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"My husband says my parents' meddling is ruining our marriage," said Mindy, 32, a marketing executive and newlywed. "I know he has a point -- my parents are control freaks, and are very involved in our lives -- but what Todd doesn't acknowledge is how generous they are to us and how much their behavior is motivated by the fact that they care so much. We've only been married for six months, but Todd and I constantly argue about their behavior and its effect on me."
"It's true Mom is a royal nudge. She calls me at work every day and pays no attention when I tell her I'm too busy to talk. She expects me to drop everything for her; like during the holidays, she wants us to celebrate every one with her and my father. To guilt us into doing this, she'll remind us that they bought us a new couch or stove.
"Dad isn't as demanding, but he also knows how to push the guilt buttons: He won't let us forget that they spent a small fortune on our wedding. It drives Todd crazy that my parents' gifts and financial help come with strings attached. He wants to decline their offers, but I don't want my parents to think that we're ungrateful.
"Just the other day, Todd accused me of letting them push me around. I found that offensive because I'm hardly a doormat. When Mom pressures me, I don't always give in. In fact, sometimes I snap at her, and then we argue, which leaves me in a rotten mood. Todd hates to see me agitated, and if I'm upset about something Mom did, he'll bad-mouth her and put me on the defensive. He doesn't understand that his saying unkind things about my mother, even if they are true, is hurtful to me -- so the two of us end up fighting. Our sex life is suffering; it's hard to feel romantic when we're arguing all the time.
"Money was never an issue when I was growing up. Dad was and still is a successful lawyer; Mom has always been a homemaker. My parents were generous with my older brother and me. Even now, I enjoy Mom and Dad's company, whether it's watching a football game on TV or going out to dinner. I just wish they'd stop butting in on my marriage.
"I met Todd at a singles dance. I felt instant chemistry; he's tall with dark hair, sexy hazel eyes, and a boyish grin. We had so much to talk about, from our shared religious beliefs to our love of the beach, foreign films, jazz, and travel. We also have complementary personalities. My assertive nature is balanced by his easygoing demeanor. Within a year of dating, we moved in together; a few months later, he proposed.
"Although I didn't have expectations of grandeur for our wedding, Mom insisted on an extravagant reception; Dad reluctantly agreed. They capped the guest list at 225. This upset my in-laws, who wanted to invite more people. But Mom and Dad refused because they felt the reception would be too crowded. They caused more hard feelings by banning children from the wedding, which meant that some of Todd's relatives wouldn't be able to bring their kids. Todd and I argued about whether I should push the issue with Mom; I didn't want to make a federal case out of it -- especially since she was footing the bill -- but to please Todd, I tried to mediate. As I predicted, I wasn't able to change her mind. This made Todd even angrier; there was this growing tension between us as the wedding drew nearer.
"When my parents complained about the expense -- 'I feel like I'm parking a Porsche on a train track,' my dad said -- Todd was so offended that he said he wanted to elope, a tempting idea given our stress levels.
"Things got worse when we decided to buy a house. My parents wanted to move to a smaller place, so when they found one, they offered us a steep discount on the house I grew up in. I was tempted, but before Todd and I made a decision, my parents went ahead and bought the new house. Even though Todd and I hadn't seen any other houses that measured up in our price range, he hesitated. He didn't want to get more involved with my parents, and he became furious when Mom said that she never would have bought the new house if she'd thought for a second that we wouldn't purchase theirs. Todd and I argued for days about this. Ultimately, he agreed to buy the house from my parents.
"Todd wants us to turn down my parents' help and limit our contact with them. I feel torn. Despite their faults, I still love them. I want them to stay in our lives, and I can't bear the thought of hurting them by refusing their gifts. And frankly, I like that they're helping us out. But the other night, when Todd suggested that we try counseling to learn how to deal with them more effectively, I agreed. I love Todd, and I don't want my parents to tear us apart."
"My in-laws mean well," said Todd. "But they can be so annoying. Marilyn, my mother-in-law, doesn't invite us to holiday dinners; she subpoenas us a year in advance and gets upset if we decide to celebrate with my family instead. If Mindy mentions that we're going out to dinner, Bernie, my father-in-law, will tell us what restaurant to choose and what to order.
"Their generosity is a double-edged sword. They provide us with things we otherwise couldn't afford -- but not without holding it over our heads. Frankly, I'd rather forgo new furniture if it meant that they'd stay out of our business.
"I'm also troubled that Marilyn accuses Mindy of being ungrateful if Mindy doesn't do what she wants. Then when Mindy complains about her mother, I can't resist bashing Marilyn, too, in support of my wife. But that only puts Mindy on the defensive. We're stuck in a never-ending argument about my in-laws.Their Background
"I grew up in a loving, middle-class family. I was the second child of a nurse and a retired accountant. Money was tight, so while my younger brother and I never lacked for any essentials, we didn't receive a lot of extras. I'm still close to my parents, who are good listeners and whose opinions I value.
