"Things Have Gone Downhill Since He Started Working from Home"
The Counselor's Turn
"Beth and Christopher were blaming their problems on the fact that he was working from home, but the trouble in their marriage went much deeper than that," said the counselor.
"When I told them this, they were taken aback. They insisted they'd gotten along really well before the new work arrangement. I explained that weaknesses often don't show up until a relationship is under stress. In their case the work-at-home situation, plus the demands of a young child, created the perfect storm for stress, anxiety, and misunderstandings. Beth's desire for a divorce -- which lessened once she heard that her husband was willing to make changes -- was a wake-up call for both of them.
"For one thing, Beth had allowed herself to fall into the role of victim. She'd seen her parents' marriage disintegrate and was determined not to repeat the same pattern. Consequently, she tried to always put her husband's needs ahead of her own. She quietly tolerated Christopher's controlling behavior rather than let him know how much it bothered her. 'No wonder you feel trapped,' I said. 'You've lost your voice in this relationship.'
"Though Christopher seemed confident on the surface, I knew he was worried about his job. As the family's sole breadwinner, he'd felt under pressure since Jack was born. Christopher allowed his anxiety to surface as anger, irritability, and in-your-face criticism. 'You're micromanaging your wife in a way that borders on being abusive,' I told him. He was horrified once he realized that he was treating Beth the same way his mother had treated his father.
"The couple's first challenge was to learn to talk to each other in a way that didn't feel accusatory. I taught them small ways to shift the tone of their conversation. For instance, instead of beginning a sentence with 'I don't like,' 'I don't want,' or 'You always,' they could try to catch themselves and substitute phrases such as 'I would prefer that' or 'I'm concerned about.' Simple word changes can turn a complaint into a request and make it less likely to put anyone on the defensive.
"I also told Christopher that he was too quick to assume he knew what his wife was thinking and, instead, needed to ask questions first. A perfect example was when he saw Jack watching television and jumped to the wrong conclusion. If Christopher had said, 'What's your plan for Jack this afternoon?' Beth would have had a chance to tell him and they wouldn't have argued.
"As the couple began using these simple tactics, they fought less and were finally able to calmly discuss specific changes that would make both of them happier. They agreed that Christopher would continue telecommuting until the job market improved, but decided that he needed to impose some structure to his day so he could be more productive. For one thing, he announced that he would get dressed for work, instead of wearing sweats, to put himself into the right mind-set. And if he came upstairs during 'office hours,' he would limit his time with Jack and Beth to a quick hello and a hug. These simple changes kept him focused on his job and last month he actually doubled the number of sales calls he had been making in previous months.
"We also talked about how they could split household chores so everything didn't fall to Beth. Christopher admitted that he'd gotten lazier over the years since his wife was so quick to clean up after him. He promised to be more conscientious in the future and also came up with the idea of having a nightly pick-up party: After dinner he'd put on a CD and the three of them would march around the house returning toys to their proper place.
"In one of our last sessions I told Beth that I thought she was suffering from depression. She blamed it on the fact that she didn't have a job. 'I always wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, but the truth is, I don't love it,' she confessed. Christopher reminded her about her dream of starting a jewelry business and offered to help her build a Web site for her necklace designs. She loved the idea -- and so did he. If she could bring in a bit of money, it would relieve some of the financial pressure on him. Last I heard, she was already selling some of her jewelry online.
"When Beth and Christopher ended counseling after six months, I was confident their marriage was back on track. They agreed and, more importantly, had learned the skills they needed in case it ever veered off course again."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2010.