"I know I sound like the classic nag," said Kathy, 30, an interior designer who's been married for five years. "I mean, what kind of woman thinks about divorcing her husband just because he leaves empty bottles on the kitchen counter instead of taking them to the curb for recycling? But it's not about the bottles. It's that Phil yesses me to death but never follows through. It reminds me of the way his mom and dad used to act with each other.
"His mother died two years ago, and the stuff from her house is sitting in a big pile in our basement. We have a small place and Phil knows I get nutty when junk is strewn all over. But because he thinks it's no big deal, the 'issue is off the table,' as he puts it. He's notorious for not discussing anything. Whenever I'm upset, he just cuts me off in an exasperated voice and leaves the room or turns back to the game on TV.
"Then there's the fact that he is always late. Last Sunday, for instance, we were due at 4 p.m. for my niece's third birthday party. I reminded Phil about it at lunch and again at 3:15 when he was mowing the lawn. At 3:45, I got in the car and sat there. Only then did he shower and change. We were 20 minutes late, and I was furious. Why is it that he's unfailingly prompt when meeting with colleagues but never when he's doing something with his wife? If he really loved me, he'd figure out a way to be on time.
"I grew up in New Jersey in a home where no one laughed. Whenever my dad was out of work, which was often, my mom would find a menial job so we could eat. My dad was an alcoholic who thought nothing of smacking my brother and me across the face. He never hit my mother, but she did nothing to stop him from hitting us."
"With no money for college, I got a job at an insurance company in New York City and took night classes to learn interior design. My coworkers — Phil was one of them — were so encouraging whenever I had to leave early for class. I felt like Melanie Griffith in Working Girl; all my big-city dreams were coming true, especially after Phil and I got together. He introduced me to old movies in SoHo, weekends at country inns, and long walks in Central Park. I'd never had so much fun.
"We got married after I graduated and joined the firm where I currently work. Shortly after that, we bought a small fixer-upper in the suburbs. About two years ago Phil opened his own insurance agency. I wasn't thrilled about it; why leave a good job for something so risky? But he's been successful, and his employees can't praise him enough. Apparently I'm the only person alive who doesn't think he's a great guy.
"Our most serious blow-up was about our credit card debt. We owe about $30,000, mostly for house renovations. I hate carrying such a big balance, so about a year ago we had a perfectly reasonable conversation and agreed to pay it off over the next two years. He said he'd set up a plan to have a fixed amount automatically deducted from our savings account every month.
"Every so often, I'd ask about the payments and he'd brush me off. This went on for months. Finally, a few weeks ago, he admitted he'd never set up the plan. I was livid and let him know it. Why would he deceive me like that? What else hasn't he told me? We had such an epic battle we didn't speak for a week.
"After we finally made up, Phil was nice and attentive — for about two days. Then he was back to his sour, silent self. I love my husband, but if he doesn't change, I'm out of here."
"All I've ever wanted is to make Kathy happy," said Phil, 35. "I've loved her almost from the moment she walked into the office where we both worked. But it's scary to be in the same room with her when she has a meltdown. She gets nasty, sarcastic, and demanding. I don't know how to respond and feel annihilated after five minutes.
"Kathy keeps a long list of things I don't do, and she's relentless about letting me know it. The problem is, I don't think these things are a problem! She gets equally bent out of shape whether my mom's stuff is in the basement or we're 20 minutes late for a 3-year-old's party. Hey, I forgot. So what if we miss a few rounds of 'Duck Duck Goose'? The phrase 'making mountains out of molehills' fits my wife to a tee. But whenever I try to help her put things into perspective, she lashes out at me.
"Why didn't I let her know about the credit cards? Because my business has been slow this year and I'm not sure how things are going to shake out, especially in this economy. I didn't want to withdraw from our savings in case I needed quick access to cash. I didn't tell her because she flips out if she thinks we're low on money. She's terrified we'll end up like her parents, living hand to mouth. I'm worried myself, so it doesn't help to have her treat every downturn as if it were a catastrophe. So, yes, sometimes I keep her in the dark. It's not because I don't care. It's because it's the only way I know to stay sane.
