To be fair, he usually makes dinner, but he leaves the kitchen in such a mess it drives me crazy. But what he really doesn't get is that I need to decompress when I get home. He starts babbling before I even get inside the door. And he follows me from room to room.
"Weekends are worse. He wants to do everything with me — from grocery shopping to errands to my early-morning run. If I tell him I want to do these things alone, he looks hurt. The more he smothers me, the more I want to push him away.
"I feel as though I have another child. He's a very talented, creative guy, but I have to remind him of appointments. He never finishes projects, like mowing the lawn or cleaning the gutters, and he's hopeless as a handyman. Anything that needs fixing, I fix. I pay the bills and drive us everywhere because he gets nervous behind the wheel.
"Then, if this weren't bad enough, he's having trouble performing sexually — something that was not a problem when we were dating. I thought spicing things up might help, so I bought a video to give us ideas. That made him more nervous. He got a prescription for Viagra, but apparently it doesn't help if the man is not in the mood."
"I foresaw none of these problems when Roy and I were dating. My first husband was a businessman who was bossy and domineering, so I was thrilled to be in a relationship with a sweet, kind man who adored me. Roy had taught art to all three of my sons, so I knew him from parent-teacher conferences. He'd always been Mr. Wilson to me. Then three years ago when my youngest son, Carl, was in ninth grade, a mutual friend set us up. It was a blind date on my end — my friend told me that a 'great guy' would pick me up. He also said that this mystery man already knew me and was eager to know me better. The day of our date, a gorgeous bouquet arrived at my office; the card was signed 'Mr. Wilson.' I was flabbergasted but very flattered.
"From the moment he arrived that night, our conversation just took off. Roy told me how devastated he had been when his first wife left him for an international businessman, then moved to Europe with their only child. His daughter is 27 now and he feels he barely knows her. He said being close to his students helped compensate for her absence. Then he told me a wonderful story about Carl, who'd been a reluctant art student but blossomed when Roy pointed out the connection between perspective and science. That's the moment I got hooked. What a refreshing change from my angry, self-centered ex — or, for that matter, my equally angry and self-centered father, a police officer who barked orders at his family as if he was still on duty. I began thinking how great it would be for Carl to have a positive male role model. Sadly, it's too late for my two older sons, who are already in college.
"We started seeing each other practically every day. Three months into the relationship, he proposed with a gorgeous ring he'd designed himself — a center diamond encircled by rosettes of other gems. The kids were delighted to have 'Mr. Wilson' as a stepfather. On our honeymoon, in Paris, Roy acted as my personal tour guide at the Louvre. As we strolled along the Left Bank, the sight of Parisian couples walking hand in hand and kissing inspired us to do the same. It was the most romantic time of my life.
"But trouble started the minute we got back. Roy had the summer off, while I had to go right back to the office. I'd come home to his clinging-vine routine — as well as dirty socks on the floor, spices all over the countertop, and pots and pans in the sink.
"One positive note is that Roy is really good for Carl, just as I'd hoped. They like to kick a soccer ball around in the backyard, and Roy has been helping Carl with his college applications. That's great, but it doesn't make up for all the problems. I was swept off my feet by Roy's romantic gestures, but now I'm feeling suffocated by his need for togetherness. Plus, I'm not having great sex, I have to clean up after him, and I'm stuck with all the guy chores. He says I'm the love of his life and will do anything to improve our marriage. But most of the time I just wish I had my old, peaceful life back."
"I'm terrified that Marlene is going to leave me because I can't satisfy her anymore," said Roy, 49. "We thought Viagra would help, but all I got was a headache. There I was with my beautiful wife in her sexy nightgown. You'd think I'd be turned on but it was just the opposite: I panicked.
"For the entire three years we've been married, I've felt I can't do anything right. For example, I like to have dinner ready when she gets home after a long day. But instead of being pleased, she makes a scene about how the garlic salt is still on the counter. Frankly, I don't think leaving spices on the counter is a major crime.
"When we were dating, Marlene made me feel special and important; now she can barely stand having me around. If I start a conversation, she walks away. If I follow her, she shoots me dagger looks. What is that about? Aren't a husband and wife supposed to be involved in each other's lives?
"So what if I'm not much of a handyman? When I was single I paid a neighbor's son to mow the lawn and clean the gutters and I'd call a plumber if the toilet broke. To me it's worth paying for chores like that. But in her five years as a single mom, Marlene and her boys always did everything themselves. A couple of weeks ago I agreed to clean out the gutters but got interrupted by a phone call from a student's mother. By the time I got off the phone, I'd forgotten about the gutters. When Marlene got home, the ladder was still leaning against the house and the gutters were half-cleaned. She launched into a tirade about how irresponsible I am and how I might as well be one of her kids. Then she started in about how she's the one who pays all the bills and does all the driving. I was stunned. How was I supposed to know those things bothered her? Am I a mind reader?
"This situation is alien to me because my parents were always loving and respectful to each other. They also adored me, their only child, rooting for me at every soccer game, driving me into Boston for art lessons at the Museum of Fine Arts. I simply lack experience with conflict. Even my divorce from my first wife was amicable."
"After my divorce I threw myself into my teaching and used my spare time to paint. I've shown my work locally, but my dream is to someday have a show at a gallery on Newbury Street in Boston. I dated occasionally but nothing serious. I figured I'd never remarry.
"Then my friend Joe, the shop teacher at school, said he wanted to set me up with Marlene, whose son Carl is friends with Joe's son. I was a little intimidated because she's this hot-shot lawyer but I was definitely interested.
