“I knew my husband had had an affair — but he wouldn’t admit it,” said Tam, 43, a dental hygienist and mother of two teenagers. “It’s the only explanation for his behavior. About six months ago Bill started ignoring me. He surfs the Web at night, leaving me alone, and has no interest in sex — a big change for a guy who used to want it all the time. When I ask what’s wrong, he says, ‘Nothing’ or ‘I’m exhausted.’
“Bill’s a computer technician who plays drums in a local rock band. Okay, it’s hard to work full-time and do weekend gigs. But why stop talking to me unless he’s cheating and feels guilty? He swears he’s not, but here’s why I think he’s lying: I’m Asian, he’s Irish-American, and for the first time in our 20-year marriage he’s complaining about cultural differences. He picks on me nonstop about my language problems and my family closeness. Why are these things suddenly a big deal?
“I was born in Bangkok. My dad ran off with another woman when I was 7, leaving Mom to raise my younger sister, Addie, and me with the help of our grandmother and aunts. Two years later Mom married an American executive at the company where she was a secretary. When I was 12 my stepfather got transferred to corporate headquarters in Philadelphia and we started a new life in America. I struggled in school because I didn’t know any English. But after a few years I could speak fluently, though not flawlessly. Mom wanted us to keep our culture, so she cooked Thai food and spoke Thai at home.
“Bill was my square-dancing partner in ninth-grade gym class. His wisecracks about the dance steps made me laugh and we became inseparable. My family adored him but I was careful not to hold his hand in front of Mom, who disapproved of public affection. We married when we were both 23 and had our first child, Michael, at 26. We’ve always gotten along great — until now.
“My temperament is what might be viewed as stereotypically ‘Asian.’ As a girl I was taught to keep my voice low, never make waves and defer to men. I’m not good at confrontations or speaking up for myself. Bill’s a hothead who blurts out whatever pops into his mind. He doesn’t care who he hurts — and lately that’s been me. I know I sometimes confuse verb tenses and mispronounce words or use the wrong word and end up saying something different from what I mean. If I so much as leave an ‘s’ off a verb Bill snaps at me: ‘You’re in America! Speak correct English!’
“He doesn’t understand my family ties, either. In Thailand siblings mediate each other’s marital problems and referee parent-child disputes. I’ve carried on this tradition, but Bill says it’s disrespectful to him if I tell Addie and my mother we’re fighting. He thinks they meddle too much, which is funny because often they take his side.
“We fight about the kids, too. Bill says I’m too lenient with Michael, 17, and Tina, 15, but I think he’s overly strict. He orders our children around and then lashes out when they stand up for themselves — or when I step in to defend them. Michael broke curfew by 15 minutes last weekend and Bill went nuts when I didn’t make a big fuss. ‘If you won’t show him who’s boss, I will,’ he screamed. He grounded Michael for a week.
“Last week, for my birthday, Bill gave me a $25 gift card instead of a wrapped present. That’s when I knew he’d been lying. ‘You are having an affair,’ I cried. Finally he admitted he’d slept with a woman he met at one of his gigs a few months ago. He swore he hasn’t seen her since and hasn’t been with anyone else. But he also told me he’s miserable. ‘I love you,’ he said, ‘but I’m not in love with you anymore.’ Well, I’m still in love with him and it breaks my heart that he feels this way.”