Rhonda: 56, guidance counselor
Bill: 58, unemployed
Married: 34 years
Kids: Eric, 26; Jeannie, 24
Debra Castaldo, PhD, Midland Park, New Jersey
Rhonda and Bill were looking forward to their empty-nest years together — until Bill had a mini-stroke and had to stop working. Now he's depressed and distant and Rhonda's not sure how much longer she can cope with his neglect.
Rhonda: Bill's depressed. I get it. He lost his job and he's on disability — this isn't the way things were supposed to be. It's been really hard for both of us. But I'm starting to feel like I'm in this alone.
Bill: I don't think Rhonda can possibly understand what I'm going through. Nobody can. I was a firefighter for 18 years and then decided to switch careers at 40. I went back to school and got a degree in computers and worked as a systems analyst for 13 years. I was in line for a big promotion when the stroke completely changed my life. I never fully recovered from it and I started making mistakes and forgetting things at work, so I had to quit. I'm not just depressed. I'm angry. I know how lucky I am that I can walk and talk. But the brain damage is significant enough that I can't go back to my career, or really any job. I get tired and overwhelmed when I do too much, and my mind shuts down. What on earth am I supposed to do now? What's my purpose in life?
Rhonda: I know it's selfish, but I'm angry, too. Even though it's no one's fault, I'm so resentful that this has happened. I just didn't bank on having to take care of my husband at this age. Sometimes it feels like I've gone from his wife to his mother. I've desperately been trying to help him find more meaning in his life, but talking to him is like trying to talk to a brick wall. I ask him how he's feeling and he doesn't respond. Bill's always been the kind of guy who holds his emotions in, but it never bothered me before. Now I wish he'd open up to me but I don't know how to make him do that. I suggest new goals for his life, like volunteering, but he says he's not interested. I can't even get him off the couch to take a walk with me or go to the mall. It's like he's completely checked out of life and our marriage.
Bill: Rhonda always wants to help. That's what she does — she likes to control things, fix things, but she doesn't understand that she can't fix this. And what good will talking about it do? I'm mad because I lost my job and there's nothing I can do to get it back. I grew up with this image of what a husband and father is: a strong provider. That's what I've been to Rhonda and our kids for our entire marriage, but I'm not that man anymore.
Rhonda: Bill is an amazing father, and he's so strong — those are some of the things that I love about him. But it's true that he's not the man that I married. Bill used to be so romantic. Now, when I come out of the bathroom after my bubble bath in the evening with a sexy nightgown on, he doesn't even look at me. I even ask him to come over and cuddle, and I get no response. One night I just sat there with tears streaming down my face. I feel completely invisible.
Bill: I know I upset her. I know that I neglect her. But I'm really not doing it intentionally. I love Rhonda. There's just nothing I can do to ease her pain, because I don't even know how to make myself happy. I feel like a zombie sometimes. When she's at work, I take a lot of long drives and listen to music because it's the only time I can actually relax and take my mind off things. I'm so bored. I miss my career. I miss seeing people every day. And I don't feel like I'm doing my share at home.
Rhonda: Oh, the driving! I didn't really know that he was doing that for the longest time and then after a few months I noticed that we were missing a lot of money. Bill has always handled our finances and been very responsible, but suddenly he was spending money on ridiculous things — fast food, stuff at the mall, gas to drive all over the place — that added up to a lot over time. I realized I was that stupid woman who doesn't know what's going on with her own finances, because her husband's always been in charge. And then, once I found out about it, I realized that I was going to have to take control of our money. It was just one more thing that had changed and one more thing I didn't want to have to deal with.
Bill: I don't even know why I was buying things, except out of boredom. Or maybe it was to prove that I could. I mean, even though I'm not working I'm still bringing the same amount of money into the house through my pension and disability. I get why Rhonda wanted to take over the finances, but I don't like asking for money like a child when I want to do something. It makes me feel worse.
