Joanna Ts Story



While this couple has been married over twenty years and has five kids, the problems they are facing are common with many parents today. Studies have shown that most couples--no matter how long they’ve known each other, or how much they’ve discussed raising a family--are totally unprepared for the enormous challenges that come with parenthood: What happens to a couple’s relationship when baby makes three? How can you be partners and parents, too?


That’s right. These studies also show that marital satisfaction often decreases dramatically with each child. Unless each of you is sensitive to your own and your partner’s needs (to be loved, to feel important), self-esteem plummets and resentment builds. If you don’t heed the warnings, the marriage can crumble. As you’ll see with this couple, the seeds of discontent are often sown long before the labor pains begin.
JOAN'S TURN, Part One:

“Nat and I have been together for so long, I never thought it would come to this,” says Joan, forty-four, a tiny, soft-spoken woman who was so angry with her spouse she barely glanced his way.

We've known each other since grade school, and married when we were in our twenties. Twenty-four years and five children later, we’re actually talking about getting divorced.

I come from a large family, so it’s not unusual that I wanted one of my own, is it? But mine wasn’t a particularly happy family. My father was an alcoholic. Back then, no one acknowledged that sort of thing; they just pretended it didn’t exist. Although he wasn’t physically abusive, my father would often scream at me and my siblings and he treated my mother horribly. Every night, we’d wait anxiously to see what state he’d be in when he walked in the door. Would he be screaming and throwing things, or would he be calm and loving? His rages terrified me; when he was angry, I would cry on my bed with a pillow over my head.


The legacy of alcoholism is a burden that many families still carry and have to deal with. Children who grow up with an alcoholic parent are often left feeling anxious, inadequate and lacking in confidence. These feelings stem from growing up in a home that's filled with chaos and the imminent threat that, at any moment, things might unravel. These feelings are often carried over into adulthood in different ways.


When a child's home environment is as unstable and unsupportive as Joan's was, they don’t know whom they can trust. Worst of all, they begin to doubt themselves. Joan desperately needed an emotional anchor to feel good about herself in some way. This is reflected in many of the problems she’s having with Nat.

JOAN'S TURN, Part Two:

“Nat and I lived near my folks when we first married, but after our third child, we moved to a house about an hour away from them in a lovely community with a lot of other young couples. I devoted myself to my family, which grew and grew. We now have three biological and two adopted kids. I know everyone wonders how I manage. What can I say? I started having kids when I was very young.

At one point, after the fourth child, I did decide not to have any more children. But I was only thirty-five, and didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I could either go to college and finally get my degree, or find a job. But when I sat down and made a list of all my strengths and weaknesses, I realized that, more than anything, I love being a mother--and I’m very good at it.


As the oldest of five children and daughter of an alcoholic father and passive mother, Joan had stepped into the role of family caretaker early on. Now she wants to be sure that her own children never face the same problems she did, so she’s poured herself into mothering with a vengeance. A surrogate mother to her siblings, she continued to nurture them all even after she had married. Unfortunately, she believes that being a mother is the only area in which she excels--and the only area in which she has some sense of control. Sadly, that belief is holding her back personally--and hurting her marriage.

JOAN'S TURN, Part Three:

“When I read in the newspaper a few years ago about unwanted children needing homes, I spoke with my family about adopting another child. They were all in favor of it. We contacted the proper social-services agency, and soon were the parents of six-month-old Christine. In the next few years, we added one more to our family: John. We adopted John when he was just a few months old. The authorities think he may have been abused by his birth mother--maybe that’s why I have such a special place for him in my heart.

We both adore John. He can be an irresistible imp at times, but other times, he can be so funny, he can make even the most serious person laugh out loud. I have to admit, though, he’s demanded more of my attention than all the other kids combined! In fact, one thing John does has been causing major friction between Nat and me. Recently he has insisted on staying in our bedroom at night. He sleeps on the floor, wedged between a dresser and my side of the bed. We’ve tried endlessly to get him to move to his own bed, and he’s been seeing a counselor, but sleeping alone is a frightening experience for him. He and Nat are very close, but Nat thinks I’m far too lenient with him and wants me to demand that he leave the room. How can I do that? The child is scared, for heaven’s sake. The truth is, Nat has been accusing me of being too lenient with our kids from day one. I’m tired of battling him about every issue, big or little."


