Pam, 41, marketing manager
Ross, 45, lawyer
Married 19 years
Kids: Lauren, 15; Jacob, 13
Marc D. Rabinowitz, Norfolk, Virginia
Pam and Ross had been drifting apart from each other for a while, but it got worse three years ago. Pam went back to work full-time but says she's still stuck doing all the parenting. Between that and caring for her elderly mom and dad, she's overwhelmed. Meanwhile, her coworkers make her feel appreciated — something she doesn't get from Ross. Last year she was so lonely she wound up having an emotional affair with a guy at the office.
Ross and I were in the middle of a huge fight and I told him I almost cheated on him with someone at work. It was a terrible way to do it but I'd had enough. I'm pretty sure I want a divorce. There's just no marriage left. We don't have time to go on dates or hang out together at home the way we used to, but that's not really the problem. It's that we never talk about anything deeper than the grocery list. I used to tell Ross about what happened at work, but he started interrupting me and comparing what I said to something he did. After a while I stopped talking about myself. Now we just bicker constantly.
Ross works 60-hour weeks, so it's up to me to help the kids with their homework and get them to soccer on time. I'm sick of it. If I complain enough, Ross will take over for a few days, but then he'll start working late and everything will fall on my shoulders again.
He's not just checked out in terms of parenting — I have to be in charge of everything. It's been ages since he had an idea or opinion. And I'm tired of him acting like an employee, waiting for directions. I want a partner. Why can't he look at the family calendar and do what needs to be done?
I have my parents to deal with, too. I'm an only child, so I have to be on call 24/7 to take them to the ER or doctor's appointments — and they live a half hour away. My mother had abdominal surgery last year; my father has Parkinson's and can't be left alone for more than three hours. Some weeks they need me every day, no matter what.
I tell Ross I feel overwhelmed, but he just says it's a phase, it'll pass. Really? When? And whenever I complain that we're not close anymore, he says our relationship "isn't that bad" and leaves the room. How can we fix what's wrong if we don't talk about it?
For the past few years I've been feeling more connected to people at work. I'm around them more and they appreciate me and talk to me. And then last year, when I was assigned to a special project with this guy, Scott, we clicked immediately. He was take-charge and opinionated. He wasn't afraid to challenge me when we disagreed. We had deep conversations about everything, including our bad marriages. I felt like a whole person again, not just a co-parent and household manager. We knew that our feelings were dangerous, so we ended our friendship, and Scott transferred to another office.
I stayed faithful to Ross because I still love him. But the fact that I nearly cheated was a wake-up call that I can't be married to someone who feels more like a roommate than a husband.
I can't believe that Pam almost slept with someone else. She had mentioned Scott and their project, but I never suspected that they were more than just friends. I'd noticed that Pam seemed happier at work than at home. Her eyes would light up when she talked about her projects. I supported her decision to work full-time, but it makes me jealous to hear some of the stories, like when she went to lunch with colleagues and ended up laughing so hard she nearly choked. I can't remember the last time I made her laugh. Little did I know that those things were the least of my worries.
Pam says we're living separate lives, but I don't think that's true. Sure, we don't spend as much time together as we used to, but that's because life is busy right now. It's not like I avoid her on purpose. And she took my "it's a phase" comment the wrong way: I was trying to calm her down, not brush her off. As for interrupting — I admit, that's not cool, and I've apologized for it. I think I was just so excited to have a conversation that wasn't about the kids, the house, or us that I wanted to jump right in and I started speaking over her. I didn't realize I was doing it until she called me on it.
I understand that Pam's got a ton on her plate, so I've tried to help out. If I've noticed we're running low, I'll bring milk home, but instead of being grateful, Pam will say, "Why didn't you call first? We needed eggs, too." If I don't fold the laundry exactly the way she wants, she puts me down. She treats me like the bad guy no matter what I do.
For me, the worst problem is that Pam's anger meter goes from zero to 10,000 in seconds. She calls what we do bickering? Try again. Our fights are so intense that the dog leaves the room. It makes me sad that Lauren and Jacob have heard our screaming matches. I don't want them to think it's acceptable for couples to act this way. Now I walk away to avoid another big scene.
It hurts to hear that Pam thinks I act like an employee. Of course I have ideas and opinions, but I've been deferring to her to keep the peace. We've been struggling, for sure, but I love her. I didn't mean to be indifferent to her feelings. And I'm sorry I made her miserable enough to consider having an affair. Pam says she wants to leave, but I begged her to try counseling.
The Counselor's Turn
Couples often wake up in their 40s feeling disconnected when in reality they've been growing apart little by little for a long time. At the point when they realize there's a problem, many people assume it means their relationship is beyond repair. Some head straight to divorce. Others have affairs first. But growing apart like that is a common part of being married and middle-aged. You're often working full-time, raising teenagers, managing a household, and looking after aging parents. Combine that with the fact that you're no longer putting energy into your relationship the way you did when you were newly married and the result is not pretty. It's easy to just assume that, after 10 or 15 or 20 years, your marriage will take care of itself. But if you don't nurture it, it will die. That's what was happening to Pam and Ross.
Despite their disconnection, Pam and Ross still loved each other, so I was confident that they could save their marriage if they changed their priorities, improved their communication, and worked as a team. "Life has taken its toll on your marriage," I told them in their first session, "but your relationship isn't a lost cause."
Pam and Ross both put in 10-hour days at the office and checked work e-mail at night as well as on weekends. Add in the time they devoted to driving the kids around and attending their activities and there wasn't much time for them to spend with each other. "You went in different directions because you got overscheduled," I said. "Put your marriage back into your schedule."
Both Pam and Ross cut their work hours, which created more couple time. Now they meet for a drink on their way home from work every Friday, they take walks every weekend, and they go out to dinner twice a month. "Getting away from the daily routine helped us rediscover each other," Ross told me. "We've had time for those deep conversations Pam misses so much!"
They also had to work on talking about what wasn't working. "If you address something in the moment, it's easier to fix than if you hold it inside until you explode," I explained. But you have to talk about it in the right way. Pam needed to say to Ross, "I feel upset when you don't check the kids' homework folder unless I ask you." She also had to make direct requests, like "I want you to walk the dog before bed," instead of silently hoping Ross would do it and then being angry when he didn't. As for Ross, he learned to say, "I want Chinese food tonight" or "I want to go hiking this weekend." And I gave them ground rules: No raising your voice and no leaving the room. Change wasn't easy, but over time Ross became more comfortable asserting himself and Pam learned to calmly tell him what she wanted without accusing him or losing her temper.
As their communication improved, Pam and Ross renegotiated parenting and household responsibilities. Ross helps Jacob with homework and Pam works with Lauren. By cutting back a bit more at the office, Ross can drive the kids and run errands several nights a week. This has lightened Pam's load tremendously. "I don't feel like everything is on my shoulders now," she said.
After a year in counseling, the couple turned their relationship around. "I'm so glad I gave us a second chance," Pam told me in the last session. She and Ross still have conflicts, for sure. And their lives will continue to be stressful. But thanks to their stronger connection and improved communication skills, they don't let their emotions get the best of them anymore.
"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 Marc D. Rabinowitz, LCSW, a couples therapist in Norfolk, Virginia. The story told here is true, but names and identifying information have been changed to conceal identities.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2011.