Computer Widows Bring Their Marriages Back to Life with Input from Counselor Jean Hollands

updated 01/23/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/23/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

A case history: Jack, a vice-president of a manufacturing company, brought a computer home so he could work on his firm's records at night, all night. His wife, Joan, didn't like it. "He doesn't understand feelings, just facts," she complained. "The computer at home was the last straw." After 11 years of marriage, she left him. His reaction: "Now I have more time to spend with my computer."

He is a computer addict, she a computer widow. Both have been clients of Jean Hollands, a marriage counselor in California's Silicon Valley, where a new eternal triangle—him, her and it—is causing the divorce rate to rise as high as the technology. Hollands, 51, has counseled more than 3,000 couples on the problems that arise when one partner—usually the man—is an engineer, a scientist or a computer freak.

"The sci-tech personality," Hollands explains, "is trained to collect data, assess it, spot flaws and draw conclusions. He is very conservative, rigid, fearful of making a mistake. He hates conflicts and avoids them by adopting an air of detachment." A warm, cuddly Alan Alda he ain't. "It's hard to love an engineer-scientist," Hollands says. "Sometimes it feels like trying to love your vacuum cleaner. It does the job. It is steady. It is reliable. But it doesn't dazzle." With work, though, he can become "the perfect partner," she says.

Hollands knows. Her own second marriage has been an occasional casualty of what she calls "the silicon syndrome." Her husband, Don Wuerflein, 49, the former owner of a company that makes power supplies for lasers, is an engineer with an engineer's "rigidity, control and ordered mentality—something I had never experienced before," she says.

The two of them, like the couples that Hollands counsels, approach problems differently. "Engineer-scientists like Don need to run up into a mental tree-house and look down on a problem," she says. "I, on the other hand, need immediate contact and involvement. But he is hiding up there assessing things and I'd be calling 'Talk to me' and crying. I'd bombard him with emotions, and he was in over his head."

When their difficulties became apparent, Hollands didn't go to a therapist like herself. Instead, she says, "I vented my emotions by writing a book on how to live happily with a scientist or engineer type. Don and I would have an argument and I would go and write several pages analyzing the situation." As she wrote the book, she gave it to Don to read. "He'd say, 'You make this guy sound like the biggest nerd in the world,' and I'd say, 'Well, he is.' " Don suggested that the book, published by a local press, be titled The Engineer-Scientist and the Twit. Jean decided instead on The Silicon Syndrome.

For his part, Don says, it's not easy being the techie married to the touchy-feely therapist. "Basically, I looked upon Jean as from an alien culture," he says. She seemed so emotional, so irrational. And she brought her own tics of the trade to the relationship. "I'm always," she admits, "asking him if our sex life is okay, because that's all I hear about all day from patients."

And the two of them did work out their problems. "Don and I could negotiate an argument," Jean soon realized, "if I allowed him to call time-out for an hour or so." Her prescriptions for other couples are equally simple. To cure one wife's resentment of her husband's nocturnal commissions on the computer, Hollands advised the man to take an hour out every night to visit with his wife and to take her away on weekend trips. That truce was almost broken when one weekend the wife found a portable computer in the trunk of their car. They worked that out too.

Hollands is a computer pioneer of sorts. Born in Minot, N.Dak., the daughter of an inventor, she married her high-school sweetheart, Lee Hollands, when he joined the Navy. He went to war in Korea and she went to work for the Navy as a civilian, becoming one of the first woman computer analysts.

Jean gave up her career after the Korean War to be a full-time mother to four children and a corporate wife to her husband, who was an engineer-turned-salesman for General Electric. She remembers being told by the president of GE that "Your future is based on what your husband does at work." Even so, she says, "I adored that life while I was living it."

But after 10 years at home, Jean went back to school and earned a master's in marriage and family counseling at San Jose State. "I was so excited about my career," she says, "but my husband was very threatened by it." The next year, they divorced. "I was single three years," Jean says, "and then met, alas, another engineer." She and Don married in 1979 (she kept the name Hollands for professional purposes). Like any computer, their marriage has had its bugs. But like a computer, it can be fixed.

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