Arguing over how to raise and discipline the kids is a hurdle most parents find difficult to leap. You say no TV; your husband lets them watch. He insists junk food is off-limits; you think he should relax. While such disagreements are natural, if not properly resolved, they can actually trigger even more problems.


That’s right. When parents disagree openly in front of their children, kids get mixed messages. For example, if, like Joan and Nat, parents are on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to discipline, most likely, they won’t enforce any rules they do make consistently or firmly. What’s more, children may start to think that they're the root of parental arguments--and they may well fear losing their parents’ affection and attention.

JOAN'S TURN, Part Four:

“I was always active in the community and at school. Currently, I volunteer at a soup kitchen; in the past, I've been a Cub Scout leader and a basketball, soccer and cheerleading coach. The list is long. I have the most wonderful memories of being with my kids and their friends, memories I’ll always treasure.

Still, our life isn't perfect. We’ve had our share of difficult times. A few years ago, one of our grown daughters had cancer--a rare form of lymphoma. It’s a miracle she’s alive. In spite of the chemotherapy treatments, she was able to have a baby last year. Then, one of our sons was in a bad hiking accident and part of his leg was severed. He now only walks with a limp, and can do pretty much everything he did before. What got us through the difficult times? Faith, I suppose. And being able to cry and talk things through with others. I’ve always had a large circle of friends and family who I count on. But for Nat, it's much harder. He thinks it’s a sign of weakness to show emotion--with the exception of anger, that is.


Anger is a leitmotif in Joan’s life, as it is for many people. Though we face our partners as adults, right behind us are the shadows of our parents. Whenever Nat flies into a rage, speaks to her in a brusque manner, or criticizes her, that hot button from Joan’s childhood gets pushed. He sounds just like Daddy did.


Also, because of her father’s abusiveness, Joan tends to avoid conflict at all costs, as you’ll soon see. Rather than fight with her husband, she either plays the blame game and holds him responsible for their ever-increasing problems, or withdraws in silence and stews with resentment.

JOAN'S TURN, Part Five:

“I really can’t say when the problems started. Over the years, I just got more and more engrossed in taking care of the children, and we slipped farther apart. The fact that Nat is a workaholic and simply isn’t home all that much has added to our distance. In fact, he spends a great deal of time in our apartment in the city.

Let me explain: It’s about a two-hour drive from Nat’s office in the city to our home. When our oldest son decided to live in the city, he asked Nat if he wanted to split the rent with him. The idea was that Nat could stay there one or two nights a week to break up the long commute, or if he didn't want to face the ride home after entertaining clients late at night. We all agreed that getting the apartment sounded like a good idea. But now Nat spends the whole week in the city and comes home only on weekends.

By then, so much has happened it’s hard for him to catch up. Not only is it impossible for me to take the time to explain what happened to a family of five in the past five days, I simply can't remember everything. He complains that he feels closed out, that he’s the last on my list of people to pay attention to. Well, that kind of talk is infuriating. What does he expect? He’s a grown man; it’s the kids who need my attention. Nat can’t always be number one.”


This is the crux of the Marders' problem. While Joan sincerely loves being a mother and sees it as her true calling in life, she’s completely missing one crucial point: If you don’t pay attention to your marriage, if you fail to make your relationship a priority, it simply won’t last.


People come up with lots of reasons why they can’t put their marriage first. The demands of children, work and housekeeping top the list. But the truth is, your children will benefit far more from seeing an emotionally healthy, warm relationship than from receiving constant attention. Making your marriage number one is an investment of energy that keeps the whole family in balance. It helps to remember the chores will always be there, but you can never recapture the time you spend with a spouse.

