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CAN THIS MARRIAGE BE SAVED?

COMMITTMENTS : Caught Up in a Cycle of Nagging, Ignoring

July 25, 1994|By the editors of Ladies' Home Journal

"Roger would do anything for someone he loves," says Sharon, 35, a tearful woman who works as a fund-raiser for a nonprofit community group. "That's why I fell in love with him. And it's why I'm so heartbroken now."

According to Sharon, Roger, a real-estate salesman with a firm known for its toughness, says he's going out with clients after work but doesn't tell her where and never calls to say he'll be late.

"I'm frantic, thinking his car is wrapped around some telephone pole," she says, "not to mention the fact that I have spent the entire night home alone."

When Roger is home, he's catatonic in front of the TV.

"He was never much of a talker," Sharon says, "but now he's totally withdrawn."

Adding fuel to her anger is the fact that Roger never gets around to doing any of the things he's promised to do.

Their five-year marriage began to unravel months ago.

"I've tried to be understanding," Sharon says, her voice filled with resignation, "but I can't count on him to do anything."

"As usual, my wife is exaggerating," says Roger, 32. "I'll admit that sometimes I lose track of the time. I think about calling, but I know I'll get my head handed to me."

Roger says Sharon makes him feel like he's reporting home to mother. If she's not obsessing about some problem in her life, she's haranguing him about not being there for her. "Look, I'm in a pressure-cooker office; it's much tougher than my old job. But how can I tell her about problems at work when she's so wired already?"

Roger insists that if Sharon would leave him alone, he'd get to the things she wants done. "Maybe not by her deadline, but I'd get them done."

*

"Overpowered by Sharon's relentless manner, Roger slid into what therapists call passive-aggressive behaviors," says Jane Greer, a marriage counselor in New York City and Douglaston, N.Y. It's easier for Roger not to talk, to avoid Sharon and her issues altogether, than to fend off her worries.

In other words, by being passive and doing nothing, he is continuing the conflict. Of course, this only makes Sharon more anxious. And like many people caught in a similar bind, Sharon tries to control her anxieties by controlling her husband.

Are you caught in a similar nag-and-ignore power game with your spouse? Do you feel irritated and resentful when your spouse says he or she will do something but never gets around to doing it? Here's what you can do instead:

1. First, realize that you may not be able to get your mate to change his or her behavior, but you can change yours.

2. Take control of the situation yourself by setting limits. Figure out what you can do so you're not exclusively dependent on your spouse for accomplishing your goals. For instance, Sharon can tell Roger that if he's not home by 7:30, she will meet friends by herself--and she must follow through. You can also try negotiating a reasonable deadline for him to do something. Sharon can say: "I'd like you to get the part for my computer by the end of the month. Do you think you can do it by then?" If he says yes, but doesn't follow through, then you'll at least know for sure that you can't count on him. You're forced to find another solution--one that doesn't include nagging.

3. Re-evaluate your standards. Could they be too rigid? Without giving up or giving in, is there a way to modify your request or change the timetable in your head? In every healthy relationship, partners have to accept their differences. For instance, if Sharon stops badgering him, Roger will feel more inclined to call home if he'll be late as well as do the things she's asked him to do.

4. Finally, if you find the problem insurmountable, tell your partner so clearly and strongly. You can say: "We can either try to talk this out here, or we can do it in a therapist's office." A good therapist can referee and guide your discussions toward a compromise.

Realize that you may not be able to get your mate to change his or her behavior, but you can change yours.

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