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"We Keep Tearing Each Other Down"

Nikki and Steve's relationship has dissolved into a string of arguments. Can this marriage be saved?


Her Turn

"Two weeks ago I told Steve to move out," said Nikki, 35, the mother of two boys, Justin, 9, and Jeremy, 6. "I've said it before, but this time I meant it. Our 10th anniversary last month was my wake-up call. I realized we've been having the same ugly fights for years.

"Steve found a condo near our home in a Philadelphia suburb. I thought I'd be relieved but I'm devastated, and so are the kids. Justin has been acting out in school and Jeremy is inconsolable. I feel overwhelmed. I know I've threatened divorce many times but deep down I love Steve — even if it is hard to remember why I fell so hard for him in the first place.

"When Justin was 12 months old, we saw a therapist for a month. But we stopped because Steve didn't like the counselor, and it seemed pointless for me to go alone. Three years later, when Jeremy was born, we tried therapy again, then quit four months later. Once again, Steve couldn't be bothered. He thinks he's the only person on the planet.

"Steve is the kind of guy who walks into a room and the current shifts. He's funny, charming, and sexy. I met him at a real-estate conference we both attended. I noticed him right away, and when he sat down next to me at lunch and started a conversation, I was smitten.

"It turned out we had grown up near each other and had several friends in common. They warned me that Steve was known as a party guy and a ladies' man. I of course saw his 'deeper' side and was confident that he would have no trouble committing to someone who understood him so well. In any case, our chemistry — sexual and otherwise — was amazing. We dated for eight months before getting married, in a small ceremony at my parents' country club. We were both 25.

"My parents liked Steve immediately. My dad, who's a charmer like Steve, is a successful real-estate developer, so they enjoy talking business. Mom taught elementary school but stopped working to raise me and my younger brother. She's a screamer who spared no one. If my room was messy, if Dad forgot to do something, if my brother didn't put away his lacrosse equipment, she'd launch into a tirade. Everything aggravated her. Still, I love my parents and know I can always count on them.

"I was an English major in college and after graduating had no idea what I wanted to do. I spent two years jumping from job to job — ski instructor, waitress, lifeguard. Fortunately, my parents provided emotional — and occasionally financial — support. At 24 I took my real-estate licensing exam and started at a small firm. Having grown up in the business, I immediately felt comfortable.

"After we married, Steve and I sublet an apartment in downtown Philadelphia and took advantage of everything the city offered. I loved the fact that we worked in the same field. We weren't direct competitors, so it gave us an extra bond. Then, just six months after the wedding, I discovered I was pregnant. That's when things started to sour. I was excited; Steve wasn't. He gave me very little support during my pregnancy. He was in the delivery room, but he hadn't gone with me to a single doctor's appointment.

"I worked until the day I delivered, but I wanted to be home with my children when they were young. That was a source of fights before Justin was even born. Afterward, when I was home full time, Steve would make snide comments like 'Can't you straighten up around here? You're not even working.'

"I loved being a stay-at-home mom, even though it was exhausting. And I started to resent the fact that Steve was anything but the understanding, helpful husband I'd hoped for. He'd stay out late with clients and golf all day Saturday. It never even occurred to him to help me carry in groceries after I'd been to the supermarket. Lots of husbands do that sort of thing without being asked. 

"Money is a constant sore spot. Steve is a spender, I'm a saver. I clip coupons, he buys a new flat-screen TV. Yet he put me down for 'not working'! Two years ago, I agreed to come in to the office — he opened his own firm a few years ago — three days a week to handle billing and bookkeeping. The business grew quickly, so those three days soon turned into five. Then I took over some of the residential sales while Steve handled the commercial side. I hired a teenager to stay with the boys after school. 

"While I'm thrilled that our business — I'm officially a co-owner — is doing so well, it burns me up that Steve still expects me to do everything at home. I get up with the kids in the morning, put them to bed at night and juggle everything in between. Is it too much for him to pick up his dirty socks? Do I have to remind him every night to take out the trash? I hate the fact that I fly off the handle like my mother did, and I wish I were less anxious. But when he shows such utter disregard for me, it pushes all my buttons.

