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"Some days, I wake up filled with this overwhelming sadness," said Sharon. "I'm exhausted, drained and angry. Seth and I have been married for twelve years. Three years ago, we agreed that I'd be the primary breadwinner and he'd handle most of the childcare and home responsibilities, since the small electrical supply business he inherited from his uncle went bankrupt, and the computer-service company he set up in our spare room wasn't really bringing in enough money. At the time, it made sense, though we thought it would only be temporary. But it simply isn't working at all. Seth is still trying to build up a client base, so he only bills twenty hours a week at the most. The rest of the time, he's supposed to be doing everything else. But too often, the jobs I assumed he'd take care of are left for me to handle.
"We argue all the time, and I'm convinced it's because Seth can't really handle the fact that I make more money than he does. It never bothered me that, by conventional standards, I'm more 'successful' than he is. But last year, when we went to have our taxes done, an insensitive clerk looked at our forms and burst out laughing: 'Well, look at this,' he said, 'Your wife makes more money than you do.' I wanted to smack the guy on the side of his head. I knew Seth was mortified, although he didn't say anything. I know he begrudges the fact that my days are long, and I often have to travel on business or take clients to dinner.
"I leave the house at 7:30 every morning, and some nights I don't get home until 9:30 at night. All I want to do is take a shower and fall into bed. I don't appreciate finding a sulking husband who was too busy watching the TV news to make a proper dinner for himself and the children. Is it so difficult to broil some hamburgers? If I don't specifically spell out what to feed everybody, they wind up eating dry cereal or pizza. Last Saturday, when I had to finish some spreadsheets for work, I asked him to keep the kids occupied for the afternoon. I had hoped he'd take them to the children's museum or even ice skating, something educational or outdoorsy. But his idea of quality time was making popcorn and renting a video. Well, I lost it. I said things I never should have said, but if I can't count on my husband, who can I count on?Finding Their Niches
"I met Seth at work--he used to work for the same company. It was easy to fall in love with him. First of all, he's gorgeous. But he also has a sweetness and sensitivity about him that is positively endearing. We started dating, and everyone used to say we were the perfect couple. But while I loved him very much, even then I knew we were very different.
"I'm outgoing and up-front. I say what's on my mind. Seth is quiet and shy, almost timid. Trying to get him to talk about how he feels has never been easy. Half the time, I don't even think he knows how he feels. I like to get things out in the open, tackle a problem head-on and get it resolved. Seth ignores issues and hopes they'll disappear.
"Anyway, we got married, and the company wouldn't allow spouses to work together. So Seth decided to take over his uncle's business and see if he could make a go of it. Meanwhile, I quickly found my niche and was soon promoted. But while I was moving up the ladder, things weren't working out so well for Seth. His uncle's business had been on the brink of disaster when Seth took over, and I don't think anyone could have saved it. Thank goodness we had my salary to fall back on; we never would have made it otherwise.
"The truth is, I enjoy my work. I'm now manager of sales and I coordinate a staff of over one hundred people. Ever since I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to make a lot of money and be a success. My mother is my role model--she's a very strong, loving woman who raised six kids on her salary as a loan officer at a bank. My father, who passed away five years ago, spent his career in the army, but he was also an alcoholic--and an abusive one at that--who squandered his pension on booze. He was totally unreliable, and Mother should have left him years ago. They used to have these loud and ugly fights, but we're good Catholics, and even our local priest reminded her that she had married for better or worse, so she had to make the best of it.
"I'm afraid my marriage is falling into the same pattern as my parents'. I don't mean to say that Seth is drinking; but I do feel as if the whole burden of providing for this family is on my shoulders. As busy as I am, I've tried to stay involved in as many of the kids' activities as I can. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't have plenty of regrets. Seth may fall down in the chores department, but when it comes to being there emotionally for the kids, he is great. I know they feel closer to him than to me--and yes, I suppose I am jealous about that. It hurts when Tyler runs to him with a problem, or when I have to miss Kylie's school play. But I do think that sometimes Seth is selfish and inconsiderate, hoarding the kids from me and making me feel even more left out.
"He also does a lot of grumbling that I'm spending too much time at work. Doesn't he understand the commitments I have? If I don't work hard, I'll never get ahead, and then where will we be financially?
"We have no relationship anymore. Our sex life disappeared months ago. We're both furious and unhappy. You know, Seth initially refused to come for counseling. He thinks it's a sign of weakness, that you're stigmatized for life if you need therapy. I had to give him an ultimatum because I can't imagine living this kind of life for the next twenty years. We're not friends anymore, we're not lovers anymore. We never talk. It's hard to even remember why we got married in the first place."
"Sharon calls herself up-front, but I think most people would call her pushy, bossy and demanding," said Seth. "She's always in my face, and I don't appreciate being put down because I haven't done something exactly the way she wants, or in the time limit she deems appropriate. My standards for cleanliness, for example, may not be at her antiseptic level, but we're not living in a pigsty.
"It makes me furious when Sharon assumes that her way is the better way, so I walk out of the room. I refuse to get into a shouting match with her. That's not my style; besides, I never win an argument, anyway. I'm sick of being the bad guy around here, and I can't stand the way she talks to me. So when she pushes me to the wall, I blow up and we end up in another rip-roaring fight.
"It's certainly news to me to hear her say I'm a good father. You'd never know it from the way she treats me. It's not easy living with a woman like Sharon. I fell in love with her energy and feistiness; she was fun to be with. But those qualities have come back to haunt me.
