"If Bob tells me one more time that he can't speak to me because the game's on, I want a divorce," snapped Meryl, 41, a former documentary filmmaker who quit her job to stay home when her twin sons, Josh and Jason, were born seven months ago. "With satellite TV and ESPN, a game is always on. Will I ever get his undivided attention again?
"Bob is a commercial photographer — he and a friend formed their own company a few years ago, and they do mostly magazine advertising work. I always knew he watched a lot of TV, but before the twins were born, I didn't notice how he totally zones out on sports. We have five TV sets in our house. There are two in the family room, one on top of the other, so Bob can watch two games at once. All five sets are always on, so he won't miss anything if he goes to another room. He even falls asleep with the remote in his hand. The man is obsessed.
"I'm starved for adult conversation, but Bob doesn't hear one word I say. He is a wonderful, hands-on father, though. He even arranged to take two months off when the babies were born. When he isn't at his studio or on a shoot, he can work from home. And his touch is magic — I'll be at wit's end trying to calm Josh, who is colicky, but when Bob takes over, bingo, the kid stops. I get so angry, though, when I come home from, say, the gym to find the three of them in front of the TV — Bob on the couch, the babies in their infant seats at his feet. He completely forgets they're there and starts bellowing at the screen, scaring them to death. I know listening to that racket all day makes them wired.
"We've had a much harder time than we thought finding competent baby-sitters who could handle two infants. With all the horror stories you hear about nannies, neither of us is too keen on leaving them with anyone. Besides, we both waited too long to have a family to leave them with a stranger. So we haven't been out alone since they were born.
"After trial and error, we devised a system of dividing up the night — one of us is on duty from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m.; the other from 3 a.m. to 9 a.m. — so we each get a chunk of sleep. We tried switching nights, but neither of us liked it. But other than taking a shift with the kids, Bob does nothing. He lets dirty dishes pile up on the counter, and leaves baby bottles lying around. He doesn't see any reason to make the bed, since we'll be in it again in a few hours.
"I get so angry about all this that I throw things at him — a baby toy, the remote control. Then he calls me crazy and insists that there must be something wrong with me. I heard those same words growing up.
"I was raised in a family that wrote the book on dysfunction. My parents divorced when I was less than a year old and, and I hardly saw my father. He lives in California now, and we're in touch, though not close. Mother was always bitter-nothing ever made her happy. She's retired now, but for years, she worked for an engineering firm.
"My sister Shelly, who's five years older than I am, made my life hell. She used to tell me all the time that it was my fault that Daddy left. She'd also goad the older kids on the school bus to make fun of me. When I complained, Mom didn't believe me, and she'd tell me I was crazy.
"Despite my mom's total lack of encouragement, I did well in school and was involved in the drama club and the newspaper. I couldn't wait to go away to college. I started in newspaper journalism, then fell in love with filmmaking. A summer internship turned into a full-time job, and within a few years, I was doing short films of my own.
"I adored everything about my work — the excitement, the glamour, the camaraderie. The people there were like family to me. I dated, but no one interested me for more than a few months, and I never had a serious relationship until I met Bob.
"But at 39 it hit me: I didn't want to grow old by myself. Around this time, my assistant fixed me up with Bob. When he came to pick me up, he brought roses, and I'm a softie for the romantic gesture.
"We were a good balance: Bob is low-key, and I found his advice, his outlook, very reassuring. When I was stressed out, he'd calm me down. To be honest, though, our sex life was never dazzling. Bob was always more enthusiastic, and now, well, sex is the last thing on my mind.
"Last month, one of Bob's childhood friends asked if he still watched sports as much as he used to. Bob said he'd gotten better. Excuse me? He can discuss football plays from 20 years ago, but he can't remember what I said 10 minutes ago. I've had it."
"I can't stand living with Meryl any more than she can stand living with me," said Bob, 45, a broad-shouldered man with sandy hair. "I feel like the janitor: I'm constantly running out for supplies, taking out the trash, doing the laundry. And she focuses on the fact that I left one dish in the sink or a baby bottle on the couch? Give me a break. Ever since the kids were born, she's been angry and nasty. Where is the playful, energetic, enthusiastic person I fell in love with?
"Frankly, if Meryl would just stop haranguing me, our lives would be pretty darn good. I'm sick of her complaints. So I love sports; is that a crime? I know she's strung out and tired — so am I. That's no reason to explode in a childish temper tantrum. Last week, she even threw my wedding band at me because I fell asleep when she wanted to talk.
"I'll never be able to please Meryl. She's so needy, and she drones on incessantly, saying the same things over and over again. I listen as best I can, but she says the same things over and over. She used to be so independent; now she's so clingy I want to jump out of my skin.
"She's incredibly bossy, too. I know she's memorized half a dozen parenting books. Does that mean I'm not entitled to an opinion? Her latest crusade is that the boys are being overstimulated by the TV. Well, until she shows me the research on this, if I'm home folding laundry and watching two 7-month-olds, I'm going to flip on a basketball game.
