"His Big Mouth is Costing Us Our Marriage": Can This Marriage Be Saved?
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"His Big Mouth is Costing Us Our Marriage": Can This Marriage Be Saved?

Her husband's controlling behavior and rude language is costing her friends. Can this marriage be saved?

Her Turn

Her turn: "My husband is a loose cannon," said Meg, 49, a physical therapist in Philadelphia who has been married for six years to a successful accountant. "Norman speaks his mind about everything -- and he doesn't mince words. If we're at dinner with friends, he'll challenge their political beliefs in a condescending tone. If he doesn't like the food, he'll make his dissatisfaction known to everyone within earshot.

"When Norman blurts out something inappropriate, I'll gently nudge him or shoot him a 'cool it' look, but instead of taking the hint, he'll say, 'stop kicking me.' In social settings I'm constantly worried that Norman will offend our friends to the point that they'll dump us. That's happened before.

"I've begged him to choose his words -- not to mention his battles -- more carefully and avoid certain topics altogether, but Norman accuses me of censorship and says I'm too concerned with what others think. 'If I'm so awful,' he'll say, 'why do your friends still go out with us?' Reactions to Norman's outbursts vary. Some people change the subject, others charge right back, setting off an intense debate, and still others pretend they don't hear him. Unfortunately, Norman is oblivious to social cues.

"I've felt the sting of his so-called truth telling myself. If I'm watching a TV show about the British royal family, say, Norman will roll his eyes, snort and say, 'Meg, you're a smart woman. How can you watch that nonsense?' I'm not a football fan, but I'd never bad-mouth him for watching the Philadelphia Eagles. Can't he show me the same courtesy?

"Here's the crux of our problem: I think Norman is insensitive to my feelings and unconcerned with how off-putting his behavior is. He thinks I'm trying to censor him. This has been true throughout our relationship, but lately it's gotten worse, and we've fallen into a cycle of fighting and avoiding each other. We've always had an active sex life, but in recent months I've been so upset and angry that I've rejected Norman in bed -- so he's furious about that, too.

A Spiritual and Intellectual Connection

"I'm an only child, born to older parents. Dad never wanted kids, but Mom finally persuaded him when she was 40 and Dad was 50. But my arrival didn't improve their marriage. They fought constantly about money. As a child I always tried to please them, behaving well and excelling in school. But I could never meet Mom's high standards. She had a rule for everything and nitpicked my appearance, my friends and my grades. Dad was sweet and accepting but emotionally detached. At 14 I got my waist-length hair cut really short -- an act of defiance against Mom, who liked it long. Mom had a screaming fit, but Dad was supportive. 'If you like your new hairstyle, then I like it,' he said. When I was 15 Dad suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and he died two years later, at 67. Mom lived to be 82 -- and found fault with me until the day she died.

"When I was 25 I met and married a guy who was 10 years older than me. Patrick and I had no children but I adored his daughter, Kathleen, who lived with us. Eventually I grew bored with Patrick -- we had no interests in common -- and after 15 years of marriage, we divorced amicably. Kathleen and I are still close.

"A year after my divorce I met Norman, then 45 and a divorced father of a grown son. Norman was everything Patrick wasn't -- talkative, opinionated and interested in politics, religion, travel and books. I thought he was adorable.

"Norman invited me to dinner and within six months we'd fallen in love. I felt a spiritual and intellectual connection with him I'd never had before. We spent hours on the phone, attended lectures, saw foreign films, visited museums and took in the occasional Philadelphia Phillies baseball game. He was -- and is, when he's not shooting off his mouth -- smart, funny, affectionate and generous. Even now he'll surprise me with flowers and jewelry. If I mention a Broadway show I'd like to see, he'll whisk me away to New York City for a theater weekend. We had great sex and lots of friends, though I started to fear we'd lose them once Norman started challenging their views -- a trait he didn't reveal at first.