JOAN'S TURN, Part Six:
“I must say, sometimes I really resent his comments. When he comes home and asks, `How could you let Nat Jr. do that?’ or `How could you give that money to Marie?’ my back goes up. I tell him, `Look, you weren't here. When you’re away, I make the decisions.’ I’ve been handling everything and everybody for so long, who is he to criticize me? “He wants to fight, but I’m not going to argue. I’ve never been one to get into screaming matches. The problem is, Nat can yell so loudly sometimes, I think he’s going to burst a blood vessel. What can I possibly say to this man to calm him down?"


We meet many women with complaints similar to Joan's. She’s used to being the boss, and she doesn’t appreciate when Nat comes home and throws a monkey wrench into her well-oiled machine.


Joan often feels she is a single parent, which is certainly a tough job, but at least you don’t have to answer to anyone but yourself. Joan likes it that way. But her defensiveness is driving a wedge into her marriage. Like many women we see today, she’s also a micro-manager. A real perfectionist and a striver, she does more than she needs to do, and says yes when she really should say no.
JOAN'S TURN, Part Seven:

“One of my husband’s biggest complaints is about money. He’s always yelling at me for keeping terrible records. He says he can’t understand how we can still be in debt when he works so hard. I don’t think Nat has any idea what it costs to run a home. And if our children need money, even though they’re on their own now, I want to give them a hand. I don’t think that’s such a terrible thing, do you?

We obviously have our differences. But we're not dealing with them right now. Either he screams at me, or there's silence. We never talk anymore, certainly not about anything important. We’ve grown apart. I go about my business, he goes about his. I can’t remember the last time he put his arm around my waist or gave me a hug. Even his kiss good-bye in the morning is perfunctory. Sometimes he even forgets to kiss me goodnight.

I still care about Nat, but I don’t think I’m in love with him anymore--at least, not like I used to be. And I know the kids are worried. They hear Nat yelling, and they ask questions like, 'Are you and Daddy going to get divorced?’ We can’t go on like this. We have to resolve things one way or another.”


Joan doesn’t consider Nat her ally in any way, and at this point, she seems to have given up hope that despite their long history together, they'll be able to breach the gulf between them. Afraid to confront Nat directly on any issue, she either plays the blame game and holds him responsible for their ever-increasing problems, or withdraws in silence and stews with resentment. Does Nat feel equally pessimistic?

NAT'S TURN, Part One:

“Can you believe Joan says I'm her number one priority?” yelled Nat, forty-two, a large man with a booming voice. Number seventeen is more like it.

She’s right about one thing, though; I am angry, and frankly, it’s mostly Joan’s fault. She’s a good, loving woman, but she has no room for anyone but the kids. I’m a stranger in my own home, but I still do care.

Just because I work long hours doesn’t mean I don’t care about my family and don’t want to know what they’re up to. I ask about what’s happening, and she tells me,`Oh, nothing.’ I ask why she did something, and she either gives me a blank look or she gets mad at me for daring to question her. I’m not interrogating her; I just want to know. I’m the father, remember?

She never has any time for me, either. If she’s not busy with one of our own children, it’s her sister, her brother or her nephews and nieces. I love them all, but enough is enough.”


Most couples march into our offices blaming each other and these two are no exception. Each feels the other is responsible for the rifts in their relationship. Joan blames Nat for being hostile and angry. Nat blames her for being cold and unaffectionate. Each is right--but their relationship is wrong.


What they don’t realize is that righteous blaming creates a dead-end relationship. These two need to start taking responsibility for their own shortcomings. They’d feel closer if they could view difficulties as problems to be solved rather than as fault residing in their partner.

NAT'S TURN, Part Two:

“You know, when we married, it was a different era. We were both the eldest in a large Catholic family, so having lots of kids was no big deal. But Joan and I are opposites. I’m very outspoken and outgoing. I say what I think and don’t like to hold things in. Joan is quiet and keeps her feelings under wraps. She’s always positive, never says anything bad about anybody. I think I’m realistic. She thinks I’m negative.

The problem is, I can’t talk to the one person it’s important for me to talk to. If I get the slightest bit agitated, she clams up. I believe that if you have a problem, you should discuss it. She won’t, and never has.


