"I think I've made the biggest mistake of my life," announced Sarah, 31, a vivacious brunette and an investment banker at a top Denver firm. "We've been married only two years and already we're living separate lives. What's so astonishing is that we dated for six years and lived together for two in Boston, and hardly had a single problem! I don't know what went wrong.
"We've become roommates, and not very compatible ones. Our sex life had always been great, but now we rarely make love. We hardly flirt or laugh anymore — and we don't talk much, either. One reason I fell in love with Josh is that he was a wonderful listener. Now, he doesn't care about my world at all. And to be honest, I'm not sure I care about his.
"It's gotten to the point where we're leading parallel lives. I go to my office, and then, if I'm not too exhausted, drag myself to the gym. He is studying to get his PhD in psychology. When I get home, Josh is either studying, at the gym, or out with his friends from school. Though we both love Denver, moving here and leaving my family and close friends has been tough for me. I work long hours and, unlike Josh, I haven't had a lot of time to meet new people.
"But maybe the worst part of all is our perpetual bickering. Whether we're arguing about something big, like buying a car, or small, like folding the laundry, we never resolve a thing. Take the towel dilemma. I appreciate that Josh does the laundry. But instead of folding the towels in thirds and putting them neatly in the linen closet, he just smooshes them in and slams the door. He knows it drives me crazy that he doesn't fold them, so why can't he simply do it?
"Recently, we had an awful fight over buying a second car. After we got a price from a dealer here, Josh suggested calling a friend of his dad's, who has a dealership in Tallahassee, Florida. He gave us a better deal, which I ran by the guy here, who matched it. But Josh said he felt obligated to buy from his father's friend, which made no sense to me since the car was in Florida! We both dug in our heels, and it was so unpleasant that after a week, I caved. I always feel forced to do what Josh wants.
"The irony is that my husband complains that I'm controlling! I would love it if Josh made some social plans. He'll agree he should, but he never does it. So I pick a restaurant for dinner, or rent a movie, and then he complains we're always doing what I want to do. I can't win!
"It never used to be this way. Josh and I both grew up near Boston. My father was a high-powered lawyer. My mother was a traditional homemaker, the kind who had a hot, four-course meal on the table no matter what time Dad got home. There wasn't a whole lot of fun in our family, and there was plenty of criticism: When I gained 20 pounds after my freshman year in college, Dad said, 'Your rear is as big as a barn door.' To this day, if I'm not wearing lipstick, my mother will point it out.
"I was expected to achieve and I did. I studied hard, played lacrosse and field hockey. After college, I returned to Boston for business school and met Josh through a mutual friend. There were instant sparks.
"We dated for six years before moving in together, which I saw as a step toward marriage. By this time, I was an associate at an investment bank and he was working with foster kids. Living together was easy. We had a two-bedroom condo and we shared expenses equally. Same with chores and errands. Miraculously, stuff got done with few arguments. I don't even remember if he folded the towels back then. But I do know we never fought about them.
"One thing that did upset me was that Josh kept putting off getting married. He kept saying he 'wasn't ready.' At one point, we even broke up for three months, and I moved back home. I think that made us miss each other even more, and finally he proposed. We happily made wedding plans while he applied to grad school and we figured out where we wanted to live. Denver seemed perfect: He was accepted to grad school there, and I was offered a wonderful job.
"But while Josh slipped effortlessly into his new life, things have been going downhill for me. If something doesn't change soon, I'm not sure I want to be married anymore."
"I love Sarah and I want this marriage to work," said Josh, 33, a soft-spoken man with dark hair and a modest demeanor. "But I'm worn down by the stress and tension at home. We seem to have different points of view on so many things and spend most of our time together disagreeing — not talking.
"Sarah says I don't keep the house neat. Well, she's neat to the point of being neurotic! Fold the towels in thirds? Line them up like bowling pins? Sorry, but I don't think that way. Same with the car. I bet she'll be mad at me about that for months, but I feel strongly that buying from my dad's friend was the right thing to do. So what if we waited a little longer to get it? What's the big deal?
"Sarah doesn't realize this about herself, but she can be very controlling and dramatic when things don't go her way. She's always grilling me about what I want to do or where I want to go. When I make a suggestion — say, 'Let's go to some art galleries' — she tells me, 'That's not specific enough.' Instead of arguing, I walk away. She's even critical in bed. I approach the bedroom terrified that I won't be able to make her happy. Lately, I don't want to make love, or even hug or kiss her.
"I don't know why we didn't have these problems when we were living together, but we didn't. If I wanted to go skating but she wanted to see a movie, it was no big deal. We just went our own ways. Nowadays, Sarah gets stressed out by so many things — cleaning the house, her work, whether we're having 'fun.' I always feel like I'm failing her.
