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"Mark is embarrassed by the way I look," says Sherry, 31, a homemaker and mother of a 2-year-old daughter. "He makes snide, sarcastic remarks about my lack of control around food because I haven't lost my pregnancy weight since Ashley was born two years ago. He'll say things like, 'Must you eat those French fries?' I feel like he's counting the scoops of ice cream in my bowl. When he returns from the supermarket with bags of fat-free cookies and low-fat frozen yogurt, I want to throw it all in his face.
"He's become just as obsessive about our daughter. He tells me, 'If you eat that in front of Ashley, she's going to pick up your lousy habits and be fat, too.' He freaks out if I take her to a fast-food restaurant for a hamburger -- but he'll take her there to play in the playground and then not let her eat anything! What's so ironic is that my husband, in all honesty, would never be mistaken for Brad Pitt. He's not fat, but he could certainly stand to drop a few pounds. He never exercises, either.
"I want to lose weight, but I've never been able to stick to any weight-loss or exercise program. And the way Mark harps on me makes me very defensive. He sounds like my parents used to and, before I know it, we're into these tit-for-tat battles about everything from food and exercise to cleaning the house and discipline. He complains that I'm far too lax with Ashley and keeps saying, 'How come she listens to me, but never to you?'
"Growing up, I was overweight -- not obese, but chubby. Kids can be cruel and I was often the butt of jokes. But what hurt the most was that it was so clear I was a disappointment and embarrassment to my parents. They were both slim and attractive, and keeping up the Joneses was important to them. Mother didn't like having a chubby little girl.
"I got so many mixed messages from them. When I was about 10, my mother, who was a housewife, would prepare these two-inch-thick grilled cheese sandwiches, piled with bacon and, when I'd finished it, she'd scornfully say: 'Sherry you eat like a truck driver.' She dreaded taking me shopping for clothes since we always had to go to the chubby department. Once, she bought me this purple winter coat, which I loved but, when we got home, she told my father I looked like a little ox in it.
"As I got older, my father, who worked for the city government, would often comment that the boys were never going to be interested in a chunky girl like me. It's funny -- my older brother was so much heavier than I was. Now, though he's a doctor, he's still very overweight. But they never gave him any grief; he was the boy, the future doctor.
"I never felt I could stand up to my parents' criticism. I knew what they were doing was hurtful, but I stuffed it inside. Periodically, I'd lose some weight but I'd always yo-yo right back up. I put all my energies into my school work and, at least there, I excelled. I majored in economics in college, landed a good job at a research firm after graduation and found a tiny apartment in the city. I met my husband when we shared a beach house one summer.
"At the beach house, Mark and I became instant friends. He's very unpretentious, the kind of guy you could talk to for five minutes and feel as if you've known your whole life. By Labor Day, we knew we wanted to get married. After our honeymoon, we moved into his city apartment for a few months while we looked for house in the suburbs -- I wanted to live in the city, but Mark didn't. I stayed at my job, Mark worked in a brokerage firm and, for the first few years, I really think we were very happy.
"But looking back, there were hints of trouble. Besides the comments about what I was eating, he would often push my buttons. He complained -- and still does -- about the house not being neat enough; that I didn't have a nice dinner waiting for him when he got home, things like that. For God's sake -- I was working, too. I didn't have time to clean as thoroughly as his mother may have and I was overwhelmed at the prospect of furnishing a house in the first place. Why couldn't he make dinner? Just last week, he ran out of clean shirts and blamed me because I hadn't taken them to the laundry. Is this the Fifties? I know that each of these issues, separately, sounds silly and insignificant. But when you bicker about them day in and day out, over time, you just stop caring. I think that's what started happening to us.Emotional Escape
"When Ashley was born, I'd hoped things would change. To be honest, I was not thrilled about being a mother. Mark is very into family and he desperately wanted a child, but even when I was pregnant I was anxious about being a good mother. I never felt I was cut out to be a stay-at-home mom. Ashley was perfect, and I kept waiting for that rush of mother love to hit. Not only did it never come, I found myself growing increasingly agitated as the weeks passed. Ashley would cry, and I couldn't calm her down. I'd stopped working and felt trapped, insecure and lonely. I'm embarrassed to say there were times when I feared I might be turning into a neglectful mother. I never did anything to harm her -- but I'd become so enraged and exhausted, I'd leave her in her crib screaming, while I went into the other room and screamed even louder.
