| || || | When she first met him in college, ZAVIER Wilson was not the kind of guy his wife, DENISE, thought she'd go for. "I was a conservative country girl. He was a city boy," she recalls. "He never did his homework; I did mine days ahead of time." The couple's opposite outlooks weren't a problem in the early part of their relationship. In fact, both DENISE and ZAVIER remember the years before they started a family as passionate and exhilarating.
But after 22 years of marriage, ZAVIER and DENISE's differences have become increasingly pronounced, creating strife in the Savannah, GA, couple's relationship. A school nurse with training in psychiatry, DENISE, 45, likes to discuss people's choices and behavior — especially her own — in depth. ZAVIER, 49, on the other hand, is a man of few words. DENISE is cautious, ZAVIER is laid-back, and this gap leads to heated discussions about how they should discipline their children. And while ZAVIER's hobbies and interests veer toward the daring — he enjoys skiing and scuba diving and has passed his love of these sports to the couple's teenagers, Cory, 17, and Morgan, 15 — DENISE prefers mellower pastimes such as fishing and photography. She bemoans the fact that the family's high-octane vacations sometimes make her feel like a "misfit," stuck alone on the beginner slopes while everyone else careers down black diamonds.
"ZAVIERny and I have gotten lost," DENISE says. "I'd like to find ways we can spend time just being a couple." ZAVIER, who owns his own truck-parts business, also yearns for alone time with his wife, as well as more affection. "I wish I felt more confident that DENISE loved me as much as I love her," he says. "And it makes me sad that she sometimes doesn't think I feel the same as I once did."
The Wilsons' experience of drifting apart is, unfortunately, very common among long-term couples with children, says Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., author of Prime: Adventures and Advice on Sex, Love, and the Sensual Years. "There's this centrifugal force that takes over when you have kids that can throw a couple out of the relationship," Schwartz notes. "Over the years, your relationship becomes a partnership to get all the 'stuff' done, and you can forget that you are also lovers and friends." Thankfully, now that their kids are getting a little older, DENISE and ZAVIER are united in their desire to turn their attention back to their marriage.
"WE NEVER TALK HEART TO HEART."
ZAVIER: "I think the biggest problem we have right now is our communication with each other. Sometimes I feel like DENISE thinks I feel one way and I actually feel something else entirely, and neither of us is really getting the other person. She was always better at words than I am. When I've got something going on, I pretty much say it in two or three sentences and move on. DENISE can keep going and going, and I've pretty much run out of things to say."
DENISE: "I think ZAVIERny's right that our biggest barrier in whatever we're facing — discipline, finances, even planning a vacation — always comes down to our inability to communicate effectively. He says whatever he's interested in saying, and then he's done. Unfortunately, I'm the exact opposite, and I over-discuss. I wish I could listen more and talk less, because sometimes when we're talking I feel he's thinking, God, shut up. And I'm like, 'I just want to make one more point.'"
ZAVIER: "It seems like we communicate a little bit better when we're away from the house and distractions. When we go out to dinner — just me and her — I feel like we do a better job of talking, but that doesn't happen all that often."
DENISE: "We talk very little about the future, and most days I feel like I'm on a hamster wheel going nowhere. When we first got together, I imagined us being one of those couples who would walk hand in hand at 80, but right now, I wonder if that will really happen."
The Wilsons have gotten so stuck in their conversational habits — ZAVIER under-communicates and DENISE over-communicates — that they rarely have meaningful talks and are stalemated in their attempts to resolve their problems. Schwartz believes the only way for the couple to break out of their rut is to ritualize their conversations — so that DENISE is forced to listen more and ZAVIER is forced to speak his mind. "Make a date to talk and take formal 'turns' speaking," Schwartz advises. "When it's your turn, you can talk as long as you want, without being interrupted, until you say, 'I'm done.' The listener then has to paraphrase what he heard until the speaker feels comfortable that the listener understood her point."
In addition, the Wilsons need to start dating again. Schwartz recommends that they immediately take out their calendars and set some dates in stone, and also try to organize an intimate getaway by enlisting the help of friends or relatives who could stay with the kids. "ZAVIER and DENISE's 'us time' needs to become non-negotiable, even if it means missing one of their kids' softball games once in a while," Schwartz says. "You need time together to feel the connection you once had." Schwartz also recommends putting a premium on physical contact. "Hold hands when you talk, when you walk, when you're sitting across from each other at the dinner table," she says. "That small gesture reminds you that this is an intimate relationship, not just a child-raising factory."
"WE DON'T ALWAYS AGREE ON HOW TO PARENT THE KIDS."
