"I've had it with Leo," 39-year-old Donna declared tearfully, her slim frame tense with anger. "Something just snapped last week when the bank called about our mortgage payment. I told them the check must have been lost, but I knew better. When I confronted Leo, he said he'd mailed it. Then he confessed it was in his briefcase along with other bills he'd 'forgotten.'
"We've been married twenty years, and I know he'll probably never change. He is so irresponsible. He has had a management position at the same corporation for 25 years but he constantly messes up our personal finances. He does the same thing with his health. He's diabetic, and I have to monitor his diet and medication. If he really cared, he'd act like a grown-up.
"For the first time I think I can be on my own. My attitude started to change when I was diagnosed with colon cancer three years ago. That was a few months after finding out that Leo was seriously diabetic. I had been taking care of everything for him, from regulating his diet to picking up his prescriptions. But when I was diagnosed, I was on my own.
"I've always had to be the one in charge. My folks both worked long hours in a factory. My younger brother had severe asthma and got all the attention, while I took care of the house and fixed all the meals. I got blamed for everything that went wrong. My mother was always yelling at me, and my father and brother constantly put me down.
"The only way I got any praise was to do everything right. I got good grades and wanted to go to college, but my parents said I'd just get married, and besides, I'd think I was too good for them if I were educated. So I took secretarial training and dreamed of the day I could move out.
"I was 19 when I was hired in the secretarial pool at Leo's company. I liked him immediately. He was so different from my father: college-educated, nice manners.
"We started talking at the office Christmas party, and I was thrilled when he asked me out. We were married four months later. I realize now we didn't know each other very well. We had problems right from the start. Leo insisted on handling our money, but he never paid the bills on time or wanted me to know our bank balance. Whenever I got upset, he'd make some lame excuse, like 'I don't want you to worry.'
"Occasionally, he's really thoughtless, like coming home from work several hours late without even calling. Dinner is ruined and I'm hopping mad. Then he apologizes— but does it again.
"Maybe it has to do with his mother. She's constantly telling him what to do, what to wear and how to spend his money. Leo is always pleasant to her, but he usually does the opposite of what she advises.
"He does the same thing with me. When I tell him something, he calls me "Mom" in this really demeaning way. But if I don't remind him, nothing gets done. I have to mother my husband as much as I did my son.
"I quit working when Brian, who is now 19, was born. When he was 12, I got a part-time job at the gift shop where I still work. I bank my paycheck because I'm always worried about money.
"I often thought about college, but I wasn't sure I could do it, so I concentrated on taking care of our family. If I needed to work an occasional evening, I always made sure Brian and Leo's supper was ready so all they had to do was heat it. I raised Brian much differently from the way I was raised. He's a college freshman now and very self-confident. I doubt he appreciates all I do any more than his father does.
"Believe me, Leo's health would be a lot worse if I weren't so careful. If I were diabetic, I'd read everything I could get my hands on. When I first noticed my own symptoms, I went right to the doctor. He wanted to monitor the situation. I insisted on tests. I ended up having part of my colon removed.
"Leo tried to be helpful, but all he ever said was, 'Don't cry, you'll be okay.' He never seemed worried. He's never been verbally affectionate, even though I want so much to hear him say he loves me. Our sex life has become mechanical.
"There are times when I wonder why we go on together. You know those couples you see in restaurants who bring the newspaper to read while they eat? Well, that has become Leo and me.
"Why does Donna want to leave me?" said Leo, a handsome 46-year-old man. "I've always tried to protect her so she doesn't have to worry. I hate for her to get angry or feel anxious.
"I see the glass as half full and she sees it as half empty. Actually, it was her seriousness that first attracted me to her. I knew as soon as we started dating that she was the one for me. She was my first big romance and I was hers.
"I grew up an only child, and my parents showered me with love. We never had to say 'I love you' to each other; it was understood. Donna grew up thinking nobody cared about her. She thinks I don't love her if I don't say it, but that's just not my way. Don't I show I care by going to work every day and not running around on her?
"That's how my dad did it. My mother thought she called the shots in our house, but in truth Dad often protected her. One time I got in trouble at school, and he took care of it and said it would be our secret. He never let my mother know about financial problems because she would worry. Donna worries a lot, like my mother, so I guess I react the way my father did.
"I know I sometimes forget to call if I'm going to be late, and sometimes I screw up the bills. But Donna makes a federal case of it. I make a good living; our finances are fine. Why doesn't she back off?
