Alison: 31, EMT
Trevor: 35, sales manager
Married: It's complicated (married 1 1/2 years, together 4 years)
Kids: Donovan, 8, Joy, 1
Susan Ko, Ph.D., Los Angeles
Alison and Trevor were living together and considering marriage when Trevor's sister Yvette — a single mom — was killed. Though he and Alison had only been together eight months, they took in Yvette's 4-year-old son, Donovan. But with Trevor nearly incapacitated by grief, the two were soon overwhelmed by their new responsibilities and conflicting parenting styles.
Ever since his sister was killed, the Trevor I knew and fell in love with is gone. We don't have a relationship anymore. It's not that he's mean, he's just completely absent, in my life and in Donovan's. He gets up in the morning, goes to work, comes home and goes straight to our bedroom to lie down. Meanwhile, I do everything for Donovan -- play with him, take him to school, do all the cooking and cleaning. I adore Donovan and I love being a parent, but I can't do it alone. Trevor knows I need help -- it's not like he fights me on it, but he's not stepping up. "Just tell me what to do," he says. If he paid more attention to what I'm doing, he'd know how to help.
I want him to start being a father figure and learn to discipline his nephew. Trevor knows we have to set limits for Donovan, but he doesn't like enforcing them because he feels so sorry for him. We're trying to teach Donovan to stay in his own bed through the night, but if I go away for one night, Trevor lets Donovan in our bed and we're back to square one. Trevor will tell me, "His mother is gone, we're being cruel, let him be." Yet most of the time, if Donovan needs a cuddle or reassurance, I'm the one who provides it -- Trevor's totally checked out.
Donovan started calling me Mom but he doesn't call Trevor Daddy, and Trevor doesn't want him to. I think it's too hard for him. Maybe it makes his sister's death seem more final, but who knows? He completely shuts down any time I try to get him to talk about Yvette. He just pushes me away, which makes me feel abandoned and alone. Sometimes I'll say mean things to him just to try to get an emotional response out of him.
We're two people living in the same house leading separate lives. We don't get along anymore and we've stopped having sex -- we don't even touch. If we have a spare moment, we'd rather spend it with friends. It's gotten to where we don't even like each other. I hate who he has become and he can't stand me constantly bitching at him.
I quit my job to take care of Donovan. I completely changed my life. It was my decision, but I'm still mad that Trevor's not helping me. I've given up so much I feel like I've lost myself. Recently I told Trevor I'm not in love with him anymore and I don't want to be with him. I'm only here because I'm not going to leave Donovan without a mom again.
This is without a doubt the hardest thing I have ever had to go through. Yvette was my closest friend. I know Alison is raising Donovan by herself and I want to be there for both of them, but most days it's more than I can handle.
My nephew and I are so lucky that Alison loves him and that she's so happy to have a child. And I want to feel the same way, but sometimes it's hard. I love Donovan very much, but he also really reminds me of my sister, and I'll admit, right now that fact often makes me shut down. Alison will be playing with him or they'll be jumping around to music and she'll try to get me to join in, but I'm often not in the mood for it. I end up thinking about Yvette and feeling even more distant from Alison.
Alison likes attacking problems head-on. I'm more laid back. I put stuff aside to deal with later. I do that with my emotions and she can't stand it -- she can't stand that I won't talk to her about my grief and Yvette. It's a problem for her, so she attacks it and tries to "solve" it for me, and I retreat. We go around and around till she pushes too hard and I yell, "What do you want from me? Back off!" Then she's upset for the rest of the week.
She says I'm shutting her out, but that's not my intention. She takes it so personally that I won't talk about my feelings -- but I don't even talk to my best friends about personal stuff. Yvette was the only one I confided in, and that was partly because she knew not to push. Alison wants me to open up to her now that Yvette is gone, but it's just not how I am.
Then there's housework. To me, it's not something to get worked up about. It eventually gets done. Alison is a neat freak, but before we lived together she never made a big deal about the house. And if things got out of control, I just hired a cleaning lady. I think she starts in about it now because she can't deal with the way I've been acting since Yvette died. But I'll do housework -- I may not love it, but I'll take care of whatever Alison needs help with. She just has to tell me what it is. I feel like her real issue is me not being "the same person" she fell in love with. Well, she hasn't exactly been the person I fell in love with, either. Every time I do something she doesn't like, she jumps down my throat.
