"I thought I had the perfect life," said Gillian, 41. "I had been married for 18 years to Kevin, my high school sweetheart, I earned a high salary from my job at a commercial bank, and I had two adorable kids. I made enough money so that my husband, a photographer, could run a small studio and camera shop. But you know what? That life was no longer making me happy.
"When I turned 40, I began to wonder, Is this what I want for the rest of my life? The answer was no. I was sick of overseeing clients' trust funds. I'd worked at the bank since graduating from college, and my coworkers were like family. But I was burned out. I wanted out before I started hating it.
"Besides, I had no time with Nate and Owen, my 8-year-old twins. Before they were born, I'd had several miscarriages and years of doubting that I'd ever have children. I finally got pregnant with them after taking several rounds of fertility drugs. Why did I go through all that, only to leave these beautiful children with a sitter?
"It was Nate who noticed that I always seemed calm after yoga class. I've practiced yoga for years and am certified to teach. The thought lodged in my brain: What if I quit my job? Our community's zoning laws allowed us to build an addition to the house, where I could hold yoga classes and Kevin could relocate his studio. His fine-art photos could line the walls, and clients could purchase them. And if Kevin didn't have to commute, we'd have more family time. I knew money would be tight, but we had solid savings and no mortgage. I was convinced it would work.
"My friends thought I was nuts, but I knew what I wanted. So seven months ago I told my boss I was leaving. He was completely supportive, and now I work one day a week on special projects. Mostly, though, I'm with the kids or supervising the studio construction and couldn't be happier. My marriage is another story. Kevin and I fight constantly, and that's shocking because we've always been in sync, despite our very different personalities.
"The two of us have been a couple since 10th grade. After high school Kevin enrolled in art school but dropped out to work for a fashion photographer in Chicago. We got married a year after I graduated from college; he found a good job at a nearby commercial studio while I moved up quickly at my job.
"Kevin was always my biggest supporter, but he has changed. When I first told him my plan, he asked a few questions, nodded and smiled. I had the distinct impression that he thought it was a fantastic idea, too. He mentioned the need for me to curb my spending, and I readily agreed.
"We worked out the details of our new plan, or so I thought. But he seems to have a new reason every day as to why it's not working. Contrary to what he told me, he now claims he doesn't want to move his studio. That was a huge disappointment — I'd counted on much more family time. Kevin is a terrific father but he has been coming home later and later. Why must he work seven days a week? I'm so angry I've completely lost my desire for sex — and then we fight about that.
"He also complains that our addition is running way over budget. Well, building always costs more than the original estimate. I'm confident that once I start teaching, I'll recoup the difference. Worst of all, Kevin has begun yelling at me in front of the kids. That is unacceptable.
"We've always been able to talk easily. Now I get 'I don't feel like it.' When he does talk, he accuses me of trying to control him. I hate nagging as much as he hates being nagged. But the way he just ignores my requests stresses me out. If I ask when he's going to be finished with something — hanging bookshelves in the kids' room, for example — he'll bark, 'I'll be done when I'm done.' What kind of answer is that?
"Divorce is not part of my vocabulary so I will stick this out no matter how bad it gets. But the better life I'd envisioned has turned into a mess."
"In the world according to Gillian, she's always right," said Kevin, 42, a handsome man whose measured tone was laced with resentment. "As long as she gets what she wants, it doesn't matter what I think.
"Okay, that's harsh. But I'm tired of her controlling everything. I don't want to move my studio. I like the location and have loyal customers and students that I'll lose if I move.
"If Gillian wants to change her life, I'm not going to tell her she can't. But this big announcement shocked me. Then again, she's impulsive. I know our financial situation isn't dire, but I still feel stressed. I opened this small combination studio and photo shop about 10 years ago, right before Gillian became pregnant with the twins. She has been the major breadwinner for years, so part of me welcomes the challenge of seeing if I can truly grow my business. The other part is terrified of being the main paycheck. But instead of considering how I might feel, instead of really listening when I bring up money, Gillian gets mad.
