"How can I live with a man who can't stop complaining about our humdrum life?" asks Rachel, 31, a teacher who recently walked out on her husband of two years.
"Stan is a mass of contradictions," she says. "One minute he tells me how much he loves me and assures me he wants a family. The next he's rhapsodizing about quitting his teaching job and moving to an island so he can fulfill his lifelong dream of being a writer."
That kind of rootless existence, devoid of responsibility, was fine when they were fresh out of college, Rachel says, but now that they're both in their 30s, it doesn't sound so appealing.
Ironically, it was Stan's optimistic, fun-loving nature that first attracted Rachel. The eldest of five children in a family where hard work took precedence over frivolity, Rachel was a straight-A student who won a scholarship to college and put herself through grad school at night while she taught during the day. That's where she met Stan and was immediately charmed by his optimism and spontaneity.
When they married, Rachel agreed to live and teach in Mexico for a year, then in Spain for six months. "We were part of an expatriate community of intellectuals who were vacationing from reality," she explains.
Now, she's had her fill of adventures in foreign lands. It's time to stay in one place long enough to qualify for tenure, buy a house, have a baby. But Stan refuses to be pinned down. He still doesn't know what he wants to do with his life.
"Turning 30 has made me take stock of myself," admits Stan, "and if I'm honest, I don't much like what I see."
Though he's always dreamed of being a writer, his growing pile of rejection slips from magazines and publishers has dissuaded him from that career path. When he was studying for his master's degree in literature, he rekindled a passion for the subject, but felt out of his league surrounded by true scholars.
"So I fell into teaching as an interim job," he explains, but he remains ambivalent.
"I adore Rachel and I'm afraid I'm going to lose her."
Staying in sync
"Often, the very qualities and characteristics that appeared so attractive when we first met our mates become the triggers for problems later on," says Jane Greer, a marital therapist in New York.
If you feel that what you saw in your partner before isn't what you're getting now, it's natural to feel sad, resentful, angry. But you can regain your old perspective. You won't change your partner in this exercise, but you can learn to view your marriage in a more favorable light.
Write down three things that most upset or disillusion you about your partner. Flip the paper over and think about how you could recast that quality in a more favorable way.
For instance, if you think your partner is too bossy, that's a negative quality. On the other hand, someone who is controlling could be seen as a decision-maker who gets things done much faster while others spin their wheels.
When Stan and Rachel did this exercise they realized they are actually a healthy balance of personalities and needs:
He's a dreamer; she's a doer. He brings excitement and romance to life; she brings him down to earth. As long as she can give him room to dream in their marriage, they will continue to nourish each other.
As Rachel grew more open to talking to Stan about his career ambivalence, the two of them were able to work together on helping Stan focus his goals.
He realized his youthful desire to be a writer had been based more on an exotic image of himself as a famous author than on a love of the actual process of writing. As a teacher, he is gaining much more pleasure from sharing his enthusiasm for literature with his students.