"Oddly enough, we function well at work. We operate in different aspects of the business and our offices are at opposite ends of the hall. And we put on a great act when we're with other people. 

"Everyone thinks Steve is terrific. They see this giving guy who is Mr. Camp Director, organizing all the kids on the Little League field and making each one feel special. They don't see what I see.

"I can't believe we've let ourselves be so miserable for so long. That's why I told him to get out. But now that he's actually gone, I realize how much I have invested in this relationship — way too much to just let it die. I hope he feels the same way."

His Turn

"For years Nikki has told me to leave every time we have a big fight. This time I took her at her word," said Steve, 35, a handsome man who looked as though he hadn't slept in days. "When I walked out that door two weeks ago, I was convinced we were finished.

"Now I'm confused. My kids are beside themselves; Jeremy called me at 1 a.m., crying and begging me to come home. I don't want them to have the same kind of childhood I had, with parents screaming and fighting all the time, but Nikki and I can't seem to stop ourselves.

"I'll admit that in some ways I've been a jerk, totally immature. I had no idea how to act, what a good husband, let alone a good father, was supposed to be. I didn't understand why Nikki couldn't clean house when she had a 2-month-old who slept most of the time. But I did not march in and sneer at her. She always thinks I'm being malicious when I'm not. 

"Nikki's diatribes go on forever — and she doesn't care if the kids hear. I refuse to fight in front of them, so when she doesn't stop, I walk out. We never resolve anything because of her animosity. If I don't do exactly what she wants, she explodes, 'Get out! Get out! I want a divorce!' Because I didn't bring in the groceries? Because I play golf on the weekends? Give me a break. Her reactions have seemed so out of proportion that I've never taken her threats seriously. I see now that I should have.

"I also realize that I was a jerk about counseling. I didn't like the first therapist we saw and I agreed to go the second time only to get Nikki off my back. But I'm uncomfortable talking about personal problems to a stranger. My family didn't believe in therapy. 

"I grew up in Philadelphia, the youngest of four kids. My father owned a successful furniture store but he was an alcoholic who drank his salary. My mother handled all the household duties but also worked as a secretary to make ends meet. Dad wasn't physically abusive but he'd rage at my mother. I remember lying in bed at night, shaking as I listened to him. Amazingly, she still waited on him hand and foot. He never lifted a finger. My parents finally got a divorce when I was 17. 

"I always had lots of friends, but I was a mediocre student. I went to college in Colorado — I wanted to get as far away as possible — but dropped out, moved back to Philadelphia and found a job in commercial real estate. I've never looked back. I enjoy meeting people and have a good head for structuring deals. 

"People always ask, 'How can you work with your wife?' Well, we have the same vision for the company and, fortunately, we also have an ability to put personal stuff aside in the office. We have to — our financial future depends on it. If only we could do the same at home. 

"When we first married, we couldn't wait to be together at night. Now she goes upstairs, I go downstairs. Or I did. For the last two weeks I haven't been living there at all, and it has been unbearable. I miss my family more than I ever would have dreamed.

"There are so many things I wish I'd done differently. That said, Nikki has changed. She used to be even tempered and playful. She liked going out as much as I did. Now she's irritable, defensive, and nasty, just like her mother. Still, I couldn't face my children, or myself, if I didn't try to patch things up. This time around, I'll give it 200 percent." 

The Counselor's Turn

"After 10 years of marriage, two children and a business, Nikki's and Steve's lives were tightly interwoven, and it was hard for them to picture a life apart," said the counselor.

"Yet being together had become intolerable. Bitterness and resentment permeated every corner of their marriage.

"The transition from being partners to being parents triggered conflict and stress, as it does for many people. But these two had an added burden in that they had barely adjusted to being a couple before becoming a family. Not surprisingly, each slipped into negative patterns absorbed during childhood: Nikki became irritable, snappish, and hurtful, like her mother; Steve distanced himself and did nothing, like his father. These were extremely unproductive ways of relating.