"I want her to be happy and have more time with the kids. I've always been her cheerleader. But the flip side is that I want my turn to make my dreams come true. She doesn't seem to get that. I've tried to say it, but it comes out wrong. I get frustrated and we end up in a screaming match.
"I fell for Gillian the day I met her, but I figured she was out of my league. She was in the cool group at school. But even then we felt a strong connection. And we balanced each other — she's extroverted, I'm shy. I felt she understood me in ways my parents never did. I was the 'artsy' one, while my younger sister was more studious. My mom wanted me to do what I loved, but my father berated me and couldn't understand why I refused to join him in the construction business — a 'man's job,' in his view. Photography? That was for sissies.
"After high school I enrolled in art school but dropped out after two years. I was just spinning my wheels. I got hired as an assistant to a photographer who specialized in fashion and design. The salary was terrible, but I was still living at home, so I had enough to pay rent to my parents and still have a bit left over. Besides, the guy was well known, and I was thrilled just to carry his tripod. I learned my craft from him.
"When Gillian and I got married, I took a better-paying job with a large photo studio near our home. I did weddings, portraits, bar mitzvahs. I didn't love this side of the business, but I learned different skills and it helped pay the bills.
"Gillian, of course, was already making twice as much as I was. Did it bug me? A little. Did I make a big deal about it? No. Gillian has never made me feel like a loser. I did that to myself. Deep down, I believe what my father believes — that the guy should be the breadwinner. And it was obvious I wasn't pulling my weight.
"When Gillian quit her job, I was concerned but didn't panic. I figured the money stuff would work out. But she has not changed her spending habits one iota. She's still buying clothes as if she goes to an office every day. The boys attend an expensive summer day camp, and we're either going out or ordering in food every night. We can't afford this now.
"This 'togetherness' bit is driving me nuts, too. I like being with her, but just because she wants me home at 6:30 every night doesn't mean I can manage it. If I'm going to expand my business, I have to put in the time. That means nights and weekends, when people hold events. Gillian can't have it both ways.
"Now that she's home all day, she notices stuff she never cared about before. Her to-do lists are endless. I spent two days putting the kids' bunk beds together and rearranging the furniture after she didn't like what I did. If I don't do something exactly when she wants, she gets angry and punishes me by withholding sex. I swear it's been months.
"I will always love Gillian but I can't live this way. We always used to talk about growing old together. Now I'm not sure I want that to happen."
The Counselor's Turn
"Gillian has joined the ranks of women who are not only changing their jobs, they're changing their lives," said the counselor. "But she forgot to include Kevin in her decisions and was pulled up short when he had his own ideas.
"Change, even change for the better, can trip up a marriage because most couples have a tacit agreement about the roles each partner will play. When those roles shift, resentment and misunderstanding may follow. If partners communicate their needs honestly, they may avoid such clashes. But Gillian and Kevin had been together so long they assumed they would always feel the same way about everything. The shock that they no longer did threatened their marriage.
"Yet Kevin also viewed his wife's career change as a chance for him to feel like a man at last. Until they came for therapy, Gillian hadn't recognized — and Kevin had never admitted — how defeated he'd felt relying on her paycheck. Although Kevin's mother had been nurturing, his father was verbally abusive and demeaning. Gillian's attacks felt uncomfortably similar to those he'd endured as a child. He hesitated to share his ambivalence with her because he didn't think she cared. His resentment built to anger. Locked in a power struggle, Gillian used sex as a weapon and Kevin retreated.
"A self-described type A personality, Gillian was typical of some high-powered women who approach domestic life as if they were orchestrating high-stakes deals. Such people usually handle changes well — anticipating what they need to do and pushing themselves ahead — but they are less skilled at adjusting to the reaction of those close to them, who may not be as pleased. Indeed, when Kevin didn't jump onto her bandwagon, Gillian reacted angrily.
