"Two years ago, when my husband's company relocated, his boss offered to let him telecommute so we wouldn't have to move," said Beth, 30, a stay-at-home mom who's been married for six years. "I wish it never happened. Ever since Christopher stopped going to the office, our relationship has been a total nightmare.
"It's kind of ironic because at first we were totally psyched. We set up a home office for him in the basement and everything started off really well. But within a couple of months Christopher began slacking off. He sells computer software to small companies, but instead of calling or going out to meet clients, he started spending more and more time watching television or shooting hoops in the driveway. If I hadn't been around to tell him to go downstairs and work I don't think he would have gotten anything done. It didn't help that he'd inherited some money from his uncle around that time. He was feeling flush and wasn't so driven to earn those commissions.
"That's only part of the problem. I've been home full-time since our son, Jack, was born two years ago, and I have my routines down pat. Now I have to deal with Christopher weighing in on everything. Whenever I go out, I get the third degree: 'Who are you meeting?' 'How long will you be away?' Yesterday, when I came back from the supermarket, he actually criticized me for not buying healthy food. It's not like I came home with hot dogs and Twinkies!
"Christopher also complains that the house is always in shambles. Of course it is. We have a toddler! But my husband is also responsible for the mess. He never washes a pot or even puts his dirty laundry in the hamper. Frankly, I'm tired of being his personal maid.
"The worst is when he criticizes the way I'm taking care of Jack. Last week I needed to go online to see what time the children's museum opened so I put him in front of the television for a few minutes. Christopher came upstairs, saw Jack watching cartoons and went bonkers, screaming, 'Why aren't you outside playing with him?'
"He also yells at me whenever Jack knocks on the basement door and calls for him. I do my best to keep him away from Christopher when he's working, but Jack knows his daddy is down there and sometimes it's hard to control him. You'd think my husband would be more understanding.
"Christopher and I met when we were in college. We got married right after graduation and moved to Denver because he had a job offer here. I found a job in a jewelry boutique, which turned out to be tons of fun. Until this work-at-home arrangement, things were really good. I felt lucky to have such a great husband and was totally in love. But now I'm starting to feel trapped by how controlling he is. He makes all the decisions in our family, and I just go along because I don't want to start an argument. Last month he announced we were joining a gym 45 minutes away because it has a great indoor rock-climbing wall. If he'd checked with me I would have told him I'd prefer a gym closer to home. But he'd already signed us up without ever asking if I thought it was a good idea. At that point, what could I do?
"Ever since we've been married I've worked very hard at keeping the peace. My own parents divorced when I was 10. I was sad and angry, though it was a relief not to hear them arguing all the time. I promised myself that when I got married I wouldn't end up in a relationship like that. But here I am. I'm so upset about how badly we're getting along that I can hardly think straight. Maybe if he weren't home all day long, things would be different. But if things continue the way they are, I think I want a divorce."
"Until Beth told me how miserable she was, I didn't realize our marriage was in so much trouble," said Christopher, 30. "I'm sure a lot of it is my fault, but I'm doing the best I can.
"When my boss offered me the chance to work at home I was thrilled. To make my own hours and not have to commute, isn't that everyone's dream? I didn't see any negatives and felt confident that I could make it work. It seemed great at first. I could roll out of bed in my sweats, do some work, go out and exercise, then work more. I loved that no one was checking on how many clients I contacted each day.
"But to be honest, I found it really hard to be productive. There were just too many other things to focus on. For example, I spent a lot of time figuring out what to do with some money I inherited from my uncle. I ended up investing it wisely, but the flip side of that good fortune was that it gave me an excuse to be lazy about my job.
"I never told Beth, but my boss began hounding me for not being more productive. He'd call and say that I needed to bring in more business. For a few weeks I'd pick up the pace but eventually I'd start slacking off again.
"At this point I'm not sure I like the work-at-home thing after all. I miss the structure of an office, especially the face time with my boss and colleagues. I feel sidelined and am starting to worry about whether management will see me as superfluous and fire me.
"I'm trying to buckle down, but it's very hard to concentrate when I hear my wife and son upstairs. I know Beth can't watch Jack every second, but when he starts knocking on the basement door I get tense and end up yelling at both of them. I don't mean to do that. I also don't mean to be so on top of her all the time. When I ask Beth where she's going -- or when I comment on the groceries she bought -- I'm just trying to stay involved with things around the house. I didn't realize that I came across as so controlling.
