Mallory: 55, dentist
Robert: 55, software engineer
Married: 27 years
Kids: Gabby, 25; Jenny, 23; Stephen, 11
Debra Castaldo, PhD, Midland Park, New Jersey
For nearly their entire marriage, Robert has wanted more affection, attention, and intimacy from his wife. Mallory loves her husband, but his neediness is suffocating her. Robert isn't sure he can live with the rejection anymore.
"I've never been an openly affectionate person. In my family we never talked about how we felt and we weren't huggy and kissy, so I've always thought that was normal. Robert knew that about me when we got married. And our marriage does work, day to day — we have enough money and we're good at keeping our household and our kids' schedules organized. Not to mention, we have sex at least once a week, which is more than most couples. I guess I just don't understand what else he needs from me.
"I do love him! And I tell him that, but it's not enough for him. It's like there's always this pressure on me to give more, and it's suffocating. Sometimes I feel like he sees our relationship as a tally board. As in, 'I mowed the lawn and fixed the dishwasher and rubbed your feet, so now you should have sex with me.' I know he's probably not asking for too much, but I have a busy dental practice and after a long day of tending to other people, I just don't have the energy to think about what Robert wants. Having sex just feels like one more chore.
"Well, since he's mentioned it, there are things that might make me more interested. To be honest, he's gained weight since we first got married and I'm not that attracted to him anymore. I know it sounds terrible, but maybe if he watched what he ate and lost a few pounds, I would be more into him.
"I don't mean to hurt anyone's feelings. I was brought up in a house where people just said what was on their minds, so maybe I don't say things the right way, but I'm honestly just trying to help. It's one of the ways I show people that I care about them.
"When he's gone, I guess it gives me a chance to miss him — or a chance to breathe. I do get all warm and fuzzy when we're on the phone, and sometimes I even think about initiating sex when he gets home. When the time comes, though, I'm just not that into it or I'm too tired. But hey, sometimes I still go through with it. Don't I get points for that?
"The few times Robert has tried to talk to me, it feels like he's attacking me. He compares me to my mother, which just pisses me off. Actually, I don't think either one of us are very good communicators. We rarely fight, but when we do, we never resolve it. Like the time we were redecorating the living room. We couldn't agree on a paint color, so we dropped it and just never repainted. The same thing happens with our sex life. He'll try to initiate sex, and if I don't feel like it he gets angry, but we don't talk about it. We'll just go to sleep, or sometimes he'll sleep on the couch. Then we go to work the next day, let things cool off, and pretend nothing ever happened. I think that's one of the reasons therapy would be good for us — we need to learn to communicate better. I might not be very affectionate, but I do want to have an emotional connection with Robert, and right now that's just nonexistent."
"What else do I need? How about a woman who doesn't recoil when I touch her? It's true that even when we were first dating she wasn't super affectionate or that into sex, but I guess I was hoping it would change when we got married. When it didn't, I thought there was something I could do to make her be more into me — really love me — and that maybe I just wasn't giving her what she needed.
"I'm always trying to figure out the magical thing that will make her interested in me. She can be so cold and distant, which hurts. And it makes me feel like it's my fault, like if I could just be better in some way, things would change.
"Oh, the weight thing. I think that's an easy excuse. Years ago when I was training for a marathon and in really good shape, Mallory was just as unaffectionate toward me, so I know that losing weight won't change anything. But that doesn't stop Mallory from criticizing me every time I buy food that she doesn't think is healthy. She criticizes our children, as well. The things she says are really hurtful.
"I'd prefer she show that she cares with a hug and a kiss when she gets home from work. It's confusing. When I'm away on business, she says such sweet things over the phone. Then when I get home, she's completely indifferent again.
"There's a scene in an old Woody Allen movie where he's in bed with Diane Keaton and her mind gets up out of bed and starts walking around the room. Woody Allen says, 'This is really difficult. I feel like you're not even here.' That's how I feel most of the time when we're having sex. I've tried to talk to her about this over the years, but Mallory's version of talking is asking me, 'What do you have to say?' When I've told her how her constant rejection makes me feel unappreciated and unloved, all she has to say is, 'I don't really want to talk about that.'
