"After 20 years I finally told Ben I wanted a divorce," said Eve, 44, the mother of 19-year-old twin boys. "I can no longer live with a man who may blow up at any moment.
"Over the years Ben has grown more and more critical. If I make plans with friends or don't baby him enough when he's sick, he'll either lash out or sulk. We'll go out for a nice dinner and if his steak is overcooked he'll berate the waiter and ruin the whole evening. And if he's had too much to drink he gets sarcastic and nasty. He's never hurt me or the kids, but plenty of times he's stomped off to his workroom and thrown things around.
"Now, of course, he promises he'll change. He says he's stopped drinking, that he loves me and that he's heartsick about the way he's treated us. I've heard it all before. We've had more fresh starts than I can count.
"The boys can't understand why I've put up with him all these years. The answer is, simply, I loved him. There used to be a lot of goodness to Ben.
"I grew up in Boston as the youngest of five. Dad was boss and we were all afraid of him. He never physically abused us, but he was always cursing or flying into a rage. My mother was a stay-at-home mom who ran around saying things like, 'Your dad's coming home — you'd better clean up that mess!' If I was upset he'd say, 'Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about.' I resented both my parents but especially my mom because she never once stuck up for me.
"I was a good student, but no one encouraged me to go to college. So I got a job as a receptionist at the company where I'm now the head of human resources. Ben and I met at work when he came in to repair some equipment. We were only 22, so mainly we just had fun. But we really related to each other. We had similar backgrounds and knew a lot of the same people.
"After a year we moved in together, but I was wary about marriage. Ben was always pissed off about something. One morning while he was making breakfast the eggs stuck to the pan and burned. He opened the back door and simply threw the spatula and pan into the yard! That should've set off alarms, but I've always been good at rationalizing.
"Then I got pregnant. It was a total shock. We were excited about having a baby and decided to get married. When we found out it was two babies, Ben started drinking with friends after work. I kept hoping things would be better once the twins were born.
"And for a while they were. Ben changed diapers, helped with a relief bottle and, when the boys got older, played soccer with them in the backyard. But the negativity was still there, and it surfaced often. I'd always be racking my brains trying to figure out what I'd done this time to make him so mad.
"The boys suffered, too. They hated his constant screaming to keep the music down or put away their sports equipment. Zack tuned out but Kevin stood up to him. The explosions were not pretty. I'd come home from work and they'd roll their eyes and say, 'Stay away from Dad.' One day it dawned on me: The kids will be out of the house soon. I don't have to live like this, constantly anxious and worried that something is wrong with me.
"Telling Ben to leave is the hardest thing I've ever done. I didn't get married to get divorced, but I didn't get married to be miserable either."
"I've been an idiot," said a somber Ben, 44. "I love Eve and my sons and I don't want to lose them. I am so sorry I've treated her badly. I want to prove to them that I can change, that I can stop being angry all the time. Look, I've already quit drinking. But I don't think my drinking caused our problems. It just made everything worse.
"I know I'm quick to take offense. I go from zero to blastoff in a split second. Small things will go wrong — the TiVo doesn't record the NCAA championship or Zack locks his keys in the car — and I behave as if the world has ended. It's not as though I don't know what a jerk I am.
"I guess the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. My father was an alcoholic who spent most of his time in his recliner, steaming mad. My mother was always shushing me and my younger sister so we wouldn't disturb him. We never talked, never laughed, never did anything as a family. I don't have a single pleasant memory of childhood.
"When I was in high school my dad went into a serious depression. He was in and out of institutions for years. When I was 20 he committed suicide. That was a horrible, horrible time.
"My mechanical ability is the one positive quality I inherited from him. I'm good at what I do — Eve recognized it when we met. She was the first woman who took me seriously, who cared how I felt. I fell in love with her right away. Still, I was definitely not ready to be a father. And when we found out we were having twins I went into a tailspin. I was worried enough about supporting one child — but two? We've always made decent money, but I can't remember a day I haven't worried about it.
"As easy as it was to talk to Eve before we got married, it's a hell of a lot harder now. She shuts down. I've felt like her lowest priority for a long time. Everything else — the boys, her friends, her job — comes before me. When the kids were little I tried to be a hands-on dad, but Eve would tell me I was doing stuff wrong. I'd change their diapers and she'd sneak in and redo them. If I forgot to check if they'd brushed their teeth she'd be sure to let me know it.
"I was furious when Eve first mentioned divorce. Now I think it was the best thing that could have happened to me — and I hope to us. One day I was in a bookstore and I picked up a marriage book in the self-help section. I actually sat down and read it cover to cover. It made me realize I made a commitment to Eve 20 years ago that I haven't honored. I want to be a better husband, a better dad, if only it's not too late."
The Counselor's Turn
"Despite Eve's doubts that the marriage was salvageable, I felt certain it was," said the counselor. "Ben had already made two critical changes: He'd stopped self-medicating with alcohol and felt deep remorse at how hurtful his actions and words had been.
"Eve and Ben had the same problem: the inability to express emotions, thoughts, and needs effectively. Instead, they assumed the worst of each other, acting on those assumptions in an unhealthy way.
"Eve tiptoed around Ben, trying to heed his wishes while ignoring her own. She had to work on not only finding her voice but also using it. That's a tall order for someone who grew up in a home where no one paid much attention to her and whose mother subordinated herself to a demanding husband.
"Ben, too, had poor parental role models and was deeply affected by his upbringing and the trauma of his father's suicide. Beneath the anger was a boy who desperately needed attention and love. When Eve directed her attention elsewhere, he felt as rejected as he had as a child.
"I believed that Ben, like his father, suffered from depression, which, in men, often manifests itself as anger and irritability. I referred him to a doctor who prescribed an antidepressant to regulate his moods. And I outlined a plan aimed at identifying Eve's and Ben's real feelings and shoring up their self-esteem. Each carried a notebook in which they recorded every argument, describing the situation and feelings that triggered it, as well as any physical sensations it evoked.
"When Eve got that knot in her stomach, she'd pause and ask herself, 'Why am I feeling this way?' Once she'd figured out the reason, she would calmly say to Ben, "I don't like the way you're throwing your anger around. It frustrates and scares me. Please own up to this and stop putting me down.'
"With Ben, a tightening of the jaw was a sign that he was about to lose it. He trained himself to become alert to this sensation and to stop, breathe, and ask, 'What can I do differently?' He admitted that drinking muddied his thoughts. 'I'd miss the signals that I was stepping over the line and giving Eve and the boys a hard time,' he said. When a disagreement threatened to get out of hand, the couple would call a time-out until both calmed down.
"These strategies worked wonders. Once Eve was able to tell Ben her needs, the marriage felt more balanced. 'People treat friends and coworkers with more respect and courtesy than their own spouses,' Eve said. 'We were both guilty of that.'
"'But now we've learned compromise and kindness,' Ben said. 'We know we have each other's back.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2010.