Lani, 33, school administrator
Dave, 40, financial manager
Married: 3 years
Martin Novell, Los Angeles, California
Lani gave up her adventurous lifestyle to marry Dave, who prefers to stick to what's familiar. She agreed to start a family and even got excited about it. But fertility treatments aren't working and now their relationship is in crisis.
Lani: When I first met Dave he seemed totally not my type. I'd spent my 20s doing international development work in Asia and Africa and he hated to travel. I'd always dated tall, outdoorsy guys, and he was short and indoorsy. He wanted kids. To me they weren't a priority. But he was the nicest, most stable guy I'd ever met and that seemed more important than anything else.
Right after we got married he talked me into having a baby. We couldn't conceive naturally, so I had six rounds of fertility treatments with hormone shots and artificial insemination. The last dose of hormones almost killed me — my ovary ruptured and I had to have emergency surgery. Now I don't know if I want to try again. In fact, I'm questioning everything — including whether Dave and I should stay together. Since the treatments started we've been arguing a lot. Lately I can't help thinking this quest to have a kid is just about the only thing we have in common. What if it doesn't happen? And even if it does, is parenthood enough to hang a marriage on? I don't think so.
Dave: It's true that Lani and I are very different. She's a free spirit and I'm more conservative. But I've always thought of it as a matter of opposites attracting. And it's not fair to say I talked her into having a baby. We discussed the idea for months and once she was on board she got really excited about it. We also talked about adoption if we didn't conceive with the treatments, but now she seems dead-set against that idea.
Lani: Adoption wouldn't solve any of the problems I'm talking about. And it opens up a whole new set of complications that I don't feel we're ready to cope with right now.
Dave: Honestly, I think it's the stress of this whole process that's making her freak out, along with the hormones she's been taking. We used to have so much fun just doing ordinary stuff together — going shopping, hanging around the house. Now we can't say two words to each other without getting into a fight.
Lani: For the sake of this relationship I agreed to a whole bunch of things that were never in my life plan. Before Dave and I met I survived cervical cancer. I've had other health troubles, too — asthma, endocrine issues. I didn't think I'd be around forever, so I wanted to live as fully as I could. That's why traveling meant so much to me. When we got together I gave that up. We bought a house with extra bedrooms in a kid-friendly neighborhood and took out a big loan to remodel it. I found a desk job, 9 to 6, to help pay the mortgage. It's true that the fertility treatments made me moody but that's partly because they put us even deeper in debt. I feel like I've sacrificed a lifestyle I loved and chained myself to one that doesn't fit.
Dave: Lani agreed to all those changes — I don't know why she's suddenly blaming me. And she told me she didn't mind cutting back on the globe-trotting. What she wanted more than anything was to build a life together. That's what I thought we were doing!
Lani: Dave hates to travel so much that he won't even go away with me for the weekend. And we disagree about all kinds of other basic stuff, too. I love to have a houseful of friends and relatives, but Dave prefers it quiet. I'm a long-range planner but Dave doesn't like to be pinned down to a schedule. I'm very emotional but Dave plays things close to the vest. It's so hard for me to watch friends have babies — it makes me feel like a failure. But Dave doesn't want to hear about things like that, and he won't tell me how he's feeling. He just goes to work, comes home, and turns on the ball game.
Dave: I feel things deeply, too, but I don't show it the same way. I tend to compartmentalize, which is how I keep going when times are hard. And Lani's way of expressing her emotions isn't exactly easy to deal with. If I act too worried about her health problems, she yells at me for making her feel like an invalid. If I act too casual, she says I don't care about what she's going through. One day she tells me she's given up on starting a family, the next day she says maybe we should try again — and the day after that, she's talking about divorce. My role is to be the steady one, the problem solver, while she gets to blow off as much steam as she wants.
Lani: I wish Dave would blow off some steam! Instead he just pours everything into his job. He's always the first one at the office and the last one to leave. Sixty-hour workweeks are a great way to avoid dealing with what's going on at home. Yes, he's there for me to lean on — when he's around. He says he's the steady one? After he convinced me to move in with him he wouldn't commit to actually marrying me for two years. The guy is kind, sweet and considerate, but he's terrified of taking chances. That's why he won't travel, and that's why he won't talk to me about the things that really matter — like what's happening with us.
