"I told Greg I want a divorce," said Gaby, 34, a soft-spoken mother of four: Zach, 12; Kristin, 9; Zoe, 6; and Nick, 1. "It's one thing to speak to me in a demeaning way — I've put up with it for 13 years. But I won't live with a man who treats his children that way.
"Greg was shocked, but I don't know why. We haven't gotten along for ages, though it's been much worse ever since I got pregnant with Nick — by accident. I was as surprised as Greg was. I'd used my diaphragm but, as the doctor said, it's not foolproof. At first I was overwhelmed by the prospect of four children, but I'm one of five myself so I got used to the idea fairly quickly. Greg, however, was livid. He blamed me for being careless and never missed an opportunity to inform others that it wasn't his idea. At dinner with friends he announced, 'Gaby got pregnant on purpose — I knew nothing about it.' I just sat there, dumbfounded. Later, at home, I tried to tell him how hurt I was, but he just cut me off, barking, 'There you go, overreacting again. It's your hormones talking.' It was so degrading!
"The night I went into labor shows how callous he is. At 2 a.m. I called out from the bathroom that my water had broken. 'Are you sure?' he growled. When the other children were born, he seemed excited. This time he was miffed at missing a night's sleep.
"Things got worse after we brought the baby home. Greg would scream if the kids so much as left a few Legos on the floor. If they ran ahead in the parking lot, he'd grab them by the neck and lecture them about safety. My parents came to help for two weeks and were stunned at how cruel and inconsiderate Greg was. Sadly, I was used to it by that time.
"Greg is hardest on Zach, our oldest. When Zach didn't get straight A's last term Greg called him stupid. He also coaches Zach's football team. The other parents think he's great, but he's one of those coaches who screams at his own kid while being a hero to the rest of the team. Greg was a star quarterback in high school and he wants his son to be, too. But Zach doesn't like football! Back when he started T-ball, he was the youngest kid on the team, barely big enough to hold a bat. Greg rode him so hard that another mom said, 'Don't you realize the boy is only 3?' Zach plays to please his father, but he'd much rather be at the park, skateboarding. Greg says skateboarding is for punks."
"I used to think it was my fault our marriage wasn't working, that if I could just be a more positive, supportive wife, like my mother, maybe Greg wouldn't be so angry, maybe he wouldn't ignore my needs. But my father, who was a science teacher, never raised his voice in anger, so it was easy for my mom to be positive. They have a wonderful marriage. To this day I've never seen them fight.
"Greg and I were fixed up by his mother and my sister, who worked together. Neither of us expected to have a good time, but Greg was so easy to talk to, I felt I'd known him my whole life. Everything happened fast. That first date was a week before Thanksgiving. He proposed on Christmas Eve and four months later we were married. I was 21 and he was 22.
"I was working as a junior buyer for a department store here in Denver and Greg had just started his first job, at a large brokerage firm. We were both eager to start a family, so we decided on our honeymoon not to use birth control. I got pregnant right away, quit work, and immersed myself in being a mom. For a few years we were fine, and Greg got promoted several times. But about two years ago his company ran into problems. They fired a lot of people, and Greg's workload increased. It wasn't unusual for him to work 80 hours a week, including weekends. Many nights he'd lash out at me as soon as he got home, claiming the house was a mess or that I needed to instill better study habits in the older kids. He didn't seem to notice or care that I was dead on my feet, too exhausted to worry if every toy wasn't perfectly stowed away.
"Greg and I go for days without talking. We never have sex — and to be honest, I'm not even interested. But it's his temper I can no longer take. Last night we came home late from a church meeting to discover that our dog had eaten a whole bag of leftover Easter candy. Greg assumed that Zach had left the candy out, so, cursing, he raced into Zach's room, where he was sleeping, yanked off the covers and tried to pull Zach out of the top bunk, demanding he go with him to the animal hospital. 'This'll teach you to be responsible,' he bellowed. Zach, terrified, cried that he hadn't done it. And he hadn't. It was Zoe who'd left the bag out — hardly a crime in any case.
