"Matt blames me because he had to give up his dream of graduating from West Point," said Julie, a 26-year-old, stay-at-home mom. "Cadets have to be single. So when we found out I was pregnant Matt's freshman year and decided to get married, he had to drop out. He complained bitterly about it for the first two years of our marriage. Now he no longer gripes, he just avoids me. He's out late every night with his work buddies. Half the time he comes home at 2 a.m.!"
"I'm so sad that we've ended up like this. We used to be so much in love. We'd been dating a year when Matt got his acceptance letter to West Point. I was a junior in high school and he was a senior. We'd already talked about our future — how he'd become an Army officer, I'd be a teacher, and we'd raise our children in exotic places all over the world.
"Then, when he was home for Christmas break, we were careless and had sex without a condom. Shortly after he returned to school, I missed my period. When I broke the news to Matt that I was pregnant, he was great. He didn't even want to consider an abortion or adoption. He said he loved the baby and me more than he loved West Point. He immediately asked me to marry him, and I said yes.
"When I told my parents (Mom is a full-time homemaker; Dad is a lawyer), they were supportive, but I know they were also disappointed. They wished I had waited to start a family till after I graduated from college like my older sister. Matt's parents were really upset about his dropping out of West Point. His dad, now an insurance salesman, used to be in the Army himself; his mom is a high-school receptionist.
"Matt and I had a simple family wedding following my high school graduation. I was 17, and he was 18. Megan was born three months later, just before Matt started at a state college nearby. My parents made an apartment for us in their basement and helped us with finances. I thought everything would be fine.
"I couldn't have been more wrong. As I sat home alone taking care of the baby day after day, I had a sinking feeling that I was never going to fulfill my dream of going to college and becoming a teacher. My friends from high school were doing well in college and talking about summer internships and job opportunities. All I could think was that I'd be stuck alone in this apartment for the next 18 years taking care of a kid.
"That's why it infuriated me so much when Matt would start in on how much he hated his life. He was majoring in finance and was good at it, but he was depressed because he was working toward a career that he didn't want. He was constantly telling me he'd rather be at West Point. When I'd tell him that I had to give up my dreams, too, he'd say that some day I could still become a teacher, but his dream of graduating from West Point was dead forever.
"This same argument continued until Megan was 2 years old. Then one night at dinner, I told him that since all we ever did was remind each other how we had screwed up each other's lives, we might as well get divorced. Matt's reaction stunned me. He said he loved me and wanted to make things work. He promised that he would put West Point behind him and focus on earning a good living for us. And then he told me he wanted another baby. He said it would give him a sense of purpose and that he'd work hard for all of us.
"That kind of talk from the man you love — and I have always loved him in spite of everything — is hard to resist. I swear we got pregnant that same night. And he was wonderful during my pregnancy, coming home at a decent hour and helping with Megan. Within the next year, he graduated from college, landed a job on Wall Street, and our son Timothy was born.
"I wish I could tell you that the new baby worked some magic for us, but it was just the opposite. Again I was stuck at home while Matt was out with his friends until all hours. I began consoling myself with food. Before long I weighed 200 pounds. I felt ugly, was irritable, and lost all interest in sex. I think Matt and I had sex once in six months — and stupidly, we didn't use any birth control.
"You guessed it, Baby Number Three was on his way, along with more of the same fights about our lost dreams. Here I am, not even 30 years old, with a 9-year-old, a 7-year-old and a 3-year-old. I never went to college, we're still living in my parents' basement, I'm depressed and overweight, and my husband spends all his free time with his friends in bars. If you can put our marriage back together, you're a miracle worker."
"Leaving West Point was the end of everything I had worked for from the time I was 8 years old when my parents took me to the West Point Museum," said Matt, 27, 6 feet 4 inches tall and extremely fit. "I was fascinated by military history. I knew I wanted a career in the Army. Everything I did from then on — studying hard, being in all the right extra-curricular activities, running for student government — was aimed at my getting into West Point. When I got my acceptance letter, I cried like a baby and so did my mom and dad. I'm their only child, and this meant as much to them as it did to me.
"The first thing I did after I pulled myself together was call Julie. She was ecstatic. I told her I was on the path to the life I had always dreamed of and that I wanted to take her with me. We'd start our careers and raise a family together, in that order.
"That's not how it worked out. Immediately after we had sex that day when I was home for Christmas break, I felt guilty for not using protection. But it was too late. Julie was pregnant. I was thrilled and devastated at the same time. I couldn't help but be excited about having a baby with the woman I loved. But I knew that the life I had always dreamed of was over.
