Lauren: 33, freelance graphic designer
Mark: 32, bartender and teacher
Married: 3 years
Cori Robin, Chicago
Lauren and Mark live like roommates — they barely spend any time together, much less have sex. Lauren misses the way things used to be and wants to find a way out of the rut. Mark won't even discuss their relationship and has been hinting that he wants a divorce.
Lauren: Mark and I have turned into an old married couple — and we're barely past 30! We couldn't keep our hands off each other when we started dating after college. We talked late into the night about everything. We went running along Lake Michigan and checked out hot bands at local clubs. We had seven or eight years of a great relationship. But since our first wedding anniversary, we've been living like roommates. Part of it is because our schedules are out of sync. I work from home during the day. Mark teaches and is also a bartender on nights and weekends. We've only had five days off together in the past year!
I feel like we're so disconnected. We rarely have sex — once a month at most — and it seems like I'm always the one to make the first move. Mark just goes through the motions. He doesn't say "I love you" and he even forgot to buy me a birthday present last year. When I ask him what's wrong, Mark tells me I'm too needy and either changes the subject or leaves the room. What's "needy" about wanting some TLC from my husband?
Mark: I have to be honest. After 10 years I've gotten a little bored with our relationship. And unfortunately I'm just not as attracted to Lauren as I used to be. She doesn't look or act like the beautiful, confident woman I fell in love with when I was in my 20s. She's gained 20 pounds since our wedding, so she lives in yoga pants or flowing skirts to hide the extra weight. When we were dating, she wore lots of sexy outfits but she doesn't even try to look good anymore. She never puts on makeup and she wears her hair in a ponytail 24/7. Lauren knows she's let herself go, which has made her so insecure. She says things like, "I'm fat and ugly. Why are you with me?" It's true that her weight bothers me but her attitude is even more of a turnoff.
And here's something else: It drives me crazy that she interrupts me when I'm grading papers to complain that our sex life is bad. She's constantly bringing up her friends Meg and John, who apparently have sex three times a week. Really? Good for them, but I don't care about what other couples do in the bedroom.
Lauren: Believe me, I'm not happy about how I look. I guess I've been overeating out of frustration. My marriage is falling apart and my career isn't going well, either. I lost a lot of clients when the economy tanked a few years ago, and even though things have picked up, I haven't been able to rebuild my client base or raise my fees. I'm not sure being a freelancer is such a good idea anymore. I like being my own boss and setting my own schedule, but the downside is outweighing the positives at this point. We're barely scraping by on my salary and Mark's income from two part-time jobs. So what if Mark hates my clothes? I'm not going to go buy a new wardrobe when I feel bad about myself and money is so tight. I know it bugs Mark that I interrupt him when he's grading papers, but I need to talk to him when he's home, since I barely see him.
Mark: I'm not really in the mood to talk about anything, much less our relationship problems. My life fell apart two years ago, when I dropped out of a history PhD program. Ever since junior high I had dreamed of becoming a history professor. I thought being in academia would be amazing, but the truth is, it's not as cool and rewarding as I imagined. It's a lot of hard work for crappy pay, and there's no career security until you get tenure, which takes about 10 years. Intellectually, I know dropping out was the right decision, but I feel completely lost, and I'm pissed that I put myself in this position. At 32 I shouldn't still be trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. So I don't have much patience right now. The last thing I want to do when I come home at 4 a.m. wiped out from bartending is listen to Lauren complain about our sex life or berate me for avoiding her. I'm not sure talking will do any good, regardless. I wish Lauren would just give it a rest.
Lauren: Well, not talking isn't a solution — our communication problems are just driving us farther apart. I'm sorry Mark gave up his dream of becoming a professor. If I'd known how miserable he'd be without a clear career path, I would have encouraged him to stay in the program until he found something else. At the same time, I'm beyond tired of watching him mope around. I can't remember the last time he smiled or laughed at something I said. But despite our problems, I still love Mark and I'm hoping we can get ourselves out of this depressing rut before it's too late.
