"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."
"Having a one-night stand was idiotic," said Bill, 43, "and I'm ashamed of myself. I hoped I'd get over my guilt but I couldn't touch Tam, knowing I'd been unfaithful. Living a lie was killing me, so I came clean.
"Here's what happened: Three months ago a woman at the club where my band plays started telling me how sexy I was. I nearly fell over! We had a few beers and the next thing I knew we were in bed together at a nearby motel. It's an ugly story and I'm not proud of it. But this woman offered something I never get from Tam: attention. In all our years together Tam has never once initiated sex. She won't even kiss me in front of our kids! I blame her background. When we were 15 I put my arm around her but she pushed me away because her mother was in the room. At our wedding I tried to kiss Tam on the lips after being pronounced 'husband and wife,' but she turned her head and kissed my cheek. She never compliments my appearance or says 'I love you.' Yes, she'll respond to my advances, but I'm sick of making all the effort.
"I always liked the fact that Tam is reserved and soft-spoken — it was such a pleasant contrast to my own family, where someone was always screaming. But Tam is so quiet you never know what she's really thinking. When she asks me what's wrong and I say 'nothing,' she doesn't press me. So I figure she doesn't care. I get home from work after Tam and the kids have finished dinner. By then she's glued to the TV or on the phone with her sister, Addie. If she wants us to spend more time together, why does she neglect me?
"Tam's language mistakes have always irritated me but I never let on before. Maybe it's the stress of working two jobs and raising two teenagers, but I don't have the patience at 43 that I had at 23. Tam has lived in America for 30 years — why does she still say 'Kleenek' instead of 'Kleenex'? Sometimes she mixes up her words so badly I can't understand her — and often she can't understand me, either. And she doesn't 'get' irony, which drives me insane.
"Meanwhile, my in-laws know all our business. If we fight, Tam phones Addie, and within five minutes Addie tells their mother. In another five minutes one of them is calling my cell phone to smooth my ruffled feathers. Their meddling has gotten even worse since the kids started high school. Tam and I disagree about discipline. She constantly undercuts my authority. Then, if that weren't bad enough, she gets Addie and their mom to put in their two cents! Even my infidelity became community property: Our daughter, Tina, heard Tam crying and came into our bedroom; Tam told her I'd cheated; Tina called Addie; and Addie raced over to comfort Tam. Enough already! This is a private matter between my wife and me.
"The sad truth is, Tam means well but she no longer meets my needs."
The Counselor's Turn
As I listened to Tam and Bill, it became clear that they still loved each other, despite Bill's claims to the contrary," said the counselor. "But they'd never fully understood or worked through the issues they faced as a cross-cultural couple. Language barriers, attitudes toward gender, cultural norms, and family of origin can all lead to problems, and not necessarily early in the relationship. Over time Bill grew less, rather than more, tolerant of Tam's cultural differences. And in feeling guilty about his one-night stand, he acted out by finding fault with his wife.
"In cases of infidelity I meet with each partner individually before seeing them jointly. With Tam, I helped her focus not on Bill's fling but on whether her marriage was meeting her needs — a question she'd never really fully considered before. 'I'm not happy,' she finally admitted. 'I need more attention from my husband.' For his part, Bill was sorry he cheated on his wife and assured me it would never happen again. I pointed out that Tam's devastation disproved his belief that she took him for granted.
"After a month of individual counseling, Bill realized he still loved Tam. He apologized to her for cheating and vowed to make it up to her. She accepted his apology and agreed to change, too. My first goal for joint therapy was improved communication. His aggressiveness and her passivity were products of their upbringings, since Bill grew up in a household of screamers and Tam's parents raised her to be submissive. I helped them view their conflicting styles in a cultural context and not as a personal affront.
"Gradually Tam came to understand that Bill wanted her to be more assertive. 'You were taught to avoid confrontation, but it's an inescapable part of life,' I said. 'You have a right to complain if you're not happy about something. If Bill gets mad, stand your ground and don't be intimidated.' I also advised her to be selective about what she shared with her mother and sister. 'Your husband should be your primary sounding board,' I said. 'The more you two work things out, the less you'll need to confide in relatives.' I also helped Bill see that Tam's candor was not disloyalty but simply a result of cultural tradition.
"Bill also needed to tame his temper. 'It's pushing your family away,' I told him, 'and it's what compels Tam to intervene when you're disciplining Michael and Tina. If you have to, leave the room, calm down and try again. You'll be amazed how much your relationship with all of them will improve.'
"As for the language barrier, Bill acknowledged that he'd chosen to marry someone who never spoke perfect English and that he needed to accept his wife for who she is. 'Focus on Tam's positive qualities — her loyalty and kindness — and overlook the little annoyances,' I urged him. 'When she misuses words or verb tenses, let it go. If you're confused, ask her again and help her find the right words.'
"Tam and Bill both felt neglected by each other but neither was able to express those feelings effectively. In our sessions I had them practice making direct requests — 'I'd like to go out to dinner once a week' or 'I want you to compliment me.' Tam began sitting with Bill as he ate dinner, and afterward they watched TV together. Embracing her new assertiveness, she even started to take the lead romantically. 'The other night Tam told me I looked hot,' Bill reported. 'Then she put the moves on me in bed!' Bill's snide comments about Tam's mispronunciations stopped cold and he quit raising his voice to her and the kids.
"'I'm so proud of what we've accomplished,' Tam said in their last session. 'We're happier than we've ever been.'
"'I never stopped being in love with Tam,' Bill added, 'but it took therapy to help me realize it.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2009.