"I just don't know if things can be fixed. I was brought up to believe that you stay in a marriage no matter what, which is one of the reasons I've put up with this for so long. But I can't — or don't want to — take the rejection anymore."
The Counselor's Turn
"It's rare to find a couple that wants the exact same amount of affection and intimacy from each other. In most marriages, it's a delicate balancing act. Mallory and Robert don't have that balance, although they're unusual because it's typically the woman who craves more affection.
"In their first session it became apparent just how much they were both suffering. In almost 30 years of marriage, neither of them had found a way to express their emotional and sexual needs. It was like they had an unspoken pact of silence that was tearing them apart. But aside from the emotional detachment, they did actually have a solid foundation for their relationship — they genuinely liked each other, were a good parenting team, and were great partners when it came to sharing money and the daily responsibilities of the family and household. As I delved into their childhoods, however, it became apparent why they were so bad at discussing their emotions.
"Mallory lost her father at a young age, and the message she got from her mother was, 'Don't get too close to anybody, because see what can happen?' As a result, Mallory learned to distance herself in relationships to keep from getting hurt. She put up barriers, making up excuses (like Robert's weight gain) to avoid emotional and physical intimacy. Mallory tolerated sex without ever enjoying it, and didn't have a clue what she liked and didn't like.
"Robert grew up with a cold and unaffectionate mother. It was like he had this emotional hole that he just couldn't fill, so he pursued and pursued his wife and lavished her with affection only to be rejected time and again.
"The turning point in their relationship began in a one-on-one session I had with Robert. He had always been so available to Mallory over the years that he had nearly lost sight of who he was. I encouraged him to spend time alone, doing hobbies and activities that he really enjoyed — even if it was just going to a movie by himself. Once Robert committed to solo time, Mallory started to get anxious about where he was and what he was doing without her. Slowly, she realized how much she'd been taking him for granted.
"Of course, this didn't solve everything, but it made Robert feel wanted instead of rejected, and we were able to then focus on the couple's communications skills. In therapy I teach all couples a simple 1, 2, 3 technique. When you're talking to your spouse you each need to say: 1. What you are experiencing. 2. How you feel about it. 3. What you want. For example, Robert could say something like: 'I feel like we're not spending enough time together. I miss you and feel lonely. Let's make a plan to hang out sometime this week, just the two of us.' The technique also helped Mallory speak to Robert in a more respectful, less critical way.
"After I worked on getting them to really talk to each other, it was time to tackle their sex life. Mallory needed to stop seeing sex as a chore. I asked her to think about what gave her pleasure in bed, and then share her thoughts with Robert, because a good sex life depends on a couple's ability to communicate with each other. The key is to keep it positive. Instead of saying, 'I hate when you do xyz,' you should say 'I love when you ... can you do more of ... that was really great when you ...'
"Finally, we talked about how important it is for them to check in with each other. They needed to recognize the negative patterns in their relationship and monitor them so that they didn't get too far off track. For Robert that meant letting Mallory know when she was being distant. For Mallory it meant speaking up when she felt overwhelmed or suffocated.
"While their relationship is still a work in progress, Robert and Mallory have been able to slowly reconnect. I think Robert will always feel some kind of neglect and Mallory may not ever be comfortable with the level of emotional attention that Robert wants, but they've come a long way. 'It was hard to accept that I was part of our problem,' Mallory told me in our last session. 'I was used to just blaming Robert for everything.' And once she relaxed, it lifted a burden off Robert's shoulders. 'It's so much easier to talk to her,' he said. The bonus? 'Mallory is much more receptive to me when I touch her now,' he said. 'She even initiates sex now and then.'"
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. Debra Castaldo, PhD, is the author of Relationship Reboot and director of the Center for Couples and Family Solutions in New Jersey.