"I can't stand the fact that my husband is doing drugs," said Sharon, 30, who's been married for three years and, until her daughter Laura was born nine months ago, worked in the promotions department of a clothing designer. Elliott, she says, has promised to stop smoking marijuana a dozen times. "He tells me he'll stop when he gets his master's degree, or when he lands a good job, or when the baby is born," Sharon says. "But nothing ever changes.
These two argue constantly. Overwhelmed with caring for the baby and missing adult company all day, Sharon desperately needs to talk when her husband gets home at night. "But Elliott is oblivious to my needs," she insists. "He walks in the door, announces that the house looks like a bomb has been dropped on it, then steps out on the terrace for his nightly smoke."
Elliott, a 32-year-old accountant, is just as adamant. "I know Sharon's furious," he says in a tight voice, "but she refuses to listen to my point of view. Smoking marijuana relaxes me. It is not interfering with my work, I don't do it in the house, and I'm not getting into a stupor every night. I am certainly not a drug addict who is endangering the life of my child."
The marijuana issue is one of many Sharon hounds him about, Elliott explains. "She's always in my face, swamping me with her anxieties, hammering away about spending time with her or helping out more." He wants to, he says, but Sharon's relentless nagging sends him out the door, where he takes a two-hour bike ride or goes for a workout at the gym.
"Sharon and Elliott are locked in a series of power struggles that neither understands or knows how to break," explains Jane Greer, a marriage and sex therapist in New York City. In fact, many couples struggle with similar problems. Unable to talk through and work out problems, a husband tunes out his wife by turning on the TV, working late or disappearing altogether with friends for the evening. The wife remains frustrated, furious and often depressed at her inability to get a spouse to hear what she's saying and change his behavior.
A key factor in perpetuating power struggles is the insistence of one or both partners that a spouse change to suit them. Sharon has to understand that, at this point, Elliott is not going to do that, and she has to figure out whether, and how, she can live with that reality. If you, too, feel you're between a rock and a hard place, these steps can help you put your situation into perspective:
1. Bite your tongue. You may not be able to change your partner, but you can change the way you allow his actions or words to affect you and what you do. If you've been pushing for change to no avail, stop. All too often, couples keep trying to solve a problem the same old way, ignoring the fact that this tactic is not working. The obvious, but overlooked, solution: Try another one.
Indeed, the more Sharon demanded that Elliott quit smoking, the more he stonewalled. Also, by voicing all the concerns about his drug use, Sharon was unwittingly perpetuating it. Interestingly, during an individual session, Elliott admitted that, contrary to his hardline policy with Sharon, he did want to stop smoking. As they began to get along better, he quit drugs.
2. Focus on what could be better between you if the behavior stopped. Rather than carp about his TV watching, his pot smoking or his drinking, talk about how much you miss the closeness you once shared, his involvement with the children or simply the fact that he doesn't consult you before he goes somewhere or does something. Decide what's most important to you, stick with one issue at a time and work on that. When his wife did this, emotionally detached Elliott was able to talk about his feelings and concerns. For her part, Sharon learned to listen without interrupting or justifying her behavior.
3. Find ways to be less dependent on your spouse. Emotionally needy and anxious, Sharon looked to her husband to provide the only adult companionship in her life. Once she became friendly with other new mothers in the neighborhood and began to share her feelings with her new friends, she felt less need to pounce on Elliott at the end of the day. As she pulled back, the tension at home decreased as did the once-constant bickering.
Reprinted from Ladies' Home Journal magazine.