Dave: I admit I'm a cautious person. But I eventually did decide to take a chance on Lani, because I loved her. I still do. And I took a chance on having a baby with her, even though I knew it was a long shot with her medical history. I think she'd be a fantastic mother but if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. I can be happy without kids. What makes me miserable is knowing Lani feels stuck with me — and feeling like every argument we have could be our last.
The Counselor's Turn
Fertility problems can put incredible strain on a marriage. When a couple's vision of the future is called into doubt, they have to decide whether they can create an alternative future — which may mean confronting issues that they hadn't faced before. Every marriage contains a seed of doubt. The question is whether you can use it as a motivation to make things better. If you're scared of talking about it openly, you'll never find out.
So I encouraged Lani and Dave to consider their choices. First I asked Lani, "Can you imagine yourself without Dave? What would you be doing?" She said, "I'd definitely travel more. I'd find a job doing something more meaningful, even if it paid less. I'd rack up some interesting experiences." Then she paused for a moment, and I could see her husband hold his breath. "But Dave's my buddy," she went on. "Dave's my lover. We've been through a lot together. I don't want to have to choose between these things and Dave."
Dave looked incredibly relieved. Then I asked him, "Can you picture yourself without Lani?" He said, "Yes, I can. I'd move into an apartment. I'd find a job at a better-run company, where it didn't seem like everything would go to pieces if I worked less. I might even get married again. But I don't want to lose Lani."
That conversation really helped clear the air. For one thing, it established that Lani and Dave both wanted to work on the relationship. And once they acknowledged that they could survive without each other, it began to seem less dangerous to express their doubts honestly.
After that we started discussing more practical matters. First they simply needed to take a breather — to put off any decisions about further attempts at becoming parents until they'd had a chance to recover from all the emotional whiplash. Then they had to imagine the kind of life they wanted if they didn't have children. Over the next few sessions they put together their plan B: They could sell the big house and pay down their debts. That would free them both to look for jobs that better fit their needs, both as individuals and as a couple.
But they also needed to make some deeper changes. Dave came from an anxious family, one with an "us against the world" mentality. His parents were uncomfortable displaying strong emotions and fearful of unfamiliar places and people. To succeed as a couple, he and Lani had to create a new family culture — whether or not they had children. That meant Dave had to make a decision about travel: Would I rather stay home and be comfortable or work to grow our relationship? He had to make a similar choice about expressing his feelings: Would I rather avoid risking self-exposure or have a healthy marriage? And about entertaining at home: Is the pleasure of a quiet house worth the pain of a lonely and isolated spouse?
Lani came from a big, expressive family in which everyone made their opinions known and you were expected to have a thick skin. That had fostered her habit of directness. When Dave came home from work, she tended to just look up, give him a perfunctory hello and go back to whatever she was doing. If she had a mild asthma attack and Dave asked with concern if he should call a doctor, she often blew up at him. When her rapid emotional changes — intensified by the hormone injections — made him withdraw in confusion, she got angry with him instead of trying to draw him out.
As the months went on I worked with Dave on overcoming his inherited anxieties and with both of them on improving their communication skills. Each of them had to listen more, without withdrawing, in Dave's case, or lashing out, in Lani's. Lani had to remember to ask Dave about his day when he walked through the door. I asked her to write down at least one thing she liked about him daily and to review the entries frequently. To help Dave overcome his emotional reticence, I asked him to tell Lani what he liked about her at every opportunity.
I also helped Lani work out ways to avoid being rattled by other women's fertility successes. We made up a kind of mantra: This person's pregnancy has nothing to do with me. That simple statement, repeated faithfully, controlled her jealousy. Finally, we devised a ratings system for Lani's asthma attacks, so that Dave could just ask "what number?" to know whether and how to help without stepping on his wife's strong sense of autonomy.
By developing these new habits, Dave and Lani gradually began to regain their old closeness and trust. They recently took a vacation to Costa Rica, where they went snorkeling and ziplining. Dave told me the experience was phenomenal. Right now they're getting ready to try a type of in vitro fertilization that involves a shorter course of hormones and should be less disruptive to Lani's health. But however the procedure works out, they feel confident that they can handle it.
"We have our battle scars, but I think we're pretty solid now," Lani told me.
Dave agreed. "With or without a baby," he said.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2012.