"Rick and I knew our lives would change when we had a baby," said Beth, 37, who lives in southeastern Virginia with her husband of nine years and their 2-year-old son, Alex, "but we had no idea how much. We're so preoccupied with Alex's care that we have no time for each other. By the time Alex goes to sleep — around 9:30 — we're too exhausted to do anything except watch TV.
"We also argue constantly. Rick and I have different ideas about childcare, but instead of compromising, we've become adversaries. Sex and money are other sore spots. We've always been a little out of sync in bed — I prefer sex about once a week, while Rick wants it more often. But these days I'm almost never up for it. If I tell Rick that I'm exhausted or not in the mood, he complains that I'm not 'meeting his needs.' This attitude infuriates me: Is it any wonder we haven't made love in months?
"As for money, we live on Rick's salary as an information technology specialist because I quit my job to stay home with Alex. Rick thinks I spend too much and goes ballistic when the bills arrive. He's especially angry that I order takeout a lot, but at the end of a long day I don't have the energy to cook.
"Unfortunately, our differences escalate into big blowups, with Rick swearing at me, belittling me, and calling me 'stupid.' He stomps off to his computer to calm down, while I sob in our bedroom. I'm constantly tense, never knowing what will set him off. And I feel guilty at the terrible example we're setting for Alex.
"I was the third child of a fire chief and a secretary. I was close to my late father, an easygoing man, but I fought with Mom, a control freak who ruled with the phrase 'because I said so.' I've longed for Mom's approval my whole life, but she never believed in me as she did my brothers. When I wanted to study music at a four-year college, in order to become an elementary school music teacher, Mom said I wasn't smart enough. So I went to community college and became a secretary.
"When I was 20 my best friend set me up on a blind date with her 22-year-old cousin, a handsome police officer. It was love at first sight and within six months we were married. Two years later it was over. We drifted apart before we even really connected."
"At 26 I met Rick, then 25, through a singles Bible-study group at church. I was instantly drawn to him — he's tall and muscular, with sandy hair and brown eyes. We struck up a conversation one night after class, and I invited him for coffee at a nearby diner. We had a lot in common besides our faith: We were both raised by difficult mothers; we'd both married too young and divorced early; we both liked music, sailing, and gardening. We realized within weeks that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. But given our past experience, we didn't want to rush, so we dated for 18 months.
"Our early marriage was peaceful and fun-filled. We both liked our jobs and earned enough to buy a house. During the summer we sailed Chesapeake Bay and hosted cookouts. We had some arguments about sex, but they never escalated the way they do now.
"We were ecstatic when Alex was born and I figured that raising a baby with Rick would strengthen our bond. But we slipped into our Mommy and Daddy roles almost immediately, focusing our attention exclusively on Alex and forgetting that we were a couple. Then we started fighting about Alex's care. Rick still questions my judgment, despite the fact that I'm with Alex all day long and I know what works best in terms of naps, feeding, and discipline. For example, Alex is most comfortable in a somewhat loose diaper. I've shown Rick how to put it on, but he usually fastens it too tight, sometimes leaving red marks on Alex's legs. When I check to see whether he's done it correctly, Rick screams at me for second-guessing him. Recently, Alex has started biting if he doesn't get his way. I give him a warning, and if he doesn't stop, I give him a time-out. Rick thinks a gentle spanking is the answer. He hasn't hit Alex yet, but I fear he will someday, because his mother spanked him often when he was a child.
"My friends don't have kids and can't relate to what I'm going through. My mom is no help, either, even though she calls every day and often drops by unannounced. She criticizes my parenting skills, which upsets me, so Rick has been badgering me to limit our contact. But I feel I need to keep her in the loop.
"Last week a fight about dinner escalated into a bigger one about sex. Rick called me a 'moron,' punched a wall, and threw a book. Fearing for our safety, I took Alex and spent the night at my brother's. When I returned home the next day, I told Rick I still loved him but was miserably unhappy. 'I miss the closeness we had before Alex was born,' I said, sobbing, 'and I want it back.'"
