"He Works Out Too Much and Doesn't Help With the Kids"
The Counselor's Turn
The problems Greg and Emily had are certainly not unique to elite athletes. Workaholics, politicians or anyone whose profession or hobby is as all-consuming as Greg's is bound to feel a tug between their marriage and their outside passions.
"Feeling passionate about your work or your hobby is great -- up to a point," I told them. "But when your commitment to an outside interest becomes obsessive or addictive, your spouse is bound to feel neglected." Greg's running was sucking up all his energy and time. Emily legitimately wondered, "Is he married to me or to the marathons?"
When Emily and Greg got married, their interests and goals meshed well. Life was relatively easy. That all changed once they started a family. Since they were already "older" parents, they had their kids as close together as possible, though they knew they were in for some very stressful years. But without realizing it they had allowed the relationship to develop in ways that were mostly about Greg and rarely about Emily. To change that she had to learn how to speak up so he could hear her. He had to listen fully and respond to her concerns in a meaningful way.
For all his charm and social ease, Greg was a loner. He ran the ultramarathons by himself. He started his business by himself. People like Greg enjoy and need solitude, and that's fine. The problem was that he was also operating solo in his marriage. Although he thought he was making choices that were right for everyone, he mistakenly assumed that his wife's feelings and needs were the same as his. His motives were loving but his actions felt controlling and dismissive to Emily.
Meanwhile, Emily wasn't communicating with her husband. "Instead of saying how you feel and dealing with difficult issues in a candid conversation, you store up all your complaints, whether about dirty clothes, renovation debris or too much time watching Greg race," I explained. When she couldn't handle it anymore, she'd explode in a way that seemed out of proportion to the crime and left Greg feeling ambushed.
Greg was determined to understand what went wrong in his marriage so he could repair the damage. He took copious notes about everything we discussed, approaching the problem with the same zeal he applied to training for his marathons.
In our first session I explained that childhood experiences strongly influenced how they acted and reacted as adults. When Greg's parents split, he felt responsible for helping his mom raise his younger sisters. But when teens step into a parenting role, they tend to overdo it. Greg continued this pattern as an adult, believing he knew what was best for all, not realizing that Emily needed to be an equal partner. Meanwhile, Emily's childhood had taught her to put everyone else's needs before her own and to avoid conflict. But after years of feeling ignored by Greg, she couldn't take it anymore and concluded that she'd be happier on her own.
The beauty of couples' therapy is that relationship imbalances often become clear quite quickly. In this case, whenever Greg explained how he felt about something, Emily kept quiet. Each time I had to prompt her: "So, how do you feel about that?" After this happened several times they both saw the pattern and Emily understood that her silence wasn't fair to Greg or to herself.
Once the problem was clear, we discussed practical changes. Greg and Emily agreed to set aside time once a week to review the upcoming week's activities, mapping out her time, his time, family time and couple time. Greg rearranged his work schedule so that Emily could go to a 6-o'clock yoga class every morning while he got the kids up and out. He suggested a new bedtime ritual: They take turns lying down with each child and reading before lights-out. Tuesday night and all day Friday is also Emily's time to do whatever she wants. Greg holds down the fort once the kids come home from school. "I used to feel that going to an exercise class or meeting a friend for a movie in the middle of the day was selfish," she said. "Now I realize I can focus on me. And I'm loving it."
Since Greg understands how important it is for Emily to see her friends, he's trying not to feel threatened by it. And they're building in couple time early in the evening. When they unwind over a glass of wine, Emily finds it easier to bring up something that's bothering her, which they can work through before it becomes a real problem. She has started to push herself to be more up front about her feelings and Greg makes a point of checking in.
Greg and Emily continue to see me every few months. I'm confident -- and they are too -- that they know what to do if problems crop up. As Greg said at our last session, "Marriage is a lot like training for a marathon. And even the pros need coaches."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2012.