"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."
"After high school I got a clerical job at a law firm, eventually becoming the executive assistant to one of the senior partners. At 22 I married Tom, a 24-year-old policeman, and I was happy until he had an affair right after Mark was born. I tried to forgive him and move on, but he cheated again while I was pregnant with Patty. After our divorce he married his girlfriend, started a new family, and basically deserted our children, just as my father had done to me.
"A year or so after my divorce a coworker invited me for drinks with her bowling team. Bill, the team captain, was a courteous, handsome man of 40 who worked as a supervisor in the city's parks department. We had similar interests in movies, music, and football, and I felt a strong chemistry. It struck me as odd that Bill had never married and still lived in his parents' house (though in a separate apartment), but I tried not to judge. Before we closed the bar at 2 a.m., he invited me to a Super Bowl party at his place the following week. I had a great time and even met his parents when they came by with appetizers. They didn't linger, so I thought nothing of it.
"Soon Bill and I were madly in love, trying new restaurants, renting movies, going to concerts, and sharing our hopes and dreams. Mark and Patty, then 6 and 3, yearned for a father, and I was ecstatic when the three of them hit it off. I didn't want more children, and Bill was fine with being a stepfather. Occasionally we'd all have Sunday dinner with his parents, and everything seemed normal. It never occurred to me to discuss what role his parents would play in our new life — or what boundaries we should set — because their behavior raised no red flags.
"My wake-up call came when we bought a fixer-upper about 20 minutes away from them, just weeks after our wedding. Bill was eager to do the renovation himself, but if he called his dad, who's very handy, with a question, the next thing you knew, the two of them would be at our house and John would be doing the work! John isn't bossy the way Ruth is, but he can be just as overprotective. And since Ruth pushes him around, too, he goes along with everything she wants. It upset me to see Bill treated as an incompetent child, but he shrugged it off, saying, 'That's just how they are.'
"Before I knew it, my in-laws were taking us out to dinner three nights a week. If we declined an invitation, Ruth would show up unannounced, casserole in hand. 'I thought you might be too tired to fix dinner,' she'd say, making herself at home in my kitchen. To this day, despite my constant pleas to Bill to cut back, we still have dinner with them twice a week. And twice a year they take all of us on a luxury vacation. We've gone to Europe, Alaska, the Caribbean, and Mexico — places we could never afford. I enjoy these trips, but I'm being perfectly honest when I say I'd be happier to take a modest vacation by ourselves. I hate feeling so beholden to them, but Bill and the kids love these extravaganzas, so I've kept quiet.
"Believe it or not, I actually like my mother-in-law. She truly cares for us, and she's a lot of fun at times. And I still love Bill. He's kind and good-natured and a fabulous stepfather to my kids. But I can't take Ruth's meddling anymore and I'm sick of being number two in Bill's affections."
"My mother is not the center of my life, but I can understand why Sue thinks so," admitted Bill, 52. "Mom's the type of person who won't take no for an answer from anybody, least of all me. And Dad's in the same boat, so he's the last person who'd support me and tell her to back off.
"I'll admit that I downplay Mom's intrusiveness and tell Sue she's overreacting. But Sue is a dirty fighter, and she shares some of the blame for our problems. I hate it when she berates me, calls me a mama's boy, and rejects me sexually. Her behavior brings out my quiet and passive side, which just makes her angrier and confirms her view of me as weak.
"I've always been close to my parents, but my mom and I developed an especially tight bond because Dad, an officer in the Navy, was often at sea on training deployments. Mom couldn't have any more kids after me, so I was lavished with attention and gifts, a pattern that continues to this day. The downside is that they still treat me like a child. Dad isn't domineering the way Mom is, but he smothers me, too. When I ran into trouble fixing up our house, I wanted him simply to answer my questions. But instead he took over — and I let him, because that's just how it is with us.
"I never had a girlfriend until I was in my early 20s, and I was crushed when she dumped me after six months. I didn't date much after that. My life revolved around my job in the parks department, bowling, and my parents, whom I saw every day. I moved into the garden-floor apartment of their townhouse and stayed because it was rent free, large, and close to work. In retrospect, that was probably a bad idea — though we didn't eat or vacation together at the time."
"As a 40-year-old bachelor I longed to meet someone and get married. When one of my bowling teammates introduced me to Sue, I was instantly attracted. She's outgoing and gorgeous. I enjoyed her company so much that I asked her out immediately. I soon fell in love with Sue and her wonderful children. Being with her kids brought out my untapped fun-loving and playful side: I rode roller coasters with Mark, built sand castles with Patty, and taught them how to bowl. And the long talks Sue and I had made me feel truly understood for the first time. Sue complains that she plays second fiddle to my mom, but she's got it all wrong. I've never felt as close to anyone as I have to Sue.
