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"He Works So Much That He Had a Heart Attack"

Can this marriage be saved? 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

Charlene: 39, tax attorney
Gordon: 41, corporate attorney
Married: 17 years
Kids: Ernie, 16; Leo, 12; Sally, 4

The Counselor

Wendy Walsh, PhD, Los Angeles, California

The Background

Gordon is a serious workaholic and Charlene is frustrated that she can't get him to slow down. Gordon had a recent health scare that landed him in the hospital. Now their conflict has begun to feel like a life-and-death issue.

Charlene: Gordon has always been incredibly driven but lately it seems like he's working himself to death. He skips lunch and has a dinner of pizza and soda at the office. When he finally gets home he's on the computer till after I go to bed. Last year his doctor told him he needed to take better care of himself — he was overweight, he was looking run-down, his blood pressure was high. I begged him to ease up but he wouldn't listen. Instead, he'd tell me to stop nagging and we'd wind up yelling at each other.

About a month ago he pulled two all-nighters in a row to close a deal, chugging energy drinks to stay awake. I'd been out of town on a business trip and I was on my way home from the airport when a neighbor called to say Gordon had passed out and the paramedics were taking him to the ER. I drove to meet him there, crying the whole way. It turned out he'd had a mild heart attack and had to have a stent put in. Thank God there was no major damage, but I've never been so terrified. What scared me even more was that he kept on working from his hospital bed, checking in with clients, and joining meetings by speakerphone. Even the nurses couldn't get him to stop. Within a week he was back at the office.

I'm so worried about him, and about what this is doing to our marriage and to our children. I barely get to see him anymore and I want him to be a more involved father. But the way things are going right now, I'm afraid I'm going to wind up a widow.

Gordon: Look, I don't have a death wish. I wouldn't mind taking it a little easier and spending more time with Charlene and the kids, if I had a choice. But in my profession, late nights go with the territory. I'm trying to make partner at my firm, and you definitely don't do that by going home at 5 o'clock every night.

Charlene: I know the drill — I'm a lawyer, too. And you've got to make some hard choices in this profession. We had our first baby right after we were married and I knew I'd have to compromise to balance my career and my family. I ended up going into private practice so I could make my own hours. Gordon works for a big law firm and I get that the demands on him are heavy. At a certain point, though, you have to be able to draw the line and say, "Enough." Gordon won't do that.

Gordon: It would be easier for me to say "enough" at work if Charlene would say "enough" when she's spending our money. She loves nice things — designer shoes, fancy handbags, a car that costs more per month that our first apartment did. She likes high-end restaurants and Caribbean resort vacations, too. Meanwhile, her income barely pays for the nanny and housekeeper we need to keep the household running with both of us working. It's up to me to pay for private school and tutoring for the kids — and the name-brand sneakers they seem to outgrow every few weeks.

And speaking of houses, we had to sell ours at a loss when the recession hit. Charlene seems to be forgetting that for that stretch a couple of years ago when neither of us was getting enough billable hours to pay the mortgage. One reason I'm working so hard now is to dig us out of that hole. We're renting a condo, but we've talked about buying a place of our own again. How is that supposed to happen if I'm leaving the office before everyone else each night?

Charlene: It's true that I like my little luxuries, but I don't think I'm being wildly extravagant. I always stay within our budget. And those vacations are important to me — they're practically the only time we're all together as a family, just kicking back and having fun. But last summer Gordon was so busy that we never went away at all.

As far as the housekeeper and nanny go, his criticism is really unfair. It's great for us to have some backup. We really couldn't get through the day without a few extra hands. But I'm the one who has to supervise them, which winds up being a part-time job in addition to the full-time one I already have. Gordon helps out as much as he can. He drives our boys to school most days and he makes sure to get to their soccer games on weekends — though he's on his iPhone the whole time.

But I do all the scheduling for the kids, oversee their school projects and ferry them to playdates, music lessons, and birthday parties. I plan our social life and holiday trips. I handle the household bills. I make sure we have clean laundry. Gordon is too busy to deal with those things.

Gordon: I work 90-hour weeks. She wants me to wrap birthday presents?

Charlene: I'm not saying I mind doing those things. But doing them all by myself feels lonely. When we first got together, I thought Gordon was the most loving and caring guy I'd ever met, besides being the smartest and most ambitious. But lately, the loving and caring parts have taken a back seat.

