"We recently learned that our son Sean will be going to Iraq," said Annie, 53, a fund-raiser for environmental causes who has three children — Sean, 24, Tom, 21, and Jennifer, 19. "Since college, Sean has worked as a technology specialist for the State Department, but he joined the National Guard after 9/11. A few months ago, his unit was called for active duty. Some troops have already shipped out; others will go over the next few months. We won't know until it happens. Every morning I wake up and wonder: Is today the day?"
"Living in this limbo is horrible, especially when I feel so isolated from my husband. It's hard to explain: Charlie is just not present anymore. Even when he's home physically, he's distant and self-absorbed. I'm sad, depressed, and lonely; it's as if a dark malaise has settled over my life. Charlie and I have been together for 26 years but I barely feel a shred of connection with him. And that makes Sean's leaving even more difficult."
"People used to say our family reminded them of the old Michael J. Fox show Family Ties — you know, liberal parents, conservative son. And it's true that my husband and I are Democrats who opposed this administration's invasion of Iraq, while Sean's politics are distinctly right-leaning. But no matter how scared I am, I would never tell him he should not go. My role as a parent is to help my kids discover who they are.
"I met Charlie at a party in San Francisco. I was 24, fresh out of graduate school and focused on my career as an environmental engineer. Soon after we got married, Charlie, who's a microbiologist, was offered a research position at a medical center in Denver. We thought it would be a great place to raise kids. Once we moved, I easily found a job, too, and stayed at it until I had Sean.
"Those child-rearing years were busy, but great. We loved being involved in all the kids' activities. We began drifting apart when Jennifer started high school and I went back to work full time. I'd stayed in touch with my colleagues, so I was thrilled when they asked me to come back on staff. Since Charlie was working crazy hours, we weren't spending much time together anyway. This also meant that we hardly ever had sex.
"About four years ago, Charlie formed a biotechnology firm. We expected the new venture to be dicey financially, but the real problem is that one of his business partners is a lunatic. Charlie comes home every night wound tight as a corkscrew. He'll complain about this man, and I'll make a ton of suggestions, but he has never once taken my advice. Why discuss something if you're not going to do anything about it? I can be supportive up to a point, then I get annoyed. My perspective is, the first time you have a problem, it's the other guy's fault. The second time, it's your fault for not finding a solution.
"These days, neither of us can control our tempers. Something will set us off and we'll spend the night arguing — something we never used to do. I fell in love with Charlie because he was easygoing and fun, whether we were skiing, mountain biking, or playing Scrabble. But to be honest, I don't enjoy being with him anymore, and I think he feels the same way about me. Recently I planned a weekend in Aspen, thinking it would be a romantic getaway. But instead of going hiking with me, Charlie went off by himself to read, disappearing for hours. I was enraged.
"At home, he disapproves of everything I do. A few months ago, we agreed to renovate the kitchen. I was excited to have a project to work on together, but after an hour in Home Depot, he asked me to handle it. I didn't mind doing all the work but hated his nightly criticisms: The cabinets don't line up, the countertops should be granite, not slate. He never once offered praise.
"When your daily interactions are mostly negative, good feelings are hard to come by. The news about Sean's leaving has made things even worse. I'm trying not to dwell on it, but that's like ignoring a two-ton elephant in your living room. The situation in Iraq gets worse by the day. But if I start to talk to Charlie about my fears, he cuts me off: 'We discussed this already! Let's move on.' But if I can't talk to my husband about our son going to war, who can I talk to?
"We both support Sean's decision; on that we've never disagreed. But our marriage feels dead. I don't want a divorce — we have so much history — but I can't continue this way."
"I don't want to get divorced any more than Annie does," said Charlie, 55. "I love her, love our family. But I'm also frustrated by how distant we've become.
"The fact that Sean could go to Iraq any day is a steady drumbeat in our lives and it's ramped up our problems. But I keep telling Annie, 'You can't change the Pentagon's mind. What's the point of talking about it?' Naturally, I'm afraid, too. Anytime you hear about car bombs or land mines, you're aware that it's somebody's child. I did not support this war, but I do support the soldiers who are fighting it. Sean is well trained and I pray that will keep him safe.
"The truth is, Annie and I haven't been happy for a long time. She's always been impatient, but now she's become nasty. If I miss the exit on the parkway or forget to pick up something, she calls me an idiot. I feel sandbagged by these skirmishes.
"Annie gets particularly irritated about my work. She's energetic and no nonsense in figuring out what to do — and I've always loved that about her. But I prefer to mull things over and allow a decision to unfold over time. Becoming a partner in this new firm has been more stressful than I ever imagined. I can deal with the financial risks. But one of my partners, whom I knew only as a business acquaintance, has turned out to be a poisonous personality who thrives on public displays of rage — with me as his favorite target. Figuring out how to deal with him is a daily trial. When I talk about this with Annie, I'm not looking for a 1-2-3 solution; I'm just trying to clarify my thoughts. Annie pressures me to do this or that, and when I don't, she accuses me of ignoring her.
