"Bob is embarrassed to be seen with me," said Adrienne, 37. "A few weeks ago, we were getting ready to run errands. I was wearing an old blue jogging suit, and when Bob saw me, he snapped. 'You look like somebody's fat grandmother. Don't you have anything nicer?' I didn't have the energy to argue, so I changed into a sweater and jeans.
"In the two years since Bob became the head of his department at the advertising agency he works for, the gulf between us has widened. I know he thinks I'm not as pretty as the pencil-thin women in his office. Well, I gained twenty pounds with each of our two sons, and no amount of dieting will make it go away. Bob can't deal with it. When we have dinner with friends, he always makes a nasty remark about what I order. He'll even grab a cookie or doughnut out of my hand.
"I feel as if I'm in constant competition with Bob's female colleagues. They're cool, while I'm the dumpy suburban mom juggling orthodontist appointments and soccer matches. It's not that I want to be like them; I just don't understand why Bob thinks such superficial things are so important. He used to love me for me. Now he expects me to change into somebody else.
"Everyone in his office is quite close — too close, if you ask me. They're always hugging and air-kissing. The company encourages it by hosting picnics and parties, with no spouses invited. I don't think it's smart for Bob to be so chummy with his associates.
"I'm dying to know more about Bob's business, but he hardly ever tells me about it. One night, he was complaining about staffers making too many personal calls. When I tried to explain how we handled the issue at the office where I used to work, he just gave me a cold stare and walked away. I felt so alone — but that's nothing new to me.
"I grew up in a suburb of Cincinnati with my three younger brothers. To the outside world, we were the perfect family; in reality we were miserable. My parents fought constantly, and I became the pawn in their battles. Mother would do nothing for hours, then fly into a rage. She used to hit me — with anything she could grab — and tell me I was stupid, fat or totally incompetent.
"I met Bob during my sophomore year in high school. He was my first and only boyfriend, and the one person who really listened to me. We were the couple everyone knew would live happily ever after.
"Thanks to Bob, we carefully planned our lives. He's much more organized than I am, and I love the way he always knows what he wants and goes after it. I'm much more laid-back about things, whether it's the housework or choosing living-room furniture.
"I quit my copywriting job after Matt was born 10 years ago, and Tommy followed two years later. I adored them, but being a full-time mother wasn't as wonderful as I thought it would be. Those early years were exhausting, and I missed the energy of the office.
"The other thing I missed was the equality in our marriage. The minute I stopped working, Bob expected me to handle all the chores and child care. Now, if I dare ask him to pick up a quart of milk on the way home, he'll bellow, 'Why can't you remember to do that?' If I'm sick and can't make a school meeting, Bob won't take my place. His career comes first.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm drowning in housework, and unless I do everything precisely the way Bob wants it done, I'm a failure. He'll complain about the toys in the living room or that the countertops don't sparkle. He even expects me to drive downtown to pick up his paycheck and deposit it in the bank — even though they're a branch about six blocks from his office. He says that's part of 'my job.'
"I can't remember the last time we made love, and the closeness we used to have is gone. That was glaringly obvious last New Year's Eve. We always invite our extended family over, but this time, Bob insisted on including the people from his office. He spent the whole night with his co-workers and barely acknowledged the rest of us.
"After midnight, I was in the kitchen making coffee when I overheard voices in the next room — Bob was with Claudia, a married co-worker. He was saying, 'It feels so good to share my feelings with someone.' That was it. I confronted him right after the party. Bob swears he's not involved with Claudia, and I believe him, but it's still devastating to realize that my husband would rather confide in her than me.
"Bob insists that these are all my problems and my issues. Maybe they are. Or maybe we've both changed so much that there's no hope for us."
"I don't know what's gone so wrong with Adrienne and me," says Bob, 39, a tall, thin man. "She makes me sounds like the most horrible, abusive husband. Well, I'm hurt and angry, too. We used to be so close, and we hardly ever fought. I thought everything was perfect.
"I don't think I've changed. I think she has. Adrienne has gained a lot of weight, and yes, I care about what she looks like. Call me superficial, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit it. Maybe it's because of my job. There's an edge to the way the women at work dress, and I guess I'd like my wife to be a little more hip.
"But Adrienne's attitude bothers me more than her appearance. I don't talk to her about work because she dissects everything I say or do. Maybe I just want to have someone listen to me ramble, instead of telling me how much I screwed up and what I need to fix.