"Maybe we're just not compatible. We certainly grew up in very different households. I was shocked when I met her family. They said mean things to each other, raised their voices, and hung up the phone on each other when they were mad. I've never hung up on anybody in my life! I'm the youngest of three. Mother is a homemaker and Dad is an economics professor, and we've always been a close-knit family.
"School was tough for me, though. In second grade I was diagnosed with dyslexia. I had to fight three times as hard as the other kids to do well, and I remember feeling frustrated and embarrassed about my learning issues. As a result, I put a lot of pressure on myself. My outlet was sports. Athletic competition made me feel competent, and I especially loved teaching other kids how to play.
"Because of my own problems, I knew I wanted to work with kids, and after graduation, I counseled foster children for two years until I decided to go for my PhD. Then I met Sarah and fell hard. She's beautiful, smart, and quick-witted with a contagious laugh. When we'd go to a party, Sarah would light up the room.
"But as I said, she can also be incredibly pushy and combative. The whole time we were living together, she made it clear she wanted to get married. But I wanted to do things on my own terms, not because she was making me do it. It's not that I didn't love her; I felt forced. When she moved out, I realized how much I wanted to marry her and that I'd better ask now. I was glad I did.
"I know the last few years have been harder on Sarah than on me. I wish I knew how to make her happy."
The Counselor's Turn
"When Sarah and Josh first came for counseling, they both were unhappy and depressed, even though they showed it differently," said the counselor. "Sarah was very open about her anger and hurt feelings while Josh was distant and less talkative. Each expressed surprise that, despite their trial run of living together, their marriage was in such a critical state. There is an essential psychological difference between living together and being married that many couples overlook. When you live together, each person feels freer to make independent decisions. This 'live-and-let-live' attitude doesn't require excellent decision-making and conflict-resolution skills. Marriage, on the other hand, does.
"That's where Sarah and Josh fell short. They lacked the ability to negotiate difficult terrain. Conversations quickly disintegrated into competitions, with both digging in their heels. As tension and bitterness escalated, their coping M.O. was to avoid each other. These two needed to develop a viable method of healing after an argument so that resentment didn't flood every aspect of their life together. As is often the case, many answers lay in their upbringing.
"Although Sarah resented her parents' criticism and rigid rules, she didn't realize how much she had acquired those same habits. If Josh failed to meet her expectations or did something that deviated from her planned script, she immediately believed that he was ignoring her feelings. Just as her parents presumed to know what was best for her, Sarah assumed that she knew what her husband was thinking and feeling better than he did — and didn't bother to ask otherwise.
"Josh compounded their problems by failing to speak up and tell Sarah how he felt. In fact, during the first few weeks of therapy, he allowed his wife's concerns to dominate our sessions. In Josh's family, no one yelled or criticized, and he simply never learned to deal with someone who did. He'd become so overwhelmed by Sarah's negativity that he'd begun to believe that something must be wrong with him. These feelings were reminiscent of his childhood, when his learning disabilities led him to feel incompetent. To protect himself, he ignored his wife inside and outside the bedroom.
"Sarah and Josh had to find ways to cooperate during arguments. One of my first goals was to help Sarah be more respectful of Josh's concerns. One way to do that, I explained, is by continuing to ask, 'What do you think? What are your concerns?' when approaching a decision or a task. This will allow Josh to feel that his opinion is being respected and that it's safe to respond. Expressing preferences instead of criticism helped them break their pattern of trying to one-up each other. At one point she said, 'I had no idea that my need to have things a certain way was hurtful. I'm sorry.' Hearing his wife acknowledge that was important to Josh.
"Sarah's changed attitude did much to lighten the atmosphere, but Josh's turning point came after I'd remarked that he often seemed as if he were more an observer to the conversation than a participant. 'Is that the way you feel?' I asked him. Josh thought about it and laughed. 'I think I've been waiting for Sarah to decide that this marriage is going to work. Well, enough already. I need to take a stand.'
"From then on, Josh was much more involved in the counseling process and upfront about his concerns. He suggested that they reserve one night a week to do something special together — and that they alternate who plans the evening. Sarah was delighted, and now they set aside a time each week for dinner, a movie, or a drive to the mountains, and both look forward to it. Sarah, in turn, has joined community organizations to make new friends and is much happier.
Once Josh and Sarah started laughing and enjoying each other's company again, their positive feelings extended to their sexual life. I encouraged them each to start focusing on what pleased them individually, instead of worrying so much about their partner. This took the pressure off Josh, and Sarah found the newly assertive Josh extremely desirable.
"Sarah and Josh ended counseling after three months, confident that they knew how to avoid problems and to heal after disagreements. 'I still wish he'd fold the towels,' Sarah says, 'but if this is a concession I have to make for a happy marriage, I don't mind a bit.'"
"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 Marraige Be Saved?" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, May 2003.