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May 30, 1994|By the Editors of Ladies' Home Journal

"Rick is like a little boy, constantly demanding my time and attention," sighs Brenda, 35, a third-grade teacher and mother of a 6-month-old. "He berates me for being distant and insincere. To be honest, I don't know what's gone wrong with a marriage that seemed so perfect."

When they first met, Brenda was enchanted by Rick's enthusiasm and eagerness to talk about how he felt or to discuss things that intrigued him. That kind of intimate sharing was something she had never experienced as the only child of self-absorbed, uncaring parents. In fact, Brenda remembers spending most evenings eating alone at the kitchen table with only a book for company.

But lately, Brenda feels swamped by the demands of her new baby, her job and her husband. "I find myself with twice as much to do and half the time to do it in," Brenda says. "I'm running around like a chicken without a head, and he gets hurt and angry if I don't jump into his arms and smother him with kisses the minute he walks in."

Rick thinks nothing of interrupting her, she claims, as soon as she sits down to work on a lesson plan. Brenda believes that her husband is oblivious to her needs and is furious that he rarely takes any responsibility for even routine chores around the house. "How can he be so selfish?" she asks. "Aren't I entitled to time alone?"

Rick, 36, doesn't think he's being selfish at all: "I'm delighted that Brenda is so devoted to her work and to our son. She's always there for Jeremy." But, he adds: "What about me?"

As far as he's concerned, his once-loving, sweet-tempered wife--the woman who used to listen so attentively when he spoke--is now cold and disconnected. "I've tried everything, from being affectionate to teasing her out of her moods, but she clams up and sulks silently."

He's tired of Brenda's excuses and insulted by her reactions. "Whenever I ask what's wrong, she tells me she's just busy or tired, or she sighs in this long-suffering kind of way that makes me feel stupid and unloved," he says. After a while, those explanations wear thin. If she has enough time to grade papers, why doesn't she have enough time for him? he wants to know.

"Brenda has so much to be happy about, I can't figure out for the life of me why she's always angry and uptight," Rick says.

These two haven't a clue why their marriage has derailed, and their constant arguing is tearing them both apart.

"Sometimes the very qualities that attract people to each other in the beginning become a problem as the relationship matures," says Cora Freedman, a family therapist in Scarsdale, N.Y. That's what's happening to Rick and Brenda. And while it's a common scenario, it can be avoided if couples remember that what they don't say to each other is often as powerful as what they do say.

For instance, Brenda is unable to admit to herself, let alone to Rick, that she is exhausted and simply doesn't have the mental or physical energy to devote so much time either to him or to herself. Instead, she expects Rick to miraculously know how she's feeling and pitch in with the baby or the grocery shopping.

From Rick's point of view, he's acting the same way he always did but getting a different reaction. He doesn't know the script has changed--and Brenda hasn't bothered to tell him the new ending. No wonder he's upset.

The next time you and your partner seem to be at loggerheads, ask yourself if you are expecting too much of your partner. Take the time to think through what may be troubling you. Then, spell out for your partner what you need, suggest a possible solution and ask for his advice or help.

Be specific. Brenda might say: "Look, I know you want to talk, and I appreciate the way you want to stay close. But right now it would be really helpful if you could just give me half an hour to be by myself."

Unless you clearly state what you need, your spouse will understandably feel unappreciated--and you will both continue to be frustrated.

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