"I realize that it's never okay to punch a wall and throw a book," said Rick, 36, his voice heavy with remorse, "and I've apologized repeatedly. I'm not sure what came over me, but my outburst was probably the result of two years of frustration. Beth isn't the only one who's unhappy.
"I've accepted that we'll never have sex as often as I'd like, but I won't apologize for being attracted to my wife and having sexual needs. I feel disappointed and undesirable every time she rejects my overtures.
"I'm also under a lot of stress as the main breadwinner. Beth stopped working, which I supported, but her spending habits haven't changed. She refuses to buy generic-brand diapers or baby shampoo and she constantly relies on take-out food. I'd rather eat sandwiches if she's too tired to cook.
"My mother-in-law is another problem. She upsets Beth constantly; frankly, the less they talk, the better off we are. But when I urge Beth to limit their contact, she says I don't 'understand.' Here's what I do understand: We're headed for divorce if we don't stop fighting. The tension in our house is so bad now that Beth and I avoid each other most of the time. Is that any way to live?"
"My childhood was horrible. My dad was a merchant marine who was at sea most of the time, so parenting was left mainly to my mom, who lacked the temperament to nurture a plant let alone three kids. If I brought home a less-than-perfect report card, she berated me in front of my friends, saying, 'You've embarrassed me to tears.' Once, in junior high, I made a sarcastic comment as my mom was driving me and some neighborhood kids to school. She pulled over, yanked me out of the car and beat me as my friends watched. More than 20 years later I still remember the rage and humiliation I felt.
"She died of a heart attack when I was a sophomore in college. Later that year, I fell in love with a fellow student and got married. I was 20; she was 19. We lacked the maturity to weather the inevitable rough spots and no one was surprised when we divorced 14 months later.
"When I joined the weekly Bible-study group, I immediately noticed the gorgeous redhead across the room. But beyond Beth's appearance, I liked her wry sense of humor and insightful analysis of biblical passages. I was on the verge of asking her for a date when she suggested coffee. Within a few weeks we were in love.
"I was thrilled to become a father, and I've always tried to do my share of the childcare. But Beth's nitpicking is maddening. She checks to see that I'm doing everything her way and corrects me if I'm not. Plus, she hovers when I feed or change Alex and insists on being the disciplinarian because she's worried I'll spank him. She makes me feel as though I can't do anything right. So I lash out.
"Still, for all our problems, Beth is the love of my life. I want Alex to grow up in a loving, happy, two-parent home, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen."
The Counselor's Turn
"It's very common for first-time parents to lose intimacy after their child's birth. Most couples, however, regain their footing once they've adjusted to their new roles — usually by the baby's first birthday. The fact that Beth and Rick were still drifting apart at the two-year mark suggested a deeper issue.
"After hearing about their upbringings, I realized they were locked in a power struggle. Both had low self-esteem, the result of being raised by highly critical mothers; both had an unconscious need to prove they were capable, knowledgeable, and right. Our first step, then, was to examine how unresolved issues from their families of origin shaped their marital behavior. Many people unconsciously pick partners who re-create childhood feelings. Beth and Rick found in each other the very behaviors they loathed in their mothers. Beth felt emotionally threatened by Rick's criticism and different parenting ideas but accepted his nasty remarks because that's what she'd learned to do with her mother. (When you come from a verbally abusive family, as she did, it can be hard to see your spouse as a verbal abuser. That's why Beth's anger was so much more focused on Rick's physical outbursts than on his name-calling.)
"Beth's insistence that she knew best regarding Alex's care stemmed from insecurity, not from maternal instinct or experience. Because her mother doubted her competence — she discouraged Beth from attending a four-year college and becoming a music teacher — it was vital for Beth to succeed at motherhood. For her that meant assuming the role of lead parent and making the big decisions.
