"We made it through the worst part," said Sue, 33, an office manager who, with her husband of five years and their three children, had to evacuate their New Orleans home when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the city in late August 2005. "We're renting a nice house in a nice neighborhood in upstate New York, but our family, our friends, our hearts are in New Orleans. Bob and I used to be soul mates. Now, there's no fun in our lives and not much closeness.
"Our family of five — my daughter, Kristy, 9, from my first marriage, and Bob's two girls, Alicia, 13, and Jenna, 11, from his — lived in a brick house in a quiet subdivision across the street from a levee. Our garden was our pride and joy; we had grapefruit, peach, and Japanese kumquat trees and gorgeous tropical flowers. We were always socializing with our neighbors. Now we don't know where many of them are.
"The irony is that we lived through many other hurricanes and the house never even flooded. As late as the Saturday night before Katrina made landfall, officials were telling us it was going to be a Category Three, well short of Category Five, the most devastating. So we stocked up on the usual supplies — candles, flashlights, drinking water — and planned to ride it out. By morning, though, the news was calling it a Cat Five, heading dead at us. That meant mandatory evacuation. We had less than 24 hours to leave.
"We loaded the car and drove to a friend's home 110 miles north of the city. The trip took 12 hours. We stayed in her tiny house, which was still under construction, for a month, with 11 people, two dogs, one bathroom, a hot plate, and a microwave. Yet not one child complained! It was amazing. Bob's parents were still in New Orleans and we had no idea where they were. The area where they lived was destroyed, so we were pretty sure they hadn't survived.
"But a week after Katrina struck, Bob's cell phone rang. It was his dad; everyone was okay and by some miracle, so was their house. Bob drove back to New Orleans and saw that although our house had fared better than most, it was badly damaged. The roof in back was sheared off, muddy water was everywhere, and our beloved garden was gone. Now we're trying to figure out if it makes sense to rebuild.
"Luckily, we both worked for national companies that found jobs for us in Pennsylvania. Newspapers were filled with stories about communities opening their doors to evacuees, but not in our town. No one welcomed us; many were downright nasty. The kids were ridiculed for their accents and their clothes. It was a huge relief when, after four months, Bob was promoted and we moved again. But his new job requires him to travel Monday through Friday, and I'm still unemployed, which is really stressing me out. There are so many costs here — winter coats, for example, and heat — that we didn't worry about in New Orleans.
"At least the people here are nice, and the schools are excellent. But the girls are having trouble making friends. Lately they've been crying and saying they want to go home. But there's no home to go to. And they've been fighting, which is a new development. When Bob and I got married we anticipated all sorts of 'blended-family' problems, but they never materialized. Now the smallest thing — whether Alicia's jacket is 'cooler' than Jenna's, for instance — sets them off. Then again, Bob and I don't exactly set a good example since when he finally gets home for the weekend we're so tired and tense we do nothing but bicker."
"I grew up in Baltimore, an only child of blue-collar parents who worked hard to give me a good life. I put myself through college by doing any job I could find. My parents both died before I graduated, so I had nothing to keep me in Baltimore. I went to a library, opened a U.S. atlas and put my finger on a map. It landed on Atlanta, so I moved there, found a job and eventually married my next-door neighbor. Kristy was born a year later, but the marriage ended two years later. My divorce became final the week before Christmas. Kristy was with her father on Christmas Day, so in a totally out-of-character move, I logged on to Match.com.
"Bob had never tried online dating before, either. But someone was looking out for us because we 'met' that very day. He asked for my phone number and we talked for six hours that night and every night for a week. On New Year's Eve he drove 10 hours from New Orleans to take me to dinner. We've been together ever since.
"My husband is a wonderful, generous man. But since his sales territory stretches as far south as Tennessee, he sometimes drives to New Orleans to help others instead of coming home. I feel selfish complaining about that, but I need him here. He has no idea how hard it is for me with him gone all the time. I have to get us acclimated to a new community, apply for loans, and battle every Tom, Dick, and Harry at the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get the money we deserve. I'm running as fast as I can to stay on top of everything yet I seem to accomplish nothing. I feel as though my husband is no longer my spouse, just someone I live with, some of the time.
