"In the eyes of the world, Zach and I are a happy couple," said Debbie, 34, an economist with a major Denver corporation and mother of Lily, 7. "But in fact there's nothing left between us. Unless our daughter is around, or we're talking about the logistics of getting her to soccer games and sleepovers, we rarely speak to each other. There's virtually no real conversation in our house.
"Sometimes I think that when my mother died, our marriage began to die, too. That was about five years ago. Needless to say, it was a very tense time. Mom had been diagnosed with a brain tumor when I was 6 and she was only 30. The tumor was benign, but medical science was much less advanced then, and the surgery to remove it affected her speech and memory. The doctors told my father she'd never be able to function even somewhat normally, but she confounded them all. True, her speech was slower and her memory less sharp than before, but she still managed to work and raise two daughters. Twenty years later, the tumor returned, this time malignant. Despite radiation and chemo, she died three years later at 53.
"That last year of her life was impossibly painful and traumatic. I spent much of it racing back and forth between Denver and Chicago, where my mother lived. Lily was only a year old and it was agony to leave her, though Zach was, and is, an outstanding father. He can play with Lily and her dollhouse all evening, making up voices and scenarios. The trouble is, all his energy is wrapped up with her. Meanwhile, I'm invisible to him.
"I met Zach when I was a senior in college and he was a first-year graduate student in political science, working toward a PhD. We started out as good friends, hanging out with the same group of people. But one night he asked me out on a real date, and we've been together ever since. Zach was the sweetest, funniest, most attentive man I'd ever met. I tend to be intense and serious and he made me laugh and lighten up. I loved just being around him.
"We got married four years later, right after I received my master's degree in economics. I intended to go to law school, but then my mother became quite ill, and I couldn't commit to such an intense course of study. So I fell back on economics and was hired by a firm that recruited on my campus. I enjoy what I do, but I still get an occasional pang of regret, especially when Zach's father and two brothers, who are attorneys, talk about their work. I can't help but wonder what it would be like to practice law.
"We planned to start a family in our 30s, after we established our careers, but five months after our wedding, I accidentally became pregnant with Lily. I took a three-week maternity leave and went right back to work. I had no choice: My job paid well, whereas Zach was still just an instructor, working on his dissertation. I was under enormous stress: I had a demanding job, a baby, and a mother whose condition was worsening by the day. I took a lot of time off to go to Chicago. Luckily, Zach's hours were flexible and Lily was in a wonderful daycare center while he taught."
"Before long, everything Zach did seemed to enrage me. I know I have a bad temper that I need to control. Still, it was maddening to return from visiting my mom, upset and needing to talk, only to have Zach pull away. 'She's fine,' he'd say. 'She'll get through it.' I was mystified by his lack of concern. He loved my mother! They would talk for hours about all sorts of things.
"And I'll never forgive the way he acted when she died. I called Zach as soon as it happened, and he said, 'I have to orally defend my dissertation tomorrow. What do you want me to do?' I was so angry I slammed the phone down. He ended up flying out — the department was happy to give him a postponement — and delivered an eloquent and moving eulogy at her funeral. But to this day, I feel betrayed.
"My life is just a perpetual treadmill. I get home from work, make dinner, clean up, throw a load of laundry into the washer, fold the dry clothes from the night before and pack Lily's lunch for the next day. Where's Zach, you ask? Having a grand old time with Lily. It never occurs to him that there might be something he could do.
"Zach claims my priorities are all wrong, that it's more important to hang out with our daughter than vacuum. Well, of course it is — in theory. But houses don't clean themselves and groceries don't magically appear on pantry shelves. If I ask for help, he either doesn't hear me or says 'in a little while,' which translates to 'never.' He'll agree to something — like getting our sprinkler system fixed — yet weeks will go by without a single move on his part. When I reach the boiling point I start screaming. Zach then promises to be more attentive, but nothing ever changes. I feel as if I'm stuck in the movie Groundhog Day. I'd like to keep our marriage together, but I don't want to wake up at 50 and realize I'm still miserable."
"I hate living this way as much as Debbie does," sighed Zach, 35, a college professor. "But I have no idea how to make things better. It feels as though we've been bickering forever, but it's definitely been worse since her mother died.
"Debbie's mother was an exceptional woman who was incredibly warm and welcoming to me. She couldn't have been more different from my own mother, who was a teacher in the small Wisconsin town where I grew up. My father and two older brothers are attorneys. Although my family seldom fought, we never really opened up, either. Even before her mother's condition deteriorated, Debbie spoke to her family every day. Whenever we saw them, there'd be these marathon conversations about everything from personal problems to sports, books, and politics. I felt as if I'd landed on another planet and I loved it. I can't remember our family ever having such candid dialogues. If you had a problem, you were expected to fix it on your own — a philosophy that has stuck with me.
"I fell in love with Debbie because she's incredibly smart, energetic, and fun. But she's also high-strung and emotional, and the word flexible isn't in her vocabulary. She files grievances away in a 'hurt' bag, pulling out old ones to fan the flames of a current argument, whereas I can fight with someone and 10 minutes later all is forgotten. She'll berate me for playing with our daughter instead of picking up Polly Pocket paraphernalia. Then she'll dredge up something I said two years ago that I don't even remember. How can I respond?"
"My mother-in-law's illness was a real turning point, for the worse. I started to feel increasingly helpless. I didn't know how to help Debbie cope and I was afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. Considering what she was dealing with, I didn't think it was fair to tell her how sad and scared I was about her mother, too. After work she was always on the phone with her family. The late afternoon and early evening had always been our time, but to insist that she pay more attention to me felt selfish and childish.