"I guess we had different ideas about how our life would work out. When Adrienne said she wanted to be with the kids, I assumed that meant she'd also handle things at home. As the sole breadwinner, I have to pour all my energies into my job. I work in a highly competitive field — I'm talking 60- or 70-hour weeks — and it's frustrating to get home late to a messy house, dinner that's half-cooked and a pouty wife.
"Don't misunderstand; I'm not a male chauvinist. I don't expect Adrienne to drop everything and get my slippers and pipe. But I do feel that if I'm busting my butt all day, she should be taking care of the details around the house. I want to be able to relax and enjoy her company when I'm home.
"I know I'm a perfectionist. I suppose that can be hard to live with, though it's a quality that serves me well at work: I push myself and everyone else to be their best. I get it from my mother, a housewife who would have put June Cleaver to shame. Our house was always immaculate — underwear ironed and folded, toys neatly stacked in color-coordinated bins in my bedroom.
"Actually, my childhood was the opposite of Adrienne's. My father, a lawyer, did have a drinking problem, but he wasn't abusive, and we were all very close, loving and supportive. I always loved art, and my parents and teachers nurtured my talent.
"I was smitten with Adrienne the moment I saw her. She was so cheerful, so kind, such a good listener. When I learned how awful her mother was, I wanted to swoop in and take her away. I knew that if we stuck together, we were unbeatable.
"Now I find out that Adrienne has been unhappy for a long time. I don't get it. I thought this was the life she wanted. She always said she planned to quit work when she had kids and be the kind of mother she never had herself. Of course, I wanted that, too, even thought it meant putting the financial burden on me.
"Instead of appreciating the work I do, Adrienne is negative about me and our life together. It scares me to see my wife turn into a shrew, like her mother. I think Adrienne looks for things to be upset about; sometimes she'll yell at me about an incident that I barely remember.
"I'm so confused. We had a life plan, and somewhere along the way we got lost."
The Counselor's Turn
"Bob and Adrienne's problems developed slowly," said the counselor. "Qualities and traits they once loved and admired in each other transformed over time into triggers for rage.
"Adrienne was hurt and brittle, convinced that Bob was ashamed of her. She wasn't especially happy with herself, either. Shy and tentative, she was afraid of making mistakes and acutely sensitive to criticism — not surprising, considering her painful childhood.
"Missing the stimulation of a workplace, she was desperate to connect with Bob the minute he got home — only to be crushed by his cold reaction. Naturally, she was hurt, but she tended to stifle her resentment and then burst out in a tantrum later.
"But Bob felt equally justified in his anger. They had established a 'life plan' early on, and Bob thought everything would be fine so long as they stuck to it. He didn't realize how hard it was for Adrienne to keep the house immaculate, stay in shape and care for two children. Because life in an alcoholic household can be unpredictable, Bob craved order and structure, which included having a spotless house.
"Adrienne was used to being a problem-solver, so she flooded her husband with suggestions and opinions when he brought up issues at work. Now, Adrienne listens for the emotion behind Bob's words and then asks appropriate questions.
"As the tension between them began to lift, the couple stopped criticizing each other. At one point, Bob said, 'Would I like it if Adrienne lost a few pounds? Sure. Does it matter? Not anymore.'
"We talked, too, about the balance of power in their relationship. Many of Bob's demands — such as making her cash his paycheck — went beyond what he could reasonably ask of her.
"For her part, Adrienne had to learn to say no nicely instead of bending to meet everyone's expectations and then resenting it. She now tells Bob what's bothering her, so they can come up with solutions together.
"They had an opportunity to test out their compromising skills recently. Adrienne enrolled in a Wednesday-night art class. When Bob's boss dumped a last-minute project on his desk late one Wednesday afternoon he assured Adrienne that he would find a baby-sitter. 'In the past, he would have told me: "This is your problem; you deal with it,"' she said. 'In fact, Bob now pitches in a lot more with everything.'
"Once Adrienne felt loved and appreciated again, her self-esteem rose. 'I'm eating right, and I've started losing weight,' she reported happily. 'Maybe I'll even throw out that old sweat suit — it is getting pretty ratty.'"
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most popular, most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews with clients and information from the files of Carol J. Dunham, M.A., L.S.W., a relationship and communications specialist with the Mars & Venus Counseling Center in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. The story told here is true, although names and other identifying details have been changed to conceal identities.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2000.