"The other day we were at a diner when the old Louis Armstrong song 'Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?' came on. Bob broke down in sobs. I began to cry, too, and then the girls started. We're all so frazzled — out of place, out of time, out of everything."
"I'm as burned out as Sue is," said Bob, 38, a tall, muscular man with a shy, thoughtful manner. "But what can we do? I'm driving hundreds of miles every week, trying to figure out whether to sell our house as is or rebuild, checking in on my parents in Louisiana, and worrying about being away from my wife and kids. The travel is getting to me. My last job never took me more than 45 minutes from home. Now I cover several states. When I do get home, I don't want to talk about everything in our life that's gone wrong.
"Besides, what right do I have to complain? My immediate family came out okay, but thousands of other people died and thousands more, including some of my aunts, uncles, and cousins, have no homes, no jobs, nothing. Crime is on the rise, and people are scared. As much as I want to be home with Sue, I can't not help.
"All I think about is keeping this family going. As Sue said, the people here are cordial, but we haven't made any real friends and don't feel genuinely accepted. So we agonize about whether to move back home. We want to, but costs are skyrocketing and it could take months just to find a contractor. We can't start on any repairs until we get insurance money, and after waiting more than 18 months, we just found out we weren't approved for a loan because we moved away. Well, we moved because we had no home and no jobs! Tell me how that makes any sense. Every time I turn around there's a new problem; I'm always fielding calls about some bill that I paid but can't prove because our records are gone. Louisiana won't even renew my driver's license because I'm not living there, and getting a New York license is a huge hassle because I travel during the week and can't get to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
"Sue and I talk every evening but our conversations revolve around what needs to get done. I don't know why she thinks I don't appreciate her. She's my anchor, the whole family's anchor. I love her more than I can say. What I don't love is that edge in her voice when she speaks to me. It's especially hard to take the minute I walk in the door after being on the road for five days. All I can think is, Get me outta here. Sue also needs to slow down. We can't get everything done in a month, or even a year. I keep telling her to relax, but it's not in her nature. Of course, that's one of the reasons I was drawn to her in the first place. She's gutsy and full of energy.
"My parents didn't have much money but they taught my sister and me the value of hard work and a good education. We moved 12 times when I was a kid. Like me, my dad was in sales and every time his company offered him a new territory, we followed the money. Because we stayed longest in New Orleans, that's where we put down roots. For me, moving around was normal. But it's different for my kids — a catastrophic event caused them to suddenly lose everything and everyone they've ever known. They're not even sure if some of their best friends are dead or alive. We try to make them happy, to cheer them up when they're down, but we're always coming up short.
"I feel anxious and out of control in so many ways. I stopped at a 7-Eleven the other day to buy gas and a magazine cover about Katrina victims caught my eye. I felt like I'd been kicked in the gut. It made me miss my friends and the good times we used to have — and it underscored the fact that our old life is gone forever. When we heard that Louis Armstrong song in the restaurant, I started bawling like a baby. I hate for my kids to see me break down. But what I really don't understand is, why now? We're alive, we're safe, it's been almost two years. Why does everything feel so bad?"
The Counselor's Turn
"A life-altering trauma such as Hurricane Katrina can wreak havoc on even a good marriage," said the counselor. "Although Sue and Bob were dealing well with the overwhelming practical aspects of recovery, they had underestimated the emotional toll it would take on them, both individually and as a couple. Raised in families where hard work was expected and complaining frowned upon, they focused on their children's well-being and ignored their own. Yet when someone is in emotional pain, the spillover into the marriage is inevitable. Now that they were settling down into more normal routines, feelings of guilt, anxiety, and fear engulfed them, triggering arguments over issues large and small.
