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"He's Threatened by My Success"

Will egos get in the way of their 15-year union?

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Her Turn

“My husband won’t admit this, but he’s threatened by my success,” said Linda, 43, a healthcare consultant in the Philadelphia area who has been married for 15 years and has a 12-year-old daughter, Audrey. “Sure, he likes my six-figure income — it enables our family to have a good life — but his ego can’t take the fact that I’m the main breadwinner. Josh is a successful musician — he plays guitar and piano in several rock and classical groups, gives music lessons, and appears as a guest artist with classical ensembles around the country — but he doesn’t have a paycheck that matches mine.

“As far as I’m concerned, so what? I’m the one who encouraged him to get back into music after a detour in his dad’s plumbing business. Music is a highly competitive, low-paying field. Why can’t he see himself as I see him — successful? But he complains about his income and shows his resentment about mine by constantly bickering about our sex life and my parenting skills. I think our sex life is fine; he says I’m not adventurous enough. I think he’s too harsh with Audrey; he says I’m too lenient. For the past five years we’ve been caught in a cycle of argument and avoidance: Josh calls me a ‘control freak,’ I call him ‘childish,’ and then we give each other the silent treatment for hours. It’s wearing me down and, frankly, it does affect how I respond to him physically. He gets mad that I don’t want to cuddle on the couch, but who wants to be affectionate with someone you’re mad at? It upsets me that we’re setting such a bad example for our daughter, much as my own parents did for me.

“Growing up, I never lacked for creature comforts, but our family was not emotionally close, partly because my sisters are six and eight years older than I am and partly because I didn’t get along with my parents. Mom was judgmental and constantly berated Dad, who was a total doormat. I vowed I’d never be passive like him, so I fought back when Mom bad-mouthed my clothes, my hair, and everything I did.

“Josh and I met on a blind date. I was 28 and a hospital administrator on the fast track; he was 33 and working in his father’s plumbing business. I was instantly attracted to Josh — he’s tall and lean, with thick brown hair and blue eyes — but I also loved his sharp wit and personal warmth. That night we talked about everything from our work and our dream vacations to our favorite rock bands and art exhibits we’d recently seen. A good conversationalist, he asked intelligent questions and really listened to my answers.

“The next weekend he asked me to dinner, and our relationship took off. He was easy to fall in love with: He’s artistic and sensitive, qualities that set him apart from earlier boyfriends. After six months Josh proposed. We got married nine months later.

“After such a conflict-free courtship it was a shock that our early years of marriage were difficult. But neither of us had lived with anyone before, and we didn’t know how to adjust. Whenever we reached a stalemate — over money or time with our families — we argued to the bitter end rather than compromise. I slammed doors; he hurled silverware; we called each other names. It was painful to discover Josh’s negative personality traits; I’m sure he was equally horrified by mine.

“Eventually, though, we tamed our tempers and had fun again. We were ecstatic when Audrey was born, but her infancy coincided with Josh’s unhappiness at work. His daily battles with his father made him miserable, and I had a tough time tolerating his moods, especially when I was exhausted from working full-time and caring for a baby. The minute Josh said he missed being a musician, I urged him to quit his job and rebuild his music career.

“He hadn’t touched the piano in eight years, so he took some brushup lessons and got a job with a wedding band. We missed being together on weekends but knew this was the first step. Overall, Josh’s spirits brightened, and we got along great — except in the bedroom. My sex drive has just never been as high as his. I was content to make love a few times a month, but Josh wanted sex several times a week. If I wasn’t in the mood, he’d accuse me of being cold. Then we’d end up in a big fight.

“We coasted along for the next few years, but the underlying tension disheartened me. Josh slowly built his career but constantly complained that our society doesn’t value musicians, hence the pay discrepancy between them and businesspeople. Our marriage took a big hit five years ago when I virtually doubled my salary by joining a prestigious management-consulting firm. The greater my financial success, the more critical Josh was.

“As Audrey moved into adolescence, our parenting differences became more of a problem, too. We aren’t in sync as disciplinarians at all. If she’s fresh to Josh, he’ll revoke TV for a week, but when she begs him to change his mind, he does. I think a punishment should match the crime, but if I question Josh’s choices, he says I’m too easy on her. When he and Audrey bicker, they’re like two kids on a playground, yelling, whining, and rolling their eyes. I want Josh to be a grown-up — not take the low road.

“We really hit bottom on a recent flight to Seattle. I had enough frequent-flier miles for three tickets: two first-class and one coach. We decided that Audrey and I would sit in first class on the way out, and Josh and Audrey would be there on the way back. Halfway through the six-hour flight my husband stormed into first class and ordered Audrey to change seats with him. She refused, so he demanded that I go back to coach. ‘Audrey isn’t going anywhere, and neither am I,’ I said, reminding him of our deal. But Josh kept ranting, so I stomped back to coach. Upon arriving in Seattle, Josh disappeared and didn’t show up at the hotel until three hours later! That’s when he said that a wailing baby in coach (who slept the whole time I was there) had given him a pounding headache. ‘Why didn’t you say that in the first place?’ I demanded. ‘Why did you act so immature?’ Not surprisingly, the incident cast a pall over our vacation.

“When Josh isn’t criticizing me or acting like a child, he’s my favorite person on earth. Unfortunately, the good times are rarer and rarer. We never went out much at night — that’s when musicians work — but we no longer meet for romantic lunches, the way we used to. I’m really miserable. I still love him, but I don’t like him anymore — and that has to change or our marriage is doomed.”

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