"I'm so bored in my marriage," said Emily, 36, a fifth-grade teacher and mother of two — Lisa, 9, and Will, 6. "When Joe and I got married 15 years ago he was a great conversationalist with tons of interests, including photography, tennis, and movies. He was also attentive and romantic, surprising me with flowers and weekend getaways. Now he's so preoccupied with running his insurance agency and working on the yard that he has no time for hobbies — or for me. If I suggest that the two of us go out to eat or to a movie, Joe says he'd rather stay home with the kids. What's more, I shoulder all the parenting responsibilities. Joe's business lets him set his own hours, so couldn't he drive Lisa to ballet or Will to the dentist once in a while? Why must I always be the one who takes a personal day when they get sick?
"On the rare occasions we make love, we just go through the motions. Frankly, I don't find him sexy anymore: He's gained weight and wears outdated, ill-fitting clothes. He looks years older than he is.
"About a year ago I became friendly with a woman who came to our school to speak about art education. Deb's a painter and a free spirit who lives off a trust fund and travels all over the world. Just last week she showed me brochures for a rafting trip and a cruise she's planning to take. I got so envious! She has no kids and is separated from her second husband, so she can paint whenever the spirit moves her. The more time I spend with her, the more tied down and dejected I feel. After her divorce is final she's moving to Tucson to open an art gallery, and she's invited me to work for her. Separating from Joe and moving to Arizona sounds wild and irresponsible — and appealing, maybe because I've never done anything wild or irresponsible in my entire life.
"Joe was my first and only boyfriend. Sometimes, on my worst days, I wonder if I rushed into marriage at 21 to escape my parents, who were perfectionists with impossibly high standards. If I got a new haircut, they'd tell me it accentuated my chubby face. In fact, Dad was so critical of my size that I joined Weight Watchers at 16, only to be told by the program director that I was at most five pounds overweight! My younger brother, Tom, was their clear favorite. I was expected to do daily chores, but Mom still made Tom's bed when he was in high school.
"Joe and I met on a blind date set up by friends. I was a high school junior from the New Jersey suburbs; he was a college sophomore from New York City. I was instantly attracted to his good looks and by the fact that he was more mature than the boys I knew. Our conversation flowed easily, and when he kissed me good-night it was the best kiss of my life."
"Joe had all the traits I was looking for — kindness, intelligence, ambition — and we shared the same goals. I thought I'd found my soul mate. We dated through college and got married right after I graduated.
"Our newlywed years were happy and hectic. I taught elementary school here in New Jersey — a career I pursued at my parents' insistence, even though I'd wanted to study library science, while Joe sold insurance, hoping to run his own agency someday. We entertained, played tennis, and took road trips. On weekends we often attended crafts shows, since I made pottery and Joe liked photography.
"Back then our only argument was about my parents, who were — and are — very domineering. They insisted we celebrate every holiday with them and badgered us to have a baby, stop renting and buy a starter home. Joe said I was too dependent and wanted to limit our contact, but I could never stand up to them. I still can't.
"By the time Lisa was born, six years into our marriage, we'd bought a fixer-upper on an acre of land and Joe had started his own agency. Will came along three years later and we slipped into a totally child-and home-centered lifestyle, with our 'fun' limited to family outings. Joe is obsessed with his business and what he calls our 'property,' so every moment not devoted to his job is spent working on the house and lawn. I've begged him to hire a lawn service and contractors, but he refuses.
"So now we lead separate lives, connecting only at dinner with the kids. Every night after they're asleep I read in bed while he watches TV or works on his home-improvement projects. I'm so disappointed that I don't see any redeeming qualities in Joe or believe that he'll ever make me happy again.
"Last week, when I found myself calling Realtors to find out how much one-bedroom apartments rent for in Tucson, I realized I'd hit bottom. I know I'd enjoy working with Deb in the art gallery and I think I could live without Joe, but I love my kids too much to leave them. But neither would I want to yank them away from everything they've ever known. 'I'm miserable,' I told Joe. 'Join me in counseling, or I'm filing for divorce.'"
"So Emily thinks I have no redeeming qualities?" said Joe, 40, sighing. "That's a low blow. I may not be perfect, but I'm a loving husband, devoted father, and excellent provider. I guess that's not enough for her.
"It's true I've neglected my hobbies and I tend to talk about my business and family. But since when does Emily's happiness depend on whether I take photographs or play tennis? Besides, I could say the same about her: When was the last time she made pottery or discussed an interesting book?
"Emily can't accept that we're not footloose single people anymore. We have children to raise, careers to manage, and a house to run. We've achieved our goals, but Emily is infatuated with the freedom her friend Deb has. She's planted crazy ideas in Emily's head about the 'burdens' of marriage and motherhood. Deb's a bad influence, and as far as I'm concerned, she can't move to Arizona fast enough.
