Couple has to learn again how to behave like allies


"We were the best of friends when we first got married, but now Alan and I have only the shell of a marriage. Inside, there's nothing," says Jane, a 42-year-old teacher and mother of two school-age children.

"I'm sure everyone thinks things are just fine," she adds, and on the surface, they are. "We go out with friends and have a good time; we're there for our kids; we function like every other couple." Function is the key word, she explains, because as far as she's concerned, their marriage is more like a business relationship -- and a barely civil one at that.

The only time they talk now is to coordinate responsibilities, such as who's picking up the boys from soccer practice. In the last few years, when Jane tried to discuss something with Alan, she always had the feeling that, though he nodded at the appropriate times, he never really listened. That's in marked contrast to the marathon conversations they used to have. Jane feels as shut out as she did as a kid, when she had to deal with a critical, demanding mother and a father who refused to become involved in the never-ending mother-daughter battles.

Money worries are making things worse: Until recently, Alan was out of work. "This is the sixth time in 20 years," Jane says. "He always has some reason why a job isn't working out. I accepted his explanations when we were younger. But now we have two kids and a mortgage. I'm burned out."

When Alan is employed, she says, he's a workaholic, spending late nights and weekends at the office. "He's just never there for me."

But Alan feels Jane is never there for him, either. "My wife has neglected to tell you what a witch she can be," says Alan, also 42, whose quiet voice belied the anger in his words. Instead of talking, she hurls sarcastic insults and accuses him of being a failure, when he's been working as hard as he can. "Do you know what it's like to live with a woman who treats you like a screw-up?" he asks rhetorically.

Jane's treatment confirms Alan's own deep-seated belief that he will never amount to anything. When he does try to talk about problems at work, Jane belittles his ideas, he says, and panics about the catastrophes about to befall them. "She doesn't appreciate my feelings or ideas at all. So I built a wall to protect myself," says Alan. "What else could I do?"

Working together

"Alan and Jane have lost the friendship that was the foundation ** of their marriage," says Evelyn Firestone Moschetta, a marriage and family therapist in New York and Huntington, N.Y. "Now, they are intent on proving their individual points and placing the blame squarely on each other."

Before they can save their marriage, they have to start acting like allies instead of adversaries. That's not easy when couples must contend with years of unspoken resentments and outright hostilities.

Are you and your partner in a similar relationship rut? Is it possible to unload years of emotional baggage? These rules can help you refocus your priorities and feel closer, even in the face of continuing problems:

* Remind yourselves that there are no bosses in a marriage.

* Keep a tight rein on your tendency to judge and find fault. When partners have differing ideas, mutual respect is essential. Respect your partner's way of thinking and getting things done as well as his opinions and feelings. You're not required to think or feel the same way, merely to brainstorm and compromise.

* Avoid making unilateral decisions. Teamwork means consensus, and consensus is based on sharing, not competing.

Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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