"There's no question in my mind that Sharon's work takes up way too much time. Sure, I understand she has to go the extra mile in order to advance, but she has eaten dinner with the family twice in the last month. When she promises to be home, she invariably shows up late. Weekends are often even more chaotic. I know she enjoys her work, but we hardly have any time alone together anymore and she simply doesn't spend as much time as I think she should with the kids. If that's the way it's going to be, fine--but then where does she come off criticizing what I feed the kids or what I do with them?
"It's certainly news to me to hear her say I'm a good father. You'd never know it from the way she treats me. It's not easy living with a woman like Sharon. I fell in love with her energy and feistiness; she was fun to be with. But those qualities have come back to haunt me."She Makes Me Feel Worthless"
"Like Sharon said, soon after we married, I tried to resuscitate this half-dead electrical-supply company I inherited from my uncle. When that went bust, I started a computer-service company out of my home. It wasn't growing as fast I had hoped, so, as my wife's job got more demanding, we sort of fell into our current arrangement. I don't think either of us planned it or expected it to last this long. I know I didn't.
"Sharon does all she can to make me feel worthless. Many times, she talks out of both sides of her mouth: She says she needs and wants me to be involved with the kids, but she second-guesses me all the time. I'm Mr. Mom, with all this responsibility, but she doesn't treat me like an equal partner. She treats me like I'm her lowly assistant. She makes 100 percent of the decisions.
"Yes, Sharon had to drag me to counseling, but maybe it will help after all. We certainly haven't been able to call a truce on our own."
"At first, Sharon and Seth were like two snarling lions. What they had initially assumed would be a temporary role-reversal had, over the years, become permanent, triggering major upheavals and agonizing bouts of self-reflection about responsibilities and expectations. These two had been arguing for so long, they rarely spoke civilly to each other. What's more, though they were struggling with division of labor issues that confront all working parents, they had never actually sat down, discussed their problems and tried to hammer out a solution that made sense for both of them.
"However, before they could even begin to discuss practical issues, Sharon and Seth had to learn to control their anger so every conversation wouldn't deteriorate into a shouting match. Sharon had to understand how important it was to take the time to view issues from her husband's perspective, instead of marching into the house like a drill sergeant issuing orders. What's more, though Sharon liked to think she was handling the discrepancy in their income in a caring fashion, the reality was that many times she treated Seth like a second-class citizen. She had to curb her hurtful outbursts, and also to say a simple "I'm sorry" when words she regretted slipped out.
"Whereas Sharon was a get-it-off-your-chest kind of person, Seth was a time bomb, holding onto his hurts until his anger exploded. Instead of making his own needs and concerns clear, Seth spent most of the time defending himself against Sharon's criticism. Shy and lacking in self-confidence, he nevertheless had an inner resilience that neither he, nor his wife, appreciated. In time, Seth shored up his sense of self-worth, developed confidence in the decisions he was making and began to feel good about the choices he had made. Many men would have been swamped by the business failure that Seth had managed to use as a springboard for a new, rewarding life.
"Once Sharon and Seth broke the cycle of criticizing and defending, they worked on finding ways to turn their arguments into opportunities for mutual understanding and cooperative decision-making. To do this, they had to learn to rephrase their complaints, fears and desires in terms of what they want and need (using softer "I" statements rather than blaming "you" statements), instead of focusing on what their partner is, or isn't, doing. Sharon, for example, learned to say, 'I'm concerned that Kylie isn't developing good study habits. Can we talk about it?' instead of lambasting Seth for allowing Kylie to do her homework with the stereo on. They also had to learn not to react defensively to what their partner was saying but rather to ask themselves, 'What makes sense about what he or she is saying?' Many times we're so angry with our partners that we stubbornly dig in our heels and ignore the kernel of truth in their words.
"Once these two were able to speak honestly with each other, they began to focus on the practical scheduling and chore-war issues that fed their anger and triggered so many battles. Ideally, working parents should discuss their respective roles before having children and keep on talking as the requirements change. But, like many couples, Sharon and Seth were unable to recognize that their respective contributions to the family were equally valuable and essential.
"For these two, talk and time were the real healing factors. Bit by bit, the general level of tension dissipated, and they realized that many of the issues that loomed large a few months ago weren't so critical after all. More importantly, they were able to adapt their positions to find solutions that genuinely made them both happy. As Seth grew more confident and happier in his parenting role, Sharon relaxed her control and rigid standards. She realized she didn't have to do it all, and, if she allowed him to, Seth could manage more than adequately. To ensure that they stay on top of things, they now sit down each Sunday night with pencils and paper, and jointly plan who does what in the upcoming week. 'But if something unexpected comes up, we don't keep score anymore,' says Sharon. 'We just do what needs to be done.'
"For her part, Sharon admitted that she needed to prioritize tasks at work so she could leave at a reasonable hour and be home for dinner at least a few nights a week. And, as Seth noted during one of their last sessions, she hasn't worked weekends in two months. Sharon will probably always feel ambivalent about not being the primary parent, 'but my working-mom guilt has tapered considerably,' she reports. They've learned to laugh and enjoy each other's company once again. 'I think we both feel more in control of our lives, like we're making joint decisions about our family, rather than having things done to us,' Seth says."
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on a true story, though names and other details have been changed. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.