"She's acting more and more like my mother. I grew up in Boston, the older of two boys. My parents were Holocaust survivors who emigrated to America right after the war. Dad was a businessman who was hardly ever home, and my mother was a homemaker. I don't think their marriage was especially happy. Mom was opinionated and controlling; she never stopped issuing orders — clean your room, take a shower, practice the piano, do your homework. If I didn't follow through immediately, she laid a guilt trip on me.
"I escaped to the park — I lived to play ball, and I dreamed of becoming a professional. I never got that far, but I was captain of the basketball and football teams and named to the all-state team in football at my university.
"In college, I took a photography course and realized I was good. When I graduated, I became an assistant to a photographer for several years, then formed a partnership with a colleague. We've done well.
"I had one serious relationship before Meryl — our breakup was so devastating that for a long time, I didn't date at all. But when I met Meryl, I was captivated by her energy and her beauty. Here was one smart, spunky lady who could get me talking about feeling I'd never shared.
"We moved fast, but we both knew what we wanted. But now Meryl has changed — and our marriage is a disaster because of it. She'll start fights about things that never bothered her before. Every argument goes around in endless circles, then she threatens to leave. And she has the nerve to be upset that I don't bring her flowers anymore? I can't live like this."
The Counselor's Turn
"Like many couples who marry late, Meryl and Bob found their lives fast-forwarded," noted the counselor. "They had little time to get to know each other before they were thrown into a tailspin by the birth of their twins. As every parent knows, having a baby changes your life in more ways than you can imagine. As parents of multiples discover, having more than one baby at a time changes your life even more drastically. The fact that these two handle stress in very different ways compounded their problems and triggered constant bickering. Bob's preoccupation with sports was both cause and the symptom of a marriage veering dangerously off course.
"Gregarious by nature, Meryl had thrived working with her film crew. Home with two infants, she felt isolated and despondent. Though she had made the decision to quit her job, her image of what her life would be like had been vastly distorted. She'd always had time to pursue her own interests; now, she looked to Bob to fulfill all her needs. When he appeared to push her away, Meryl feared her marriage would end as her parents' had.
"Many people don't realize that negativity and anger can be a sign of depression. It's hard to recognize, let alone be compassionate about, a partner's depression when you're being showered with criticism. Bob put a lot of time into caring for the children and helping around the house. Meryl just wasn't able to see it.
"Bob, for his part, had learned to use sports as a shield when he felt controlled. He began his heavy-duty sports-watching to escape his mother's intrusiveness, and sports again became his haven when his marriage overwhelmed him.
"Both Bob and Meryl found parenthood enormously meaningful, but they were trapped in a destructive cycle. Neither had ever seen how a happy family functions, so they had no idea how to negotiate, resolve conflicts or make decisions together. Instead, Meryl complained and attacked; Bob retreated and ignored.
"Blamed for her father's departure by her sister, ignored by her mother, Meryl had a substantial reservoir of emotional needs. Her sense that she was unimportant harked back to those early years. However, threatening to leave Bob endangered the very intimacy she sought. Meryl had become her own worst enemy.
"At my suggestion, Meryl sees a colleague of mine for antidepressant for medication; within six weeks her mood lifted and she was better able to handle frustration. Our sessions provided a neutral place for these two to talk about their feelings without being interrupted, ignored or judged. Once they laid their issues on the table, they could step back and see solutions instead of differences. For the first time in a long time, they felt like a team.
"Bob acknowledged that, to some extent, his behavior was provocative. I pointed out that his excessive sports-watching fit the label of addiction: He used it to escape or avoid problems; it had become his main form of excitement; and it was having a negative impact on his family. Once he understood how much television was hurting his marriage, he agreed to set limits — to curtail the time, to turn on only one set, and to buy earphones.
"As Bob became more available to her, Meryl's resentment faded, and her diatribes became fewer. We talked about several ways she could make requests rather than demands. Using the when-then format (for example, 'When you watch the game, then I feel you don't care about me') let her state her needs without putting Bob on the defensive. I pointed out whenever her tone became critical, and over a few weeks, she learned to recognize this herself. They agreed that if any discussion hit the irritation level — let alone meltdown — they would table it until they could talk calmly.
"Since they feel more like a team now, they want to spend more time with each other. They've joined a gym that offers baby-sitting so they can work out together. They've found a college senior — an early-childhood education major — to come in three afternoons a week to give Meryl a break. And Saturday is now date night.
"The last step came at Bob's urging. Gently, he suggested that Meryl contact her old studio to see if she could work part-time. Next month she starts as a consultant, working on occasional projects. That way, she's involved in the professional arena, but in a role that she can tailor to her needs.
"Although formal counseling has ended, Meryl and Bob know they can come to see me whenever either needs to talk. 'We realize that the marriage is our priority,' said Meryl, 'and we intend to make it work, even if that means occasionally putting up with dislikes. Some things are just not worth fighting about.'"
"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 Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Denver, Colorado. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 1999.