"I couldn't believe my eyes," said Isabella, 26, an advertising salesperson who's been married for two years. "Ryan left the computer on when he went out to walk the dog, and on the screen was an online journal he's been keeping, apparently for months. There, for the world to see, was a list of complaints: 'She gets hysterical if I leave a dirty dish in the sink.' 'I hate coming home.' He even called me names!
"When I confronted him, Ryan claimed he was 'just sounding off.' But this was a betrayal. Sure, things have been tense, but why didn't he talk to me instead of ranting to the world?"
"Ryan dreams of being a comic-book writer, and I know that one day he'll be successful. He forgets how talented he is, partly because he's stuck in a dull job at a real-estate agency. To make matters worse, I think he resents the fact that I make more money than he does. We never talk about any of this, though. Mostly we just argue, often about petty stuff, like the throw pillows I just bought: Ryan deemed them unnecessary. But fixing up our home makes me happy.
"The real problem is that Ryan is a slob. I don't get home until 7; he's home by 5. It's infuriating to walk in and see him sprawled on the couch, with the breakfast dishes still piled in the sink. Would it kill him to vacuum? Is he incapable of making a bed? If he picked up his clothes on his own, I wouldn't nag him.
"Ryan and I met four years ago in an online chat room for music buffs. I had just graduated from college and was living with my parents. We e-mailed each other for a year before we met in person.
"At first, I thought he wasn't my type. He was grungy, with three days' growth of beard. But I felt a spark. He was smart and playful — a free spirit. We saw foreign films and listened to jazz. And though he was shy, he was more sensitive than the guys I'd grown up with, who cared only about their cars.
"I'm the older of two girls. My parents were born in Italy and are very old-fashioned. Dad worked in construction until he was laid off 10 years ago. Mother was home when we were little but started working part-time when Dad lost his job. But she still manages the whole household and prides herself on her immaculate home. She is a demanding woman. We were expected to do well in school, help around the house, and make a terrific tomato sauce. If we fell short, we'd get the silent treatment.
"Ryan says I worry too much about pleasing my parents. That's probably because he's never been close to his own mom and dad — neither even came to our wedding. He also hates the fact that my sister drops over most nights to hang out.
"Ryan is usually so private. That's another reason I'm so shell-shocked. I can't believe he feels more comfortable talking to strangers on his Web log than to me. And what if someone recognizes his screen name? We've never had secrets before. Now I wonder if I really know this man."
"As usual, Isabella is blowing things out of proportion," said Ryan. "Look, I've been writing and drawing all my life. It helps me put things in perspective. On my blog, I might post my political views or a poem or whatever pops into my head. People respond with witticisms or advice. One guy who'd had similar issues with his girlfriend told me to 'hang in there.' Another said I had a right to be angry. It's like group therapy, but totally anonymous.
"Nothing in my life is working. I wake up every morning with an ache in the pit of my stomach. I've always wanted to write and illustrate comic books but I dropped out of college after my sophomore year and got a job selling furniture. Then last year, the store where I worked went bankrupt, and I had to take this dead-end real-estate job. Then my parents separated.
"When Isabella and I first met, we'd talk for hours. No one ever cared about me the way she did. Now, the first words out of her mouth when she walks through the door are to criticize me. 'You call this clean?' she'll scream. She sounds like her mother.
"In truth, I don't see that the laundry didn't get done or that there are dog hairs on the sofa. Those things aren't on my radar screen. Neatness was not a priority for my mom. She had her hands full keeping my brother and me fed. But Isabella's parents' home looks like a museum.
"My mom was just 16 and my dad 18 when I was born. Neither attended college, and my dad, who worked for a phone company, was an alcoholic. He humiliated me in front of people, called me stupid. To stay sane, I'd spend hours alone in my room reading or sketching. I surprised myself by how upset I was by their divorce.
"Isabella's family is unbelievably close. I like them, but I'll never understand why Sunday-night dinner is a command performance, or why her younger sister, whose life is a soap opera, must come over every night. And yes, it's hard to watch Isabella spend money on fancy pillows we don't need — and even harder to say so, since it's her money in the first place.
"The woman I fell in love with was caring and romantic. The one I live with now makes me feel like a henpecked old man. She's so melodramatic. Betrayal? Please. The blog is meaningless. Why can't she forget it?"
The Counselor's Turn
"I'm constantly surprised by how many couples, though very much in love, fail to discuss how they will handle the minutiae of daily life — be it housekeeping tasks or money management — once they're married," said the counselor. "Inevitably, they are shocked by how quickly fights over seemingly trivial matters swamp good feelings. While Ryan's online confessions, and subsequent excuses, were undeniably hurtful, Isabella's discovery forced them to take a hard look at problems they had swept under the rug for two years. My goal was to help them nourish their love while they figured out how to live with each other.