"Well, that was the last straw. I can't let my kids think it's okay for their father to treat them like criminals. Or that it's okay for a husband to treat his wife as he treats me. My elder sister has said we can stay with her until I get my bearings. I need a marriage counselor only to help me figure out how to make this divorce as pain-free as possible for my kids."
"I've been a complete jerk," said Greg, 35, his voice cracking. "I had no idea Gaby was this unhappy or that I'd been so hurtful to her and the kids. I didn't think I was anywhere near as awful as she says. I was so focused on supporting this family, so wrapped up in myself, that I lost sight of what's important. My family is everything to me, and I've been a terrible husband, a terrible father — and a terrible manager at work. A few weeks ago my boss called me in to ask if something was wrong. Apparently, many of the people I supervise have been complaining for a long time that I ride them too hard. I need to find a way to calm down. I promise I will if Gaby will just give me another chance.
"I fell madly in love with Gaby the moment we met. She's beautiful and vivacious, and we saw the world through the same eyes. Although Gaby wouldn't agree, I'm convinced our big mistake was having kids too soon. She may doubt this, but I adore all our children. The minute I held each of them I fell hopelessly in love. But I was 23 when Zach was born, much too immature to be a father. We'd barely been married a year, so I resented the attention Gaby focused on the baby. I'm not proud of that, but it's true. I'd want to make love, but Gaby was always too tired. I'd want to go out, but she didn't feel comfortable leaving Zach with a sitter. And on and on.
"Once you have one child, everyone starts asking when you'll have another. Gaby and I both come from large families so there was pressure to have a second, even a third. But after Zoe was born I assumed our family was complete, even if we never said that explicitly. That's why I was so bummed out by this last pregnancy. It could not have come at a worse time: I was overwhelmed at work and worried sick about money. My company had just fired hundreds of employees, leaving me to do the job of three people. Morale was — and is — awful because everyone wonders if he'll be next.
"But of course I love our son, and I never meant to hurt or embarrass my wife. Frankly, she's overly sensitive. The people I joked about the pregnancy with are close friends. They knew I was just kidding — why didn't Gaby?"
"In the past few years I've often wondered if Gaby even cares about me anymore. Our sex drives have always been out of sync, with me initiating and her 'not in the mood.' I try to brush aside the feeling of rejection, but I feel it all the same. She's so wrapped up with the kids that I feel irrelevant: It's as if I did my part by siring them and now I'm just a paycheck. We speak to each other only when we have to. When I walk in the door at night, I sense I'm crossing into enemy territory. Gaby seems annoyed to see me, and it feels as if she's lined the kids up against me, too. If I reprimand one of them, she rushes in to disagree, adding that she loves them very much. Like I don't? I just feel she's too lenient with them. We need to establish rules about when they're allowed to watch TV, play computer games, or text-message their friends, so that schoolwork is a priority. A few weeks ago, when Zach flunked a history test, I told him he was grounded for a week. Gaby immediately snapped, 'No, you're not!'
"As for football, Zach is a natural athlete and I love coaching his team. Playing football in high school was an incredibly positive experience for me, and I want that for my son, too. I just can't wrap my brain around the idea of skateboarding as a sport.
"My handling of the candy incident was inexcusable, no question. Yet I couldn't stop myself. I felt as if I were riding some out-of-control locomotive. That happens to me a lot. Unfortunately, my dad was the same way. He was a trial lawyer and a brilliant man but also quick to find fault, ruled with an iron hand, and lashed out whenever something rubbed him the wrong way, which was often. He set the bar high for all of us, but especially for me, the oldest.
"I hate the thought that in Gaby's eyes, and in the eyes of our kids, I'm just like him. More than anything else, I want to prove to her that I can be a good husband and father. I just hope it's not too late."
The Counselor's Turn
"When they came to see me Gaby was emotionally depleted and Greg was anguished," said the counselor. "She had already made plans to move out and was adamant that the only reason she was in my office was to ease the divorce process for her kids.
"'I'm a marriage therapist because I believe in saving marriages,' I told Gaby. 'If Greg is serious about changing, don't you owe it to your kids, and yourself, to give him a chance?' I pointed out that Greg had already accomplished the toughest task — acknowledging his part in their problems. 'Take divorce off the table for six months,' I urged. 'Work on resolving your conflicts. Then, if nothing has changed, we'll talk about a "good divorce."' Gaby agreed.
