"I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I'm jealous of Amanda, Kevin's 8-year-old daughter from his first marriage. It's not that I don't love her. She's a delightful girl. And we've become quite close.
"The issue isn't Amanda; it's Kevin. Amanda spends every other weekend and Wednesdays at our house, and he's a totally different person when she's around. Instead of being affectionate, he ignores me. I know he's thinking, 'I'm a parent now, not a husband.' But why can't he be both?
"One weekend at the children's museum, Amanda and I were standing in front of an exhibit about volcanoes. It made a loud, scary noise, and she started to cry. I was comforting her and the next thing I knew, Kevin swooped in and practically knocked me down as he scooped her up in his arms. Also, if we go to a diner, he always sits on the side of the booth next to Amanda, not me.
"It's not just with his daughter that I feel unimportant. When Joan, his ex-wife, says she needs to switch visiting days at the last minute, he always says, 'No problem.' It happened on my birthday. We had made reservations at a country inn for the weekend; it was going to be our first weekend alone in a long while. Once again, Joan asked if we could take Amanda and again, Kevin caved.
"And last Sunday, his mother called to ask him to put together her new TV table. His parents are divorced — his dad doesn't even try to be polite to me; he's just awful — so she often calls for help with the house. Kevin had promised that we'd spend the day relaxing together. I heard him say on the phone, 'I'll have to check with Ellie.' That sets me up as the bad guy! Of course, he ended up going over to his mother's house. I was livid. I'm tired of feeling like a second-class citizen. That's how I've felt my whole life.
"I grew up in a suburb of Boston. I was an only child and fairly shy. I was close to my mother, a homemaker, and though I adored my father, a lawyer, he kept his distance from Mom and me. My mother used to get angry with him and stay angry for days, but I never actually saw them fight. I was shocked when, at age 15, Dad told me they were getting divorced. I blamed Mom for pushing him away. When Dad remarried, I went to live with him.
"Those were the years from hell. I was never a priority. My stepmother hated me and turned my dad against me so he'd focus on her and her own son. My real mom and I seldom spoke. I felt completely abandoned. Dad didn't care if I went to college, so after high school, I moved into my own place and found a job nearby. Eventually, I reconciled with Mom. But I haven't spoken to Dad in 20 years.
"I met Kevin via a personal ad online. We agreed to meet for a drink, and we just clicked. He was so sweet and seemed so sensitive, I couldn't help falling in love.
"Now we bicker constantly. I don't know why I get so angry. Maybe because I'm tired of catering to him and his family. And I don't appreciate being told that I'm selfish when I try to talk about my own feelings or problems. Recently, I was promoted at work, but that meant moving to another division where I know no one. I was upset about it, and when I told Kevin, all he could say was, 'You shouldn't be upset. You got a better job.' That's not the point.
"Kevin suggested we come for counseling, and I finally agreed. I don't expect to be first on his list all the time, but I hate always being last.
"I can't understand why Ellie is so angry and feels so neglected. Amanda is my daughter; she has to come first. Maybe it doesn't seem fair, but Amanda is 8 and Ellie is 30 years older. She should be able to handle it.
"I think Ellie's attitude is unfair. She takes offense at the kinds of things no one else pays attention to. I think we're having a nice dinner, only to discover I've committed a major offense, such as sitting down next to my daughter in the restaurant booth. Having been a single parent, I was used to being the only person responsible for Amanda's safety in a crowd or in traffic. I'm not purposely excluding my wife; it's just my instinct to comfort my child, like when she was crying at the children's museum. I didn't think about anyone else at that moment.
"Sometimes, I feel that I'm being pulled in ten directions. I've tried hard to maintain a good relationship with my ex-wife for Amanda's sake. I don't spend enough time with Amanda, and I feel guilty about it. I don't see it as a hardship to take her two weekends in a row, even at the last minute.
"Ellie depends on me for everything — it's a burden. If I ever tell her that I want to do something extra for me — maybe go play pool with a friend — she makes me feel like I'm abandoning her. As far as my parents are concerned, look, they're difficult people. Dad worked two, sometimes three jobs in various factories. Mom stayed home. They never got along and finally divorced when I was in junior high school. Dad lives in North Carolina now, so we don't see him all that much. But he's an ornery guy. I've explained to Ellie that she shouldn't take his lousy moods personally. My mother has always been demanding and pushy, expecting me to drop everything and do what she says. She's got a big mouth, and no tact. Ellie has to learn to let her comments roll off her back. I did.