Gordon: I wouldn't work the way I do if I didn't love her and care for her! It makes me proud to be able to give her the things that make her happy. I know she didn't have much as a kid, and neither did I. Being able to live the way we do has been like a dream come true for both of us. Maybe she's right that I've been pushing myself too hard, but I'm not just doing it for my own sake. If I'm going to change my ways, she's going to have to change hers, too.

The Counselor's Turn

When Charlene and Gordon came to see me they both seemed tense and exhausted. It was clear they cared deeply for each other but both of them were so focused on their careers and all the stuff they were spending money on that they'd lost the ability to nurture their relationship. I soon realized that, for both of them, this dynamic was rooted in their childhoods.

Charlene and Gordon both came from lower-middle-class backgrounds and both of them had felt deprived as children. When they became financially successful, their self-worth became tied up with how much money they earned. That's not unusual in people who grow up poor. More importantly, neither of them had received the emotional support they needed from their parents. Gordon's mother and father belonged to a strict religious sect. They cut him off when he took a different path as a teenager. Charlene's parents divorced when she was a girl. Her mother raised her on her own and she rarely saw her father. Both members of this couple felt they had a lot to make up for — and a lot to prove. They needed to show the world, and themselves, that they were worthy and special. And that meant having it all — the big house, the best clothes, and cars, and everything else.

In a way, they also saw each other as prized possessions. In law school Charlene had been the most beautiful and athletic girl in their class and Gordon felt he'd made an amazing catch. To be able to support her in high style was a huge boost to his ego. For Charlene, being supported by him — while she worked at a job she loved but that didn't pay very much — helped soothe some of her insecurities. But his obsession with work also made her feel abandoned all over again. So she wanted him to do two incompatible things — keep earning enough to buy her lots of stuff and start spending more time with her. Gordon couldn't satisfy both of these demands, so he stuck to fulfilling her material needs. That's the model he'd learned from his own father, an emotionally distant man who'd worked hard to raise his family out of poverty.

These lingering childhood issues wound up causing trouble in their adult lives — and not just for the marriage. Gordon was barely there for his children. He was neglecting his own physical health. And despite their affluent lifestyle, Charlene had begun to feel increasingly anxious. They'd both ignored these problems while their life was moving along normally. But when Gordon had his heart attack, it was a wake-up call for both of them.

I helped them understand the roots of Gordon's workaholism and how Charlene had inadvertently contributed to it. I also helped them open up to each other about their emotional lives. Before they came to counseling, Gordon had never told Charlene how pressured he felt to keep the cash rolling in. Nor had Charlene ever told Gordon how much she missed having his undivided attention. As they talked and listened, each of them began to understand their own responsibility for the state of their relationship.

But getting in touch with their feelings wasn't enough. They also had to change their habits. That was especially hard for Gordon, who felt that cutting back on his hours at the office would be perceived as weakness at work. After much discussion, however, he requested a two-month medical leave. Once he was home, he and Charlene started going for daily walks together and eating healthier than they had before. With some guidance from his wife, Gordon discovered that he enjoyed cooking. Charlene even got him to take up meditation, after she read that it could help lower blood pressure.

Ultimately, though, Gordon had to take charge of his own well-being — for everyone's sake. That would mean learning to say no to his boss and his clients when the demands of work threatened to overwhelm other aspects of his life. I urged him to leave the office in time for dinner at least a few nights every week and to set his iPhone to respond with an out-of-office message on weekends.

Working a little less might require accepting a cut in income. So I encouraged them both to reexamine their relationship with money. I pointed out that going to restaurants less often would be better for their wallets as well as their health. Charlene had always shopped at expensive department stores because it made her feel rich and successful, but I suggested she try waiting for big sales or hitting discount stores. She discovered that finding a good bargain gave her a similar sense of success. Then there were the cars. Eventually they decided to trade in one of their big gas-guzzlers for a Prius. They also looked into cheaper ways to have a great vacation. Next summer they're going to Canada using a home-exchange website that lets you swap houses with other travelers.

For now they've decided to put their goal of buying a house on the back burner. Instead, they're hatching a plan to go into business together, giving legal advice to start-up companies in exchange for a stake in the profits. And they're reframing their idea of what success means. Their new definition has to do with lowering their stress levels, staying healthy, and rekindling their closeness as a couple and a family. They've come to understand that the labels they wear have nothing to do with their value as people.

It's been six months since Gordon's heart attack and he and Charlene now both see that crisis as a blessing in disguise. At our last session Gordon told me, "I feel like I've got a real partner now, like Charlene really has my back." And Charlene added, "This was a horrible, traumatic experience, but I know the work we've done because of this crisis has made our marriage stronger."

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.

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