"I'm sick of the way Nick flirts," said Patty, 32, a tall blond who just celebrated her first anniversary. "Whenever we go to a party Nick gravitates to the most beautiful woman in the room and launches into a sparkling conversation before I can even get my coat off. And even when he does remember to introduce me, he soon walks off and leaves me hanging. We often have to leave early because we've gotten into another ugly, embarrassing fight.
"I don't think it's expecting too much for my husband to care about me and to show it. Nick has absolutely no idea how hurtful he is, and he won't admit he's done anything wrong. He's very quick and articulate, and manages to twist my words around and turn the whole story inside out every time.
"I met Nick, a management consultant, when he moved into my apartment building back in St. Louis. At the time, I was finishing my master's in speech pathology. I'd spent a year after college in L.A., trying to break into TV news, but I had decided to quit that crazy world and become a speech therapist instead. So I moved to Missouri and really found my niche— I liked the city and my friends there.
"Nick's a charmer, and in the beginning he was attentive and really courted me. But at the same time, he also came off as a playboy. I wasn't crazy about the way he hugged all his female friends and would casually slip his arm around the shoulder of a woman he'd just met.
"Maybe I never should have gotten married in the first place. I don't want my marriage to be as unhappy as my parents' was. Dad, a lawyer, was very controlling, and Mother, an urban planner, used to tell me how miserable she was with him. But even thought they didn't get along, I know they loved me.
"My sister, Andrea, was clearly our father's favorite, and I was jealous. Everything in our home revolved around her moods, her needs.
"But aside from that, I had a wonderful childhood. My parents encouraged me to try new things, and they were always there when I had to make difficult decisions — where to go to college, what career path to follow.
"Now I've come to realize how very different we are. I'm a morning person, but Nick parties till the wee hours and sleeps till noon on weekends. I like to be at the airport two hours ahead of time; Nick is the guy who dawdles endlessly, then dashes to the gate just before the plane takes off. His seat-of-the-pants attitude gives me ulcers.
"For the last few months, we've been living separate lives. I'm so angry at the way he treats me that I can't imagine having sex with him. I don't even want to make his dinner anymore. Why should I do anything for him?
"Most of all, I want to be able to trust my husband — trust that he loves me, that he'll be on my side, that he's not interested in other women. Right now, I don't. And I want out."
"Patty has already left this marriage emotionally and physically," said Nick, 32. "We haven't made love — hell, we haven't slept in the same bed — for months. I'm the one in the guest room, thank you very much. She doesn't make dinner plans with me, refuses to join me for important business events, and she leaves my laundry in the hamper while she does hers. Is she trying to punish me? For a long time, I've suspected that Patty doesn't want to be married to me. This proves it.
"I'm not a flirt, and I don't ignore her at parties. Those accusations just aren't true. I love my wife, and she had nothing to be jealous about. But she's convinced that she doesn't measure up to everyone else, and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. She's one of the most beautiful women I've ever met, but that doesn't mean that I can't enjoy talking to other women. I'm a sociable guy who likes to be around accomplished people; what's wrong with that? I've always had a lot of friends. I don't know why patty thinks I'm a selfish, belittling cad. Nothing I do wins her forgiveness.
"Frankly, I'm not sure I even want it anymore. Her insane jealousy stifles me. Patty misreads my actions and assumes the worst. Every time we go out, I assure her that she's the only one I love, but she doesn't even hear me. She gets angry at the drop of a hat, and next thing you know, we're in the middle of a huge public argument.
"Maybe we are too different. Patty's organized and careful; I've always liked to take chances, add some risk to the mix. I don't think you grow or achieve anything unless you do. I remember when I was eight, I wanted to walk to my cousin's house to play. Mom said I was too young to go that far by myself, but I did it anyway. I caught hell for it, of course, but I think my folks were secretly pleased at my initiative.
"They were role models in every sense of the word. Both grew up poor, put themselves through college and started businesses — Dad runs a large clothing manufacturing business, and mom is a real-estate broker. My folks had high expectations for both me and my younger sister. We've always been competitive, but in a good way. i think we believe that if we want something and try hard enough, we'll get it.
"But Patty has no confidence in herself at all. She can't make up her mind about anything, from buying a new car to choosing a restaurant, without endless discussion and waffling. it drives me nuts. And everything becomes an issue with her. Back in St. Louis, I figured Patty was getting bored with her job and needed new challenges. I wanted to help her, so when I was negotiating for my job up here, I told the interviewers what she was looking for. I just so happened that they knew of an opening. Why does she look for an ulterior motive in everything I do?
I don't know why Patty sees me as a selfish cad who belittles what's important to her. Nothing I do wins her forgiveness. Frankly, I'm not sure I want it anymore. She's insanely jealous. She misreads my actions and assumes the worst. Every time we go out, I reassure her that I care only about her, but she doesn't hear me. She becomes enraged instantly, starts hassling me, and before I know it we're in the middle of an embarrassing argument.
"In the last few months, we've been acting like roommates who barely know each other. It's easier than getting into a huge fight every time we open our mouths. I work late, have dinner with a friend or colleague and sometimes go out to the clubs till all hours to avoid going home to another inquisition. I don't want to lose Patty, but right now, our marriage is a joke."
The Counselor's Turn
"Patty and Nick's marriage was a time bomb," said the counselor. "Each felt persecuted, misunderstood and unloved, and each insisted it was the other's fault. The key to saving their marriage was, first, to get both of them to accept responsibility for their problems, and second, to guide them toward compassion and empathy.
"Charismatic and considerate when he wanted to be, Nick could also be a domineering man who was used to having his own way. He had learned long ago that he could use charm to his advantage, so he put a positive spin on everything: He wasn't flirting, he was 'sociable.'
"Nick frequently came late to our early sessions or even blew them off entirely. But when I told him that his lateness suggested that he didn't really want to fight for his marriage, he began to see how his actions could be negatively interpreted by others — including his wife.
"Patty was a stunning, accomplished woman. Sadly, to a large extent, she was still wrestling with feelings of inferiority that dated back to when her father favored her sister. This gave Patty an insatiable need to be loved and praised. 'You're rejecting Nick in much the same way you always felt rejected yourself,' I pointed out.
"Patty's parents had always told her what to do and encouraged her to quit if something became too difficult. As a result, Patty never learned from her mistakes.
"When Patty saw how stuck she was in her old patterns, she decided it was time to make some changes. Instead of rushing to accuse her husband, she tried to look at things from his point of view. Seeing the changes in her, Nick began to change, too. He finally admitted that he really was flirtatious at parties, and he made an earnest effort to behave differently with other women.
"Now it was time for a total communication makeover. I established ground rules for fighting: no more accusations or blame. Instead, they were to use the 'When you… then I …' technique. Instead of flying into a rage, Patty learned to say, 'When you spend the night talking to beautiful women, I feel insecure.'
"Leading the conversation with questions ('I know you don't like it when I chat with my women friends, but what exactly are you afraid of?') instead of direct attacks ('You're crazy — I'm not flirting'), helped stop them from placing blame. They also reached a workable solution for dealing with social occasions. Nick told Patty, 'Just give me a signal when you want me to stop talking with someone, and I'll come over to you.'
"Within four months, the tension between these two eased considerably. Patty is much happier, more confident and doesn't need constant reassurance from her husband. Nick is thrilled to have Patty back on his side."
"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 Jane Greer, Ph.D., a marriage and sex therapist in New York City. The story told here is true, although names and other identifying details have been changed to conceal identities.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 1999.