"I met my first wife when I was in my company's management trainee program. When we found out she was pregnant, we got married. But other than Amanda, we really didn't have very much in common. It's different with Ellie. I thought she was adorable when I first saw her picture in the personal ad. We share many of the same values and we hit it off immediately. Although we dated only a few months before marrying, we were old enough to know that we'd found a good thing.
"But Ellie today is nothing like the Ellie I first met. Now she's sullen and critical. Anytime anything goes wrong, it's my fault. It's hard to explain, but she has this pessimistic attitude, almost as if she's expecting me to ignore her or expecting something to go wrong. For instance, she's taken a new job, and I know she's lonely — I keep encouraging her to be more outgoing, ask someone to go out for lunch — but she's hesitant. I give perfectly good advice, but she doesn't take it and then she gets mad at me for trying. I can't win.
"I'm doing my best. I love Ellie very much. How can I make her believe that so we can calm down and stop fighting?"
The Counselor's Turn
"Ellie and Kevin lacked basic communication and conflict-resolution skills, as well as an understanding of their own feelings and actions, which would have enabled them to defuse their constant bickering.
"Ellie didn't have the confidence to say what she was feeling. She was afraid that if she did, her husband might abandon her emotionally like her father had. Instead, she expected Kevin to intuit what she wanted, and she stewed and distanced herself when he didn't. What's more, the deep feelings of rejection stemming from her adored father's rejection had shattered her sense of self as a loveable, even likeable, person. Convinced that she was unworthy, Ellie felt vulnerable and always expected the worst to befall her. Confronted by critical in-laws, who were nasty and offensive to everyone, she assumed that their judgment of her was correct.
"My first goal was to explain how Ellie's jealousy of Amanda stemmed from anger at her father's treatment of her. I pointed out that as children, we all face difficult times, and we form impressions of ourselves based on those experiences. No one helped Ellie buffer the pain of her father's rejection, so she bottled it up inside. When Kevin appeared to put his daughter's, mother's or ex-wife's interests ahead of hers, it pushed all her abandonment buttons and the old pain came roaring back.
"Simply making this connection for Ellie was a revelation. Discussing it provided the clarity she needed to put her insecurity into perspective and help her feel emotionally what she'd known intellectually — that Kevin's ties to other people in his life don't diminish his love for her. In counseling, Ellie also began to identify the specific behaviors that upset her, so that she and Kevin could devise ways to handle them in a less hurtful way. I explained that being attentive to Amanda didn't mean he had to ignore Ellie, and pointed out that the small gestures — sitting next to her, speaking in a loving tone of voice — said volumes. The couple also agreed that Kevin would spend some time alone with Amanda, so that he didn't feel he had to entertain or worry about both of them at the same time.
"Writing a 'feeling letter' to her father also helped Ellie ease some of the old hurts. In this letter, she outlined the sadness and fear he had caused her, as well as some of the positive things he had done. This is a personal healing exercise, not a letter to be mailed. But it's a powerful tool to help you get in touch with emotions you may not be aware of. It can also be the first step toward reconciliation with her father, if that is something she chooses to do down the road.
"Kevin was unaware of how his words and actions affected Ellie. We discussed the importance of his setting limits for his mother and ex-wife and finding the confidence to say no to them without the safety net of saying he had to 'consult' his wife. Kevin was so unused to doing this that I had to tell him exactly what to say in the beginning. In session, he and Ellie discussed how a more consistent custody schedule would benefit their relationship, and the next day, Kevin told his ex-wife: 'If it's an emergency, there's no question that I'll juggle things. But not having a baby-sitter for a Saturday night party is not an emergency.'
"At the same time, Kevin learned to set legitimate boundaries with Ellie. He had correctly pointed out that she expected him to be there for her all the time and to fill all her emotional needs — an impossible task even in the best marriages. Without discounting her feelings, Kevin learned to listen empathetically when she spoke about her friendships at work. In turn, Ellie has felt more comfortable with herself and less shy. She has since started making friends in and outside of work.
"This couple ended counseling after eight months, happier and more in sync emotionally than ever before."
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most popular, most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. 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. Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, January 2003.