"My first goal was to help them appreciate and accept that what they were experiencing was normal — albeit a 'new normal' that could last a long time. This couple was not on the brink of divorce, but their marriage was slowly being eroded and they needed to find ways to reconnect physically and emotionally.
"Everyone reacts differently to stress, depending on inborn temperament as well as upbringing and life experiences. These two had always been resilient, so their difficulty coping upset them all the more. I explained that once an initial shock wears off, and the adrenaline that helps in a crisis ebbs, the reality of loss takes hold. Whenever someone is displaced even temporarily and separated from friends, neighbors, schools, or jobs, family conflict inevitably increases. 'The emotional support we reap from these associations is huge,' I noted, 'and its absence can lead to everything from irritability and sleeping problems to anxiety, indecisiveness, and decreased intimacy.' It's common to feel that just after moving two steps forward, you're one step behind.
"'Give yourselves, and your kids, time to heal,' I advised. A large part of my work involved simply listening and gently prodding the conversation while they spoke about their sadness and learned what the other needed. We focused on simple accomplishments. 'Pace yourself,' I advised. 'Examine what you did today — you renewed that driver's license, you secured a loan — and celebrate your achievements, no matter how small. That way you'll fret less about what remains on your to-do list.' Although the big decision about whether to move back to New Orleans remained unresolved, we discussed how they could take control of situations that were compounding their stress. For starters, Sue needed regular acknowledgment from Bob of just how hard her job was. In turn, he needed some emotional space when he returned home at the end of a demanding week on the road.
"This conversation led to one about how difficult it is for proud people like Sue and Bob to accept help from others. I asked how it felt to assist those in need, and they agreed that being of service was incredibly satisfying. 'That's a very important part of the human equation,' I noted. 'By accepting help from others, you're giving them that same satisfaction.' We talked about the importance of strengthening bonds in their new community. In New Orleans they had always hosted a Fourth of July barbecue, so they revisited that tradition, using it to thank their neighbors and get to know them. 'We had a full house,' said Bob. 'We served turkey gumbo and hamburgers — something Southern and something Northern.' Several couples have reciprocated by inviting the family to join them at their homes or for boat rides on a nearby lake. Another offered Sue a part-time job managing his medical practice. The girls were able to meet new families and have started to babysit for neighbors, which boosts their self-esteem."
"I wasn't surprised that sibling rivalry was cropping up. 'Your children's belongings are gone,' I said. 'If one gets a sweater and the other doesn't, jealousy, along with other still-raw feelings, is naturally going to surface.' Similarly, the tears and quarreling were par for the course. To further restore a sense of security and normalcy, I advised the couple to build structure into their lives by establishing familiar routines. Dinner, Sue agreed, didn't have to be fancy, but it was important that she and the girls sit down to eat together every weekday evening. We also agreed that while Bob was understandably drawn to New Orleans to help out his family and former neighbors, he should limit himself to one weekend a month there.
"I also reassured them that it was okay for their daughters to see them upset. 'Don't try to minimize their feelings or your own,' I urged them. 'Instead, share your sadness, worry, or anger in a proactive way by explaining what you're doing to get the whole family back on track.'
"Finally, we discussed the importance of nurturing their relationship. 'Unless you schedule time for each other, it won't happen,' I said. 'Make a point of doing something together every weekend that makes you happy.' Bob and Sue have begun going out alone to movies and romantic dinners, and have organized a family activity every weekend, be it a trip to nearby Niagara Falls or simply playing Pictionary in their pajamas on a snowy day. Once the weather gets warmer they plan to hike in the Adirondacks and plant a garden.
"There are no easy answers for couples like Sue and Bob, nor is there a timetable for recovery. But as the weeks passed, they began to feel a renewed sense of confidence in themselves and in their relationship. 'We still haven't decided if we're moving back, but we're forging ahead with our new life,' Sue said. 'It's different from our old one, but still meaningful.'
"'What makes us really fortunate,' Bob added, 'is that we have each other.'"
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?(r)" is the 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 Robin Newman, a licensed clinical social worker in Huntington, New York. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?(r)" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2007.