"First I wanted them both to understand that Greg's incessant angry outbursts and criticism, as well as his indifference to Gaby's feelings, was verbal abuse, which can be as destructive as physical abuse. I also explained that when couples rarely talk, it's often a sign that one, or both, partners are avoiding important issues. These two became parents at a young age and during an early stage of their marriage. Because they had little time to develop a firm foundation of friendship or ways to resolve conflicts, they were thrown for a loop by typical problems couples with young children have. Greg had found it impossible to admit what he said in our sessions — that he was jealous of his own child. Similarly, Gaby found it too frightening to fully explain how wounded she felt when Greg made fun of her. 'But talking and being open even if you feel vulnerable is the only healthy way to deal with a problem,' I said.
"Early experiences had left their marks on this couple. Both grew up in traditional homes where the mother devoted herself to raising children and pleasing her husband. Gaby's family had been nurturing and supportive, but the unspoken credo had been 'don't make waves' and 'don't say anything negative.' Because she never heard her parents raise their voices, she was broadsided when her husband raised his. She had absorbed the lesson that anger was unacceptable, so she didn't feel entitled to stand up to his put-downs. Instead she suppressed her disappointment, accepting conditions that were unacceptable.
Meanwhile, the boy who strove to meet his father's high standards grew into an adult who, like his father, exploded when things didn't go exactly as he wanted. Greg's temperament, as well as the emotional temperature of his childhood home, was much hotter than his wife's. In his family, in contrast to Gaby's, voices were raised routinely."
"I asked Gaby, 'What behaviors can you accept and what do you refuse to tolerate?' She said she would no longer sit silently when Greg criticized her in front of friends, even if he was 'just teasing.' When she felt him belittling her, we agreed, she was to say so calmly. If he didn't cool it, she'd leave the room or restaurant, no matter where they were. Another nonnegotiable point was his harsh treatment of their children. If he didn't improve on that front, she said, the marriage was over.
"The fact that Greg was about to lose everything was a catalyst for swift change. Learning to recognize and curb his anger was a crucial first step for Greg if his marriage was to survive.
"In addition to our sessions, Greg met with a psychologist specializing in work issues, who helped him modify his management style and stop bringing office stress home. Greg's boss redistributed some of Greg's responsibilities so that he was home by 7 p.m. most nights. 'I'll occasionally work on weekends,' he reported, 'but nothing like before.'
"Greg now pays strict attention to the impact his words and actions have on his family. 'I haven't been good to your mom or to you and I promise to change,' he told the kids. To hasten that process, the family now has dinner together most nights. Greg and Gaby routinely discuss how to handle discipline and, if they disagree, they talk it out privately. They've agreed that schoolwork comes before TV, text-messaging, or computer games, and Gaby enforces those rules even when Greg isn't home. Instead of pressuring Zach to play football, Greg allowed him to pursue his own after-school activities. Zach chose skateboarding. 'I still have trouble seeing it as a sport,' Greg admitted. 'But darn if Zach isn't good! I love watching him and admire his passion.' Greg also sets aside time for his daughters and has begun spending weekend afternoons with his toddler son, Nick.
"Greg does something daily to show Gaby how much he loves her: a loving phone call at midday, a love note taped to the mirror. These gestures encourage her to respond in kind. They now hire a babysitter every weekend so they can go out to dinner alone.
"It took longer to restore sexual intimacy. Gaby complained that her sex drive had disappeared, and I wasn't surprised. Anger and resentment are huge libido killers. I also reminded her that most couples with young children have neither the time nor the energy for the kind of sex life they formerly enjoyed. I urged them to make a point of touching — exchanging a real, rather than perfunctory, kiss in the morning, cuddling on the couch at night, or lying in bed naked with no expectation of intercourse. As she relaxed and gained confidence, Gaby began to initiate lovemaking. 'We actually have a good sex life now,' she marveled in one session.
"The couple ended therapy after two years. Recently I bumped into a transformed Gaby at a local mall. 'I never thought marriage could be so great,' she said, grinning widely, 'or that I could be so happy.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2008.