Heidi: 37, management consultant
Brett: 38, part-time paralegal
Married: 13 years
Kids: Emma, 12; Madison, 10
Jonathan Alpert, New York, New York
Heidi is type A, Brett's laid-back, but their differences were part of the attraction. Then six years ago Heidi was promoted and her schedule got crazy — she's usually away four nights a week. Since her job paid six figures and Brett was making $10 an hour, she asked him to quit to take care of their daughters, then 4 and 6. Now Heidi's always working and she and Brett communicate through e-mails and texts. When she is home, they're often fighting.
I feel like I express myself better in writing, because I can think through what I want to say. But Brett hates my e-mails and texts. And he takes them the wrong way. At one point he said he wanted me to be more emotional in my communication, so before I left on a business trip I sent him an e-mail that said, "I love you — and I'm glad we're not divorced, even though you do drive me crazy sometimes." I thought it was warm and witty. I even put a smiley face at the end. But he totally didn't get it. When I called him to let him know my plane had landed, he asked me if I wanted a divorce!
Brett says that texting is hurting our marriage. But I don't know what else I'm supposed to do. It's hard to find time when we're both free to talk, especially if I'm in a different time zone. And it's not like I never call. I try to phone Brett once or twice while I'm away. But that's not enough for him. The minute I get home he accuses me of ignoring him and we start fighting.
I send Brett about 15 texts and e-mails per day — usually about the girls' schedules and things that need to be done around the house. They're short and to the point. But I guess he wants love letters or something. When I sent a 10-word text reminding him to pay the car insurance, he shot back a reply that said, "You write like a robot." What does he want from me? Brett's mad that I e-mail him orders, but he's not good with details or deadlines. Things would slip through the cracks if I didn't remind him.
It hurts to miss so much of Emma and Madison's childhood, but since Brett wasn't making much money I felt I had to take this job. Last year I bought the girls a cell phone so I'd be able to talk to them a few times a day — when they're on their way to school, in the afternoon, and before bed. Brett sarcastically calls it "teleparenting," but it's the best I can do under the circumstances. At least I know what's happening in their lives.
Still, Emma and Madison complain that I'm too attached to my BlackBerry, and Brett feels like he's in competition with my laptop because I take it to bed with me and work until I fall asleep.
I feel like I don't have a choice, though. I love Brett but he has been underemployed for our entire marriage. I could work less if he made more money, but instead of searching for a full-time job he settled for part-time. If I didn't have to be away so much I wouldn't be constantly texting. If my job weren't so demanding, I wouldn't have to work 24/7.
I don't get why phone calls are such a burden to Heidi. I know she's busy, but if I were away on business I'd make it a priority to call and say hello no matter how busy I was. And that's the problem: Our marriage just isn't a priority for her. It's all about her career. She's a total workaholic. In my opinion Heidi hides behind her BlackBerry. If she just texts and e-mails, she doesn't have to have a real conversation — about the real issues in our marriage — that might blow up into an argument. But here's the irony: We've fought more about the stupid texts than we ever did about anything she's said.
Heidi's e-mails sound like she's writing to an employee: "Make a dentist's appointment for Madison" or "Did you take care of Item B from my previous e-mail?" Sometimes she'll fire off four of them within a few minutes. I've started to just look at the subject line and if it sounds like it's going to turn out to be more micromanaging — I got one yesterday with the heading "Carpet cleaning info" — I just delete it.
After six years I think I know how to take care of the kids and the house. Sure, I let some things slide. And God knows I don't fold towels the way she'd like. When Heidi is finished folding, they're so beautiful you don't want to touch them. On weekends she'll redo all the household tasks she thinks I screwed up, including refolding the towels. It's ridiculous. The girls are healthy and doing well in school and the house isn't falling apart. Heidi needs to get off my back and stop hammering me to get a better job. In this economy I haven't found a full-time paralegal job, but this part-time one lets me be there for our family. Why can't she appreciate that instead of always tearing me down?
Heidi expects a debriefing about the week every Friday night, and if the house isn't straightened up, she goes ballistic. It takes her at least 24 hours to start acting more like a wife and mother than a boss. But she's still not warm and fuzzy. Emma and Madison are both going through puberty, and they really need their mother now — they don't want to talk to me about certain things. Heidi is kidding herself if she thinks teleparenting is working.
In the past year we've gone weeks without having sex because Heidi's either too busy or too tired. The last time I made a move she looked up from her laptop and said, jokingly, "I'll pencil you in for next Friday at 11 p.m."
I still love my wife. But the Heidi I married was spontaneous and adventurous, not bossy. I told her if this was how it was going to be for the rest of our marriage, then we really needed to talk to a counselor.
The Counselor's Turn
Brett had every right to be angry about Heidi's incessant texts and e-mails. It only takes a few seconds to call your spouse and say, "How's it going? I'm thinking of you." So if you can't find those few seconds, it's time to take a look at your priorities.
Still, Heidi had a legitimate beef about Brett. He wasn't lazy but he had grown comfortable with a low-pressure job while the kids were in school. Heidi was okay with that at first — she'd asked him to do child care, after all — but now she wants a partner who lives up to his potential and makes a decent living so she can start to find some balance in her own life.
I was blunt with Heidi: "Electronic communication can be great for business but you can't run a marriage the way you run a company. E-mails and texts are impersonal. You lose the emotion and nuance and words can easily be misinterpreted." Heidi got defensive, insisting that texting is a necessity because their schedules are out of sync. But I continued to press her: "You're giving more time and energy to a job you could lose any day than you give to your husband and kids. It's your choice: Talk to Brett about life and save your marriage. Or text him orders and lose it."
Heidi agreed to stop texting Brett and to phone him every morning and evening — just to talk. Instead of the constant texts about chores, every Sunday she and Brett write down everything that needs to get done and on Wednesday they discuss the progress Brett has made so far. This system keeps Heidi in the loop without turning her into a taskmaster and it gives Brett a sense of accomplishment while keeping him accountable.
Heidi also agreed to disconnect her laptop for one day of each weekend, so she's available to participate in family activities. And she now keeps all technology out of the bedroom. Monthly date nights have strengthened her bond with Brett and also jump-started their sex life.
I've been seeing a lot more clients lately where the wife is the primary breadwinner. It's often hard for these women to leave their boss hats at work and let their husbands take charge of the household and social planning. In many ways the bossiness is an attempt to assert control over the home situation, which can be chaotic and unpredictable. But the micromanaging that might help with a chaotic situation at work tends to backfire at home.
Heidi's dad was an army officer, so she'd learned how to give orders and run her life with military precision. At work that was an advantage. But I reminded Heidi that Brett was her husband, not her subordinate. If she could put things in perspective and stop criticizing Brett — about everything from the towels to his job — they wouldn't fight as much. It hasn't been easy, but Heidi hasn't refolded a towel in months. And when Heidi backed off about his career, Brett realized he had his own reasons for wanting to take it a step further. He has recently landed interviews that seem promising.
The couple's marriage has improved steadily as they spend more time together and communicate better. Heidi tells Brett that she loves and misses him — simple gestures that have drawn them closer.
"Counseling was the wake-up call I needed to stop taking Brett for granted," Heidi said. "It's great to have my marriage back."
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?"® is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews and information provided by Jonathan Alpert, a licensed professional counselor in New York City. The story told here is true, but names and identifying information have been changed to conceal identities.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2011.