"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."
"If Linda accuses me of resenting her success one more time, I'm going to scream," said Josh, 48, his voice rising in anger. "It's her mantra but it's simply not true. I don't begrudge my wife her big salary. I don't complain about her business travel. To Linda's credit, she's never pressured me to find a more lucrative occupation, and I'm grateful to her for encouraging me to return to music.
"Linda misreads as resentment what in fact is my own ambivalence about my career. I love making music, but I hate the low pay and instability of being a professional musician. In most fields income is linked to education and experience. It bugs me that I still don't earn enough to support us, even though I hold a master's degree and have been a professional musician for 30 years.
"I'm the youngest of three sons — one brother was 13 years older, the other nine years older. I felt hostility from them because my mother doted on me. My dad alternately ignored and criticized me. I felt like an outcast, with Mom as my lone ally.
"I started piano lessons at 7. I became proficient very quickly and by junior high took up the French horn and guitar. Setting my sights on a music career, I concentrated on the piano in college. After graduation I spent three years as a principal pianist with a regional symphony.
"I felt I needed more training, so at 25, I moved to New York, studied for three years with a renowned pianist, supported myself with gigs around town, and auditioned for a prestigious graduate program. By the time I finished my master's, at 30, I feared I'd never have a steady income. That's when I enrolled in vocational school to learn plumbing. I joined my father's company, where I earned a decent wage and had health benefits. But I hated working for my dad, whose habit of criticizing everything I did had not changed an iota.
"I knew I wanted to marry Linda almost from the first moment I met her. Not only is she an auburn-haired beauty with a megawatt smile but she is also intelligent, funny, and interesting. But she and I have different views of marriage, especially when it comes to sex and child rearing. I want an active sex life, with more variety. I also want her to initiate sex, which she has never done. Now she has become cold, which makes me sad. Would it kill her to cuddle on the couch while we watch a movie?
"As for parenting, Linda has to be right about everything. She's so determined to be Audrey's favorite that she gives her anything her heart desires and tolerates her smart mouth and disrespect. But I call Audrey on that stuff, which provokes an argument between us, which then puts me at odds with Linda, whose concept of discipline is different from mine. She either accuses me of acting like a child when I argue with Audrey or says I'm overreacting if I send Audrey to her room or cut off TV privileges.
"I admit I behaved badly on the flight to Seattle. Although I've repeatedly apologized, Linda reminds me of this incident every chance she gets. Why can't she let it go?
"I wish Linda and I communicated better. We established a bad pattern as newlyweds and unfortunately it has continued to this day. We're so angry that we never have interesting discussions anymore, and we've dropped our weekly lunch date. I still love Linda, in spite of our problems. I'd just like to get to the bottom of what's wrong between us."
The Counselor's Turn
"When I met this couple, I didn't believe, as Josh claimed, that their problems centered on sex and discipline of their daughter," the counselor said. "Instead, I felt they were engaged in an unconscious power struggle that was being played out in those areas. Josh didn't begrudge Linda her big paycheck, but he did long for greater professional success and didn't know how to achieve it.
"Still, hostile as they were, Linda and Josh loved each other and wanted to revive their marriage. I believed they could, provided they understood the source of their conflict and then changed their perspective and behavior.
"I encouraged them first to see how their families of origin shaped their attitudes. Growing up, Josh felt intimidated by a domineering father who either belittled or ignored him. As a result, he suffered from low self-esteem his whole life and in some ways never grew up. This lack of confidence prompted him to abandon music and join the family plumbing business for financial security. 'You were on the cusp of success after grad school, but you weren't emotionally prepared to go for it,' I told him. 'You gave up too soon and ran home to Daddy.'
"Given his past, Josh was probably hardwired to choose a spouse who could provide economic cover. Yet it was this capacity that drove him into a power struggle with his wife. It didn't matter that Linda enthusiastically supported his career, regardless of his earnings; Josh didn't measure up in his own eyes. He equated their salary imbalance with a power imbalance in their relationship, so to set matters right, he verbally attacked Linda in an area where he felt she didn't measure up — her sexual performance.
