"We've Been Growing Apart for Years"
The Counselor's Turn
Couples often wake up in their 40s feeling disconnected when in reality they've been growing apart little by little for a long time. At the point when they realize there's a problem, many people assume it means their relationship is beyond repair. Some head straight to divorce. Others have affairs first. But growing apart like that is a common part of being married and middle-aged. You're often working full-time, raising teenagers, managing a household, and looking after aging parents. Combine that with the fact that you're no longer putting energy into your relationship the way you did when you were newly married and the result is not pretty. It's easy to just assume that, after 10 or 15 or 20 years, your marriage will take care of itself. But if you don't nurture it, it will die. That's what was happening to Pam and Ross.
Despite their disconnection, Pam and Ross still loved each other, so I was confident that they could save their marriage if they changed their priorities, improved their communication, and worked as a team. "Life has taken its toll on your marriage," I told them in their first session, "but your relationship isn't a lost cause."
Pam and Ross both put in 10-hour days at the office and checked work e-mail at night as well as on weekends. Add in the time they devoted to driving the kids around and attending their activities and there wasn't much time for them to spend with each other. "You went in different directions because you got overscheduled," I said. "Put your marriage back into your schedule."
Both Pam and Ross cut their work hours, which created more couple time. Now they meet for a drink on their way home from work every Friday, they take walks every weekend, and they go out to dinner twice a month. "Getting away from the daily routine helped us rediscover each other," Ross told me. "We've had time for those deep conversations Pam misses so much!"
They also had to work on talking about what wasn't working. "If you address something in the moment, it's easier to fix than if you hold it inside until you explode," I explained. But you have to talk about it in the right way. Pam needed to say to Ross, "I feel upset when you don't check the kids' homework folder unless I ask you." She also had to make direct requests, like "I want you to walk the dog before bed," instead of silently hoping Ross would do it and then being angry when he didn't. As for Ross, he learned to say, "I want Chinese food tonight" or "I want to go hiking this weekend." And I gave them ground rules: No raising your voice and no leaving the room. Change wasn't easy, but over time Ross became more comfortable asserting himself and Pam learned to calmly tell him what she wanted without accusing him or losing her temper.
As their communication improved, Pam and Ross renegotiated parenting and household responsibilities. Ross helps Jacob with homework and Pam works with Lauren. By cutting back a bit more at the office, Ross can drive the kids and run errands several nights a week. This has lightened Pam's load tremendously. "I don't feel like everything is on my shoulders now," she said.
After a year in counseling, the couple turned their relationship around. "I'm so glad I gave us a second chance," Pam told me in the last session. She and Ross still have conflicts, for sure. And their lives will continue to be stressful. But thanks to their stronger connection and improved communication skills, they don't let their emotions get the best of them anymore.
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?"® is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews and information provided by Marc D. Rabinowitz, LCSW, a couples therapist in Norfolk, Virginia. The story told here is true, but names and identifying information have been changed to conceal identities.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2011.