"Joe didn't tell her who her date was, but I wanted her to know. So I sent roses. That first night, we talked for hours and when I dropped her off, I got brave enough to kiss her good night. Oh man, my socks melted! I knew right then and there I wanted to marry her. Three months later, I proposed and she was ecstatic over the ring I designed. Everything seemed perfect.
"But it hasn't played out that way. Look, I'm willing to change. If it matters that much, I'll straighten up the kitchen and clean out the gutters. But how do I deal with the fact that she wants nothing to do with me? The other night she went up to bed to read, so I got a book and came up to bed, too. She let out a huge sigh. Jeez. I'm her husband! I live in the same house. I sleep in the same bed.
"Our sex life is our toughest problem, of course. The other day I got out a sex video she bought a while back and studied it. But watching just gave me an anxiety attack. All I could think about is how inadequate I am. I'd hate to lose Marlene, and I'd also hate not to be a regular part of her kids' lives, especially Carl. I missed out on fathering my own daughter, so I'm grateful for this small second chance with a stepson. Even so, maybe I should just go back to being good old Mr. Wilson, the hermit."
The Counselor's Turn
"Marlene's assertion that she and Roy had swapped gender roles had a lot of truth to it," said the counselor. "As a single mom Marlene had learned to function as both a father and mother to her sons. She was used to being independent and in charge. Yet the only models she had for this were a domineering father and a first husband who was very much like her dad. She constantly criticized Roy and demanded that he do things her way. He ended up feeling as though nothing he did pleased her, which in turn contributed to his inability to please her in bed."
"When Roy told me he had tried Viagra to no avail, I wasn't surprised. An erection won't happen just because a man takes medication. Roy was tested before seeing me to rule out any physical problem (he is perfectly healthy).
"I explained to the couple that Roy's performance anxiety stemmed from a fear of failure, and that the more Marlene set the mood with pretty lingerie or sex videos, the greater the demands on Roy. Marlene gasped when she heard that. 'I thought those things would help him relax,' she said. At that point, I suggested that they lower the pressure by being intimate in bed without the goal of intercourse or orgasm.
"Roy was silent for a long time. Finally, he said softly, 'You're so beautiful and I love you so much. It just kills me that I can't give you pleasure. That's why the more you show me that you want it, the more scared I get that I won't be able to do it.'
"Marlene blinked back tears and reached for Roy's hand. 'Oh, honey,' she said.
"'I know I haven't been pleasing you out of bed any more than in bed,' he told her, blinking back tears himself. 'Believe me, I want to do something about that.'"
"This was the perfect segue into the other issues that were tearing these two apart. Writing on a board I keep in my office, I asked them to rank their three most salient nonsexual problems. They actually burst out laughing when they realized that each expressed the same issues in the same order, but from opposite viewpoints. Marlene's first complaint was that Roy follows her around and never gives her a minute to herself. Roy's was that Marlene tries to escape from him and never wants together time. Second on Marlene's list was Roy's failure to clean up after himself; second on his was that Marlene doesn't appreciate his cooking dinner and makes a big fuss about the mess. Marlene's third gripe was that Roy doesn't do 'guy work' around the house; Roy's was that Marlene expects him to do chores he'd rather pay for.
"When they read these issues out loud, they admitted they were pretty trivial. I told them I wanted to spend the next several sessions teaching them to choose their battles. For example, Marlene could focus on her primary issue, not having enough 'space,' and ease up on Roy's messiness. Roy could listen to Marlene's reasons for wanting time to herself so he wouldn't feel personally rejected. That's when Marlene collapsed in tears. When she regained her composure, she said, 'Now that we're talking about stuff like needing a minute to myself or wanting Roy to clean up the kitchen, I realize there's more to it. I'm so tired of being the only adult in charge. When I got married, I thought I wouldn't have to hold the reins anymore. I wanted somebody to take care of me.'
"Roy put a protective arm around her shoulder. 'I'll take care of you,' he whispered. 'We'll work this out.' I was delighted by this exchange because I believed that if Roy could feel like Marlene's hero in some way, his ability to perform sexually would improve."
"I instructed the couple to use the 'listing' technique at home, with paper and pencil. They came to the next session with big smiles. 'It was really funny, but the minute Roy agreed to stop tagging after me, I kind of missed it,' Marlene admitted. 'I'd spend a few minutes upstairs changing into my sweats and then I'd be looking for him. I understood for the first time how lonely I'd been during those five years on my own.' As for Roy, he realized the key was Marlene's making that choice on her own.
"Over several months Marlene and Roy worked through their other issues. In my office, with me as the mediator, I taught them to avoid contempt, criticism, and stonewalling in their discussions with each other. They agreed that if Marlene needed to have Roy stop talking and give her some time to herself, she should say exactly that in a polite way. I also encouraged Roy, who is garrulous compared to Marlene, to be a bit more succinct.
"At one session Marlene conceded that it was okay to pay for chores; she also admitted that, despite her complaints, she actually liked being in charge of the family finances. Roy began making an effort to tidy up the house before Marlene got home. As a result, they both began looking forward to the dinner hour (as did Carl, since Marlene and Roy were no longer sitting in stony silence).
"The best news was that with every improvement in the relationship, Roy's performance anxiety eased. Finally, at one session, Marlene confided that Roy had been his lusty old self not once but twice that week. Roy nodded. 'What made the difference was when she told me spontaneously one day that she loved me.'
"'Such a simple thing,' Marlene admitted, smiling broadly. 'But I couldn't say it until I meant it. And now I do!'
"The last time I spoke to this couple, Roy could scarcely contain his elation at having achieved his dream of a solo show at a gallery on Newbury Street. 'Now that we're okay,' he said, 'I can be creative.'
"'This is his best work ever,' Marlene said proudly, turning to her husband. 'I'd rather have you spend your time painting than cleaning gutters any day.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, April 2006.