November 11, 2010 at 4:49 pm , by Jennifer Castoro
It’s a funny thing, marriage: The more that couples’ problems change, the more they stay exactly the same. The story in this week’s Can This Marriage Be Saved? vote-a-thon comes from August 2005, but it’s even more relevant now than it was five years ago. The issue? It’s an unspeakable word that starts with an “un” and ends in “employment” and generally wreaks havoc on even the most stable of partnerships. You may have heard it tossed around a bit lately, provided you haven’t been living in a cave since 2008. The stresses of a job loss are hell on the spouse that’s out of luck, to be sure, but just as awful on the member of the couple that’s still working. And our model couple is no different.
Howard, a 44-year-old business owner, and Marcy, a 42-year-old marketing director, have two kids and 20-plus years between them. They both come from mildly dysfunctional families – Marcy being the product of a divorce and an alcoholic dad, and Howard the son of a successful businessman who was too busy working to pay him any attention – and their childhood issues are coming to a head following his unemployment.
Marcy’s take: Howard ignores her. He ignored her when she asked him to give up his failing business, when she told him to stand up to his overbearing mother after the woman attacked Marcy, when she tells him to start looking for a new job. Total head-in-the-sand. Howard’s mother plays favorites and is mean to her grandchildren, but he won’t stick up for them. Marcy admits to screaming at her husband and slamming doors and acknowledges this isn’t the best way to diffuse an argument, and she hates that she does it, but she can’t help herself. She also blames his lousy business decisions for his failure, not the economy, and thinks he’s ignoring the money problems they’re in.
Howard’s take: Marcy asks too much of him. She dregs up past disagreements, calls him names and criticizes him for not taking her advice on running his now-failed business and handling his family. He agrees that he hasn’t defended her to his family, but he won’t do it because he thinks she’s overreacting when his mother is rude. He feels terrible about the failed businesses but he wants time to mourn his loss before he moves on. He feels like he’s failed his wife and his family, and he admits he’s been in a sour, withdrawn mood for a long time. His way of keeping the peace is to walk away because he’s easily overwhelmed by conflict, and he doesn’t see fit to change that.
The counselor’s call: The job loss made this couple’s problems more obvious but wasn’t the root of their troubles. It all stems from Howard ignoring Marcy’s concerns about important issues. And the more she criticizes him, the less he responds. Marcy had to calm down and learn to use her inside voice when discussing hot-button topics, and reign in her impulse to accuse and berate. She did have legitimate complaints, though, so the counselor encouraged Howard to cut her some slack and lend her an ear. He also had to stop moping and denying that he needed to look for a job asap. They both had to accept responsibility for their own issues: Marcy realized screaming at Howard was pointless, and Howard learned tuning her out just made her scream more. The couple have worked out their own issues and are back on track.
Who was to blame for this couple’s issues? Marcy and her yelling? Howard and his hiding?