Originally created 08/04/98

Can this marriage be saved?

"I can't listen to Keith go on and on about his problems anymore," sighs Eve, 37.

"Because Keith doesn't have a lot of friends, he's always turned to me," Eve explains. "I've listened when he fretted about doing well at work, when he had problems with his boss, when he was convinced he wasn't doing a good enough job, when he agonized about how to handle his brother or his mother. My full-time job was to make Keith feel better about Keith. For my husband, the glass is always half-empty."

Now, it's time to focus on Eve. "I'm tired of being the strong one," she says.

Eve's family has always looked to her to pick up the pieces of their lives. "Family is very important to us, and we've worked hard to create an atmosphere at home that's different from the cold and distant ones we grew up in," she says.

In fact, their children, Justin, 13, and Eric, 11, are the focus of this couple's life: They rarely go out together in the evenings, and they have never taken a vacation alone. Still, it's become harder to be the kind of wife Keith expects, Eve says.

"I've become short-tempered and snippy and I brush him off. I know I'm doing it, but I can't stop. The minute he opens his mouth, all my wrong buttons get pushed."

Though Eve has told Keith he should get counseling, he is reluctant, and they have been arguing about it ever since. How can she get him the help he needs?

The trouble is, Keith, 38, a lawyer, never thought very highly of counseling or therapy.

"Being able to talk freely to Eve was the reason I fell in love with her," he says.

"Growing up, I never felt anyone was ever around to listen. Eve would always be there to help me figure things out."

Keith is the kind of person who needs to talk about how he feels. If he were worried about his older brother's health problems or a big project at work, he would just start talking.

"Eve was always encouraging and upbeat. I was shocked when she told me she couldn't take it anymore," he says.

"Eve has changed," he laments. "She's not supportive; she has no patience for me anymore and, frankly, she treats me like bad help. But I'm afraid counseling will make things even worse."

Getting help

"Keith is blindsided by Eve's unwillingness to be his perpetual sounding board," says Nanette Berman Cohen, a marriage and family therapist in Merrick, N.Y. "She had been such a good listener that he had fallen into the habit of pouring his heart out to her. When she announced she could no longer tolerate this, he felt betrayed: "Eve changed the rules in the middle of the game."

Intelligent and articulate, Keith speaks clearly and easily about his feelings, but he probably has been depressed his whole life. He has continuous negative thoughts, which feed on one another; he slips automatically into this pessimistic outlook; he feels a sadness far out of proportion to reality, without realizing that there are other ways to perceive a situation and other conclusions that can be drawn from the observations.

However, like many men, Keith not only doubts the efficacy of counseling but fears it could make matters worse. How can you get a reluctant spouse into counseling?

First, quit trying to guilt trip him into going. Temper tantrums and emotional appeals won't work. He will feel attacked and dig in his heels. Unless you're dealing with a spouse who is abusive or addicted, hard logic and direct confrontation probably won't work. Instead, try gentle persuasion.

Here's how to do it:

•  Figure out why he is so resistant. Is he afraid that he'll be on the hot seat, that you and the counselor will gang up on him? If that's the case, agree to meet with the counselor he feels comfortable with. If he refuses to go because he feels he "doesn't need fixing," be sympathetic but avoid fighting. Calmly explain that you're not implying that he bears all the responsibility for whatever problems you are having, that you're willing to share the blame and hope he'll join you.

•  Don't wait until problems become insurmountable. Eve felt pressured by Keith long before she finally called a halt to his complaining. By this time, she was beside herself. Speak up as soon as you notice a pattern that troubles you.

•  Pick a time to talk when you are feeling confident and upbeat. This way, you'll be able to explain clearly how you feel and won't get derailed by his comments.

•  Help him see patterns in his behavior. Without blame or accusation, point out some parallels he might not have noticed. Show empathy for the way he is feeling or the problems he faces. Suggest that even the strongest person can benefit from the advice of a qualified professional.

•  Help him find a counselor who is right for him. The resistant man will find any excuse not to go. Make it easier by supplying him with the names of several qualified candidates.

There are many types of therapy and therapists, so it's best to think about what you want to get out of counseling and explore your options before you begin. The more traditional psychodynamic therapy explores the connections between your childhood experiences and the way you are today; interpersonal therapy examines the relationships in your life; behavioral or cognitive therapy identifies distorted logic so you can change the way you think -- and behave; and solution-oriented therapy focuses on ways to correct problems. To find a counselor near you, call or write:

•  The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (202-452-0109), 10 17th St., 10th Floor, Washington, DC 20036-4601.

•  The American Psychiatric Association, Division of Public Affairs, 1400 K St., N.W., Washington, DC 20005.

•  State psychological associations (check the Yellow Pages).

•  The psychology departments of universities or teaching hospitals.

If he still refuses, go by yourself. Experts agree: It's best when both partners go for counseling, but you can still make progress in your marriage if you go alone. Many times, when one person changes, the other person has to change in response.

From Ladies' Home Journal


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