Partners need to face each other's pain


January 08, 1995|By The Ladies' Home Journal Los Angeles Times Syndicate

"Larry and I share a terrible secret that we've never told anyone," says Monica, 41, a homemaker with two children, 12 and 8. "In fact, we never even talk about it ourselves anymore -- and I think it's one of the reasons our marriage is slowly falling apart."

Monica and Larry have spent their adult lives working toward the goal they mapped out when they were first engaged. At the time, he was 22 and banking on a college education. She was 18, willing to work as a secretary to put the man she loved through school. "We vowed that by the time we were ready to have a family, we'd be able to give them every advantage we never had when we were growing up," Monica says.

But while they were still planning the wedding, Monica got pregnant. "I was a good Catholic girl who never meant to go all the way, but then once -- just once -- we got carried away," she recalls. Monica didn't let herself believe she was pregnant until she had missed two periods and, when she finally told Larry, they were too scared to do anything, so they let another month go by. Then one night they had a long talk and realized that if they rushed into marriage and became instant parents, their future would be jeopardized.

"I knew that meant I'd have to have an abortion -- which I'm actually not against, although I know my church is," Monica explains, as tears fill her eyes. "I would do it again if it meant giving the children I have now a better life. But that doesn't mean I don't cry every year on the anniversary of that day."

Her husband, however, refuses to acknowledge this painful point in their lives. "He seems to have been able to put the whole thing out of his mind," Monica says.

But she can't do that, and their lack of honesty in this matter has, she believes, slowly pushed them apart. "We don't talk about anything anymore. We're not a team," she says.

Larry is as unhappy as Monica is, but he refuses to let past mistakes destroy his future. "Look, we made the decision to have an abortion and it's history," says Larry, 45, a civil engineer. "I can't see dwelling on it."

Larry's religious beliefs were not an issue in the decision, and he knows it was much harder for his wife. "But though I feel terrible about it, I don't see the point in discussing it. What good will it do now to talk about something that happened years ago?"

Dealing with loss

"Like Monica and Larry, many couples have difficulty sharing the painful feelings that result from loss or disappointment," notes Susan Bornstein, a clinical social worker in Newton, Mass. The key is to make sure negative emotions aren't bottled up for so long that they threaten personal well-being as well as the health of the marriage. These techniques can help all couples get problems out in the open:

* Develop a ritual for sharing good as well as bad feelings. Schedule a regular time -- at least once a month -- to tell each other what's really on your minds. Once you get used to this routine of being frank, you'll find it easier to be honest at all times.

* If one partner is upset, the other should listen intently and refrain from talking except to restate what he or she hears as the problem. Don't say, "Don't worry, everything will be fine," or "Look at the bright side." Such platitudes not only trivialize your partner's pain, they keep him or her from talking it out. Once Larry was able to tell Monica that he, too, had been sad and upset about the abortion, she realized that his matter-of-fact manner on this topic was a defense to help him go on. Her anger lessened and no longer prevented her from responding to him when he needed to talk about work or other issues.

* Don't let feelings of helplessness keep you from comforting each other. When a problem seems to have no solution -- say, a death or disability, or, as in this case, Monica's abortion -- simply admitting to another person how bad things are, or how angry or sad you feel, lets each of you find ways to compensate for the tragedy. And when you learn to face trouble together, your reward will be a closeness that lets you truly enjoy the good times you do share.

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