“I knew when I started dating Bill that he was close with his parents, but I had no idea how close until after our wedding,” said Sue, 44, who lives in Virginia with her husband of 10 years and her children from a previous marriage — Mark, 18, and Patty, 15. “My in-laws, Ruth and John, were thrilled when their only child finally got married at 42, so I figured we’d have a warm relationship. But we’d barely unpacked from our honeymoon when Ruth started trying to run our lives.
“Here’s an example of the way she meddles in our marriage: When we bought our house a month after our wedding, we casually mentioned re-landscaping the yard. About a month after that Ruth called me to ask about the status of the project, recommending certain shrubs and mentioning the importance of marital compromise. As it happened, Bill and I had had an argument about what shrubs to buy exactly 48 hours earlier.
“Call me naive, but I didn’t put two and two together until about six months later when Ruth repeated the exact language that Bill and I had used in an argument about chores. I confronted him, and he admitted that he discussed our fights with her. ‘She asks me questions in such a nice way that I don’t even realize I’m being pumped for information,’ he said defensively. He refused to admit he’d done anything wrong, but I badgered him into promising to tell Ruth to butt out. He didn’t keep his word and she didn’t let up — so a decade later we’re still fighting the same battle.
“Ruth is very loving toward my kids, but as much as I appreciate her treating Mark and Patty as if they were her biological grandchildren, I hate the way she undercuts my authority. Occasionally I ground one of the kids for mouthing off or not cleaning their rooms. ‘It’s mean to ground someone for a whole week,’ Ruth will say — in front of them! She manipulates the kids to the point where if I don’t give in to their requests for brand-name clothes or a computer gadget, they’ll run to her for it.
“The situation is tearing us apart. I can control my temper only so long, and then I lash out, calling Bill a mama’s boy and accusing him of loving me less than he loves his mother. We’ve stopped going to the movies, watching TV together, and having sex — all my choices, because I’m just so mad.
“But then the men in my life have always disappointed me. I grew up in a working-class family, the younger daughter of a mechanic and a bookkeeper. When I was 11 my parents divorced and Dad moved to California. We didn’t hear from him for six years. Devastated by his abandonment, I grew really close to my mom, a hardworking, loving woman. A month before I graduated from high school Dad called to renew our relationship. We saw each other periodically until his death, 15 years ago. We got along, but I never fully forgave him for leaving.”