"Whenever I'm stressed out, I head for the refrigerator. In the middle of the night, if I'm up with Ashley, or even if she's sleeping, I'll sneak down and polish off a frozen cheesecake -- standing up! Before I know it, I can eat a giant size bag of chips. Eating always calmed me down -- for a while. Then, I'd be swamped with guilt.
"I'm convinced the weight issue has destroyed our sex life; it's been months since Mark and I have made love. I feel unloved, rejected -- you can imagine how it feels to have someone turn away from you in bed.
"We're not close inside or outside the bedroom. There's no warmth, no affection, no sharing. It makes us both wonder if we should start talking about divorce. We've been married for four years, and neither of us want to separate, especially for Ashley's sake -- but I've about given up hope."
"I do want Sherry to lose weight -- not just for me, but for her, too," says Mark, a stockbroker. "This is a serious health issue for her and for our daughter. If we don't start now to instill proper eating habits in Ashley, she'll never learn.
"Frankly, weight has always been a concern of mine, too. I shopped in the husky department. My father died suddenly from a heart attack when I was in college and I suppose I became somewhat obsessive about health after that. My father always had a heart condition, but he never took care of himself. He smoked, he ate anything he wanted. I guess I'm still angry at my dad for not paying attention to his health. I don't want that to happen to me.
"I grew up in a close-knit family. My grandparents lived with us so there were three generations under one roof, plus lots of aunts and cousins nearby. My parents would have the usual arguments -- "Helen, you're raising my blood pressure!" Dad would say -- but I knew there was a lot of love there. In fact, my parents were loved and admired by everybody; they were the kind of people everyone in the community knew you could count on. I was very close to both of them. I used to go to work with my dad on Saturdays -- he managed a wholesale automotive supply company -- and that made me feel very special. Mom was your typical Jewish mother: self-sacrificing but always there for her kids. She didn't spoil us, but she probably went way beyond what was necessary to fill our every need. I remember going home for lunch in elementary school, and Mom would always prepare a hot meal for me.
My brother was five years older than me and we were also pretty tight. But when I was 25, he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. It was a total shock -- he'd had no symptoms -- and he died six months later. Losing him so soon after my father's death was devastating. I was in a daze for almost a year. Everyone at my stock brokerage firm was very supportive, but I know I did a lousy job during that period. I don't think I began to recover until the summer I met Sherry.
"Like Sherry said, we clicked right away. Sherry is smart and we shared the same values. But she's reserved, holds a lot of things inside and stands on ceremony. I don't understand that; if I'm upset about something, I discuss it. How else can you work it out? Sherry closes off until she blows.
"I wish she'd be more affectionate. There are many days when I wonder if she really cares about me at all. Okay, I went overboard about my shirts the other day, but the point is, she doesn't appreciate a lot of the things that are important to me. I'm not a neatness nut, but I like the house to be straightened up. And I like to sit down together for a nice dinner, not eat in shifts, catch-as-catch can.
"Her thoughtlessness also gets to me. I once sent beautiful tulips to her office for our anniversary and, instead of bringing them home over the weekend, she left them there. She said it was too hard to carry them on the train. But when her boss gave her flowers to celebrate the completion of a big project, she managed to lug them home.
"I comment about her weight because I love and care about her. As a child, my mother always worried and looked out for her family's well-being -- I'm doing the same thing, but Sherry takes what I say all wrong. Since the whole point of therapy is to be honest, I have to say that yes, Sherry's weight is a sexual turn-off. I was always attracted to thin women and, when we first met, Sherry was probably the thinnest she's been in years. But she hasn't mentioned that, many times, she's just not in the mood for lovemaking. She's tired, she's stressed out, she just wants to go to sleep.
