"He Loves Sports More Than Me"

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The Counselor's Turn

The counselor's turn: "Gloria and Carlos were dealing with a common problem among married couples: An outside interest had come between them, destroying their intimacy and threatening their relationship," the counselor said. "Typically, a hobby doesn't surface as a problem until a couple is living together. There are several reasons for this. First, when people are dating they may censor what they reveal about themselves, not out of deliberate deception but to gain the other person's approval. Second, they usually don't see each other every day, so they're free to pursue their hobbies with no questions asked. It's not a big deal for a single man to spend three nights a week watching sports. But it can be a big problem for a married man to be unavailable to his wife because he's absorbed in a baseball game.

"Gloria and Carlos each had legitimate grievances. His involvement in sports was excessive by any measure, and his indifference to his wife's emotional needs was selfish. She, in turn, was closed-minded about sports, and her strategy of punishing her husband by denying him sex and food was misguided and counterproductive. Still, despite their mutual anger and feelings of neglect, the couple had much in their favor: They were still in love, were committed to repairing their marriage, and had no lingering issues from childhood or previous relationships.

"My first step was to help them understand that their hobbies were expressions of the very qualities they loved about each other. Gloria was attracted to her husband's exuberance and passion, yet she deplored those traits as they related to sports -- specifically, his being overzealous about his teams. Carlos, meanwhile, enjoyed his wife's cooking and domestic creativity, yet was dismissive of her desire to watch cooking or decorating shows. 'You must change your negative attitudes,' I advised them in the first session. 'See these interests for what they are: an expression of your positive qualities.'

"Next, we addressed the couple's poor communication. Gloria needed to learn to express her feelings directly, honestly and calmly. 'Carlos may interpret your withholding sex and hot meals differently from what you intended,' I told her. 'Indirect communication leads to ambiguity and perpetual misunderstanding.'

"I advised Gloria to use nonaccusatory 'I' statements, to make direct requests before Carlos settled on the sofa to watch a game and to frame her comments in a positive way: 'There's a new movie I'd love to see with you. What's the best night to go?' In addition, I suggested they have ongoing discussions about their relationship to clarify their goals, values, expectations, beliefs and challenges.

"Carlos needed to understand that his sports fixation made Gloria question his loyalty, and that to rebuild their relationship he needed to limit his involvement. 'You're entitled to watch and play sports, but you can't let them dominate your life to the extent that your wife feels neglected,' I explained. 'You act as if it's irrational of her to want to spend quality time with you. Marriage is about compromise so that both partners' needs are met.'

"At first, Carlos was reluctant to admit that his behavior was inappropriate. But he finally got the message when Gloria threatened to leave him unless he changed. Though I believed that Carlos was being selfish, I avoided that term because I didn't want to make him more defensive than he already was. Rather, I wanted him to conclude that Gloria's concerns were legitimate. Eventually, he did. 'I took you for granted and I'm sorry,' Carlos admitted in a breakthrough session. 'I never meant to hurt you.'

"From there, the couple agreed that Carlos may devote two nights a week to sports; on weekends he may watch one game or play pickup basketball on each of the two days. So far, he has stuck to that agreement, because he understands the consequences if he doesn't. Carlos is what is known as a 'threshold changer,' meaning that only when he got to the point where his marriage was in jeopardy did he feel compelled to modify his behavior.

"Meanwhile, I encouraged Gloria to be more productive while Carlos was watching sports. 'You've poured so much energy into being mad at Carlos and trying to make him change that you've stopped doing things that bring you pleasure,' I told her. Now Gloria spends the time that Carlos devotes to sports trying new recipes and working on home-improvement projects.

"Carlos held out hope that Gloria would start to like sports, but as I noted, if you're not a fan and don't understand the game, watching on TV is about as exciting as watching paint dry. I believed Gloria was more likely to develop an appreciation if she experienced the energy of a live event. Carlos took her to see the Yankees at Yankee Stadium and the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. By explaining the rules and offering commentary throughout the games, he helped her understand strategy and key plays. This real-life activity, combined with Gloria's soul-searching during our sessions, successfully reshaped her attitude. Wrapped up in the excitement, Gloria cheered with Carlos and joined in the wave in the stands. She also discovered that she liked baseball enough to watch it on TV. 'I yell when the umpire makes a bad call, just like Carlos,' Gloria said. 'I now participate in all the activities I thought were silly.'

"Thrilled with Gloria's newfound enthusiasm for sports, Carlos agreed, in the spirit of compromise, to watch some of her favorite programs. This pleased Gloria and helped restore their intimacy. 'I'm not mad at Carlos anymore,' Gloria admitted. 'I never refuse when he makes a move in bed, and I cook all his favorite dishes again.'

"Next, I encouraged the couple to host casual parties during big games as a way to blend Carlos's passion for sports with Gloria's enthusiasm for cooking and to give their social life a boost. In the past year they've invited several couples for buffet-style dinners during the World Series, Super Bowl, and NBA Playoffs. It's truly a team effort: Carlos and Gloria plan and prepare the meals together, with Carlos in charge of chopping the fruit and vegetables and mixing the margaritas. 'It's so much fun having a project to work on together,' Gloria said. Much to his surprise, Carlos enjoys the prep work, cooking, and bartending for these parties, and he is rightly proud of Gloria's entertaining skills. 'One friend said she's the best hostess and cook he's ever met,' he said. 'I liked hearing that.'

"To help Gloria and Carlos rediscover the excitement of their courtship together, they scheduled a weekly date night, where the activity would be mutually interesting but not sports-related, such as seeing a movie or going dancing. Finally, I advised Gloria to support Carlos's efforts to involve his daughter in athletics. 'Rather than criticize, you should commend him for taking Lucy to a WNBA game and for encouraging her to play sports,' I explained. 'He's teaching her the importance of being fit and a good competitor, and he's using professional women athletes as role models.' Gloria agreed to try to play basketball, and now she and Lucy team up against Carlos in shooting contests. Sharing this new interest has helped bond the family and to restore the closeness that Gloria and Lucy once enjoyed.

"This couple worked hard in counseling to overcome attitudes and behaviors that had driven a wedge between them. As they await their second wedding anniversary, they are planning a trip to the Caribbean to celebrate and hope to add to their family in the coming year. 'We've never been closer,' Carlos told me recently.

"'Carlos is a new man, and I'm a new woman,' added Gloria. 'We're like two lovebirds -- happy all the time.'"

"Can This Marriage Be Saved?(r)" 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 Jonathan Alpert, a licensed psychotherapist in New York City and an advice columnist for the Los Angeles Times and Metro newspapers. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?(r)" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.

Could your marriage use saving? When your personal issues become too much for the two of you to handle on your own, a therapist can help. Find one near you in our online therapist directory, which includes therapists' resumes, photos, specialties and personal statements:

 

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2007.

 

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