"Jon is so stressed I don't know what to do anymore," said Lara, 35, an extroverted woman who left a job in real estate to care for her now-1-year-old son, Toby.
"I love him so much, but he's become impossible. Jon comes home from work, gives me and Toby a perfunctory hug, then holes up in the den. He says he's working but sometimes I hear him crying in frustration.
"I want to help, but when I ask a question, he gives only a brief, hostile answer. I vacillate between feeling angry that nothing I do can ease his anxiety, and feeling guilty that I feel angry!
"The problem started 11 months ago when Jon took a position as the chief financial officer of a small engineering firm here in Denver. He'd been out of work for a year since his old company merged with a larger one. He had been asked to stay on, but would have had to relocate to Atlanta. We had just started dating, and Jon has told me that I was the big reason he hadn't wanted to pull up roots."
"At first, this new job seemed perfect: a senior-level position with a prestigious firm, with real power and responsibility. Jon had heard that the CEO was difficult. What an understatement! The man is a tyrant — and as his number two, Jon gets the brunt of that tyranny. Jon takes to heart everything this ogre says and does.
"Look, I expected Jon to have long hours, frequent travel, and a fair amount of stress. But I never expected to be cut out of his life. Weekends, especially Sundays, are horrendous. He's too worried about the coming week to enjoy himself. I try to give him space. I don't ask him to do chores or watch Toby. He's so wound-up that he can't even sit and snuggle on the couch. Our sex life has evaporated. The saddest part is that I have no idea how to crack through his shell.
"I get scared when Jon pulls away. My father suffered from depression. He would stay in his room for days on end, avoiding all of us. That was before doctors understood mental illness or how to treat it. He died in a car accident when I was 13, leaving my mother to raise me and my four younger siblings alone. Mom worked as a dental hygienist and managed to put all five of us through college. Her courage is an inspiration; it's why I'm such a resilient person today.
"Jon and I clicked from the moment we met. He is brilliant, funny, and motivated, but also sensitive and kind. What really cemented the relationship was a three-week trip to Australia that we took after Jon left his old job. He'd been given a six-month severance package and wanted to travel before plunging into a job hunt. We'd been dating for only a few weeks, so I was surprised by his invitation. But then I figured, why not? We'd either find out we couldn't stand each other or fall madly in love. Well, by trip's end we were engaged. Four months later, we were married; two months after that, I got pregnant.
"Jon wasn't working through most of our first year together, and we managed fine on my salary and his severance. Job hunting is stressful, but we got along great during that period, talking constantly and analyzing the pros and cons of every company he interviewed with. I know Jon could find another job, so why doesn't he just quit this one? Why is he killing himself over this dreadful man?"
"I have every reason in the world to be happy," admitted Jon, 38, a handsome man with a deliberate way of speaking. "I'm married to a terrific woman. We have a beautiful, healthy son. And I have a job that, on paper, is perfect. But most of the time I can barely get out of bed in the morning. I have no energy to talk to Lara or play with my son. I've stopped playing basketball with my friends. Sometimes I'm so tense I find myself gripping the steering wheel with all my might. I know it sounds melodramatic, but my workday is a personal hell. At night I sometimes break down in tears.
"As Lara said, the firm where I'd worked happily for 10 years was acquired. The new management asked me to stay on, but I didn't want to relocate to Atlanta. I was excited when I got this offer. I'd been warned that the CEO, my boss, was hard to work with, but I was impressed by his intelligence and goals for the company. I'd handled tough work situations before; I figured, how bad could this guy be?
"The answer is, worse than my wildest imaginings. My boss is a bully who rules by ranting, raving, and steamrollering over everyone. He shoots down ideas I've worked on for weeks and rudely contradicts me in meetings. If he has a problem with someone, he comes flying out of his office and humiliates the person in front of everyone. I've been at the receiving end more times than I can count. Any time I have to communicate with him — in person, on the phone, even through e-mail — I get panicky. There's no escape: The guy sends me emails at 2 a.m."
"I feel terrible about pushing Lara away, but it seems like the only recourse when I'm feeling so out of control. This experience has really shaken my confidence. I had a happy, conventional childhood in Indiana. My family — my stay-at-home mom, my accountant dad, my two sisters and I — were about as close to the Waltons as a family can be. In high school I was all-state in football and track and president of the honor society. My parents didn't push me. I pushed myself, both academically and athletically. In fact, they used to tell me to take it easier!
