"Our life is a complete disaster," said Carrie, 37, whose drawn face and despairing voice revealed her exhaustion. "Ryan and I scream at each other from morning till night — in front of Charlie and James, our 12-month-old twins, no less. Our tenth anniversary is in two months, but I certainly don't feel like celebrating. We're broke, Ryan's out of work and I'm trying to hold everything together.
"Until two years ago, Ryan was the chef in the private dining room of a large investment bank. He left that job to start a company that did catering and special-events planning for smaller brokerages and dot-coms. Together with my salary as a bed-and-bath store manager, we were doing very well. Our relationship was great — Ryan used to send me red roses on every anniversary — and after I became pregnant, the future looked even brighter.
"Then the economy took a nosedive. As businesses folded or cut back on luxuries like catered meals, Ryan's bookings dried up. That's when we discovered that his business partner had secretly stolen their clients and suppliers and launched his own catering company. I'd told Ryan from the beginning that I didn't like this guy — he'd always struck me as underhanded — but he refused to listen. Now we're in bankruptcy, and I don't know how we're going to feed our family.
"In the middle of this crisis, I went into labor. It was a difficult birth, and I had to stay in the hospital for three days. Ryan was so caught up with the crisis at work that he came by to see me only briefly before rushing back to the office.
"I had everything planned out: I was going to stay home full-time and really enjoy my sons. But, of course, I had to ditch that dream once Ryan's business went under. After my maternity leave, I did cut back on my hours at the store. Fortunately, I was able to keep my health benefits, which is how we can afford marriage counseling now. But I'm still miserable. Ryan keeps talking about starting up his business again, but that's nuts. He has to face facts and get a stable job, or else we'll stay broke and I'll never have enough time to spend with my sons.
"To be honest, I'm jealous of Ryan. I know he didn't choose to be an at-home dad, and that it's hard to juggle calls and job interviews with fixing bottles. But he's still the one who has time to play with the boys, and he's the one they run to when they scrape a knee. He certainly pays more attention to them than to me.
"I'm better with paperwork and numbers than Ryan, so I'm in charge of our bookkeeping. When I get home from the store, I have barely enough time to kiss the boys before spending all night in our upstairs office, filing bankruptcy and legal papers and talking to our creditors.
"We're fortunate to have a church-sponsored day-care center that charges us next to nothing, so the twins stay there a few hours a day to give Ryan more time for calls and interviews. But that's our only luxury. We scrounge every month to make the rent on our house, and we live on generic foods.
"Between my job, the bookkeeping and the kids, I am so stressed I can't think straight. And I'm resentful of Ryan for putting us in this mess. Why didn't he listen to me? We've incurred thousands of dollars in legal fees trying to sue his ex-partner and get back our money and clients. It's a nightmare. I think Ryan owes it to me to keep fighting this crook — it's not like he helps me with much else — but he wants to drop the suit. We've been arguing over this for months. Our home has become a carbon copy of the one I grew up in.
"My childhood was not happy. My parents ended their miserable marriage when I was five, and I never saw my father after that. Mom remarried a man who barely tolerated my three older brothers, but who saved all his anger for me — and he took it out with his fists. When I was 9, my mother sent me to live with my aunt a few blocks away. She might have been trying to protect me, but it felt more like I was being kicked out.
"I had a few very close friends, but I've never been good in social situations. I wasn't much of a student, either. I started working for the bed-and-bath store after high school and worked my way up to manager.
"In my mid-20s, I dated Ryan's best friend Jeremy for a while. The two of them couldn't be more different; Jeremy is totally unreliable and often inconsiderate. He'd stand me up at the last minute, leaving me waiting by the phone. I'd call Ryan's house to find out where he was, and Ryan would sympathize and talk with me for hours. He and I really bonded one day at Jeremy's family's barbecue, and we've been together ever since.
"We knew we wanted a big family, but we didn't start trying until five years ago. That's when we discovered that we both had fertility problems. It was so hard to watch family and friends become parents many times over when we couldn't. Finally, after three miscarriages and two failed in-vitro fertilization attempts, I became pregnant with the twins.
"But as much as I love my kids, I don't know if I want to stay married. I'm not even sure I love Ryan anymore. I can't tell you the last time he held me or did something nice for me. Our relationship has become as empty as our bank account."
"If we'd waited one more month to come for marriage counseling, I don't think there'd be a marriage," said 37-year-old Ryan, glumly.
"Why did Carrie marry me if she's so unhappy with the kind of man I am? She knew I wasn't a nine-to-five person. We'd discussed the fact that having my own business was going to involve a lot of financial ups and downs. I feel enough guilt about going bankrupt and enough responsibility for supporting this family; I don't need my wife hammering into my head how stupid I am.
"I really did trust my partner; I couldn't believe he could be such a rat. Yes, Carrie was right about him, but what am I supposed to do about it — kick myself forever? I'd rather just forget this expensive, messy lawsuit and move on. I learned a hard lesson, but now it's time to look for the next opportunity. My days are spent making phone calls to find another job or see if I can get some financial backing to relaunch my business. But in this economy, who knows when things will get better? Carrie's yelling at me isn't going to make it happen any faster.
