She Thinks I Never Do Anything Right. So Why Even Try?
The Counselor's Turn
Kate and Brendan's marriage was a classic "pursuer-distancer relationship." The more Kate nagged, the more Brendan ignored her. At first she did all the talking -- mostly berating him for his shortcomings. Meanwhile, he didn't say much. I could see how the relationship played out at home, with Kate screaming and Brendan walking away. They needed to restore balance to their marriage by changing their perspective, behavior, and communication techniques.
Every couple I've treated plays the blame game. As I told Kate and Brendan, it takes two to create conflict but it's easier to focus on what your spouse did wrong than it is to examine yourself. The attitude is, "I don't want to change, because I don't trust him to change" or "Why should I do all the changing?" But someone has to take the first step. Once that happens, everything starts to shift.
During the first two months of counseling, Kate refused to see how her perfectionism and controlling nature had pushed her husband away. The turning point came in a breakthrough session. Brendan complained that Kate was too bossy and critical. He also admitted that he was unhappy in their marriage -- something he'd never verbalized but had demonstrated by avoiding Kate and staying out late. Brendan's newfound candor helped Kate accept some responsibility. She realized she'd need to change her approach if she wanted him to take more initiative and be more engaged.
Without question, Kate is a perfectionist. Her father had a drinking problem and Kate became a control freak, as many children of alcoholics do to compensate for their chaotic home life. She was in high school when her father died and her mother, a physician, started relying on her to help run the house and look after her younger brothers. Given Kate's family history, it was understandable that Brendan's drinking would trigger anxiety in her.
Brendan is a laid-back type B. Though he's ambitious and detail oriented about work, he never sweats the small stuff at home. He grew up in a family that avoided conflict, so he didn't learn how to express himself verbally. Instead, he ignored Kate's orders and shut down, which kept the pursuer-distancer dynamic alive.
Opposite types can find happiness together, but only if they bring those tendencies into better balance. Kate couldn't relax or tolerate household disorder, so she resented Brendan for leaving clothes on the floor and watching TV while groceries needed to be put away. It was hard for Brendan to express himself or to maintain structure outside of work, so he resented Kate's tidiness and her ability to speak her mind. They were both letting their differences drag the relationship down.
"It's very common to be attracted to somebody who's your opposite in certain ways," I said. "But over time -- and with the addition of careers, kids, and a house -- those same traits can undermine the relationship. You start to resent your partner for the very characteristics you once found attractive." Kate admitted she was drawn to Brendan in part because he was so calm and laid-back, and Brendan said he'd definitely admired Kate's efficiency. "The solution is to try to take on some of those positive traits yourself," I told them. "If you absorb just 10 percent of what your partner offers, it will change the dynamic."
I advised Kate to give herself permission to chill out with a good book or go for a run. When she feels overwhelmed, she must ask Brendan for what she wants -- say, 30 minutes of alone time -- instead of hoping that he'll read her mind and whisk the boys to the playground. What's more, Kate needed to relax her standards. "Is it more important that your kids wear matching socks or that there's harmony in the house?" I asked her. I also urged her to speak to Brendan nicely when she needed help around the house and then give him positive reinforcement for following through even if he didn't do it perfectly. "If you continue to order him around and criticize him, he won't be motivated to be more cooperative and engaged in family life," I pointed out.
Brendan needed to be more assertive with Kate. "Be honest if you can't fix something on her timetable or if you have to take a call," I told him. "You undermine Kate's trust when you leave the conversation or make a promise you can't keep." In addition, I advised him to take initiative and raise his standards. By being more proactive in helping with the kids and cleaning up, he'd show Kate that he's serious about being an equal partner, and that would help Kate calm down.
Kate and Brendan worked hard to transform themselves. During the year they spent in counseling, Brendan's company took off, allowing him to move out of his home office and rent office space. This has enabled him to draw better lines between work time and family time, which, in turn, has reduced Kate's stress. "She can rely on me to pitch in more, so there's less tension between us," he said. "I try to keep Kate informed about my work schedule so she can plan around it." Brendan also stopped staying out late once he understood why his drinking was causing Kate's anxiety. Now he plays poker with his buddies once a month -- and calls home if the game runs past midnight.
Meanwhile, Kate is trying to let go of thinking she's always right and to tolerate some clutter. "Therapy helped me understand that perfectionism is my issue -- and it's not fair for me to demand that Brendan share my standards," Kate said. "Every day I remind myself that the world won't end if the laundry doesn't get folded the minute it comes out of the dryer." She's backed off Brendan, which has made him more responsive. The other day the boys clogged the toilet with paper, Kate mentioned it in passing, and Brendan plunged it immediately. "Kate's happy I'm doing more, and when she's happy, she yells less and is more fun to be around," Brendan said. They try to spend time together after the kids are asleep and go on lunch dates during the workweek.
"Counseling made me realize that relationships need constant attention and open communication," Kate said. "Brendan and I had stopped paying attention to each other, and clearly, we weren't communicating effectively. We still have our struggles, of course. But we know how to fix things now, and that makes me feel like we're partners again."
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 identifying information have been changed to conceal identities.