Try a little tenderness, and keep on trying it

Can This Marriage Be Saved?


"When I'm criticized unjustly for one thing after another, I just can't argue and fight back," says Judith, 32, the mother of three small sons. Bruce, her husband of 10 years, hasn't had a kind word for her in years. "I know he hates his job intensely, but I don't think that's any reason to dump on me."

Judith says that the children come first for her. Her own parents, she recalls, were alcoholics, and night after night they fought. She vowed that, if she ever had children, she would always make them feel wanted and loved.

When she first met Bruce, Judith reports, "He was sweet and gentle, almost hesitant." But now she realizes that that tenderness is what she is no longer getting. "Bruce never wants to sit and talk or cuddle after I've finally gotten the boys into bed; he never holds my hand while we're out or puts his arm around me when I'm feeling down."

In fact, the only time he even comes close to tenderness is when he wants to have sex, says Judith. When she freezes up, he says she is frigid as well as a terrible housekeeper. "I can't turn my feelings on and off on cue," she says. "If Bruce is critical and distant all day, I can't miraculously warm up to him just because we're in bed."

As far as Bruce is concerned, he has always come last on Judith's list. "As soon as the boys were born, sex became a rarity, quickly consummated and frequently postponed," grumbles the 35-year-old defense systems analyst.

In fact, he says, during the last five years, his wife has become increasingly withdrawn. "What happened to that energetic, sparkling woman who burst into my life like Fourth of July fireworks?"

Judith today is indifferent to him as a man and as a lover. "When I try to talk to her about how empty and frustrating my work is, she pastes on a fake smile, tunes me out or changes the subject."

She seems interested only in the children, he insists, devoting all her time to them and neglecting everything else.

"She's in charge of the budget, but she never sticks to it, and she inevitably pays every bill late," he says.

The other day, he came home from the office to find the electricity had been turned off because she forgot to pay the bill. Dinner was sandwiches.

"I want a wife who is warm and responsive, who thinks about me sometimes," Bruce says. " I feel like a big nothing at work and at home."

Love me tender

"This marriage lacks intimacy on every level," notes Edward Olander, a marriage counselor in Los Angeles. "Judith and Bruce's relationship will never improve unless they both make Herculean efforts to change their attitudes about themselves VTC and each other."

Judith, trying to avoid friction, buries her anger and clams up. Bruce talks too much and is still unable to express how he feels. Seeking perfection, he bursts forth in a flood of criticism, dumping his personal dissatisfaction on his wife. He expects Judith to live up to an impossible image.

The good news is that couples can unlearn destructive habits and be taught to nurture each other. Here's how you can make your marriage more loving:

Don't ignore the small gestures. When a relationship is new, most people find ways to nurture it. But over time, they forget that the key to marriage maintenance is the small, loving gesture that sweetens the moment and acknowledges your love and commitment. Think of ways to show you care on a daily basis: Save your spouse a step by running an errand he hasn't had time to do; share the good news, the funny things that happen, as well as the problems; allow one of his slip-ups to go by without comment.

Speak up. A spouse won't know what you want unless you tell him or her. Judith must make clear her need for tenderness. When she began to hug Bruce when he walked in the door, it changed the atmosphere. Bruce reconnected with her physically, and instead of feeling neglected and lashing out with criticism, he let his guard down.

Learn each other's language of tenderness. While a kiss or a hug translates into love for Judith, Bruce believes that as long as he is providing well for his family, he is showing he cares. When he starts the car for you on an icy winter morning, he may think that's a sign of love, even though it doesn't fit your notion of romance. Take pleasure in his show of tenderness.

Stop keeping score. Too many women keep a log in their heads of all the things they do for a mate, and all the things he doesn't do for them.

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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