"Meanwhile, Linda was raised in an emotionally antiseptic environment by a hard-to-please mother and a remote father who passively accepted his wife's disparagement. Linda vowed to be powerful and independent — hence her tendency to be controlling. Having promised herself not to marry a meek man, she instead chose someone as hard to please and critical as her mother — in effect re-creating her childhood struggles in her marriage.
"Once Linda and Josh understood that his low self-esteem and her need to control were issues left over from their childhoods, they were able to accept their personality differences, which I helped them reframe as virtues. For instance, I pointed out that their personalities had dictated career choices that worked to their advantage. As I said to Josh, 'You could take a $75-a-night jazz gig and still live in comfort because your wife's desire for power worked to her financial advantage in the corporate world.' To Linda I pointed out that Josh's being a musician gave him a flexible schedule that allowed her to focus on her career and travel for business without worrying about childcare or the house.
"Next, to boost Josh's confidence and sense of personal power, I recommended he focus on raising his income. It was clear to me that Josh hadn't maxed out his earning potential as a freelance musician. Following my advice, he promoted himself more aggressively, and during the year the couple spent in counseling, he was hired to play for the city's opera company, doubled the number of students he taught at home, became a part-time instructor at a local college, and sold several articles to a music magazine.
"The more economically successful he became, the better he felt about himself. 'If you're doing what you love and making money at it, that's success,' he said in a breakthrough session. 'We live in such a money-oriented society that I never really believed that before. But now I do.'
"When it came to sex, I suggested that Linda might be more responsive if Josh changed tactics. 'Is this any way to woo your wife — by berating her as cold in bed?' I asked rhetorically. They both got the message. As Josh stopped his criticism, Linda's libido slowly reawakened. In addition, as Josh became more satisfied with his career, he was less preoccupied with sex. 'Josh's sex drive will probably always be stronger than mine, but we're more accepting of each other's needs now,' Linda said, 'and we're working on making sex better for both of us.'
"After a rocky early marriage Josh and Linda had learned to control their tempers, so I knew they could change their communication style if they wanted to. 'Don't scream, don't call names, don't give each other the silent treatment, and do not fight in front of Audrey,' I said. 'Children who witness this behavior often grow up to repeat it.' Once their communication improved, the couple felt more emotionally connected. Their lunch dates resumed.
"I pointed out that they used their daughter the way they'd used sex — as a pawn in a power struggle. She was caught in the middle — a psychological dynamic called 'triangulation.' The battle on the airplane was a perfect example. Audrey refused to switch seats with Josh, and this disrespectfulness tapped into his insecurities. Linda did not admonish Audrey, which perpetuated the triangle, and then Linda and Josh ended up fighting. 'You unconsciously sabotaged your own power by going after your daughter, and then you set up Linda to take her side and go after you,' I explained to Josh.
"When parents are split, it's common for the child to try to get away with as much as she can — and indeed Audrey was a moody preteen who was behaving like any adolescent would if 'triangulated.' I agreed with Linda that Josh needed to act more like an adult with his daughter and choose reasonable, enforceable punishments. Yet Josh was right to insist that Linda stop calling him childish and striving to be 'top parent' by being too lenient and spoiling Audrey.
"'By coming to Audrey's rescue you're positioning yourself for ongoing battles with Josh,' I told her. Once Josh stopped being verbally aggressive with Audrey, Linda was less quick to jump to her defense, which reduced their arguments. She stopped being so extravagant with Audrey and held the girl accountable for her behavior. The couple began determining appropriate punishments together and became a united disciplinary front.
"Linda and Josh were model clients in that both welcomed my insights and eagerly implemented my recommendations. By making the difficult, but necessary, adjustments in attitude and behavior, they rediscovered the bond that had brought them together so many years ago. 'I'm less controlling and critical,' Linda recently acknowledged, 'and because he's more successful, both artistically and financially, Josh is less argumentative. When I stopped calling him childish, he started acting like an adult. He's back to being the great guy I fell in love with.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2007.