From Nat’s point of view, Joan is being incredibly selfish--and in one way he's right. She’s taking care of Nat’s custodial needs--raising his children and tending the home--but ignoring the emotional ones. He’s angry--and rightly so--when she constantly puts the needs of the kids before his. Of course, the way he handles his anger, expresses his feelings--coupled with his low tolerance for frustration--are defeating his cause. No one can, or should be forced to, deal with a person this angry. Nat is confusing verbal bullying with being verbally abusive.
NAT'S TURN, Part Three:

“Right now I feel more like a money machine than a father or husband. I make a good living, but there is never, ever enough. Joan is spending money faster than I can make it. I don’t know where it goes, and when I try to get her to keep track, she forgets or deliberately deceives me. Sure, she told me she was giving our daughter some money. I figured fifty, sixty dollars, right? Well, try six hundred dollars! Did she think I wasn’t going to find out? She’s also gotten our credit rating all messed up because she keeps putting off paying bills. We decided that was her job, so I don’t understand why she’s not doing it.

Look, I know she doesn’t spend money on herself; she spends it all on the kids. A lot of the time it's because she just can't say no. She's been overly permissive with the kids for years. She never asks any of the children to do anything around the house, and if they ask for something, she runs to buy it. She shouldn’t be their servant.”

The amount of time I spend in the apartment has been blown way out of proportion. I thought having a little place to stay in the city would ease my stress because I wouldn’t have to go back and forth. But now the apartment is another source of tension between us. Of course, Joan is exaggerating when she says I spend the whole week there. I have never stayed there more than two nights a week.

Even at home, we never have time together. We have absolutely no privacy. Joan leaves the bedroom door wide open. . . all the time. The kids just march right in. I’m probably closer to John, our youngest, than any of them, but I’ll be damned if I want him sleeping on my bedroom floor any more.

What can I say? I have a wife and five kids, and I’m lonely. I feel like I don’t have a friend in the world. Joan is a wonderful mother, but once in awhile, it would be nice to have her say I love you. If she can do it for the kids, why not for me?”


Nat, like many men, feels the burden of financial responsibility--more so given the extra-large family he and Joan are raising. Nevertheless, problems may arise if a husband becomes too work-focused.


Clearly, the apartment is a good idea gone sour. But it is symbolic of this couple’s almost total lack of communication. When they do talk at all, they discuss only mundane details of their lives. What they need to do--what every couple must do--is take a regular reading on the state of their marriage. Whether it's five minutes or fifteen a night, they need to carve out time to ask themselves: How are we doing? Is this how we envisioned our life together? Would we be happier if something were different? What can we do to make that happen?

Nat’s complaint is legitimate--and one we hear from countless husbands whose wives have found it difficult to integrate their maternal role with their sexual role. Often the women who used to dance till dawn now fall into bed, exhausted, well before midnight. Joan must realize that she needs to make her bedroom a haven for her and Nat, not a community rec room.


"Nat and Joan were so alienated from each other that our initial counseling sessions served as a sounding board as well as a vehicle to help them break the communication barrier,” note the Moschettas.

The marriage had been rocky for the last five years but had deteriorated rapidly in the last two. They shared a home and little else and were only able to talk to each other in our offices, where we could act as referees.

Having endured her father’s abusive rages, Joan was actually terrified of confrontation. In her marriage, she avoided arguing and would gladly suppress her own feelings if it meant avoiding a fight. Of course, by avoiding arguing, she was also avoiding communication of any kind. Nat is a hail-fellow-well-met kind of guy; he is gregarious and hearty, in sharp contrast to his demure wife. If he has something on his mind, he’s not afraid to say it. He is also an openly affectionate man, and Joan is not. However, he had a hair-trigger temper that scared Joan and obliterated any chance they might have had for having a real, balanced conversation.

When they first came to see us, Nat and Joan each insisted they were right and refused to see the other’s point of view. While it was a positive sign that they continued to come week after week to talk about their situation, we were at an impasse until the fifth session.