"As for the stuff in the basement, it's hard for me to talk about it. I'm still dealing with my mother's death, and I'm not ready to go through it yet. I wish Kathy would understand that and leave it alone. I don't appreciate being told what to do, as though I'm in third grade. Put the garbage out. Call the finance guy. Enough already! A lot of what's happening between Kathy and me feels like a replay of my childhood.
"My dad was a real-estate developer, and my mother called herself a 'domestic engineer.' She turned staying home into an art form: She headed up every school committee, volunteered as den mother and class parent — all while raising four kids and running a large household. I guess we were as happy as any other family, but did we have meaningful, deep conversations? Never. Mom was always hounding my dad to do one thing or another. Mostly, he buried his head in his newspaper and ignored her. Both my parents were strict: Kids were to be seen and not heard, to use proper table manners, to never talk back. If I broke a rule, Mom would go to her bedroom, close the door, and not speak for a while.
"Kathy says I'm just like my parents, either ignoring her requests, like my dad, or freezing her out, like my mom. But look, I love Kathy or I wouldn't be here. If she would just simmer down, we could be the happiest couple around."
The Counselor's Turn
Kathy and Phil were stuck in what I call 'stable misery,'" said the counselor. "Kathy was angry and exhausted: No matter how hard she cajoled, she couldn't get Phil to respond to her needs. The harder she pushed, the more he withdrew. Incensed, she pushed even harder, to the point where she overreacted even to unimportant things. Phil was baffled by Kathy's anger. To protect himself from it, he either said yes but did nothing or else checked out — classic passive-aggressive behavior. Phil loved his wife and didn't mean to hurt her, but his attitude was just as controlling and contemptuous to her as her fury was to him.
"To help them understand the subtle dynamic behind so many fruitless arguments, I asked them what they did in their worst moments. Kathy conceded she often yelled and insisted that Phil behave in a way she believed to be the right one. Phil admitted that he retaliated by withdrawing — an unsurprising reaction, given his emotionally barren childhood. Still, I was firm with him: 'You say you love your wife yet you are not acting in ways that show it.'
"Phil was surprised, but my words registered. 'You have to find ways to repair the damage,' I continued. 'Start by telling Kathy what you really feel. She can't read your mind. If you're not ready to go through your mother's belongings, say so.' By not sharing his feelings, Phil missed opportunities to find solutions to minor problems and unwittingly reinforced Kathy's belief that he didn't care.
"'Forgetting' about financial issues was a similar, though more serious, breach. If he'd been upfront, Kathy could have shown him she understood. Instead, by not telling her the truth, he set off a cascade of negative feelings. 'Partners don't do that,' I said. 'Nor do they make promises and not follow through.'"
"I was equally direct with Kathy. She had survived a difficult childhood and was determined to escape a similar fate in her own marriage. To quell any lingering anxieties, she organized her life as much as possible — one reason the basement mess upset her so much. While her husband was not overtly unkind, he made her feel as unloved and unsafe as she had as a child. This was understandable, but to react by repeatedly criticizing her husband or instructing him on how to think was, I told her, verbal abuse. She bristled at that but was glad I'd validated her complaints.
"Phil started to work on paying attention and keeping his word, while Kathy focused on staying calm and speaking up in difficult conversations. 'There's a difference between standing up for yourself and lashing out,' I told her. 'Remember, you love your husband. You could argue for hours about who's right. Do you want to be always right, or do you want to stay married?' In our sessions, the couple learned a conversational technique that helped them respond respectfully to what the other person actually said rather than reading hidden meanings into it. This allowed them to untangle their arguments, whether about what time to leave for a movie or how to spend a tax refund, and resolve them peacefully and practically.
"The happy result was that Phil now pays attention when Kathy speaks instead of pretending to listen while he watches a baseball game. Because her husband has become more attentive, Kathy shrugs off small 'injustices' like the yet-to-be-recycled bottles. And as she calmed down, Phil felt safe to open up about financial and emotional worries. They agreed to start paying down the credit card debt immediately and have begun sorting his mother's possessions.
"'Phil and I are falling in love again,' Kathy told me at their final session. 'We'd rather be with each other than with anyone else.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 2009.