Mark: I love Lauren, but my feelings have changed from romantic to platonic. Between dating and marriage, we've been together 10 years already. Maybe it's time to accept that our time is up. I think we should move on, but Lauren wants to try marriage counseling. I guess it's worth a shot. It can't hurt, right?
The Counselor: Lauren and Mark faced an issue that affects all couples at some point: the tedium of the day-to-day marriage routine. The early days of any relationship are exciting and filled with passion. But as the years go by and the stress of daily life sets in, some couples start to question whether they're still committed and attracted to each other.
In our first session it became clear that this wasn't the only challenge Lauren and Mark were facing. Both of them were feeling insecure about themselves in general, and both were in a bad place, career-wise. "Everybody is responsible for their own happiness," I explained. "You can't put it in the hands of your spouse. If each of you works on your self-confidence and finds a more rewarding career, you'll have more energy for your marriage, and you're much more likely to get back that spark."
I started by working with each of them on their individual issues. As Lauren lost confidence in herself, she'd become the pursuer in the marriage, pushing Mark for greater physical and emotional intimacy as a way of making herself feel better. But her behavior backfired, because the more she pushed, the more Mark backed away. That only made things worse. I suspected that Lauren's insecurity began long before she met Mark. She told me that her parents got divorced when she was young and never paid much attention to her, so she didn't feel a true sense of connection to her family while she was growing up.
Mark had his own issues as a kid, since his father abandoned his family when Mark was 14. He became the sole emotional support for his mother and younger brother, and it was too much for a teenager to handle. When they made too many demands on him, he became sullen and withdrawn, and he continued this pattern with Lauren.
The conversation about their childhoods was a good start because Lauren and Mark started empathizing with each other. But it took several months of therapy before they were able to figure out their next steps as individuals. Eventually, Lauren realized she'd make more money and feel better about herself working for a company, rather than as a freelancer. She launched an aggressive job search and got hired as a PR director for a tech start-up. She decided to go on a diet — to please herself, not Mark — and in nine months she lost 20 pounds. The job search and career shift prompted her to give up her yoga pants and buy a stylish new wardrobe that she feels good wearing, and that Mark loves. She also got a new haircut, which has made her feel prettier and more confident.
Lauren's new job turned out to be a game changer for the couple, because it allowed Mark to quit bartending. With fewer financial worries and his nights and weekends free, Mark focused on choosing a new career. He decided to pursue his second academic interest —information technology — and enrolled in a certificate program that will prepare him to get a software-development job within a year.
Before coming to therapy, Mark had mostly blamed Lauren for making him miserable. Counseling helped him understand that it wasn't about Lauren. He was really unhappy with himself, which spilled over into his relationship with his wife. As the months passed and Mark focused on his new career goals, he got his energy back. The better he felt about himself, the more open he was to saving the marriage. He and Lauren started eating dinner together, taking long walks on weekends, and watching TV at night. Just being together has helped them reconnect emotionally, which has rekindled their sex life.
As I predicted, the changes Lauren and Mark made in their individual lives had a positive effect on their marriage. Since Lauren was happier at work and felt better about herself, she became less emotionally dependent and stopped looking to Mark for validation. Her renewed self-confidence and improved personal style made her more attractive to her husband, and Mark started to pay her compliments. Lauren is thrilled with the change. "Mark came shopping with me when I had to buy a dress for a wedding, and he insisted that I get new earrings and perfume, too. Before therapy, that never would have happened."
During the year they spent in counseling, Mark and Lauren came to understand that they must nurture their relationship if they want to keep the spark alive. By changing themselves, they got their sense of self back and also rebooted their relationship. "We'll be a work in progress for a while, but the changes have made me feel like our marriage will survive — and more importantly, that I really want it to," Mark said.
Can This Marriage Be Saved? is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. The story told here is true, although names and other identifying information have been changed to conceal identities.