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"His Ex is Ruining Our Marriage"

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

Elizabeth: 41, at-home mom
Kevin: 44, economist
Married: 4 years
Children: Jack, 2, plus Annabelle, 13, and Liza, 11, from Kevin's previous marriage

The Counselor

Judith Owens, Somerdale, New Jersey

The Background

Elizabeth and Kevin moved around the corner from Kevin's ex-wife to make life easier on the kids. It is helping the children — but it's killing their marriage.

Elizabeth: Kevin and I were doing great the first three years of our marriage. Then we moved to another state to be closer to Kevin's ex-wife, Cathy, so that my stepdaughters wouldn't have a two-hour commute from her house to ours every weekend. We were also deeply concerned about the girls because of Cathy's explosive temper and erratic behavior. We figured if we moved, Kevin could be more involved with his kids, adding some stability to their lives. We literally bought a house around the corner so that 2-year-old Jack would be able to grow up with his sisters.

The move made sense to me — it was the right thing for Kevin and the girls, and, logistically, it would make our life easier. I knew that dealing with his ex would be a challenge. But it's much harder than I expected. Cathy's crazy, and Kevin won't stand up to her. He lets her push him around and refuses to discipline his daughters, too — I'm always the bad guy. I'm exhausted and we're fighting constantly.

Kevin: Look, I'm seriously worried about my daughters. My ex-wife is nuts and refuses to see a therapist. Annabelle and Liza live with chaos. Cathy curses in front of them, calls them names, and tells them that I don't really want them. If Elizabeth and I are two minutes late to pick them up, Cathy screams that she's going to take me to court.

Elizabeth: I feel terrible that Kevin has to deal with this but the truth is, Cathy's not just screwing up their daughters, she's ruining our married life, too. We fight constantly about how to handle her. I'm furious that Kevin always wimps out when he really needs to stand up to her — and to his daughters for that matter. He tells CEOs of companies what to do but he's afraid the girls will be mad if he disciplines them.

Kevin: I'm a wimp, seriously? For trying to protect my kids? Annabelle and Liza need a peaceful place to escape to and I want them to feel comfortable in our home. Maybe I'm a little easy on them, but I think that's reasonable, considering what they go through with their mom. Meanwhile, speaking of peacefulness, our home has gotten to be like a war zone. My wife is always picking fights. I feel like I should tape our conversations because Elizabeth apparently has no idea how insulting she is. She barely gives me a chance to finish a thought before interrupting. When she gets going, her voice gets louder and louder until she's yelling — and she calls me horrible names. My dad was like that and my ex-wife is like that. I've had enough of it. It's starting to feel like I got out of one bad marriage only to get into another one.

Elizabeth: Of course I get upset! I had no idea that our lives would turn out this way. When we moved here I assumed we'd both be taking care of the girls, not just me. But Kevin travels so much that I feel like a single mom. I used to see Annabelle and Liza only on weekends. Now, since Cathy works full-time and I'm home with our son, they come here after school as well as every other weekend. When did that become the plan? I take them to and from after-school activities and supervise homework. On the nights they sleep over, I make sure the lights are out at a reasonable hour. I'm happy to help provide a more stable life for them, but they treat me like a cross between their maid and a prison matron. I have to force them to do basic chores like make their beds and put dishes in the dishwasher. Then they complain to Kevin about how mean I am — and he doesn't back me up.

Kevin: I'm exhausted. My hours are long, I'm on the road several days a week, and I feel guilty about getting divorced and screwing up my kids' lives. So, yes, I want everyone to get along. Elizabeth needs to lighten up. I feel like she's way too rigid with the girls. The smallest things, like dishes in the sink, annoy her. They're good kids going through a hard time. If they get to bed an hour late, so what?

Elizabeth: He's making me sound like an evil stepmother. I've always tried to show Annabelle and Liza how much I love them. It was my idea to skip a honeymoon and spend the week doing fun things with them. But kids need rules and they need to act respectfully. Kevin's oblivious to his daughters' back talk and eye rolls. We were driving to the movies the other night and when I asked Annabelle a question, she responded rudely. I glanced at Kevin but he didn't say a thing. And he never tells Cathy that it's unacceptable for her to call us constantly. One night we were having sex, and next thing I knew Cathy was pounding on the front door, demanding to talk about some parenting issue. He actually went downstairs and spoke to her! Afterward he didn't say a word about how inappropriate the whole thing was.