"Like many newlyweds, especially those who've never lived on their own, these two found themselves stumbling through a period of disappointments. Isabella and Ryan lacked the basic communication skills necessary to discuss sensitive or negative feelings, as well as to disagree and actually resolve problems before skirmishes erupted.
"Both also needed to grow up. Isabella had to loosen the emotional ties she had with her family and align herself with her husband. I encouraged her to find ways to remain close to her sister without seeing her every night. Ryan had to take responsibility for the practical aspects of his life, including sharing household tasks and making long-term career goals.
"Like her mother, Isabella tried to be the perfect wife. And she assumed that once she and Ryan were married, he would share her desire for a neat-as-a-pin home and embrace her family. When that didn't happen, Isabella's irritation deepened but, unable to tell Ryan how she felt, she stuffed her anger inside until it leaked out in sarcastic comments or temperamental outbursts.
"I said to her, 'Ask yourself: Is there a kernel of truth in what Ryan wrote? Sometimes, if you can admit some responsibility for the problems, you can begin to make changes.' In time, Isabella realized her constant carping was pushing Ryan away.
"'Timing is critical,' I said. 'The first five minutes after you see each other at the end of the workday set the mood for the entire evening.' I reminded Isabella to choose her words carefully, using nonaccusatory statements. 'Could you help me with dinner?' will elicit support far more effectively than 'Why can't you ever start dinner?' We also discussed the 'when you/I feel' model: 'When you leave dirty clothes on the floor, I feel that you expect me to pick them up.' I cautioned her to stay in the present: 'Discuss one issue at a time, and don't dredge up what he did or didn't do last week.' At the first twinge of resentment, I advised her to take several deep breaths to calm down and think about whether her anger was justified. She reported back that on several occasions, simply applying the verbal brakes kept her from lashing out.
"Ryan brought heavy emotional baggage to the relationship. Always a loner, he'd had little encouragement growing up and he still believed that few people were in his corner. Isabella's criticisms reminded him of his father's. And though he was estranged from his parents, he still harbored a deep longing for the happy, whole family he never had. That's probably why the news of their split hit him so hard.
"One direct result of Ryan's dysfunctional family was that he had no role model for how to be a good husband. When conflict arose, he acted out by either ignoring his wife's requests or withdrawing, as he'd done as a child. Writing was therapeutic for him, but he failed to recognize that his online journal, albeit anonymous, was as wounding to Isabella as her harsh words were to him. I suggested that perhaps subconsciously he had left the journal on the screen because it allowed him to tell her what he was unable to say out loud. Acknowledging this, Ryan stopped minimizing Isabella's concerns, and offered a heartfelt apology.
"'I needed to hear that,' Isabella said. Ryan's empathy was a turning point. As she changed her approach — even giving him a hug and snuggling on the couch when she got home instead of rushing to make dinner — the bickering diminished and they were able to focus on strategies for resolving everyday issues. I explained to Isabella that for Ryan, as for many men, the details of home life were insignificant. 'While you get frustrated that he doesn't do more, he's perplexed that you do so much!' I said. Still, I told Ryan that he had to pay attention to things that bothered Isabella, like a trail of dirty clothes.
"To divide the work evenly, they made a list of weekly household duties, assigned tasks, and posted the 'contract' on the refrigerator. Ryan reported back that he'd been 'pretty good' about doing his share. 'I'd give myself a B.' Isabella upped that to an 'A for effort,' acknowledging that 'my priorities don't have to be his priorities' and that 'dirty dishes aren't worth fighting over.'
"At this point, I brought up money, which they had never discussed. Initially, Ryan said he didn't mind that Isabella earned more, but after a moment's reflection, he said, 'Actually, it bothers me. Not that she doesn't deserve it. But I can't help feeling that my own life is going nowhere.'
"It was a brave admission. 'Self-worth starts with feeling good about what you're doing with your life,' I said. I had several individual sessions with Ryan. 'You didn't have the childhood you deserved,' I noted. 'Many people didn't. But your father's insults reflect on him, not on you. Instead of feeling victimized, find ways to change the outcome of your story.'
"When Ryan mentioned a comic-book convention in Chicago, Isabella encouraged him to go. He did, meeting several publishers who asked him to submit ideas. 'It may not amount to anything, but it fired me up,' he said. 'In the fall, I'm going back to school full time to study art.'
"'My salary will cover part of the tuition, and we'll take out loans for the rest,' Isabella added.
"Armed with the skills to communicate effectively and defuse volatile topics, the couple's old closeness returned. I saw how much progress they'd made when Ryan told me about Isabella's Valentine's Day surprise. 'I came back from walking the dog,' he said, 'and she'd lighted candles throughout the house, and made a path of rose petals from the kitchen to the bedroom. It was incredibly cool.'"
"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 Robin Newman, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker in Huntington, New York. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, July 2004.