"My husband and I have totally different concepts of marriage," said Megan, 41, a high school guidance counselor who has dark brown hair and freckles. "I want us to be as close as possible in every way, but Tom seems to prefer having a lot more distance between us."
"Over the past nine years of our marriage, Tom has created all these boundaries based on our different schedules and tastes. For example, I'm a big spender, and he's a saver, so he insists we keep our money in separate accounts, buy our own groceries, and split household bills. We sleep apart because my snoring keeps him awake. (I can't remember the last time we visited each other's bedrooms and made love.) We dine separately five nights a week because Tom likes to eat at 6 p.m., and I often don't get home from work until after 7 p.m. We have different tastes in TV programs, so he says it's logical for us to have our own sets. Since we chose not to have children, we don't even have any real family-related events to bring us together. All these boundaries make me feel like his roommate, not his wife!
"If that isn't upsetting enough, Tom is emotionally distant, too. He doesn't talk, no longer likes taking walks or playing cards — all things we enjoyed early in our marriage. If I complain about our unconventional lifestyle, Tom looks at me as if I'm crazy, mutters under his breath, and stomps around the house. Why can't he give me the closeness I deserve?
"Growing up, I wasn't close to my parents. My father, the stable, calm type, worked long hours as a bricklayer; my mother, a homemaker, had an explosive personality. She constantly hollered at my younger brother and me; she spanked us if our rooms were messy.
"Fourteen years ago, when I was working as an x-ray technician, I met Tom at a two-day education workshop (he's also an x-ray technician). Since we lived two hours apart, we dated only on weekends. I didn't mind the arrangement; it gave me space to do my own thing during the week. As a boyfriend, Tom was attentive and affectionate. His calm and logical demeanor appealed to me. Together, we enjoyed taking nature walks, visiting zoos, and going to the movies.
"Within a year, we were in love, but Tom said he wasn't in a hurry to get married. Then, four years into our relationship, when I suspected that he might be a confirmed bachelor, I asked him whether he envisioned us marrying. 'If not,' I said, 'I want to date other people.' Tom quickly replied, 'Then let's get married.'
"During our six-month engagement, he was enthusiastic about our life together. We were in sync on everything, including our mutual decision not to have kids. I was surprised that, shortly after the wedding, Tom started putting up boundaries between us — everything from separate bank accounts to separate bedrooms. I found the sleeping arrangement curious, because Tom never complained about my snoring when we shared a bed on the weekends, but then he didn't have to get up early for work. Reluctantly, I put up with his requests. For the first year or so that we were married, Tom and I had sex occasionally in one of our beds — and then one of us moved to the other bedroom to sleep.
"But then our sex life cooled off. When I asked Tom why, he said that I'd gained too much weight. I'd put on about 30 pounds; I didn't think it would be enough to affect his sex drive. I kept telling him that I craved more intimacy — to no avail.
"I coped with my loneliness by concentrating on my graduate studies (I had gone back to school to become a guidance counselor) and lavishing attention on our dog. Then, two years ago, after we moved into a new house, Tom distanced himself even more. He focused exclusively on the house, making chores his priority at night and on weekends. To make matters worse, Tom is now extremely defensive if I question him about anything, whether it's why he left his dirty dishes in the sink or why he installed the latch on the fence a certain way. He goes ballistic, cursing and yelling. I retreat, so nothing gets resolved.
"Recently, I decided to explore my own emotional issues in therapy, and asked Tom to join me. 'If you don't, that's fine,' I said. 'But unless our relationship improves, I'm filing for divorce. I can't live like this anymore.'"
"Megan is the most important person in the world to me," said Tom, 48, who is tall with sandy hair. "I admire her intelligence; I enjoy her high energy and dry humor. But I liked the weekends-only arrangement we had before we married; in fact, I could have just dated her for the rest of my life. I don't need intense daily emotional or physical intimacy with anyone — not even the woman I love.
"I didn't deliberately set up boundaries when we got married; they evolved naturally. Look, I'm not trying to hurt or change Megan. For example, I don't criticize her spending habits, but if we commingled our incomes, I'd feel compelled to monitor her spending, and I don't want to do that. I don't berate Megan for snoring, but since I'm a light sleeper, the best solution is separate bedrooms. It also doesn't bother me that we have different tastes in TV. Why do we have to do everything together?
"As for sex, Megan's drive always has been stronger than mine, but even so, my desire waned after she gained weight. I don't mean to be unkind, but I'm just not as attracted to Megan as I was when we were dating, and besides, sex isn't that important to me. I'd never ask her to diet for me. I don't want to control Megan; I accept her for who she is. But I don't want her to control me, either.
"I was the youngest of four. My father was a stern Marine sergeant; my mother was a doting housewife. I didn't have a close relationship with Dad, who dictated everything that we did as a family — where we vacationed, when we ate dinner, what we watched on TV. I got along better with Mom, who appreciated my humor.