"She's right that my parents didn't meddle while we were engaged. Unfortunately, Mom seized on my marriage as a chance to do things she could only dream about before — dote on grandkids, treat us to restaurant dinners, take extravagant trips. I've begged Mom to back off, but she doesn't listen. Besides, I love her and, at 82, she's not going to be around much longer.
"As for sticking her nose into our personal business, Mom is guilty — and so am I. After we got married I continued to call or stop by every day. She traps me into talking about our marriage by asking questions so innocently that I end up saying things I never intended to. Who knew Mom would talk to my wife about these conversations? Sue has every right to be angry with both of us, but especially me. I feel terrible about that. As for Mom's relationship with Mark and Patty, yes, she offers opinions and has probably been too free with money and gifts. But the kids adore her, and I just don't see Mom's involvement with them as negative.
"I really miss the intimacy Sue and I once had. When we're not arguing, there's no one I'd rather be with more than my smart and beautiful wife. I couldn't bear to lose her."
The Counselor's Turn
"In-law problems are extremely common," the counselor said. "They can linger for years, creating animosity between spouses, eroding trust and destroying intimacy. Left unresolved, they can ruin marriages.
"When Sue and Bill started counseling, they argued constantly; Sue felt that Bill was indifferent to her concerns, defensive about his attachment to his mother, and uncommunicative. Most distressing was her feeling of playing second fiddle to his parents. Bill didn't see their intrusiveness or their financial assistance as a problem, but he was upset that Sue withdrew sexually and emotionally.
"In order to succeed at marriage, spouses must separate from their parents and channel their emotional energy into their partners. For Bill, an only child and lifelong bachelor, this proved especially difficult. He had yet to 'psychologically individuate' — that is, he remained emotionally and financially fused to his parents, seeing himself in relation to them rather than as a distinct individual. Moreover, he had little motivation to separate, since they had supported him emotionally and financially into middle age. 'You basically added Sue to the life you had, when you should have built a new life together,' I explained. 'Calling Ruth or stopping by every day, accepting dinner invitations against Sue's wishes, sharing conversations the two of you had — this behavior shows that you're as attached to your mother now as you were when you were single. And unless you change that, you could end up losing Sue.'
"Meanwhile, Sue exacerbated the strife by verbally attacking Bill, a tactic that put him on the defensive. Sue harbored unresolved anger and resentment toward her father and first husband, who'd both abandoned her. When Bill's behavior made her feel emotionally abandoned, she unconsciously turned that hostility on him. And she let the problem linger far too long, fearing that if she forced the issue, he'd choose his mother over her."
"Desperate not to lose Sue, whom he deeply loved, Bill agreed to set clear boundaries with Ruth. He told her that he and Sue were in couples counseling but didn't elaborate. He also said he no longer wanted to discuss his marriage. He scaled back the calls and visits, citing his busy work schedule. When Ruth issued an invitation, the couple decided together and responded in the first person plural: 'Thursday doesn't work for us' or 'We'd love to have dinner on Saturday.'
"Predictably, her son's distancing upset Ruth, and she complained to Bill about his infrequent calls and visits, phoning him at work and peppering him with questions. 'I hated to hurt Mom,' Bill admitted, 'but I had to save my marriage.' Ruth also griped to Sue about the changes in Bill, saying, 'Bill won't accept my dinner invitations without asking you first' or 'Bill never calls me anymore.' Sue and Bill didn't answer these comments, believing that if they didn't engage her in debate, she'd eventually back off.
"After about six months, she did. The couple now have monthly dinners with Ruth and John, and they alternate paying. They debated whether to continue the family vacations, but ultimately decided that declining the invitations would needlessly deprive their children of the opportunity both to travel and to enjoy their step-grandparents' affection. 'I do want them in our lives,' said Sue. 'I just don't want them to run our lives.'
"With Ruth neutralized, the tension and arguing decreased, too. I encouraged the couple to commit to regular private time without kids or parents — time in which they could have the long, heartfelt conversations that had been a hallmark of their courtship. They now schedule regular dinner-and-a-movie dates twice a month. They're also planning a trip to California, their first vacation alone since their honeymoon. Having regained their emotional closeness, the couple saw their sex life improve, too.
"Sue and Bill spent a highly fruitful year in counseling. 'I'm so proud of my husband,' Sue said. 'We've fallen in love again, and our relationship is better than ever.' 'Marrying Sue is the best thing that ever happened to me,' agreed Bill. 'I'm so sorry for all the pain I caused her.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2007.