"Our Grown Daughter Moved Back In"
The Counselor's Turn
"Like many empty nesters, Meg and Sean had enjoyed a kind of second honeymoon while their child was away," said the counselor. "Ironically, rekindling their romance obscured some issues that had simmered for a long time beneath the surface. Kim's reappearance exposed those issues.
"When Kim moved home, Meg automatically fell back into a maternal role she no longer wanted. She bristled at Kim's messiness and felt defensive about her own parenting. Sean loved his wife and wanted her to be happy, but he'd never known how to empathize with her. When she unleashed her anger, his reaction was to withdraw.
"In our first session, though, I sensed that perimenopause might be contributing to Meg's turmoil. 'I'm not suggesting it's the cause of your problems,' I said. 'But it may be intensifying your reactions.' Meg saw her gynecologist, who prescribed birth control pills. Her moods evened out almost immediately.
"She acknowledged that this period had been hard on Sean, too, who felt both rejected and ambushed. I advised her to ask, 'Can we talk?' to give him some warning. 'If you do say something hurtful, apologize,' I said. 'Simply respecting each other's feelings helps you both communicate better.'
"Meanwhile, Sean had to see that he was part of the problem. 'You may think Meg is overreacting,' I said, 'but her feelings are as valid as yours. You can't dismiss them.' Sean apologized for not pitching in and promised to listen. 'If you want romance, behave in ways that show it,' I advised. I recommended they spend 10 minutes a day catching up with each other -- a habit that had lapsed when Kim came back.
"Once they'd pulled together as a couple, Meg and Sean focused on Kim. 'She needs to do her share,' I said. 'This starts with the two of you being clear about what you expect.' We set up charts specifying everyone's duties. Meg and Sean would each cook two nights a week and go out or eat leftovers on the other three. Kim was on her own unless she told them otherwise. Meg insisted that Kim let them know if she was running late. And she was assigned three chores: taking out all the trash, cleaning her bathroom, and caring for her dog. Meg worried that these new rules would trigger more friction, but I reassured her. 'Kim is anxious about her future, and her behavior reflects that. You're doing her a favor by treating her as an adult.'
"Over the next several weeks Meg and Sean resumed their Sunday walks and went away for two long weekends. Kim's attitude improved: She was pulling her weight and remembering to call. Best of all, she found a temp job teaching. If it becomes permanent, she may move into her own place in the fall.
"The couple spent four months in counseling. In our final session, a smiling Sean reached for his wife's hand and said, 'We learned how to welcome our daughter home without losing ourselves. Thank you.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2010/January 2011.