"Now that I listen to Beth, I realize that I must sound just like my mother did when I was growing up. She was the boss in our family and she ordered my father around a lot, especially when she was in a bad mood. I hated it then, and if that's really what I'm doing, I'm ashamed -- and really sorry.
"I don't blame my wife for thinking I'm a jerk. But in my defense, unless she tells me how she feels, how am I supposed to know? This is the first time I had any idea she didn't like the fact I joined the rock-climbing gym.
"Look, I truly love Beth. We had a fantastic relationship before I began working at home, and I don't want to lose her. I guess I could look for a new job, but there isn't much out there right now. So at least for a while I've got to make the best of what I've got. But I'm committed to improving our marriage. I'm tired of our bickering, and I miss the great relationship we used to have."
The Counselor's Turn
"Beth and Christopher were blaming their problems on the fact that he was working from home, but the trouble in their marriage went much deeper than that," said the counselor.
"When I told them this, they were taken aback. They insisted they'd gotten along really well before the new work arrangement. I explained that weaknesses often don't show up until a relationship is under stress. In their case the work-at-home situation, plus the demands of a young child, created the perfect storm for stress, anxiety, and misunderstandings. Beth's desire for a divorce -- which lessened once she heard that her husband was willing to make changes -- was a wake-up call for both of them.
"For one thing, Beth had allowed herself to fall into the role of victim. She'd seen her parents' marriage disintegrate and was determined not to repeat the same pattern. Consequently, she tried to always put her husband's needs ahead of her own. She quietly tolerated Christopher's controlling behavior rather than let him know how much it bothered her. 'No wonder you feel trapped,' I said. 'You've lost your voice in this relationship.'
"Though Christopher seemed confident on the surface, I knew he was worried about his job. As the family's sole breadwinner, he'd felt under pressure since Jack was born. Christopher allowed his anxiety to surface as anger, irritability, and in-your-face criticism. 'You're micromanaging your wife in a way that borders on being abusive,' I told him. He was horrified once he realized that he was treating Beth the same way his mother had treated his father.
"The couple's first challenge was to learn to talk to each other in a way that didn't feel accusatory. I taught them small ways to shift the tone of their conversation. For instance, instead of beginning a sentence with 'I don't like,' 'I don't want,' or 'You always,' they could try to catch themselves and substitute phrases such as 'I would prefer that' or 'I'm concerned about.' Simple word changes can turn a complaint into a request and make it less likely to put anyone on the defensive.
"I also told Christopher that he was too quick to assume he knew what his wife was thinking and, instead, needed to ask questions first. A perfect example was when he saw Jack watching television and jumped to the wrong conclusion. If Christopher had said, 'What's your plan for Jack this afternoon?' Beth would have had a chance to tell him and they wouldn't have argued.
"As the couple began using these simple tactics, they fought less and were finally able to calmly discuss specific changes that would make both of them happier. They agreed that Christopher would continue telecommuting until the job market improved, but decided that he needed to impose some structure to his day so he could be more productive. For one thing, he announced that he would get dressed for work, instead of wearing sweats, to put himself into the right mind-set. And if he came upstairs during 'office hours,' he would limit his time with Jack and Beth to a quick hello and a hug. These simple changes kept him focused on his job and last month he actually doubled the number of sales calls he had been making in previous months.
"We also talked about how they could split household chores so everything didn't fall to Beth. Christopher admitted that he'd gotten lazier over the years since his wife was so quick to clean up after him. He promised to be more conscientious in the future and also came up with the idea of having a nightly pick-up party: After dinner he'd put on a CD and the three of them would march around the house returning toys to their proper place.
"In one of our last sessions I told Beth that I thought she was suffering from depression. She blamed it on the fact that she didn't have a job. 'I always wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, but the truth is, I don't love it,' she confessed. Christopher reminded her about her dream of starting a jewelry business and offered to help her build a Web site for her necklace designs. She loved the idea -- and so did he. If she could bring in a bit of money, it would relieve some of the financial pressure on him. Last I heard, she was already selling some of her jewelry online.
"When Beth and Christopher ended counseling after six months, I was confident their marriage was back on track. They agreed and, more importantly, had learned the skills they needed in case it ever veered off course again."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2010.