Here’s what happened: Even though they lived just one town over from ours, Nat and Joan would get lost every time they came to our office. Nat, who would usually drive, would always try to take a shortcut and get them lost on the way. One evening, after riding around in circles for the better part of an hour, they ended up by the town duck pond. Upon seeing it, they both burst out laughing. That broke the ice. As Joan revealed, `I realized we had stopped having fun. I couldn’t remember the last time we laughed together. It felt so good. It struck me then that if you know someone for such a long time, plenty changes. You get old, you get fat, you get bald--but if you can keep your sense of humor, you’ll be okay.’ In fact, as a prelude to the rest of their sessions, they would visit that same duck pond on purpose, just to sit and chat before they came to see us.

Joan had lost sight of the importance of putting her marriage first. We told her forcefully, 'Your marriage must always be your number-one priority. It is the best gift you can give your children, too.’

Joan was genuinely puzzled to hear Nat say he didn’t feel loved. Though she was not overly affectionate, and never had been, she was sure he knew how she felt. `I’ve always taken such wonderful care of him. I keep the house clean and launder his clothes, I plan the meals around foods he loves. . . . That’s an expression of love, isn’t it?

We told Joan that, yes, it is, but that wasn’t what Nat wanted. `You need to say I love you outright, to give him a hug, to become more fully involved in lovemaking.’ Joan listened and said she understood, but for some reason resisted making the changes.

That’s when another breakthrough occurred: During one of their talks at the duck pond, Joan reminded Nat that after their last natural child, she had been very upset that he had refused to have a vasectomy. `I think I have resented you--unconsciously, maybe--all this time because of that. I had asked you to take some responsibility for birth control and the fact that you wouldn’t do that for me hurt.’ Clearly, for many years, Joan had avoided and repressed her hostile feelings. Recognizing this was the first step in beginning to change the relationship--as well as beginning a new pattern of sharing deep feelings with each other.

Another breakthrough occurred during one session when Nat spoke in touching terms about how mechanical his life has become. Rather than complain or attack, he revealed his sadness and his loneliness. This confession had a huge impact on Joan. She was able to hear, for the first time, the feelings behind her husband’s words. And she understood that he was hurting as much as she was.

That had a dramatic effect on the shy Joan. Though previously reluctant to initiate lovemaking, she revealed another side to herself that evening. Nat came to the next session beaming: 'She did it!’ he exulted. `She closed the door, she got out a sexy nightgown--which I didn’t even think she owned--and we had sex. . . twice!’ As Joan discovered, while feelings trigger behavior, in many cases, the opposite is true as well. If you change the way you act or react to your partner, the good feelings engendered can have an energizing impact on your relationship.

In the following weeks, Joan took other courageous emotional steps. She issued a rule that from now on, the bedroom door was to be closed at 9:30 P.M. After that time, Nat and Joan were not to be disturbed unless it was a true emergency (as Joan put it, `Only if you see blood'). The children had to respect their parents’ privacy. And they understood and accepted this with much less difficulty than Joan ever anticipated. For the first week, John, in protest, slept on the floor outside their room, but now he’s sharing a room with his brother--quite happily.

Nat appreciates how difficult establishing this rule, and making all the other changes, has been for Joan. He has committed himself to controlling his temper. Now that Joan has put their marriage high on her list of priorities and she lets Nat know that he is loved, he doesn’t get as resentful as he used to. Joan also has worked hard to stick to her budget and refrain from using credit cards. When the family finances are under control, Nat is much more relaxed. He’s toying with the idea, however, of switching jobs. `I know at my age and level of experience, it won’t be easy, but I want a life that’s less demanding, less stressful, one that gives me time to be with my wife,’ he says.

The Marders were in counseling for four months. Though their divisions were deep initially, they made such quick progress because they are both genuinely nice people whose values are fundamentally in sync. Joan will most likely never change her permissive attitude toward her children, but as Nat remarked at one of our last sessions, `Some battles you just have to stop fighting.’ Indeed, these two are so much more attuned to each other that this complaint has dramatically decreased in importance. `Now, you could say that I’m number four on Joan’s list,’ he quips. `That’s progress!’ ”

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