"My Husband Is Old-Fashioned and Sexist"

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The Counselor's Turn

"All couples have an implicit 'contract' at the time of their marriage," said the counselor. "The relationship is stable as long as both spouses stick to their agreed-upon roles. But when one spouse decides he or she wants something different, the marriage can fall apart. This was the situation Maria and José found themselves in.

"Maria got married at 21, intent on being a dutiful wife. But after being in the United States for many years, she yearned for a more equal partnership, like those she saw among her friends. José's view of marriage was no longer compatible with hers.

"José genuinely believed that earning a lot of money and being faithful made him a good husband. By calling Maria 'crazy,' he effectively blamed her for her own unhappiness. I told him, 'Wives today not only want to be equal, but they also expect their husbands to be affectionate and emotionally available. Saying "thank you" and "I love you" would show Maria you value her.'

"Being the sole provider enabled José to maintain his dominance and ensure that Maria couldn't leave him -- an unconscious motivation but a powerful one. He also felt that if Maria had a job, it would undermine his authority, because in his experience, women worked out of necessity, not for fulfillment. I didn't mince words: 'You've known for 20 years that Maria wants to go to school and pursue a career. If you don't support this dream, she'll leave you.' I also pointed out that female friendships provide a vital social outlet, and that small talk between men and women is not flirtation but a cultural norm in this country. After living here for more than half her life, Maria identified more as American than Mexican, and José needed to accept that.

"Maria also doubted whether José truly loved and respected her. I was certain that he did but didn't know how to express his love in the concrete ways that Maria craved. 'To get what you need without putting José on the defensive, ask directly and nicely,' I suggested. 'Try, "Let's see a movie on Sunday night," instead of "Why don't you ever take me out?'"

"I helped the couple recognize the vicious cycle they'd created: The more Maria complained about José's attitudes, the more inflexible he became, which triggered her rage and threats of divorce. It took six months of therapy before José could admit that he had neglected Maria's needs. 'I'm sorry I hurt you,' he said. 'Please forgive me.'

"It was another six months before he was fully on board with Maria's agenda. This radical shift in thinking was clearly stressful for him, but slowly he began to pitch in around the house and to encourage Maria to see friends. Daily walks and monthly date nights have brought them closer. Best of all, José supports Maria's decision to enroll in junior college and work part-time for an airline, where her being bilingual is an enormous asset.

"'I thought José was a hopeless case, but counseling turned him into a new man,' Maria said recently. "'I'm so glad I didn't give up on him.'"

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Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2010.

 

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