"If we didn't have a child, I might have moved out a while ago. Living like strangers is not a marriage."
"Critics make us feel stupid, just when we need the most reassurance," says Dr. Cohen. "But the truth is, not all criticism is off base -- though it may be hurtful and could well have been offered in a more helpful way. If you can't stop thinking about what someone has said to you, or if several people tell you the same things, perhaps it's time to re-think what you are doing and why.
"The messages from childhood are key to our self-image and self-esteem as adults. In fact, the alarming epidemic of eating disorders among increasingly younger girls -- some as young as 9 or 10 -- attests to the insidiousness of this problem. Sherry, for example, had been bombarded with mixed messages that undermined her confidence and battered her self-esteem. Her mother would prepare fattening meals, then criticize her daughter for eating them. The clear parental preference for her brother also left her feeling unloved and unworthy.
"Like so many women, Sherry was raised to believe it is inappropriate to demand something. As a result, they often don't know how to be heard in their own marriage.
"For Sherry, as for so many of us, food replaces intimacy. Because closeness was a rare commodity in her family of origin, Sherry has shut down emotionally yet she's filled with an unspoken rage and sadness. The combination of unsympathetic, critical parents who provided mixed messages about food, as well as society's glorification of thinness, are triggers for compulsive overeating. This was and is the only way Sherry can relieve her anxieties.
"Mark's intention may be admirable, but he needs to pay more attention to his wife's reaction to his words and find a way to rephrase his comments so they are heard in the way he wants them to be heard. Criticism can kill a relationship. It cuts conversation short and pushes the other person into defensive mode. But criticism doesn't have to hurt. If handled with love and kindness, at the right time and in the right place, it can help a relationship grow. Instead of announcing what Sherry shouldn't be doing, Mark needs to explain how her overeating makes him feel and why. One way to do that successfully is by using the construction, 'When you...then ....' By saying, 'When you overeat, I worry that you're affecting your health,' Mark can express his concern and love without tearing Sherry apart.Misreader Syndrome
"When Sherry and Mark came for counseling, they were seriously considering divorce. They both felt emotionally alienated, rejected, and unloved. These two were victims of the mindreader syndrome: Instead of telling each other how they really felt, they remained silent on their expectations and needs.
"Nevertheless, I felt that if I could help them recognize why they had become so distant, and then suggest ways to resolve their communication problems, they really were good for each other. Mark's extroverted, empathic nature -- he's very social and has maintained many close friendships throughout his life -- is a perfect balance for the shy, introverted, tightly-coiled Sherry.
"A key part of therapy involved helping them both deal with the legacies of their pasts. To this end, I spent several individual sessions discussing Sherry's conflicted feelings about motherhood. In the safety of my office, Sherry poured her heart out -- something she had never done before since she couldn't talk to her mother and lacked close women friends. I explained that every mother is, at some point, flooded with similar concerns. What's more, every woman experiences motherhood differently. 'There is no right or wrong way to love a child,' I told her. 'Your daughter is thriving. You must be doing something right.' I also encouraged Sherry to enroll in mother/child classes and parenting workshops where she could meet other mothers. At the same time, I told her to work hard at being her own cheerleader. Positive self talk can go a long way toward changing the self-image we have of ourselves. Just as it hurts others when we criticize them, we hurt ourselves when we judge ourselves too harshly or try to live up to standards that are unrealistic or unnecessary.
"Mark's family of origin was the opposite of his wife's. Whereas Sherry's family erected emotional boundaries around each member, Mark's was too intensely involved -- all in one corral, so to speak, with no boundaries. Though there was a great deal of warmth and love, Mark didn't realize that it was not healthy to be so overly involved in another person's life, even if you love them very much.
"What's more, because his father had been negligent about his health and because his older brother had also died so young, Mark became hypervigilant about health and fitness. In one sense, he became co-dependent with those he loved. Worried, frightened and hovering, he projected his fears onto his wife and became too involved in Sherry's overeating -- to her detriment as well as his own. Sherry saw this as controlling in every aspect of their marriage. However, Mark was honestly unaware that his actions were anything but helpful.