There are times I really think our relationship is over. But we've gotten this far, we've gone through so much in seven or eight months, maybe we can make it work...I don't know.
The Counselor's Turn
Trevor and Alison first came in right after Yvette died, wanting grief counseling for Donovan and parenting support for themselves. Though they weren't married yet, they were clearly in love. But from the day they arrived in my office with Donovan, you could see the distance growing between them. Their relationship was so accelerated. The subject of having kids together had barely come up and suddenly they had one, with all the responsibilities that that entails. Soon they were talking to me about how to save their relationship.
Of course, Trevor's grief was a big underlying issue, but the process is different for everyone and it's important to allow people to cope with loss in their own way. Trevor is intensely private. He simply wasn't ready to talk about it. So we agreed to give him time and space not to discuss his feelings, both in our meetings and at home. He did need to become more engaged both as a partner and a parent, however. When Alison said this, Trevor tuned it out. But since I was a neutral third party, Trevor was able to listen. We addressed this issue by focusing on their day-to-day communication and on the practical details of their relationship rather than pushing Trevor to share deeper feelings when he just wasn't ready.
Alison and Trevor's biggest problem was one most couples face -- communication breakdown. Because the importance of communicating is such a well-known issue, most couples are talking and they think they're communicating -- but they're not really hearing what the other is saying. This was definitely the case with these two, who have very different ways of problem solving and coping. Trevor's a manager, used to spreadsheets and deadlines. Alison's more emotional. She wanted help around the house, and he was willing, but he wanted her to make him a list. But that didn't satisfy a big part of what she was looking for: recognition. They were at a standoff, with Trevor saying, "She won't tell me what she wants," and Alison saying, "He won't do anything."
What they were fighting about practically -- getting the chores done -- was different from what they were fighting about emotionally, which was about feeling loved and appreciated. When Trevor didn't help out, Alison thought he must not care. And when Alison wouldn't tell him what she wanted or criticized the way he did things, Trevor felt like he couldn't do anything right. Hurt and anger built up till they stopped feeling close both physically and emotionally.
I helped them move past the specific conflict to the feelings, like insecurity, that lay behind it. Was Alison really that upset about how the laundry was being done, or was she feeling hurt and lashing out because Trevor wasn't confiding in her the way he did with Yvette? At the same time, we tackled central areas of conflict, like housework and caring for Donovan, by getting specific with tasks and to-dos. Together we worked to get everyone's expectations out in the open and come to an agreement on what needed doing, how it needed to be done and who needed to do it. Once they both agreed to the details, Alison made Trevor a written guide to use when he took care of Donovan. That way, she could be confident Trevor would stick to Donovan's usual meal and sleep routines -- which cut down on behavior problems -- and Trevor could have a clear way to show Alison that he was helping and did care.
Trevor and I eventually met a few times to discuss how he was coping with Yvette's death, but that was because he was finally ready to talk and wanted to share memories and thoughts. By then there was light at the end of the tunnel for him and Alison.
Though there were times they were both ready to give up, Alison and Trevor stayed together: They got married, adopted Donovan, bought a house and had a baby girl last winter. It wasn't always magical; sometimes the marriage felt more like a business partnership. They tied the knot in part because Alison is from Australia and couldn't legally stay in the United States and care for Donovan otherwise. But she believes that once you're married, you stay married. And despite their troubles, Trevor knows what an exceptional partner Alison is.
Things gradually got better for them. Trevor came out of his grief and can laugh again. He helps with chores and Alison says she's less neurotic about them. She now calls him a great dad and feels that after all the struggle he's finally back to being the guy she fell in love with.
Despite thinking they'd lost the spark forever, Alison and Trevor stuck with couples counseling -- for a year, initially, then for another few months when they struggled again. Too many couples use therapy as something they check off their list so they can say, "We tried." But that's not really trying. Alison and Trevor gave it their best, and they didn't quit during the times they felt therapy wasn't helping. They went through very dark times and came out more committed to each other. As Trevor puts it, "I've got a partner who had my back when I really needed it, and I want to make sure she's happy."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2011.