"Rick's mother was also abusive, verbally and physically. Rick grew up believing that he could never please her — she scolded him for a B on his report card — and that he wasn't good enough. In Beth he found a woman who, when under stress, also became critical and made him question his own worth."
"When self-esteem is high and a relationship is strong, a person can hear 'no' as 'no' and not as rejection. But when self-esteem is injured, it's hard not to personalize it. So when Beth didn't want to make love, Rick didn't hear her legitimate reasons; instead, he took it as a personal affront and projected his unresolved anger at his mother onto his wife. 'If Beth says she's tired or not in the mood, try simply to accept it at face value,' I urged him."
"Rick needed to be right about parenting for the same reason Beth did: insecurity. 'There is no right way to parent,' I said. 'Your constant questioning of each other has to stop. You need to come up with strategies together.' I did side with Beth's ideas on discipline. Spanking, I reminded the couple, teaches children that hitting is okay. I also mentioned that people who are hit as children tend to repeat that behavior as parents — an insight that resonated with Rick and turned him into an advocate of time-outs.
"The next step was to help Rick see the importance of better managing his anger. I asked him to write down 10 reasons why he yelled, called Beth names, and used inappropriate language. His justifications ranged from, 'She thinks she's always right' to 'she's spending money we don't have.' This writing assignment worked because Rick saw how inappropriately he'd used his anger. 'I've said things no husband should ever say to his wife,' he said. 'I gave her the bricks to build the wall between us.' Though his physical outburst was an isolated incident, it demonstrated a propensity for violence. I let him know that it was imperative for him to find other ways to release his anger. Accordingly, he joined a gym, where he lifts weights and plays basketball."
"I then asked Beth to write Rick a letter, calmly expressing her concerns about his communication style. Rick was to read it when she was not present and we would discuss his reaction at our next session. 'If you ever scream at me or call me names again,' Beth wrote, 'I will leave.' Reading this, Rick said, was an 'aha' moment for him. 'I knew Beth was upset,' he said, 'but she'd never expressed the depth of her anger before.'
"The letter method proved so effective that they decided to resolve future conflicts by writing their feelings in e-mail first and later discussing the problem in person. I then introduced Beth and Rick to a five-step process called 'Daily Temperature Reading.' First, the couple exchange a comment of appreciation, which helps to counteract the critical messages they'd been sending and receiving: 'I appreciate the wonderful meal you cooked.' Second, they provide new information about their schedules: 'I'll be home late tonight, so don't hold dinner.' Third, they ask a question about something that could spark an argument: 'I'm puzzled why the living room was such a mess when I came home.' Fourth, they present a specific complaint and request change: 'I don't like your leaving socks on the floor; please put them in the hamper.' Finally, they share a goal — the idea being that once a wish is expressed, the couple can make it happen: 'I hope we can find a babysitter for Saturday.'
"Beth and Rick started doing the Daily Temperature Reading for about 20 minutes every night after Alex was asleep. 'It has helped us communicate honestly and sincerely,' Rick said. As they drew emotionally closer, their sex life soon improved.
"I also encouraged Beth to set boundaries with her mother. 'You don't have to cut your mother off completely,' I said, 'but when she's being critical, politely end the conversation.' Beth followed this advice, stopping her daily phone calls and telling her mother she must visit by invitation only. 'It was so empowering to finally stand up to her,' Beth marveled.
"Beth and Rick are relieved that they've broken their cycle of fighting and distancing. By changing their behaviors, they've regained the intimacy they'd lost. 'It would've been easy for us to give up on our marriage, but thank goodness we didn't,' Rick said. 'Beth and I have fallen in love all over again.'"
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" 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 Bonnie Gordon-Rabinowitz, LCSW, an individual and marital therapist at the Psychotherapy Center, in Norfolk, Virginia. 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 the Meredith Corporation.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2006.