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"He Used to Be a Hunk, Now He's Just a Whiner"

Listen in as one real-life couple works through a major crisis in their relationship with the help of a marriage therapist.
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The Couple

Sheila: 45, chief financial officer
Glenn: 47, stay-at-home dad
Married: 10 years
Kids: twins Gabe and Sally, both 3

The Counselor

Jan Harrell, PhD, Ashland, Oregon

The Background

Sheila is a business executive who loves to cook. Glenn, a former financial manager, is a stay-at-home dad who does most of the child care and housekeeping. Both of them feel that their contributions aren't acknowledged or appreciated and at this point they're barely on speaking terms.

Sheila's Turn

I work hard all day long, and when I get home I want to do three things: Give the kids a hug, pour myself a glass of wine, and make us all a really good dinner. I'll go in the kitchen and cook up something healthy and delicious — roast pork loin with apples, chicken tetrazzini, a nice curry. But instead of being grateful, Glenn sits there looking annoyed.

If I ask him what's wrong, he's like, "Why are you spending so much on groceries? Why can't you make something simpler?" If I left it up to him, we'd be eating peanut-butter sandwiches every night! And knowing Glenn, he'd probably whine about that, too.

When I married Glenn he was this rugged hunk with intellect and class and lots of drive. He didn't tell me until we started trying to have a baby that his greatest ambition was to be a stay-at- home dad. After we did fertility treatments I got pregnant with twins and Glenn got his wish. He's an amazingly nurturing father, but I don't think he realized how hard it was going to be. He really seems to be overwhelmed.

Now when I come home the house is a pigsty and Glenn's moping around and whining. He used to be seriously into mountain biking — now he just gripes that he never gets any exercise, and when I ask if he wants to go for a ride, he makes lame excuses like "my bike needs fixing." That's when I start yelling — I just can't deal with his negativity! Then he shuts himself in our bedroom, which drives me even crazier.

I really don't get how Glenn can play the victim. He used to work 80-hour weeks and I didn't complain. He was really passionate about his job. Maybe Glenn is jealous that I'm out doing something fulfilling and he's stuck at home. But it was his choice.

What really riles me, though, is the lack of appreciation for what I do. The tension has gotten so bad that we hardly even talk anymore, and when I go to bed he stays up sulking. I still love Glenn, but I'm losing my respect for him — and I'm losing my patience. His attitude is sucking the life out of me. If this keeps up, one of us is going to have to move out.

Glenn's Turn

I love Sheila's cooking — but by the time she gets home a fancy meal is the last thing I care about. I've spent the day running after two small children and cleaning up mess after mess. What I really need is some time to unwind. I'd like us to sit down together, have a glass of wine, and talk about our days. But when Sheila goes off to make one of her masterpieces, I'm stuck doing child care for another couple of hours.

And the fact is, we should be spending less on food — our income is half of what it used to be. Plus we paid so much for fertility treatments that we're still trying to dig out of the hole. When I see our grocery bills and look at our credit card statements, it's hard to enjoy eating all those exotic meals.

I've told her I'd be happy with rice and beans, but she reacts as if I'm attacking her. Actually, she attacks me. When she starts in I walk away. I'm not going to be drawn into a fight.

It's true that I come to bed late, but not because I'm sulking — that's the only time I can get a little space for myself. As for finding time to exercise, forget it. Sheila's lucky — she can go to the gym every day during lunch. I don't have a lunch hour. She may be willing to watch the kids so I can go biking every now and then, but that's not going to get me back in shape. Besides, my old bike really does need to be replaced. But since I'm not earning a paycheck I don't feel comfortable spending money on stuff like that.

I really am grateful to Sheila for letting me stay home with the twins, even if I don't always show it. My own father was never there for me when I was a boy and I swore I'd do things differently. Thanks to Sheila I've been able to keep my promise. In some ways this is much more fulfilling than my old job.

But I feel like I've given up too much in exchange. I barely have a life anymore, beyond making sure that everyone else's needs are met. I'm at the end of my rope and I wish she wouldn't blow up in my face whenever I even hint at what's bothering me. If we don't talk anymore, it's because I've learned it's safest to keep my mouth shut.

The Counselor's Turn

Both Sheila and Glenn were trying so hard to be perfect — the perfect provider, the perfect dad — that they weren't expressing their own needs. And both thought they'd get the attention and appreciation they were looking for by working really hard for the family. Instead, they just wound up feeling exhausted and unappreciated.

When Sheila came to me, the first thing she said was, "Glenn's so self-centered! He just wants everything his way." She insisted that her cooking was for the family's benefit. But when I pressed her, she admitted that those gourmet dinners were really a gift to herself. Retreating to the kitchen was a way of de-stressing after her workday. Because she was feeding others, too, no one could accuse her of being selfish. In fact, she hoped it would make them love her more.

But her strategy wasn't working very well. Whatever satisfaction she got from her Julia Child act was undermined by the fact that Glenn wasn't playing along. Meanwhile, Glenn seemed to be hoping that by sacrificing his own needs he'd be magically rewarded in the end. His strategy wasn't working, either.

Like a lot of couples I see, neither Sheila nor Glenn felt they had the right to come out and ask for what they needed in a relationship. Instead, they relied on tricks they'd picked up as children. Sheila was raised in a large family and she'd learned that the surest way to get some positive attention from her folks was to be an overachiever. Becoming a great cook was part of that formula, and when Glenn refused to be pleased, she reacted by lashing out.

Glenn grew up with an abusive dad and a checked-out mom. Like Sheila, he tried to win his parents' love by being super-conscientious and hardworking — qualities that he applied first to his career and then to full-time parenting. But when Sheila didn't respond the way he'd hoped, he turned his anger inward, becoming depressed and passive. That made her even madder. Where was the vigorous, assertive man she'd married?

In our sessions I helped Sheila and Glenn understand their childhood habits and urged them to bring home the capable adult selves they'd always shown in the workplace. "Regardless of the other person's behavior," I told them, "when you're together I want you to ask yourselves: 'Am I being the person I like being?'"

Of course, they often weren't. So I gave them some rules. First, as soon as Sheila walked into the house, they had to reconnect physically — to hug, to cuddle, to let their bodies as well as their brains know they were there for each other. I also told them to pay close attention to physical feelings and body language. If you feel tension while your spouse is talking, ask yourself, "Why am I tensing up right now?" Or if your spouse seems upset by something you just said, ask, "What's happening? What did you think I meant?" Instead of feeling hurt or getting angry, take a breath, steady yourself, and investigate the situation. Most important, Sheila and Glenn had to express their needs clearly and directly instead of hoping their spouse would read their mind.

Slowly but surely Sheila and Glenn began to work things out. Sheila agreed to save her fancy recipes for the weekends; every Sunday, she'd make and freeze simpler meals for the rest of the week. On weekdays, while she reheated dinner, she and Glenn could put the kids to bed and hang out together – or he could go and get some exercise. Glenn bought himself a new bike, realizing that he did half of the family work and had every right to spend the family money. They've still got a few issues to resolve, but they're communicating better, and at our most recent session, Sheila told me, "The hostility and resentment are gone. My husband and I are a team again."

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2011.

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