"What I didn't know was that giving it up was going to haunt me. I couldn't get past the disappointment. I hated the idea of going to a normal college. And I hated that I'd be a businessman just bringing home paychecks and not having my heart in my work. Julie had no sympathy for me; she'd just throw her own situation back in my face. And she was on my case all the time about how I should spend more time at home helping her with the baby. The more she pushed, the more I backed off. I'd hang out with my friends until really late to avoid her and our arguments. Deep down I knew Julie deserved more, but I was too miserable myself to feel sorry for her.
"Just before my graduation, my guilt started to get the better of me. Julie is smart, and I wished she could be doing something with her life. Also, I knew I hadn't been a big part of my daughter's childhood. The way I had been acting had kept me from doing much with Megan. So I went home that night to talk to Julie and make some changes.
"Before I could open my mouth, Julie said she wanted a divorce. That broke my heart. I told her I would never mention West Point again, and that I'd get a good job and work hard for her and Megan. I also said I wanted us to have another baby. I know that sounds crazy, but I thought it would save our marriage.
"Bad move. We were both overjoyed when our son Timothy was born, but a new baby just made everything even more stressful for Julie. She started eating more and gained a ton of weight. Our sex life nearly disappeared. Even so, we got pregnant again.
"So now it's round three — another baby and the same old fights. Leo is a really cute kid, just like Megan and Timothy, but Julie is overwhelmed with taking care of three little ones. I can't stand listening to her complain, so I've fallen back into my old avoidance thing, staying out late and not being there for my family. I know it's wrong, but I can't stop myself. Is this marriage hopeless? Are we ever going to escape this vicious circle?"
The Counselor's Turn
"Any couple forced to deal with marriage and family when they are still teenagers faces an incredible challenge," said the counselor. "For Julie and Matt, the abrupt end of their career goals was the most crushing aspect of their circumstances. For Matt in particular, the finality of his discharge from West Point was almost unbearable.
"Unfortunately, Julie's own sense of having been cut off from a promising future, coupled with the stress of new motherhood, kept her from hearing Matt's pain.
"Although they did love one another, each one was too consumed by personal grief over lost opportunities to reach out to the other. The birth of a third child when they were still in their mid-20s and living in a basement apartment put more strain on the relationship than it could withstand. They fell right back into their old destructive habits, and Julie added a new one: overeating.
"To help them break this pattern, I spent an entire session having each of them express their disappointments while the other listened without interrupting. Matt reiterated his feelings about having to leave West Point, but he added that he was finding his Wall Street career more satisfying than he had thought and he appreciated his college degree. When he finished, Julie broke down in tears. After she gained her composure, she said that she deeply regretted never having gone to college. Matt was quiet for a long time, and then he put his arm around her. 'You're going to go to college, honey,' he said. 'We're going to make it happen somehow. And I mean now, not down the road.' She buried her head in his shoulder. Their body language was evidence that these two strong-willed and passionate people had what it took to reinvent their life together.
"That was over a year ago. I'm still seeing Julie and Matt, working with them on communicating in a calm manner instead of shouting. On their own, they established a 'time-out' strategy borrowed from the way they deal with their kids when they misbehave. If Julie begins to raise her voice when she's talking about her frustrations with taking care of the kids, Matt shakes his head as a time-out signal. Julie has learned to take a deep breath and stop herself. Then they wait a full 15 minutes before continuing the discussion. By that time, emotions have cooled and they find they can negotiate productively. For example, Julie outlined some of the ways that Matt could help with the kids, such as being in charge of baths and bedtime so Julie can have some time to herself. Matt also started being on duty one evening every two weeks so Julie could go out with her girlfriends.
"At that point, Julie started filling out college applications so she could earn a bachelor's degree in education. The plan was that both grandmothers would alternate watching the children while Julie was in class. Julie got accepted to the same college where Matt had gone. Then, right before she was supposed to start, Matt's financial firm folded in the wake of September 11th and the faltering economy. Julie and Matt had saved a reasonable amount of money while he was working, so he became a stay-at-home dad. Julie loves her classes and has been motivated to lose almost 50 pounds. Matt found that he had a great time being more involved with the children, and he began studying to get his CPA license so he could work from home."
"'We hope to buy our own home soon,' Julie says. 'We're still in my parents' basement apartment with the kids in bunk beds; when we were having such a hard time, we just weren't in the mood to search for a new home. But that's all changing now.'"
"As for Matt, he says he learned something important when he lost his job. 'West Point would have been wonderful,' he said. 'But I know now that a career isn't everything; the most important thing in life is your family. Now that I'm home more and I've had a chance to get to know my kids even better, I realize how lucky I am. I've got Julie, and I've got Megan and Timothy and Leo. I couldn't ask for anything more.'"
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most popular, most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews and information from the files of Flo Rosof, Ph.D., director of the Life Development Center in Huntington, New York. 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, February 2004.