Rhonda: Then we're even. Because having a husband who doesn't even notice me or want to spend any time with me makes me feel horrible about myself. He doesn't know it, but I've started fantasizing about cheating. Just the idea of being with someone with no complications — someone who notices me and appreciates me — is so tempting. I feel guilty even thinking about it, but I do have this guy friend and we've gotten close to crossing the line. I never thought I would be that kind of person. And I'm still not sure I could cheat, but the feelings scare the hell out of me. I'm basically just doing everything I can to make it through each day. Work is a relief. On weekends I try to stay as busy as I can by going to the gym, shopping… basically, I'll do anything to get out of the house. I know I said for better or for worse, but I didn't know it would ever be this bad. I want my old Bill — and my old marriage — back, but it feels like it's gone for good.
The Counselor's Turn
Bill and Rhonda thought they had very modern, egalitarian ideas about marriage. But when Bill stopped working, both found themselves bumping up against more traditional expectations. In their early years Bill had been an equal partner in raising their kids, working at night and caring for them when Rhonda was at work during the day. He was also attentive, romantic, and made Rhonda feel desired. He was a strong, stable provider Rhonda could depend on.
But all that changed when Bill had the stroke and lost his job. Like many men, Bill's sense of self was intrinsically tied to his career and financial well-being. Losing them brought on a deep depression.
Although Rhonda had a successful career and she shared financial responsibilities in her marriage, she still held on to the traditional idea that she should be taken care of by a man. She never imagined that instead she would become Bill's caretaker — a role she resented. To make matters worse, Bill's depression shut down his sex drive, which ultimately affected Rhonda's self-esteem.
The first thing I did was to encourage Rhonda and Bill to mourn the loss of their dreams. I explained that the pattern of anger and resentment they'd been locked into was not only destructive but it was also distracting them from their true emotions. What they were both really feeling was grief, so they needed to work on that issue first. To improve their communication, they had to start by talking honestly about what they'd lost.
Then Bill needed to pull himself up out of his depression — and he needed to do it alone. Rhonda didn't realize that when she tried to fix things for him she only made him feel like a child. I asked her to hold back on giving Bill suggestions about how to overcome his depression and encouraged her to let him struggle with it on his own, knowing that he would feel better about himself if he was the one who found solutions.
Bill also began coming to see me alone. We worked on reducing his anxiety and boosting his self-image. I also talked to Bill about the importance of keeping a schedule and staying active during the day. He took over the grocery shopping and cooking, drove his mother-in-law to her medical appointments, and began forcing himself to get to the gym in the mornings. It wasn't the same as having a job, but it was a mood booster. Bill found that he liked cooking and that his workouts were making him feel better and stronger.
Next, we had to tackle their communication problems. Bill and Rhonda had not had a real life crisis before, so they weren't used to discussing difficult issues. This upheaval showed them that they didn't really know how to talk to each other. I encouraged Rhonda and Bill to start expressing their feelings and coached them on how to listen, acknowledge what their partner was saying, and give back an understanding response. We also had to break Rhonda's habit of speaking for Bill or jumping in whenever he'd pause. The less she jumped in, the more he expressed himself. I told Bill that he had to come up with some response to Rhonda's feelings, even if he felt uncomfortable doing so — he couldn't just sit there in silence.
After we worked on their individual issues, it was time to shift this couple back into team mode. To deal with Bill's financial irresponsibility, Rhonda had slipped into a parental role. They needed to find a way to handle their finances as equal partners. They agreed to sit down together every week and come up with the family's budgets and plans together. They'd never done that before and it helped level out the imbalance in their relationship.
When it came to their sex life, I asked them to state clearly in one sentence what they each wanted. Rhonda wanted Bill to initiate sex, and Bill wanted to regain their sexual connection, too. He agreed to try to initiate sex even when he wasn't feeling confident. They also worked on touching and hugging each other more in general.
Because of the drastic change in their roles, Bill and Rhonda were forced to build a new relationship from the ground up. I call it Phase Two of their marriage. They had to let go of what they thought their lives would look like and work with what life had handed them — together. And though the transition was rocky at times, they definitely made it to the other side. As Rhonda told me in her last session: "As good as our marriage was before Bill had the stroke, I think we're better now. We know each other so much more deeply and even though our lives have changed a lot and we still have struggles with his health, I think we're getting stronger."
Can This Marriage Be Saved?? is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's story is based on the files of Debra Castaldo, PhD, author of Relationship Reboot. The story told here is true although names and other identifying information have been changed to conceal identities.