The New Personality Self-Portrait 25 - John M. Oldham, M.D., M.S., Lois B. Morris, Alok Madan, M.P.H. Ph.D.


Henry had always been a star. First-born, first in class in high school plus president of the senior class, football captain, fraternity president, Rhodes Scholar, Harvard MBA, recruited by a major Silicon Valley tech company.  He jumped to a start-up after five years, survived its collapse in the Great Recession, and ultimately joined the international management team of a major pharmaceutical company based in Paris, where he was recently offered a place close to the top of the corporate pyramid if he would relocate to headquarters.

The problem: his wife and kids didn’t want to pick up and move again, certainly not outside the country. Absolutely not.

Henry had married his college girlfriend, Sofia, and now, 15 years later, though they had three boys under 12, she was still a looker.  He was proud that she appeared to be in her late 20s–without even Botox! Though she’d been a fine-arts major, she worked as a travel agent right after they married, learning the skills that proved to be a boon to him as he traveled upward in his career.  Sofia handled the myriad logistics involved in frequent moves, including finding houses and schools and activities for the kids, and keeping up Henry’s wardrobe as well as her own.  The boys were smart, athletic, and well-behaved and looked up to their dad–at least they’d look up from their devices when he talked to them, he’d joke to his colleagues.           

They’d always celebrated his successes–as well they should, thought Henry, considering the wealth and security he had amassed for his family. “I don’t get it” became Henry’s spoken mantra as the family rebelled against what he saw as an incredible opportunity for them all.

“Incredible opportunity for you!” Sofia snapped back.  Henry was stunned.  Never had his wife failed to understand how hard he’d worked to build a great life for her and the children.  Of course it was about him!  As he saw it, he was the one who delivered the good life.  All they had to do was support his efforts.  Was that too much to ask? 

The more Sofia held firm, the worse Henry’s control over his temper became, the more critical she got, and the rockier their marriage became.  He just couldn’t hear what she was trying to tell him: that she had a life too, in addition to being his wife.  Did he even know what she cared about or how she spent her time when he was at work? Did he ever really think about her or the kids as individuals separate from him?  Had it occurred to him that moving again, to another country with another language, would upend the children and remove them from their friends and schools and activities? Sure, he liked her to look youthful, but did he know what was involved in staying that way? She handled the bill-paying for the family, including for the periodic facial Restylane injections.

He threatened her. “Do you know what you stand to lose if you try to divorce me?”

Surprisingly, mentioning a split sent Henry, more than Sofia, into an emotional tailspin.  Of course, he’d never told his wife about the meaningless affairs he’d  had over the years traveling away from home or even thought about these women later.  But if Sofia could reject him just like that...! 

Fury and impending loss battled to possess his psyche. To his horror, once when Sofia started to cry in the midst of a fight, Henry felt his eyes well up, too.  Then, in shame, he let his tears flow.  Sofia reached for his hand but let him cry.  Then after a few minutes she began quietly to tell him about herself and what she wanted out of life, and what she didn’t.  He was surprised by so much–everything from her eating disorder (she’d been throwing up after some meals for years), to her desire to go back to her art, maybe to teach.

“You never told me!” he exclaimed, to which she responded, “You never paid attention.”

Over the next weeks and months, as they talked, Henry began to look at his wife and his kids differently. Sofia, to her credit, did not stay on the attack once he began to open his eyes and, really, his heart. It was tough for him to alter his stellar trajectory by trying to negotiate the relocation to Paris. And it bordered on another marital crisis when the company withdrew their promotion offer. In a first for him, Henry consulted the whole family on what to do next. They’re all thinking about it. 

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