"Another destructive childhood legacy was the fact that Sherry had never learned how to be close with others; she found it difficult to make and sustain friendships, or even to demonstrate her love for Mark now. Never comfortable talking to her parents about anything, she didn't realize she wasn't communicating in her marriage, either.
"Since Sherry had always derived a great deal of self esteem from her career, we discussed the possibility of her returning to work on a part-time basis. After thinking about this, she contacted her old firm, who were thrilled to have her back. She arranged a three-day-a-week position, and has hired a babysitter for Ashley on the days she's at the office. This new arrangement has spurred her confidence and reinforced her sense of self worth.
"Interestingly, both Mark and Sherry complained about not being understood as well as their partner's failure to recognize that certain actions were hurtful. I suggested they both keep a journal of their concerns and feelings and, every Sunday night, once Ashley was asleep, they made a point of reading those journals aloud. This simple exercise taught them both a great deal about how they were unwittingly hitting each other's hot buttons.
"This was particularly important in regard to Sherry's eating disorder. I explained to Mark that whenever one partner becomes too involved in a spouse's problems -- be it drug or alcohol abuse, gambling or overeating -- it can not only exacerbate the spouse's problems but also prevent the co-dependent person from having to deal with their own problems. 'Stress overeating is Sherry's problem,' I told Mark. 'You can't help her, so don't try. Let's concentrate, instead, on what you need to work on.'
"Mark had never fully grieved for his father or his brother. During several individual and joint individual, Mark finally cried the tears he had held in for so long and expressed the felt that his father's death might have been prevented. 'How could he leave us all like that?' he sobbed. He spoke, too, about how the small things that Sherry disparaged -- like remembering the tulips or cooking a nice dinner -- were, to him, an expression of love. Hearing her husband speak so movingly made Sherry realize that she had to work harder to think of ways to show her love.Understanding the Root of Their Problems
"Once a couple truly understands the roots of a partner's problems, it becomes much easier to see the obvious ways that they are distancing themselves. Instead of focusing on Sherry, Mark has begun his own exercise program. He also bikes for forty-five minutes three times a week. In conversations with Sherry, he's much more aware of how and when he phrases his comments. When he says something hurtful or unreasonable, Sherry now has the confidence to tell him so. 'And now I know that just because Sherry doesn't make a hot meal every night, it's not a testimony of her love,' Mark said at one of our last sessions.
"For her part, Sherry regularly attends Overeater's Anonymous meetings and they are looking for a support group that Mark can join, too, though currently there is none in their area. However, because of all the changes at home -- her feeling better about being a mother; her ability to stand up to Mark when he says something hurtful; and her return to work -- Sherry has less need to run to the refrigerator and she's lost thirty pounds. Although she will never be an effusive person, she has become warmer, softer and more open with her husband and has made a number of close friends.
"These two ended counseling after two years -- and I just got an announcement in the mail heralding the arrival of their son Jared along with a note from Sherry. She reports that she'd gained only twenty-five pounds with her second pregnancy, and is working with a nutritionist to help her lose it sensibly. She plans to take a two month maternity leave, before leaving her baby with an in-home childcare person and returning to the work she loves. 'And I'm behind her one hundred percent,' added Mark."
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. 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.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine.
This is a serious medical disorder that can be effectively treated with medication (antidepressants or antipsychotic drugs), psychotherapy and support groups -- but only if it's recognized. Here, some facts to know:
1. The typical baby blues -- crying for no reason; feeling down in the dumps, irritable or anxious --- usually resolve after a few days. However, true postpartum depression lingers well beyond the first few days or weeks.
2. New mothers suffering from postpartum depression may sleep too much or too little, overeat or undereat, or lose interest in things or people that used to give them pleasure.
3. Victims may feel hopeless and helpless. They may have fears of harming their baby or themselves. They may even hear voices telling them to do something dangerous. Spouses and family members must be vigilant: A depressed mother often feels ashamed; after all, society expects them to be joyous after giving birth -- and they are anything but.