"For years now I've been walking on eggshells, fearful of Emily's bad temper and snide comments. We almost never make love; Emily has rejected me so many times I've stopped trying. She's perpetually annoyed with me. If I mow the lawn, she claims I'm more interested in it than her. She's so moody I would rather mow the lawn than be with her.
"I grew up in Queens, New York. My parents instilled strong work ethics in my sister and me, and I grew up helping my dad with home repairs. I take great pride in the way I look after our property today. And yes, I'm reluctant to pay somebody to do work I can do myself. But instead of appreciating my efforts, Emily makes nasty remarks.
"It's almost hard to believe now just how easy it was to fall in love with her. Emily was younger and more sheltered than the other girls I'd dated, but she was also more intelligent, witty, and refined. I liked her looks — she's a pretty blonde — and our personalities clicked. But her parents have always pushed her around, and that's been a much, much bigger problem than Emily admits. She wanted to become a librarian, but went into teaching to satisfy them. Her mother — the most egotistical, overbearing person I've ever met — phones eight times a day, shows up unannounced, and finds fault with everything. If Emily so much as forgets to send a cousin a birthday card, she hears about it from her mom. Emily's father is just as bad. He insists on being right and belabors every point until you give in to shut him up. I can't stand being around them, and have begged Emily to set limits. But even though she bad-mouths her parents to me, she refuses to do anything to change the situation.
"As for parenting, Emily is being unfair. Her workday ends at 3 p.m., when school is over, whereas that's my busiest time. I simply cannot scoot away from the office in the middle of the afternoon to chauffeur the kids around. When I'm not working I drive Lisa and Will to activities, help them with homework, and take them to the park. Why won't Emily give me credit for that?
"And this is the first I've heard that she hates my appearance. She's never commented on my weight or clothes before, though she did buy me some clothes that were way too trendy for me.
"Despite everything, I love my wife and can't bear the thought of losing her. I'm not mad at Emily for disliking me — I'm just heartbroken that she feels that way. I'll do my part to improve our relationship, but she needs to do her part, too, by improving her attitude."
The Counselor's Turn
"A common predicament among couples who seek counseling is that one or both feel dissatisfied with themselves, but project that dissatisfaction onto their partners," said the counselor. "In this case, the more I heard Emily complain about her husband's shortcomings, the more I became convinced that the root cause of their marital woes was her profound personal unhappiness — not Joe's behavior. To explain her misery, she had fixated on petty faults of Joe's, such as his expanded waistline and outdated wardrobe. I thought that if Emily felt better about herself, she would soften toward her husband and their marriage could be revived.
"First, we examined how Emily's childhood had shaped her behavior. After hearing her talk about her parents, I came to believe that both were narcissists — manipulative attention-seekers who never take responsibility for being wrong. Adult children of narcissists are often insecure and unhappy, having tried to please their parents only to fall short again and again. Emily was typical: She did whatever her parents asked, from becoming a teacher to sending birthday cards to every distant relative, but nothing was ever enough, and she ended up angry and critical. She had unrealistic expectations for herself, Joe, motherhood, and marriage, and when life did not match those expectations, she retreated into a state of perpetual disappointment.
"'Narcissists don't take responsibility for their actions,' I told her. 'Hence, they never change. So the sooner you put some distance between you and your parents, the sooner your healing can begin.' Emily began declining their invitations, screening phone calls, and changing the subject when they criticized her. Midway through the couple's counseling, Emily's parents retired and moved to North Carolina, easing the withdrawal process. 'I haven't cut them off,' Emily said, 'but now I fight back when they try to meddle.'
"Similarly, I believed that being around Deb, whose life Emily saw as exciting and enviable, contributed to her discontent. So I encouraged her to cool things off. This proved to be fairly easy, because Deb was busy finalizing her divorce and preparing for her move. By the time Deb left, Emily was no longer under her spell."
"Next, after hearing Emily voice her regret that she didn't become a librarian, I encouraged her to enroll in a certification program in library science. Soon after being certified she found a job as a middle school librarian, which gave her a professional satisfaction she'd never known. This in turn restored her optimism and enthusiasm for other activities.
"As for Joe, he too needed to regain his spark. While he genuinely enjoyed working on the house and yard, it was partly a way to avoid Emily. I persuaded him to hire a lawn service and, when needed, contractors. He also added two salespeople to his staff, allowing him to be more involved with childcare. By watching his diet and power-walking with Emily, he lost 20 pounds and bought some new clothes that they picked out together. These physical changes brightened both their moods.
"I also encouraged the couple to hire a babysitter twice a month so they could go out alone. 'We eat out, watch movies, and have leisurely conversations without interruption,' said Emily, 'just like when we were newlyweds.' As the pair drew closer emotionally, their sex life picked up accordingly. They also resumed their art projects and even sold some pottery and photographs at crafts fairs. 'Unloading some of our stress helped us be creative again,' said Joe.
"'I've fallen back in love with my husband,' marveled Emily. 'The young me was right: Joe is my soul mate.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2008.