"I'm convinced this marriage is over," announces Debbie, 38, a part-time cashier in a supermarket. Though she and Chuck had been high-school sweethearts, their lives began to unravel 11 years ago, when Chuck uprooted the whole family and moved them to Florida.
"I was perfectly happy back in Ohio," Debbie explains. "I had my mother and sisters and tons of friends. We could afford a decent house and a night out once in a while." But when the recession hit, jobs became few and far between for Chuck, a construction worker. The year they barely made it through Christmas, he decided to follow a friend's advice and check out the building boom down South.
"Three weeks later, he called and told me he had jobs lined up through the spring. 'Sell the house! Pack up the kids!' he said. Like a dope, I did," says Debbie. "Now I'm miserable."
Florida was not the paradise they had envisioned. Their tiny rented house "in the middle of nowhere" had no trees or grass. And Chuck's wages were half what he had been earning. "We'd start bickering at breakfast about money -- Chuck picks on me for every purchase -- and pretty soon we're fighting about everything."
In the beginning, to make up for the low salary, Chuck worked 80 hours a week, sometimes sleeping in his van and not coming home for days. But even when he is home, he holes up in the den and never spends any time with the kids. Debbie tried to persuade herself things would get better, but they never have. "I've had enough," she says firmly. "The kids are older now. I want out."
Chuck, also 38, has his own list of frustrations, and it's a long one: Debbie, he insists, is profligate with his hard-earned money; she never comparison shops and always buys the most expensive brands. And she has some pretty snooty ideas of what it takes to live well: "You don't have to go to fancy restaurants or expensive amusement parks to have a good time. What's wrong with a picnic? Or the local park?" he wants to know. Debbie, he insists, is also a terrible housekeeper and a poor disciplinarian, letting the children throw their things all over the place.
"There's a reason I bury myself in the den," he says. "It's because the rest of the house looks like a tornado hit." While Chuck wants to work on their marriage, he refuses to take all the blame for its deterioration.
Forum for airing differences
"These two had both been silently angry and unhappy for so long they had completely lost sight of the things that brought them together and saw little reason to hope that the future would be any better," notes Walter E. Barker, a marriage and family therapist in Orlando, Fla. Considering the conflicting pressures that working parents today must endure, it's easy to see why they lose the ability to put frustrations into perspective and envision possible solutions. Couples like Debbie and Chuck need a forum not only to air differences, but also to give themselves a chance to think about the good things in their marriage.
However, to make sure these discussions don't deteriorate into fights, keep these rules in mind:
* Bring up only one or two issues at each discussion session. Agree on the agenda ahead of time, so neither of you feels ambushed.
* Once you've set aside the time and chosen the issues, don't continue to bring up flagrant violations all week long. Keep a list, in your head or on paper, and discuss your grievances during your discussion time.
* Pick a time and place when you're both comfortable and can talk freely. Some couples prefer a neutral spot -- a quiet restaurant, for example -- where it's less likely that someone will yell, cry or storm out.
* After you state your problem, and your spouse has responded, brainstorm as many possible solutions as you can think of. Be impartial, if you can; pretend you're solving someone else's problems.
* Remember that when problems are overwhelming, it's easy for couples to lose sight of how far they've come, and the many things they are doing right. Give your marriage a boost of optimism by reminding yourselves of what you have to be happy about.