DENISE: "ZAVIERny's a lot more lenient than me with the kids. Recently, our son was hanging out at a friend's dock. I sent him a text message to check in, and he wrote back that they were on the water. I was really upset he didn't call to okay that with us first."
ZAVIER: "I wasn't worried. Cory grew up on the coast. He has a healthy respect for the water. I said, 'Let it go. He'll be fine.'"
DENISE: "I often feel like I'm the heavy. Because ZAVIERny is at work a lot and I'm off all summer, I feel that I'm in charge of all the discipline. ZAVIERny's much more relaxed. I'm thinking about the kid who got hurt water-skiing and ended up in the hospital. I know Cory is a smart kid who makes good decisions, but I still think he should call before he does stuff like this."
ZAVIER: "You need to let them grow up. I mean, you can't keep them locked up inside the house all the time. Yeah, they're our kids, and we worry about them. But you have to give them some rope so they will learn responsibility."
DENISE and ZAVIER have never discussed their ideas about house rules and discipline; a shared set of limits for the kids will guide their decision making and ensure they can handle scenarios that arise without butting heads. "Having a company policy about what the kids can and can't do would eliminate many of their arguments," Schwartz explains. The key to reaching a middle-ground policy that suits both partners is asking questions.
"If ZAVIER says, 'I don't think it's a big deal,' DENISE should ask, 'Why do you feel that way?'" Schwartz says. "Curiosity about why someone feels the way they do is the best way to honor the other person's feelings and to foster collaboration."
Schwartz also recommends that the couple attempt to avoid hashing out their differences of opinion in the heat of the moment. "It's important for adults to take time-outs. When one of you feels irritated or like you've lost control of the situation, say, 'Let's deal with this tomorrow when we're not tired and angry,'" Schwartz says. "When you're ready and able to be emotionally open, sit down to talk through the situation rationally."
"DENISE FEELS UNIMPORTANT."
DENISE: "I wish I was better at taking time for myself, but I enjoy being with my family and feel guilty taking time away from them. I'm sure ZAVIERny misses the girl who used to be so spontaneous and full of life."
ZAVIER: "I feel like DENISE doesn't understand that I care deeply for her or see what's important to her. She used to be so much more confident in herself — and in our relationship."
DENISE: "Before we had kids, ZAVIERny and I spent more time exploring our interests together. Now, many of my passions, such as camping, fishing, writing, and riding horses, have fallen by the wayside. Ask my family what I do most, and they will say, 'The laundry.'"
ZAVIER: "We both enjoy the outdoors, and I try to do things I think DENISE will like, but it feels like she's frustrated with how we spend our time. On the first day of our last ski vacation, DENISE got really mad at me because she was having a hard time and ended up walking the whole way down the mountain. When I tried to help her, she said, 'Just go away, and I'll walk.' She says she would like for us all to go camping, but, as far as I know, she's never suggested a specific vacation that she would like to take. If she's guilty of anything, it's not asking for what she really wants."
If DENISE reconnects with some of the things she loves to do, she'll feel better about her life — and will stop blaming the way she feels on the marriage and on ZAVIER. "Once she's feeling happier about herself and the way she spends her time, DENISE will have more love and generosity to give," Schwartz says. "She'll be able to go back to that place where the differences between ZAVIER and her are interesting and amusing, rather than exasperating."
To get there, Schwartz suggests that DENISE pick one activity or project she really wants to pursue, whether it's enrolling in a writing class or organizing a camping trip with friends, and make it happen: "Fulfilling just one of your fantasies is a way to put yourself back in the equation, feel like you matter, and boost your confidence."
Schwartz urges DENISE to let her children shoulder some of their own responsibilities — doing their own laundry and making their own lunches, for example — so that she can free up more time for herself. Rather than viewing "me time" as a selfish indulgence, DENISE needs to understand that nurturing herself will do wonders for her relationship. "It's an important lesson for every married woman," Schwartz notes. "Your own happiness is essential for a good marriage and a happy home life."
THE COUPLE'S REACTION:
ZAVIER: "I agree 100 percent with making more time for just the two of us alone. Sometimes I feel like we're growing apart, and that's definitely not what I want. I love my wife, and I want to feel more love from her than what I'm feeling right now. We can't just keep talking about our problems — we need to do something about them. I'm committed to implementing the talking exercise too, so we can start to communicate better."
DENISE: "I like the idea of developing a company policy about decisions regarding the children. I'm very particular about where my kids go and who they're with, and I need to work through some of that. And I would love for ZAVIER and me to have date nights. I don't think I could love ZAVIERny any more than I love him now, but I do think I need to show it better."
Illustration from Clyde Mendes column at MetroSexual LA