Sam felt frustrated. He and Claudia have been married for 12 years and had made the decision a year ago that Claudia would take a leave from her job as a registered nurse to stay at home with the children. At the time this decision seemed to make sense for them. The amount of money Claudia made taking the few available shifts at the hospital barely offset the day care expenses of their two children Justin (3) and Emily (5). Now that Tyler had come along, it didn’t make sense to pay someone else to look after their children. Claudia was thrilled to finally be able to be “a stay at home mom”. She took great joy in doing many activities with the children and started to get them involved in a number of local community programs. As a result of so much activity outside the home things at home had noticeably started to slip. While this bothered Claudia a little, it bothered Sam a great deal. Frequent attempts on Sam’s part to kindly bring this to her attention were met with resistance and anger. Claudia always justified herself by stating “the children are more important than a tidy home”.
Sam too was busy. As a self-employed mechanic and sole wage earner, he often left the house before the family was up only to return home after dinner to have a few minutes with the children before bedtime. Neither could remember when they had last been alone on a date together, or could even just sit down and chat over a cup of tea – everything seemed to center around the needs of the children and Sam’s work schedule. Most of their discussions as of late seemed to be characterized by anger and fault finding. Any real intimacy in the relationship had ceased months ago. Claudia was becoming more and more distant, and the family life he and Claudia had always dreamed of was slowly becoming a nightmare.
Sam felt frustrated. He also felt scared. In desperation he had started reading a number of self-help books that suggested the need for greater assertiveness and firmer boundaries. Sam’s attempts to implement these new found assertiveness skills, rather than helping the situation, had instead had the affect of throwing gasoline on fire. Now not only was Claudia distant, she was also talking about leaving him and taking the children.
What should Sam do?
Sam needs to stop trying to fix Claudia. His attempt to be assertive and set boundaries was doomed to fail, not because boundaries are bad, but because they were misunderstood and used out of context. Boundaries are only effective at repairing a relationship if they are used in the context of love and mutual respect.
Sam needs to spend more couple time with Claudia and start listening to not only what she says, but how she feels. To set boundaries without first having taken the time to nurture his relationship with Claudia sends her the message that getting his way is more important to him than she is. Predictably she will feel controlled and resentful.
Sam especially needs to be Claudia’s partner, her equal. Her concerns and feelings about any given situation must be as important to him as his own concerns and feelings. He may not necessarily agree with her perspective on every issue, but because how she feels is important to him, she gets the message that she herself is important to him. If Claudia knows that Sam loves and respects her, she will trust him and his motives. Only then, when trust, love and respect are present, will Sam and Claudia be able to work out their differences in a way that satisfies both.