"I recall two occasions when I felt an overpowering anxiety similar to what I feel now. One was in sixth grade when, of all things, I was eliminated from a spelling bee because I misspelled banjo. The other was when I had a verbally abusive high school football coach. The other guys on the team just let the insults and name-calling roll off their backs, but not me. I dropped off the squad for two years, rejoining only after that coach was fired.
"I feel stuck. Lara doesn't understand why I don't quit, and I'm not sure myself. Maybe it's the thought of another long job hunt. Maybe it's because my dad stayed in his job for 30 years, even though he hated it, because he was a devoted family man. And actually, if this one guy were just removed from the picture, I'd love my job. Barring that possibility, how do I keep every working day from sending me into a tailspin?"
The Counselor's Turn
"My goals for this couple were twofold," said the counselor. "First, to help Jon learn techniques for managing his stress, and second, to help them reconnect emotionally and physically.
"Jon grew up in a loving, supportive family and until now had moved easily from one accomplishment to another. But behind that confident demeanor lay a lifelong struggle with an 'am I good enough?' insecurity that didn't emerge until our fourth session. After recalling his experience with the abusive coach, which led him to quit the team, he revealed that he had often wondered if his success was a fluke. In the past, he'd been able to suppress that feeling. This time, he couldn't.
"Job stress is epidemic, but everyone reacts to it differently. A certain amount spurs us to function at our best, but too much can be toxic, emotionally and physically. People who feel stressed 24-7, like Jon, may become gridlocked by feelings of failure, hopelessness, and helplessness.
"But if Jon was suffering from a depressive collapse, Lara had a case of what I call 'excessive altruism.' She had fallen into a pattern of protecting Jon, placing no demands on him whatsoever, and ignoring her own needs — for an equal partner, a lover, a companion. I urged Lara to be assertive about bringing her husband back into the family's daily life. 'Your job is to say, "Let's all go for a walk" or "You need to watch Toby for an hour," instead of doing everything and allowing him to isolate himself,' I said. Turning to Jon I said, 'And your job is to share your day with Lara, including what upset you as well as what went right. When you don't, you deprive her of a husband.'
"In her own work life, Lara had been a master problem solver, but she lacked knowledge of Jon's industry. So her suggested solutions to problems were rarely workable. Instead of explaining further, Jon dismissed her ideas, ratcheting up the frustration level. I taught Lara some key talk tactics. For instance, rather than ask questions that could be answered with monosyllables (Did you have a good day?) she should frame an open-ended question beginning with the word how or what (How is that new hire doing?) to nudge Jon into a conversation."
"I suspected that Jon's feelings of self-doubt were partly due to depression. I referred him to a psychopharmacologist, who prescribed an antidepressant. Within several weeks, Jon reported he felt more like his old self. His problems didn't vanish, but medication allayed his anxiety. 'The best way to short-circuit stress,' I told him, 'is to nurture yourself, something most people seldom do.' We talked about how he could resume his weekly basketball games with his friends, read a book, or go out for a nice dinner. 'Having something to look forward to can help you through a tough day,' I noted. I urged Jon to initiate sex at least twice a week. 'You'll see,' I told the couple. 'Sex is a wonderful antidepressant.' They quickly discovered that I was right.
"In all our sessions, we worked on strategies to defuse Jon's work tension. I taught him to tune in to the physical signs that his stress was escalating so that he could close his office door and spend a few minutes doing relaxation exercises. We also role-played specific scenarios to help him cope. 'You can't change a bully,' I said, 'but you can change the way you react to him.' So now, if his boss launches into a tirade, Jon takes a deep breath, says firmly, 'I'll be happy to discuss this when we're both calmer,' then leaves immediately. His boss was so stunned when Jon did this that he stopped in mid-sentence, allowing Jon to add, 'When the atmosphere gets too heated, I can't think clearly enough to solve the problem.' By responding calmly and making clear that he's unwilling to talk to his boss if his tone is derogatory, Jon has made his office a more positive environment.
"Finally, we worked on putting his current situation into perspective. He realized his life circumstances were different from his father's and that losing his job would not condemn him to lifelong unemployment. 'If I could handle one job hunt, I can handle another,' Jon said, 'especially because I have Lara's love and support.'
"Jon and Lara were in joint therapy for three months, and I still see Jon occasionally. He's no longer taking the antidepressant and feels much calmer in general. 'I'll never like my boss,' he told me recently, 'but I can work with him now without getting flustered.'
"Lara agreed. 'He still hates the way his boss behaves but it no longer consumes him,' she said. And she offered proof positive that Jon has mellowed: Now when the family goes out, he leaves his cell phone behind."
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews and information from the files of Susan Heitler, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Denver and coauthor of The Power of Two Workbook. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, January 2006.