Her Turn, continued

"The first time it happened we'd just become engaged and were dinner guests of my friend Susan. When Norman asked her to pass the salt, she said her chicken didn't need seasoning. He strongly disagreed, but Susan ordered Norman to eat the chicken without salt. They went back and forth for a ridiculous amount of time, as I turned crimson. 'You could've eaten the chicken to be polite,' I fumed afterward. But Norman was unapologetic: 'Susan was trying to push me around, and I won't be pushed.' I never talked to Susan again. I was too embarrassed to call her, and she never got in touch with me.

"In retrospect, this incident was a red flag, but I married him anyway. Living together was an adjustment. Little habits of Norman's annoy me, like the way he lets his hair get too long between cuts, puts dirty dishes in the dishwasher without rinsing them first and leaves his razor stubble in the bathroom sink. If I complain, he says I'm nagging him.

"Our biggest problem by far, though, is his big mouth. We recently attended a party where a guest disagreed with him about a political issue. The guy held his own against Norman, but then his daughter jumped into the fray. She was no match for my husband and his harangue reduced her to tears. She ran from the room, sobbing hysterically, while the other guests stared. 'You bullied her mercilessly,' I said afterward in the car. 'And you humiliated me and made everyone else uncomfortable.' But Norman felt not a shred of remorse. 'I can say anything I want,' he said flatly. 'If she's going to get into the ring, she has to take what comes at her.'

"That was the last straw. If Norman doesn't care enough about me to hold his tongue, then I can't stay married to him."

His Turn

"Am I an ogre because I speak my mind?" asked Norman, 53. "If I offer my opinion, I expect my sparring partners to offer theirsin return. If we disagree, I don't take it personally. It's just an intellectual exercise in which we put forth our respective views. The fact that my wife's best friend's husband may not agree with me on federal tax cuts, the food at a new restaurant or the Philadelphia Eagles' defensive line is no reason for me to be mute. Small talk isn't my thing. I enjoy lively debate. Meg should accept me and stop taking everything so personally -- and assuming our friends do, too. If they hated my supposedly brutish behavior as much as Meg thinks they do, they would have abandoned us long ago.

"Her friend Susan was the exception. Here's what happened: I politely requested salt. Susan replied that she never used it because it was unhealthy. So I moved the bland chicken and vegetables around my plate. When Susan asked me why I wasn't eating, I said, 'I like my food seasoned.' At that point Susan insisted her food was delicious and exhorted me to eat it. To this day I believe that Susan was at fault. If she'd simply said she had no salt and left it at that, the conversation would have ended. But she pushed -- and I pushed back.

"I'm also sick of Meg's constant criticism. If the label on my sweater is sticking out, I'll hear about it. If I drop a dime on the floor, I'll hear about it. Meg nags me as if she were my mother -- and at my age, I don't need mothering.

"I Can't Bear to Lose Her"

"My own mother was more loving than my dad, but neither of them gave my sister or me much emotional support. When I was 10 Mom developed skin cancer. She went into remission after surgery but the disease metastasized into bone cancer and she died when I was 17. I was devastated. I wanted to be a history teacher, but Dad, who owned a shoe store, said he'd pay for college only if I chose a high-paying profession, such as business. So I got a master's degree in finance and eventually became a certified public accountant. I married my first wife while I was in grad school and we had our son a few years later. The marriage was polite, but lacked physical passion and intellectual connection. We split up after 13 years.

"I found Meg irresistible from the moment I met her. She's not only beautiful but she's also a fabulous conversationalist with far-ranging interests. Within days I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. I never dreamed we'd have so many problems as a married couple.

"For too long there's been a simmering hostility between us that's ruining our sex life and our marriage. My wife is a smart, sexy, wonderful woman, and when she isn't criticizing or nagging, there's no one I'd rather be with. I can't bear to lose her, so I'm hoping counseling will help."

The Counselor's Turn

"Many couples come to counseling believing they have a multitude of problems," the counselor said. "Often it's actually one specific problem that has penetrated into several areas of the marriage. That was true for Meg and Norman. Meg was angry with her husband for his outbursts, poor grooming, sloppiness around the house and stubborn refusal to change. Norman was angry with his wife for trying to censor his comments, nagging him about his appearance and rejecting him sexually. But it soon became clear that the major underlying problem was a battle for control.

