December 23, 1996 in Features

He Can’t Let Me Just Be Happy

Ladies' Home Journal

“I never thought good news could turn my 17-year-marriage into a nightmare,” says Alexa, 39, who recently fulfilled a longtime dream of returning to graduate school after staying home full time to raise her twin daughters, now 15. Last year, when Alexa finally applied to a prestigious psychology program at the local university, the whole family was thrilled for her, “Lloyd especially,” she recalls. After all, he had often commented on how she sacrificed a career to help him through law school and keep their home, she explains.

“But barely four months into our new schedules, Lloyd and I are fighting all the time.” These days, she says, her husband walks in the door and fumes when he finds himself alone. “If the house is empty because I’m at class or the girls are at a friend’s house, he mopes,” Alexa reports. “If dinner isn’t ready - which, of course, it often isn’t since I’m not always home - he grumbles that he’s being neglected.”

Alexa is befuddled. “We’ve always had a very good marriage. We’ve always talked, always supported each other. Why is he acting like such a baby?”

Alexa admits she’s been more on edge lately. “Last week, I yelled at him and at the girls, and right now I can’t even remember what I got so worked up about.”

Lloyd, 42, is defensive about his actions and feelings. “I’m very supportive,” he insists at first. “I practically had to sit down and fill out her grad school application myself.” But now he admits things have changed more than he anticipated. Most of all, he misses the time they had together. “Now we’re like the proverbial ships passing in the night,” he laments. “I can’t remember when we had a quiet evening at home to just do nothing.”

When even good news shakes a marriage

“Alexa and Lloyd, like many couples, don’t understand the strong impact that change can have on even a solid marriage,” notes Marc Snowman, a marriage and family therapist in New York City. “In fact, they were both stunned to discover that even happy events can cause a disruptive jolt.” If a change, even one for the better, has taken place in your life, these tips can help.

Recognize that change of any kind is stressful. Even good news - a promotion at work, the birth of a baby, a long-awaited move - can trigger upheaval. Anything that takes time and attention away from the marriage means that couples have to work harder to restore those key elements. For instance, change often requires that couples may have to adjust their individual expectations regarding the amount of time they will spend together and how they will spend it. Understanding this, and not rushing to fix blame, is important in dealing with change.

Consider the patterns you’ve been exposed to. An ability to adapt well to change is a temperamental quality; some people are capable of tolerating it better than others. Family dynamics also play a large part in how we adjust to change, positive as well as negative. If you were raised in a chaotic family with little structure, you may crave stability as an adult and react poorly to any kind of change. On the other hand, if your parents handled changes with aplomb, they modeled good coping skills for you, which you probably help you in stressful situations.

Look at change as opportunity. Instead of viewing the changes in your life as negative ones, reframe your thinking to see the opportunities. For instance, the currently disgruntled Lloyd had forgotten how many times he’d yearned for time alone. Once he stopped feeling sorry for himself, he started to take advantage of it in small but significant ways: He began to play the music he wanted, watch whatever TV show he wanted, and eat whatever pleased him - “right out of the carton.”

Plan time together. In times of transition, establish some kind of rituals or routine you can both count on for comfort. Alexa and Lloyd did this by consciously carving out time together. Instead of assuming that the weekends would be couple time, as it always had been, these two had to sit down and schedule time to be together, working around Alexa’s need to study and whatever activities their daughters had. Knowing that they could look forward to shared time helped these two feel closer.

Really listen and talk. Maybe your spouse really does have a legitimate gripe. Like Alexa, you may not believe it, or even understand it initially, but you must allow him to express it while you truly listen. Plan time to talk about how you’re both adjusting to and feeling about a change - good and bad.

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