"But Kevin was right: Gillian was being selfish. 'Your new agenda, and the way you are going about it, is sabotaging your marriage,' I told her. 'Tune into his discontent, ask his opinion and listen.'
"Although both were overflowing with anger, I sensed that underneath the acrimony Gillian and Kevin had similar values. To prove that, I asked them to list the things they loved, what they longed for, and what they hoped to accomplish. Sure enough, the lists were almost identical. Both listed being with their children and extended family, as well as spending time outdoors. They also said they hoped to find fulfillment in work that they loved. Though relieved at how much they shared on paper, they had to figure out why their life didn't match up.
"One reason was their explosive fighting style. I actually brought a whistle to one session. 'Why pay me to listen while you yell at each other?' I asked. They both burst out laughing. At that point, we established firm rules — no name-calling, no cursing, no sarcasm. If tempers flared, they agreed to call a time-out until they were calm enough to talk civilly.
"I explained how their arguments, like those of most couples, followed a predictable pattern. 'You know what triggers a skirmish and you know how you will each defend and parry,' I said. 'You also know that none of it works. So the question is, what could you do differently?' I asked.
"Gillian was unaware that her words and demeanor were at odds with her generally good intentions. At work, she'd been accustomed to having others follow her instructions. Now she needed to communicate differently. 'Use the deep breathing you've mastered in yoga to become more mindful of your tone of voice, your body language, and the messages behind your words,' I suggested. 'Remember, he loves you and wants to make you happy. You don't have to verbally beat him into surrendering.' I also suggested that they both take a 'psychological deep breath' before speaking and ask themselves: What are my intentions? How will it sound to my partner?' This lowered the intensity of their arguments.
"As Gillian's demeanor softened and she stopped withholding sex, this couple felt a renewed emotional and romantic connection. They became problem solvers instead of adversaries. To that end, Gillian has stopped buying new clothes, cooks several nights a week, and has arranged for the twins to spend only the morning at camp instead of a full day. She's also scaled back on the renovation, finding less-expensive options for some of the fixtures and flooring. This new frugality, in turn, has allowed Kevin to relax about his ability to make a living.
"We also discussed how Kevin's timeline for getting things done was different from — but no worse than — Gillian's. She's learned, she said, to 'let molehills be molehills.' Instead of pouncing on him when he gets home (which only made him dig in his heels), Gillian gives him time to relax, play with the boys, and eat. They also agreed not to bring up volatile issues until the boys are asleep.
"In his own way, Kevin was just as controlling as his wife. 'Her nagging may be obvious, but your failure to follow through is also incendiary,' I said. Once he understood that, Kevin was more conscientious about discussing problems he had long ignored. Though he is not moving his studio, he decided to close Sundays and to cede more responsibility to his manager so that he can leave early two days a week. 'Tuesdays, we take the boys to the movies — tickets are half price until 5 p.m.,' he reported. 'And we've started a new Friday-night tradition: a pizza-and-pajama party. We love it as much as they do!'
"The renewed energy in the marriage has spilled over into Kevin's work. He is excitedly planning a show of his own photographs in the spring. Meanwhile, Gillian has opened her yoga studio, which, thanks to good word of mouth, is thriving. She teaches three classes in the morning, leaving afternoons free. What's more, her old boss asked if she would come into the office an extra day a week. 'Two days at the office, the rest at home, lets me earn money and still be with my kids. My life feels much more balanced,' she said. They live comfortably, though not extravagantly, on their income.
"Finally, these two understand the importance of sharing their concerns, triumphs, and dreams, and of thoroughly discussing new ideas or plans. Now whenever they begin to doubt the relationship, they think back on their shared history and the obstacles they've overcome. 'If we've done it before,' said Kevin, 'we can do it again.'"
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most popular, enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews with clients and information from the files of Robin Newman, LCSW, a family psychotherapist 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, April 2005.