"Actually, we're both yelling at the top of our lungs; that's how much Carrie provokes me. I used to try to ignore her, but now I just scream right back. That really bothers me, because I swore I'd never be like my mother. I grew up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood of Hartford, Connecticut, with four younger siblings. Though my mom is sober now, she drank a lot when I was young, and she could be belligerent. When she was too drunk to cook dinner, I did. You could say that was my first on-the-job experience!
"If I have one regret, it's that I never went to college; with my dad working three jobs, they couldn't afford to send me. At 12, I washed dishes in restaurants after school and on holidays; at 15, I was working on the food preparation line. I learned recipes as I went along and showed how dedicated I could be. Eventually, I became head chef in the dining room of a brokerage firm, and one of the firm's top clients suggested I start a business with him.
"Maybe our marriage wouldn't be so shaky if Carrie and I hadn't become parents just as the business went bad. If we'd had any idea it would take five years to get pregnant, we would have started sooner.
"I've always tried to show Carrie how much I cared about her. When the boys were born, I was crazed with worry about the bankruptcy, rushing back and forth from our home office to the hospital. And now I'm trying to be a good husband and dad. What else can I do to prove that I love my wife?
"In the beginning, Carrie and I were really good together: We both liked our jobs, enjoyed the same activities. We could always talk to each other. I wish we could get back to the way we were before everything fell apart."
The Counselor's Turn
"A financial crisis can rip the bottom out of the best marriage. Though Carrie and Ryan had a strong relationship before they lost the catering business, they were truly struggling now.
"Their reaction was common for many couples facing money problems. On some level, even women with good jobs often like to know their husbands can support them, and feel abandoned when they can't; in turn, many men feel inadequate if they're not bringing in a paycheck.
"During each session, I reminded Ryan and Carrie of their strengths — a history of good communication, a once-lusty sex life, mutual support during their infertility crisis — so they wouldn't give up hope on themselves or their marriage.
"The breaking point for Carrie and Ryan had come right after their sons were born. Parenting twins was hard enough; doing it after a job loss was ten times as stressful. Pouring every ounce of patience and energy into supporting his family, Ryan squeezed out what was necessary for his children, but that left little or nothing for his wife. He was deeply upset to learn that Carrie viewed him as unloving.
"Carrie's reaction to their situation wasn't unusual, considering her childhood. Literally abandoned by a mother who chose her stepfather and brothers over her, she felt unimportant and unworthy of love — feelings that deepened after her sons were born and Ryan seemed to be giving all his attention to them. Feeling betrayed by her husband and panicked at their money woes, she lashed out and held on to her bitterness.
"I told her: 'Your resentment is a way of gaining some power over your situation. Letting go of that grudge may make you feel more vulnerable, but it's the only way to bridge the distance between you and Ryan.' I suggested that she think about what she was most afraid of, and then pick a quiet time to talk to Ryan about it.
"I also made Carrie allot a specific amount of time — say, 30 minutes once a week — for worrying about anything she liked. Once the time was up, she had to stop until the next 'worry break.' Gradually Carrie became able to break the cycle of resentment and fear. As she did so, it was also easier for her to stop herself before rushing to criticize her husband.
"Ryan, by nature an optimist who rolled with life's punches, found it hard to stay calm when Carrie yelled insults at him; it was too reminiscent of his mother's drunken outbursts. I worked with him to recognize when and how he could draw the line. During those times when Carrie does resort to criticism, he's learned to say, 'Don't speak to me like that,' and to walk out of the room rather than get into a screaming match.
"Carrie and Ryan also needed to accept and empathize with each other — to feel what their partner felt, and see what they saw — as well as to focus on each other's positive attributes rather than dwelling on the negatives. 'You can't reach these goals if you don't make time for each other,' I said. 'You must plan time to be together, at least once a week.'
"I also stressed the importance of time alone to recharge their emotional batteries. Even a walk around the block before entering the house after a long day would make a big difference.
"To help Ryan respond with more TLC to Carrie, I had them both write down all the things they wanted the other to do for them. Carrie's list said: 'Hold me when I'm anxious; watch my favorite sitcom with me; master the computer's accounting program so you can do some of the bookkeeping.' All Ryan needed was a specific assignment and it was as good as done.
"Carrie also began to give herself permission to ask for help from Ryan or her friends when she needed it; simply having one or two errands removed from her list took the pressure off. Their former baby-sitter, who always adored the boys, was more than willing to offer her services free of charge once in a while so Carrie could go off alone or with Ryan.
"Carrie and Ryan stopped counseling after four months, though they still come to see me occasionally. They now focus on what they have rather than on what they lost. Recently, Ryan was hired as chef at a well-known restaurant, though he's still hoping to fund his own venture someday. Once their finances are more stable, Carrie will look into adjusting her work hours or quitting altogether to give her more time with the boys. And the two have finally decided to drop the suit against Ryan's ex-partner for the sake of their sanity and bank account.
"Meanwhile, they've been able to find joy in small pleasures, like flying kites at the beach. 'We're taking it day by day,' Carrie said. 'I think we were both so stressed, we couldn't hear each other. I know there are no quick fixes for anyone right now, but we'll make it. We have each other.'"
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews with clients and information from the files of Joyce Dolberg Rowe, M.Ed., a marital therapist with offices in Boston and Hull, Massachusetts. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.