"I'll admit I could take better care of my health. But once I was diagnosed with diabetes, Donna took over, monitoring every bite of food I ate. I'm not going to let this disease control my life. Even my doctor says you can't follow the diet one hundred percent of the time. Donna also nags me constantly about my medication. Once I got so frustrated that I threw the pills away to spite her.
"Her vigilance did pay off when there was something wrong with her. She insisted the doctor do a test; I would have just ignored any symptoms. For some crazy reason, she thinks I wasn't worried when she was sick. I was terrified I'd lose her, but I'd tell her everything would be okay because I thought that's what she needed to hear.
"I feel like everything is my fault. Donna and I barely talk to each other. She's always angry, and I'm tiptoeing around, trying not to upset her. There's not much spark between us anymore. But I don't want a divorce. I love my wife."
The Counselor's Turn
"The first time I saw this couple, they sat far apart and had no eye contact. Leo seemed lifeless, while Donna was animated. Having survived cancer and finished day-to-day parenting when her son left for college, Donna wanted to make changes in her life. She was no longer willing to stay in an unfulfilling marriage.
"But in a strange way, Donna and Leo were well suited. Both of them continued patterns they had set in childhood. Like Donna's father, Leo was emotionally distant, and she handled him as she had her father, winning approval by being competent and detail-oriented. Leo, in turn, tried to protect Donna as his father had protected his mother. Leo told me his father once took out a bank loan to cover bills without telling his mother. That kind of behavior sent a powerful message.
"On one level Leo was happy to let Donna assume his mother's role, but he also resented it. When parents are loving but controlling, a child's emotional development sometimes stalls. Leo was like a 14-year-old who craves his mother's care yet rebels by sabotaging her efforts. Similarly, Leo defied Donna by not calling when he would be home late or refusing to take his medication.
"Neither of them was happy with this parent-child dynamic. Unless they could function as equals, this couple was finished. I pointed out that under the circumstances, Donna would have turned any partner into a child, and Leo would have turned any woman into his mother. Leo tried adolescent power plays on me as well, setting appointments to suit his convenience and then 'forgetting' them. But instead of scolding him, I spoke to him as an adult, demonstrating this behavior for Donna.
"Donna had to stop parenting Leo or making him feel incompetent. This was scary for her because she derived her feelings of worth from this. She agreed to stop managing Leo's illness for him. She could ask if he would like her to pick up his medication if she was going to the pharmacy anyway, but she couldn't automatically do it and then dole it out to him. He might not attend to details as meticulously as she would, but he wanted to stay healthy and was willing to do the basics.
"Once Leo no longer felt he was being treated like a child, he didn't have to sabotage their relationship. He was, at heart, a kind and thoughtful person, and he quickly began doing things Donna requested, like calling if he was going to be late. He also stopped playing games about bill paying, and even agreed to share the balancing of their finances with Donna.
"Then it was time for them to relearn how to behave as lovers. Their courtship had been very brief, and moving right into the mother-son dynamic had condemned them to an uninspired sex life. They began going on dates, which not only changed how they talked to each other but also dramatically improved their sexual relationship.
"Donna craved affection but had never been able to ask for it. What she had really wanted when she got cancer was for someone to take care of her. Leo was willing, but didn't know how. So Donna had to learn to say, 'I really need a hug now' or 'I like it when you run your fingers through my hair.' I gave them a series of intimacy exercises that consisted of completing several statements each day, such as 'What I loved about you today was …' and 'What I'm feeling right now is …' This helped them concentrate on the present, and after a few weeks, they were able to spontaneously tell each other their feelings. Soon, Leo was offering affection before she asked for it and telling her he loved her. They began coming to sessions holding hands.
"I was concerned that because Donna had managed her illness with such competence, she had never come to grips with her own fear of mortality, which is something cancer patients must do. When I finally got her to talk about it, she cried for three sessions. Because all Leo said was that she would be okay, she didn't know whether he cared if she died. Her isolation had added to her anger, which made her lash out at him. He would act hurt, then retaliate by provoking her in subtle ways, making her even angrier.
"By our last session, both Donna and Leo felt their marriage had improved dramatically. Instead of watching TV in the evenings, they were more likely to play a board game, go for a walk or just talk. Donna had signed up for a college course; she'd also joined a cancer support group and was counseling others.
"On their last visit, Leo said, 'I really look forward to seeing my wife at the end of the day. We're in a whole new place. This is the way it's supposed to be.'"
"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 with clients and information from the files of Diane Zeidwig, L.M.F.T., a therapist in De Land, Florida. The story told here is true, although the names and other details have been changed to conceal identities.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 1998.