Kevin: What am I supposed to do? Elizabeth knows that whenever I come down hard on Cathy she takes it out on the girls. Once she even canceled Liza's birthday party. I'm not a pushover but I pick my battles. She needs to stop calling me a loser and a wimp. Does she think I like being away from my family? My clients set the agenda. I can't cancel a meeting because my wife wants me home for dinner.

Elizabeth: I'm not criticizing him, I just asked a simple question: Could he manage to get home for dinner at least one evening a week? But he takes everything as criticism, immediately gets mad, and shuts down. That's why we can't have a sane conversation.

Kevin: We can't have a sane conversation because Elizabeth is always sarcastic and angry. She wasn't like this before. I love her, but I'd rather be alone than put up with this.

The Counselor: Between their major relocation and Kevin's ex-wife, who seems to suffer from some sort of mental illness, Elizabeth and Kevin faced all the usual challenges of a blended family and then some. Frustrated and out of solutions, they were blaming each other and getting stuck in repetitive arguments that just grew nastier and more heated. Kevin's concern for his daughters was so overwhelming that he hadn't realized how much parenting responsibility he'd put on his wife's shoulders. Elizabeth was understandably upset, but she didn't know how to express her feelings without criticizing him.

I wasn't surprised that these two lacked the skills to resolve serious disagreements. This was the first major issue that Elizabeth and Kevin encountered since they got married, so they hadn't developed problem-solving skills. They'd also been so wrapped up with their three kids they'd unwittingly given their marriage low priority. And although they spoke often, they weren't really communicating.

When couples become trapped in repetitive fights, it often means that the issue at hand is triggering old emotions. So, as I always do during the first few sessions, I asked them to talk about their lives growing up. Elizabeth said that her parents — both alcoholics — had been so preoccupied with their own lives that they didn't pay much attention to her and she never felt special or loved. I could see that Kevin's focus on his daughters and his work had made her feel similarly abandoned. Meanwhile, Kevin's dad was always yelling and criticizing. Nothing was ever good enough, so Kevin would simply shut down. It was clear that Elizabeth's argument style was pushing those same buttons.

We talked about how these old wounds were contributing to their present-day arguments, and then we examined their current issues. Elizabeth was indeed parenting practically alone, but without the authority to get anything done. And the more she tried to force Kevin to confront Cathy and his kids, the more he pulled away. The more he pulled away, the angrier she got.

I told Elizabeth that she should pay more attention to the tone of her voice and the words she uses, especially with someone who had lived with verbally abusive behavior as a child and in his first marriage. Instead of lashing out at Kevin's lax approach to discipline, Elizabeth learned to take a deep breath and remind herself: "This isn't about me. He loves me but he's having a hard time figuring out how to stay close to his girls." She also began to speak in a calmer voice and to apologize. "You're right," she said to Kevin during one session. "Instead of appreciating what you do, I pounce on you for what you don't do."

Kevin needed to make changes, too. While he hadn't meant to be disrespectful to Elizabeth, he had missed many opportunities to stand up to his kids and his ex-wife. The cumulative effect wore down Elizabeth's patience and she'd end up exploding in anger. As Elizabeth learned to react more calmly, Kevin was able to concede that as the biological parent, he had to play a greater role in disciplining the girls. Instead of tuning out during conversations, he started to pay attention and call the girls on rude behavior. He also created house rules and a chore reward system. "Does it work? Not always," said Kevin. "But it's definitely an improvement."

As the tension eased, we talked about ways that Kevin and Elizabeth could strengthen their relationship so they'd be a solid team in the face of Cathy's unpredictable behavior. They hired a babysitter to stay with their son one evening a week and, once a month, the sitter sleeps over so they can have a night away.

After three years of therapy their marriage is strong. "We've accepted that Cathy will never change," said Kevin. "Now we focus on the things we can control. There were weeks when I didn't think it could happen, but we started counseling as enemies and came out as loving partners. Pretty incredible."

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