"Everything came to a head the day her mother died. She called around 5 a.m. and I remember saying, 'What do you want me to do?' I was scheduled to give my oral PhD presentation that day. I didn't mean I wasn't going to come. I didn't mean I cared more about my career than her mother. What I meant was, 'Do you want me to come this afternoon? Tonight? Tomorrow?' I was seeking input so we could make a plan. I had every intention of changing my schedule. The whole conversation was just a colossal misunderstanding, yet typically, Debbie attributed negative motives to me.
"It happens constantly. If I'm not in the mood to talk, she concludes that I'm angry at her, when in fact I might just be tired. When I try to explain, she snaps, 'I know what you meant!' and storms out of the room.
"I treasure my relationship with Lily. I love watching her grow and change. Most nights I'm the one who puts her to bed and reads stories. I've suggested that Debbie read to Lily or simply sit on the bed with us, but she's adamant about getting the laundry done or the house cleaned. I do not, and never will, think it's more important to wash clothes than read to my kid.
"She treats me like a child, orders me around and makes it clear that I'm falling far short of her expectations. We're both reduced to taking potshots at each other. At this point, all I can do is hope that therapy can help turn things around."
The Counselor's Turn
"The death of Debbie's mother precipitated this couple's current crisis, but in truth communication between these two had stagnated for years," said the counselor.
"Theirs was a 'mute marriage.' Conversation was infrequent and strained and often disintegrated into sarcasm, nasty jabs, and screaming on Debbie's part and sullen withdrawal on Zach's. She felt put upon; he felt controlled. They fell into a pattern of living parallel lives, forgetting what had brought them together in the first place. When tragedy struck, they had little to hold them together.
"Grieving robbed both Debbie and Zach of the positive energy that was necessary to enjoy each other and their lives. 'In times of loss, we all become more emotionally vulnerable and anger more easily,' I told them. 'It's a prime time for marital crisis.' My goal was twofold: to help them hone basic communication skills and to find ways to deal not only with big issues but smaller ones as well.
"Their miscommunication on the day Debbie's mother died was emblematic of the communication glitches that permeated this marriage — most of them resulting from a failure to give the other sufficient information about his or her feelings and concerns, or the assumption (a wrong one) that each knew what the other was thinking.
"Debbie was the typical burned-out caregiver. During her mom's slow decline, she had put her marriage on hold, which Zach took as a personal affront. She yearned for emotional support, but Zach, while a terrific parent, had no idea how to give it. He'd grown up in a home where the unspoken rule was not to talk about feelings, so he dealt with his grief the way he'd learned as a child — by stuffing it deep inside.
And he responded to his wife's fears and mourning by minimizing the seriousness of the situation. He was particularly uncomfortable telling Debbie that he felt neglected and missed their former closeness. As a result, Debbie had no idea that he, too, was mourning a woman who had been more loving and accessible to him than his own mother.
"'Whenever partners guess, rather than ask, each other's thoughts, they usually assume the worst-case scenario,' I explained. For example, Debbie felt betrayed by Zach's reaction to her mother's death. If she'd taken the time to hear him out and clarify what he was asking, or if she'd been able to tell him at the time how deeply hurt she was, that wound wouldn't have festered for years. 'I realize that in emotionally stressful times it's easy to overlook another's feelings,' I said. 'That's why it's more important than ever to tell a partner how you feel and to ask how he's feeling. A thoughtful give-and-take might have helped Zach access those deep feelings, so you would have known how much he loved you and your mother.'"
"Our discussions helped Debbie soften her stance. For the first time in years, she apologized to Zach. He, in turn, began to accept responsibility for compounding the communications logjams by failing to offer enough information about how and when he planned to help, and often, by failing to help at all. 'I can see that my delay in calling the sprinkler repairman was expensive, emotionally for you and financially for both of us,' he conceded in a breakthrough session. 'I'll call tomorrow.' He also admitted that shirking household chores was unfair from a parenting standpoint because it effectively made him the 'fun' parent and his wife the drudge.
"For the truce to last, however, Debbie had to learn to control her anger. Her outbursts pushed Zach away so he felt even less willing to be her teammate. I suggested new routines for explosive situations: If either felt tensions brewing, both would remove themselves immediately to separate spaces, getting a drink of water or a breath of fresh air. Only when both partners are calm can they talk effectively about sensitive situations.
"Debbie and Zach practiced communicating more openly. Instead of guessing what the other was thinking or holding a grudge about an upsetting incident, they took the time to explain — slowly, clearly, and calmly — their concerns and preferences. Even minor changes in wording made a big difference. 'Could you vacuum sometime today or tomorrow?' instead of 'You should vacuum' was less antagonistic and yielded real dialogue instead of the verbal jabs they'd grown accustomed to. They also learned to pay closer attention to what the other was saying and respond in kind. One night Debbie mentioned that their bedroom needed painting. Instead of putting her off with a vague promise, Zach said, 'You're right,' before adding, 'Give me Saturday morning to read these essays, and we'll start on it after lunch.'
"And instead of pointing fingers about household responsibilities, the couple found solutions. Simply posting a chart of tasks for the coming week on the refrigerator, with each successful job initialed by the person who did it, worked wonders, providing a visual tool to reinforce their efforts. Most significantly, the fact that Zach and Debbie can now chat quietly over a cup of coffee has put positive energy into the marriage. 'We've begun doing something alone, just the two of us, at least once a month, and we want to do it more often,' Zach said. 'That alone is a testament to how much our marriage has improved.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2006.