Deacon Paul and Helen McBlain write the Marriage Matters column for CatholicPhilly.com. Members of St. Joseph Parish in Collingdale, they have been married more than 50 years and have seven children and 21 grandchildren.

She says:

Claire says: Tony and I have been married nine years and we have four children, three boys and one girl. I believe that my husband is becoming very self-centered. He is a full-time public defender, and even though he works 60-plus hours a week, nearly half the money we live on comes from my job as an occupational therapist. When I ask him for help with the children or in maintaining the home, he says he can’t because he needs time to prepare for his cases.

It’s true that I agreed at the time to our arrangement, but I had no idea that I would be a slave to his career. I assumed that our marriage would be a priority and that we would have some fun time together and that he would share in some of the responsibilities. I don’t know how long I can continue in this marriage. I often have fantasies of just escaping. If I didn’t have children, then I would. Please advise me about what I can do. I’m desperate for an answer.

He says: 

Tony says: We agreed from the beginning of our marriage that I would be devoting a significant amount of my time to my career and that Claire would be responsible for everything else. I believe that things are now beginning to come together in my career, my reputation is building, and in the near future I will be able to open a successful private practice. I ask Claire to be patient and trust me and that all our efforts will soon bear fruit.

What do they do?

Claire makes it very clear that she feels victimized by Tony’s focus on work, his “unwillingness” to help, his lack of commitment to the marriage, his absence as a father and the lack of  parity in their financial contribution. She feels overworked and underappreciated, filled with resentment and disconnected. In short, Claire describes a relationship seemingly devoid of love and intimacy.

It appears Claire has been building up resentments, but so far has not taken the “risk” to change a situation that causes her so much pain. Their marriage sounds untenable and dangerously close to divorce, yet it appears Claire has not communicated any of what she feels to her husband.

Does Tony know how lonely Claire feels? Does he understand how much she misses their relationship? Would he be surprised to find out how desperate Claire is? How immediate is the loss of their marriage and break-up of the family?

Tony keeps looking to the future gains with little regard for the present situation and its effect on their marriage relationship. He thinks “a little suffering now” will be worth it in the long run.

The most important principle in resolving conflict in marriage relationships is to love one another as Christ has loved us (John 13:34). When conflict arises, the first step is self-examination (“Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?” 2 Corinthians 13:5).

Claire and Tony both need to take responsibility to change this negative situation into something positive. For Claire, acting like a helpless victim is an absolute guarantee for unhappiness and failure. Tony needs to “man up” and start being responsible for his role as husband and father in their marriage, instead of primarily seeking a rewarding career. Finding the courage to be proactive and taking control over their life is one of the main pathways to happiness and fulfillment for Claire and Tony.

We suggest an honest, written exchange in the following manner: Each of you take a piece of paper, draw a line down the middle and write “Resentments” at the top of the left side and “Wishes” at the top of the right side. List your resentments first (“I resent you for not spending time together as a family”). After making your list, go back and change each resentment into a wish on the right side (“I miss you and would like us to spend time together”). Notice the difference in how you feel when you change your resentments into wishes.

Share your list with each other in the spirit of wanting to create change, being careful not to lead with your negative feelings. A healthy dose of shared prayer will get you off on the right foot (“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” James 5:16).

When we communicate to our spouse their value in our eyes, they will be able to accept difficult things we have to say. If negativity dominates your discussion, it’s a strong indication that you will need professional marital therapy to help you through this difficult period.