"The kitchen renovation has become a sore point, too. Annie's doing a great job, but if I notice that the cabinets aren't aligned, aren't I allowed to say so? I don't deserve to be hit with one of her stinging remarks.
"The Aspen trip was another disaster. It had been a long time since I'd had the luxury of sitting quietly and reading a book. I was not ignoring her. When I strolled back to the inn, feeling calm for the first time in days, I had my head handed to me. We ended up arguing all afternoon.
"I don't know why we can't communicate anymore. Maybe we never did, and we just didn't notice when the kids were young. They were our common project, but once they needed us less, it left a void that we haven't been able to fill. And, unfortunately, that has taken a terrible toll on our sex life. I can't even remember the last time we made love.
"It would be so nice to feel close, especially with Sean's leaving. The truly sad part is that, just when we need each other most, Annie and I can't draw on the love and friendship we used to share. Some days I think it's too late, that too much ill will has built up. But I couldn't live with myself if I didn't at least try to salvage our marriage."
The Counselor's Turn
"Annie and Charlie's marriage had veered off course years ago," said the counselor, "but their son's imminent deployment to Iraq ratcheted up the tension between them. They had a strong foundation that was grounded in love, but after years of neglect, it was in desperate need of repair.
"While they were raising their kids, Charlie and Annie put their marriage on autopilot. Over the years, they fell out of the habit of communicating, verbally or physically. In time, Annie slipped into a spiral of negativity, storing up anger until the slightest incident triggered an outburst. Charlie, accustomed to a critical wife, minimized contact to avoid confrontation, which made the situation worse because Annie took his withdrawal as a sign that he didn't love her. This, in turn, fueled her ongoing hurt and tendency to strike back in anger. The crisis with Sean forced them to face the huge gulf between them.
"Annie, for example, had developed an almost knee-jerk reaction of thinking negatively about her husband. Instead of withholding judgment or asking for more information when he did or said something that distressed her, she automatically assumed he was failing her or being critical and went into attack mode. As her resentment became entrenched, it seeped out in sarcastic, hurtful remarks that made him retreat even further. When they recounted various disagreements in my office, I encouraged Charlie to explain what he had been thinking and feeling in each situation. Annie assumed her husband's withdrawal after work or on their weekend trip meant he wasn't interested in being with her, when, in fact, his need for serenity was prompted by his stressful workdays.
"Before therapy, these two spent a lot of time chronicling what was wrong instead of expressing their needs and feelings. 'Identifying what you want, rather than what you don't want,' I said, 'leads to solutions and an overall positive feeling.' For example, Annie could say, 'Honey, I'm feeling anxious about Sean. I'd like to talk for a few minutes.' To stop disagreements from escalating, Annie had to learn to recognize when her tone was harsh. Substituting words like 'seldom,' 'sometimes,' or 'occasionally' for 'always' and 'never' also took the sting out of her comments.
"As the overall tension ebbed, Charlie and Annie used their newfound collaborative skills to negotiate daily decisions peacefully, such as the choice of a window treatment for the kitchen. They both also began to suggest activities they could enjoy together — whether taking a walk or sitting down to a game of Scrabble. Reinfusing their lives with meaning also revitalized their long-dormant sex life. To help that along, they decided to go to bed earlier, read, talk, and see where the closeness led.
"By assuming good will toward each other, they were able to feel like allies instead of adversaries. This was crucial if they were to deal with their son's departure. Charlie's 'I just won't think about it' attitude infuriated Annie because she desperately needed to talk about her fears. So did Charlie, for that matter.
"As more units were called up and the son of a close friend was sent overseas, the stress level soared. During one session, Annie admitted that she was terrified but reiterated that she didn't want her son to think she disapproved of his choice. I suggested that it might be important for her to express her true feelings in a loving way. One weekend when Sean was home, the two of them took a drive and she told him how she felt.
"She told me he hugged her and said, 'I understand how you feel, Mom, and I love you for it.' He admitted he was scared, too, and that while he had initially supported the war, he now had his own doubts about how some of it was being handled. Still, it was his job, so he was going to go.
"The conversation lasted only 20 minutes, yet Annie felt enormous relief. 'I don't need long discussions or easy solutions,' she told me. 'I just need to have someone I love know what's on my mind.'
"The couple still have enormous anxiety about their son, but both feel more in control since they are sharing the burden. 'Families of servicemen struggle to strike a balance between healthy apprehension and paralyzing terror,' Annie said, adding, 'I don't think I could get through this without my husband.' That's a marriage in the best sense."
"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, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Denver. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, October 2004.