"When I met Mindy at the dance, I immediately fell for her. She's in good shape with long, straight blond hair, sparkling blue eyes, and an adorable dimpled smile. She's also intelligent, outgoing, and funny. Once we started dating, I knew we'd get married someday.
"Mindy's parents' claws came out during the wedding planning. I was furious that Marilyn refused to budge on the number of guests, even though my folks offered to pay to invite more. But what really got me was that after Marilyn said that no children could attend, including my relatives' kids, she invited the teenage children of her best friends!
"I would have preferred a modest wedding with more guests, and I was appalled that Bernie equated the cost to buying a luxury car. At that point, I wanted to fly to Las Vegas and elope. But I didn't press the elopement; Mindy had her heart set on a religious ceremony and traditional reception.
"Then her parents pressured us into buying their place before I was ready. I wanted to look at more properties; I feel like the process was pulled out from underneath me. Yes, Marilyn and Bernie gave us a great deal, but their manipulation and bullying made it an unpleasant experience.
"I've had enough of my in-laws. I hate arguing with Mindy about them; I hate that Marilyn's behavior puts Mindy in a perpetual sour mood; and I hate feeling beholden to them. If we don't learn how to deal more effectively with her parents, they are going to destroy our marriage."
"In-law problems are one of the most common issues that bring couples to counseling," the counselor said. "Mindy and Todd had legitimate grievances about her parents. Emotionally needy, Marilyn and Bernie desperately wanted to stay close to their daughter and new son-in-law to the point that it was smothering.
"The couple had a choice: They could stay close to her parents, accept their financial assistance, and stop bickering about their involvement in their lives and their effect on Mindy. Or, they could distance themselves, decline Mindy's parents' help, and risk a family schism. Either way, they'd face consequences. 'If you decide to stay close, you must make peace with the fact that they probably won't change,' I explained. 'It's up to you to control your reactions to them.'
"Ultimately, Mindy and Todd decided to stay connected to her parents, but with limitations. Having made this crucial decision, the couple had to adjust their attitudes and behavior.Developing a Game Plan
"Todd felt as if he was being asked to sell his soul to Mindy's parents for accepting their offers, whether it was a restaurant meal, a new stove, or a European vacation. Over time, I helped him see that this feeling of obligation was formed in his childhood. If Todd's parents helped him, they never let him forget it. For example, he told me they once loaned him money and then stayed on him like a collection agency until he paid it back. I urged Todd to see that there's nothing wrong with accepting help from his in-laws. But before he accepts a gift, he has to decide whether he can handle the obligations that may be required of him or Mindy.
"Initially, I suggested that Mindy improve her communication style with her mother. Instead of snapping at Marilyn when she demanded something -- for example, insisting that the couple celebrate Thanksgiving with her, not Todd's family -- I advised Mindy to confront her mother directly, but gently. The goal was to reduce the arguing and appeal to Marilyn's sense of logic. Unfortunately, this approach backfired. Offended by even the slightest criticism, Marilyn refused to accept that she asked for too much and again accused Mindy of being ungrateful. Since Marilyn was unwilling to change, Mindy eventually learned to say, 'I don't want to argue with you over this' or 'We can agree to disagree' -- an approach that helped Mindy stay calm and lessened tensions between them. Because Mindy no longer snaps at her mother, Marilyn is reacting less harshly when Mindy calmly turns down a request. And Mindy is better able to tolerate her mother's verbal jabs when they do occur.
"Finally, the couple needed to anticipate Marilyn and Bernie's behaviors and be ready with a game plan. People's actions are predictable, because they're based on patterns and set off by triggers. 'If Mindy's parents usually invite you for Thanksgiving three months in advance, you should decide four months in advance whether you want to accept the invitation,' I said. 'And if you don't, her parents may be upset for a while, but they won't disown you over a missed dinner.'
"Indeed, it's not necessary for Mindy and Todd to accept every invitation or gift. I helped them realize that they had more power in the relationship than they thought they did. When parents are overly involved in their adult child's life, it's usually a result of their own emotional neediness, which, if recognized by the child, can give him or her the strength to set appropriate boundaries. This new perspective empowered Mindy and Todd to distance themselves a bit from her parents and set limits. For example, they now split holiday dinners between their families, and they occasionally turn down gifts. 'We decide whether the value of the gift outweighs the aggravation it will entail,' Todd explained.
"Mindy and Todd learned how to deal more effectively with her parents and eventually diffused the tension in their marriage. Once they stopped arguing, they resumed emotional and physical intimacy.
"After one year, Mindy and Todd were ready to end counseling. Although Mindy's parents haven't changed, the couple has learned to let their more annoying traits roll off their backs. As Todd recently said, 'Counseling has helped me change my attitude toward my in-laws. Now, I'm able to accept them for who they are, and when I accept a gift, I don't feel like they own me. Mindy and I are happier than ever.'"
This month's case is based on interviews with clients and information from the files of Stephen Betchen, D.S.W., a marital and sex therapist in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, August 2003.