"Overcoming a control struggle begins with understanding its source. For Meg and Norman it started in childhood. Meg's mother was a classic micromanager who badgered her daughter about her clothes, hygiene and friends. Though she loathed these tendencies, Meg unwittingly repeated them in her efforts to control Norman. Indeed, she fixated on his perceived flaws-his outbursts, appearance and laissez-faire attitude about household order-in the same way that her mother had fixated on hers.

"Meg viewed her father as the 'good parent' because he didn't criticize her, but his passivity left Meg's mother to be the heavy. Over time I helped Meg see that her father was partly to blame for the way her mother controlled her, and her parents' difficult marriage cast her into the role of peacekeeper -- a role she still plays vis--vis Norman and their friends. 'This scenario is common in single-child families where one parent wants children and the other doesn't,' I told Meg. Only children often have more difficulty dealing with loss than people with siblings do -- the hypothesis being that they can't afford to lose any family members because they have so few. Often they form unusually close bonds with friends, who become their surrogate family. The fact that Meg's father died when she was in high school has made her especially sensitive to loss. It also helps explain both her fear that Norman's comments will alienate her friends and her lingering anger about the loss of Susan.

The Control Factor

"Meanwhile, Norman was also controlled, but by his father. Though Norman enjoys his work, he still resents his father's insistence that he study something that would lead to a high-paying profession; he became visibly angry as he discussed it. In response to his upbringing, Norman developed a need to do as he pleases, whether it's speaking his mind or wearing his hair too long. If Meg tries to change him in any way-even for his own good -- Norman rebels to avoid being controlled. 'On a subconscious level you're mad at yourself for obeying your dad,' I told him. 'When you refuse to accommodate Meg's requests, you're really rebelling against him.'

"Despite their surface differences, Meg and Norman are similar in an important way that holds them together: Mutual victimization by controlling and emotionally absent parents. 'You're both right about each other's shortcomings,' I told them,'but neither of you is as bad as the other thinks.' By understanding the source of their problems, Meg and Norman developed empathy for each other. And that helped them see that each was being overly sensitive -- Meg to Norman's outbursts, Norman to Meg's nagging.

"I gave Meg a homework assignment to try not to criticize Norman for a week, and she reported back that she found it tough to do. 'I never realized how much I need to nitpick,' she said. Over time Meg was able to stop for two reasons. First, she did not want to be like her mother. Second, she realized that her criticism was counterproductive. The more Meg nagged Norman, the more he had to prove he couldn't be controlled.

The Counselor's Turn, continued

"Her efforts weren't lost on Norman. 'Since Meg stopped nagging me,' he said, 'I've decided I should make some changes.' This willingness to change was positive. Still, I was careful not to criticize his need to speak his mind as I thought it could feed into his control issues and cause him to resist. Instead, I talked about Meg's intense fear of losing friends and how anxious his comments made her. Norman's main defense was that since none of their friends complained about his verbal style, no one (but his wife) was bothered by it. 'People often won't tell you what's bothering them,' I explained, 'but that does not mean they're not uncomfortable or hurt. Meanwhile, Meg is clearly upset by what you say. Why do you want to hurt her?'

"Ultimately, Norman's coming to terms with his childhood control issues, his empathy for his wife and Meg's own example of restraint moved him to make the changes his wife had long sought. 'He's finally learned the value of discretion,' Meg said gratefully. 'I can't remember the last time he challenged one of our friends, left out a dirty plate or criticized me for watching a TV show.' As the couple's arguments decreased, their romance rekindled. Not surprisingly, they say their sex life has improved.

"'I never would have dreamed that Norman would become kinder and more sensitive,' Meg told me the last time I saw her, 'but our experience proves that people can change if they put their hearts and minds to it. We're more in love than ever.'"

"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 Stephen Betchen, D.S.W., a licensed marriage counselor and certified sex therapist in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and author of Intrusive Partners-Elusive Mates: The Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic in Couples. 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 Meredith Corporation.

 
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