"My Sick Husband Got Better and Our Marriage Got Worse"
The Counselor's Turn
"It was immediately clear that once Nate got back on his feet, Abby felt lost without her caretaker role," said the counselor. "It had come naturally. She'd loved helping with her younger siblings, an experience that steered her toward teaching. While he was sick and dependent on her, Nate was childlike, so she was in her element. But as Nate correctly pointed out, nurse-patient is not a healthy model for a long-term relationship between equals.
"Additionally, Abby's strong bonds with her large family were a stark contrast to Nate's experience as an only child in a dysfunctional family. He'd learned early to fend for himself and was uncomfortable with big get-togethers and constant family contact. I decided to talk with Abby privately to find out whether she cared enough about Nate to compromise on this issue. Nate had been unequivocal in professing his love for Abby, but I'd heard no similar expressions from her. She'd said only that she liked feeling needed by him.
"Abby thought back to when she and Nate were first dating and he wasn't yet included in family functions. They'd gone out by themselves and had a fabulous time. 'I was crazy about him,' Abby said. 'He was so romantic, bringing me flowers and little gifts. And he never yelled. That started when my family came into the picture. Maybe if I cut back on family stuff, he'll calm down.'
"'That's a strong possibility,' I told her. But the couple also needed to learn how to handle conflict more effectively. I taught them my four-step STOP strategy: Stop -- halt the conversation when you start to get uncomfortable with the way it is going. Timeout -- physically separate for 30 to 60 minutes in order to calm down. Own your part -- take responsibility for your role in creating the problem instead of attacking your partner or defending your position. Peace offering -- after you come back together and talk about what you each learned in your time apart, seal the deal with a kiss or a promise to change a behavior."