"He Lets His Mother Rule Our Lives and I'm Sick of It"

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The Counselor's Turn

When I first met Rob and Kim, I learned that Rob had been born in Iran and came to America when he was 7 or 8. Kim was born here, to parents who were eager to adopt the ways of their new country. That helped me understand why they clashed so sharply over his mother's behavior. Kim was brought up in what we think of as a typical American nuclear family: mom, dad, and the kids. Rob grew up in an old-fashioned extended family where grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins play a much larger role in the family dynamic.

Kim and Rob hadn't given their family histories much thought. So I laid out some key differences: In a modern nuclear family, the husband and wife are basically equal partners. When they start a family, they do it on their terms, without interference from their parents. In a traditional extended family, the husband is usually seen as the head of the household. What's more, the couple's parents continue to exert authority over them and the grandkids. In fact, the husband's mother may have more power in her son's home than she ever had in her own.

Kim and Rob agreed that they wanted a modern nuclear family. But Rob had no experience with that type of family dynamic and his mother wasn't going to accept being suddenly demoted to secondary status in her son's life. Although Rob sincerely wanted Kim to be happy, it was unrealistic for either of them to expect that his relationship with his mom would change overnight. It would be up to Kim to deal more effectively with her mother-in-law. Rob's crucial responsibility would be to support Kim's efforts.

First, I suggested that Kim invite her mother-in-law to visit the grandkids every week, at a designated time, instead of waiting for her to call. Kim could say, "What are you doing tomorrow? Why don't you come over for an early dinner?" That way, no one would accuse her of being rude or standoffish. If the timing didn't work for Rob's mom, and she called him to complain, Rob had to back Kim up: a simple "I'm sorry, Mom, but Kim's in charge of our household scheduling" would do the trick. And if his mother wanted to come at a different time, he should tell her, "Talk it over with Kim."

For Kim, of course, talking with her mother-in-law wasn't always pleasant -- she often came away feeling insulted. But instead of responding directly, she would blow up at Rob. I advised Kim to carefully consider what bothered her about her mother-in-law's remarks, and then to tell her -- calmly but firmly -- the next time it happened. For example, "When you ask me if I've cooked Rob that chicken dish he loves, it makes me feel like you don't think I know how to make him happy." That opens up a dialogue, and gives them a chance to understand each other.

But the most important thing was for Kim and Rob to start communicating better. When Kim was frustrated with Rob she tended to lose her temper. Rob withdrew and went silent at the first sign of a quarrel, but when he felt backed into a corner he would counterattack vigorously. Kim accused Rob of betraying her trust by siding with his mother. Rob accused Kim of being selfish. They were so intent on defending their own territory that they were destroying their relationship.

They each needed to understand the other's position. That meant holding back before blurting out something hurtful. It meant trying to compose their thoughts before talking, listening respectfully to the other person's response, and calling a time-out if the argument was getting too intense. It also meant accepting that compromise is not a weakness -- it's a crucial part of a successful marriage. Neither spouse was likely to get 100 percent of what they hoped for from the other. Rob might never learn to stand up boldly to his mother. Kim might never learn to be even-tempered and diplomatic. But if they could focus on their common values instead of their differences, they could move forward together.

These days, that's just what they're doing. Kim has established some ground rules with Rob's mother, including an end to the Tuesday-night dinners and nap-time visits. She's also had some serious talks about privacy with her mother-in-law, who has become slightly less intrusive as a result. Rob's mom still calls him sometimes to try to get around Kim's rules, but he no longer takes the bait. Kim and Rob's fights are shorter and less intense, and the peaceful stretches last longer. They've begun to rediscover their old pleasure in each other's company. They're even thinking again of buying a house -- and Rob's father is ready to help them out.

Can This Marriage Be Saved? is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. The story told here is true, although names and other identifying information have been changed to conceal identities.


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