"'Counseling can't help,' I warned them, 'unless both of you are willing to make a long-term commitment to it. In your past efforts, you gave up too soon.' The fact that Steve promised to try harder this time was an enormous step in the right direction. Before, he had been unwilling to accept any culpability or help. He was jolted into action when he saw how diminished his life really would be if his marriage ended.

"Nikki was right that they'd been fighting about the same issues for years. But she wasn't seeing the forest for the trees: It wasn't the housecleaning or absentee parenting that was driving them apart; it was a daily lack of respect and love. 'Repetitive arguments are a sign that you're stuck in a power struggle that gets activated whenever hot buttons are pushed,' I said.

"Even though Nikki's anger was sometimes justified, she had to find a new way to deliver her message — without sarcasm and criticism, and without issuing constant ultimatums about divorce. Because Steve's childhood was steeped in hostility, he assiduously avoided confrontation. When he couldn't, he felt trapped and lost his temper. Because his parents had never resolved conflicts in a mutually supportive way, he was clueless about how to accomplish that.

"After staying in the condo for a month, Steve, at Nikki's invitation, cautiously moved back home. Before he did so, however, we discussed at length two essential delements of marital harmony: goodwill and peaceful resolution of conflicts. Partners with a long history of fighting usually assume the worst in each other, and these two fit that description to a tee. Nikki assumed that Steve would not follow through; he assumed that she'd be on the attack. When a couple is always primed for battle, it's easy to slip into destructive tit-fot-tat blaming. 'You're reacting to something that might have happened in the past, not what's happening now,' I told them. 'Unload that extra baggage and put yourselves in the moment.'

"I pointed out that most arguments have a pattern, and identifying that pattern goes a long way toward changing it. 'Make a conscious choice not to get bogged down in the usual rough spots,' I said. 'When you push through you force a subtle but powerful shift in your attitudes and reactions to each other. You'll be able to disagree without having it degenerate into a shouting match.'

"And that, happily, is what they did. Instead of going into a rant, Nikki began airing her concerns after the kids were asleep, or on the commute to and from work (that time alone in the car, both said, provided a peaceful, neutral setting for serious conversation). Modifying her tone of voice and her body language to convey that she was truly interested in listening to Steve's views, Nikki learned to say, 'I could use some help in the evenings with the kids. How can we handle this differently?' Occasionally she would write e-mails to Steve; putting her feelings in writing had the effect of helping both of them because it forced them to focus on the issue at hand. 

"For his part, Steve stopped withdrawing and began to follow through on promises. When an argument erupted and they had to table the discussion, he kept his word that they would return to it later. A relieved Nikki started to feel appreciated and heard. Since they no longer approached each other as adversaries, they were even able to discuss such sensitive subjects as money calmly. For instance, Steve wanted a motorcycle, but Nikki opposed it for financial as well as safety reasons. Avoiding an explosion, they discussed the issue over lunch and agreed that Steve would hold off while the children were small. 'We agreed to revisit it later,' he told me with a laugh. 'I haven't given up.' 

"They've also reshuffled the household chores: Nikki gets the kids up and dressed in the morning, and Steve makes breakfast, packs lunches and walks the boys to the school bus. At night she cooks dinner, and he's in charge of baths. They take turns with story time. Steve plays golf only occasionally now, checking first with Nikki to make sure nothing is planned. 'He doesn't do the laundry,' Nikki said at our last session. 'But when everything else is going well, the small stuff is just that — small.' 

"These two stayed in counseling for two years. Why did the process help this time? For starters, Nikki and Steve were finally on the same page. Both realized that marital healing is not a quick fix but a slow, often-painstaking process requiring patience and long-term commitment. Rising to the challenge, each had the courage to drop the defensive stance, stop the blame game, and open the door to real change."

"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 Joyce Dolberg Rowe, clinical director of the Mars & Venus Counseling Center, in Quincy and Hull, Massachusetts. 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, December 2004.

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