"When I met Megan, I was instantly attracted to her. She was the smartest woman I'd ever met, and she made me laugh. I looked forward to our weekends together, but I still didn't see myself as the marrying kind. I was initially surprised when she gave me her marry-me ultimatum.
"Now, Megan drives me nuts trying to get me to share my feelings about our relationship. I'd be happy to talk about anything else — work, current events, pop culture. But I'd rather repair the plumbing than be lured into a touchy-feely discussion. Chores have become my priority, in part because they're an easy escape.
"Megan accuses me of being emotionally distant, but the truth is, I'm like that with everybody. I'm on good terms with my sisters and mother, but I don't feel the need to talk to them often. I don't have any close friends. I'm what you'd call a happy loner.
"Megan's complaints about my so-called 'boundaries' make me angry. I also hate that she questions me about everything I do around the house. Yes, I'm guilty of yelling, cursing, and giving her the silent treatment. My communication skills definitely need improvement. But the more she pushes me, the more I push back and the more unhappy we become.
"I know Megan wishes our marriage were more traditional, but I was surprised that she threatened divorce. Although I'm skeptical about couples counseling, I'm willing to try. I love Megan, and I can't imagine my life without her."
The Counselor Says
"This couple's problem is one that I call the 'universal law of marriage,'" the counselor said. "Often, traits that draw people to each other end up driving them crazy. During their courtship, Tom was more attentive to Megan than he is now, but he still exuded a certain distance that she found attractive. After all, Megan was content to stay in a long-distance relationship for four years. In their marriage, Tom has taken that distance to an extreme. Yes, Megan is entitled to have more closeness, but Tom's reasons for establishing some boundaries make sense.
"Despite their problems, I felt they were a good match. Megan and Tom are intellectually compatible; they have similar interests and life values; and they still love each other.
"First, I explored the link between their behaviors and the attitudes they developed from their parents. Megan wanted a rational and stable man — someone unlike her irrational and volatile mother; she craved a relationship that wasn't steeped in emotional turmoil. As for Tom, he was looking for a caring woman, but one who wouldn't try to run his life — someone unlike his controlling father. The problems you had in childhood with one or both parents can have a profound impact on whom you choose to marry. In fact, it's typical to try to find someone who doesn't remind you of the parent whose behavior brought you pain. Megan knew what she didn't like about her mother; Tom knew what he didn't like about his father. So both looked for a mate who wouldn't replicate the hurt they experienced as children.
"After examining their pasts, Megan and Tom became more tolerant of each other's viewpoints and behaviors. More important, they also were willing to compromise. Tom had been afraid that if he acquiesced to Megan on some things, she'd end up controlling everything in his life, as his father once did. I told him, 'Megan doesn't want to control you. She just wants more closeness — and that's reasonable.'
"As for Megan, she had to accept that Tom is a distancer by nature, and that he can't compromise on everything. For example, Tom wouldn't budge on combining their assets because of Megan's freewheeling spending. He also declined to share a bedroom until Megan was willing to do something about her snoring, which was likely exacerbated by her weight gain. 'If your husband makes a few changes, will that be enough to save your marriage?' I asked Megan.
"Ultimately, Megan decided she was willing to accept what Tom was willing to give. 'I'd rather have more emotional intimacy in our marriage than share a bank account,' she said.
"When it came to compromises, Tom agreed to have dinner with Megan on the weeknights she was able to come home by 6 p.m. He also agreed to watch a sitcom or drama of Megan's choice with her every night. And he began to walk the dog with her in the evening. This gives them the chance to discuss subjects of mutual interest, such as politics, movies, and music, which satisfies Megan's need for conversation. What's more, Tom agreed to accompany Megan to events at church, which improves their social life.
"Meanwhile, Megan is dieting so that she'll be more physically attractive to Tom; she's dropped 10 pounds, and Tom says that he is indeed more attracted to her. She is also investigating treatment options for her snoring; until then, they continue to sleep apart. As for sex, in therapy sessions they are addressing their sexual issues in an effort to improve their physical intimacy.
"Finally, I encouraged the couple to modify their communication styles. Megan needed to better articulate her needs. She was so afraid of conflict that she wouldn't ask Tom for what she wanted. Her style was to stew in silence — and then register a hit-and-run complaint, which would cause Tom to explode or shut down. Megan learned how to say, calmly and rationally — the tone Tom understands best — 'Such-and-such is important to me, and we must work through it.' Now that she speaks to Tom in a manner that he respects, he no longer dismisses her concerns, and he reacts more empathetically.
"By working hard in treatment, Megan and Tom's relationship has improved dramatically. 'I now see Tom's positive traits, and he's more fun to be around,' Megan said recently. Tom agreed, adding, 'We've both changed with therapy. Megan is less angry, more upbeat; I'm less rigid and much happier. We're rediscovering each other all over again.'"
This case is based on interviews with clients and information from the files of Stephen J. Betchen, DSW. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, April 2004.