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"His Elderly Parents Are Too Demanding!"

Their mismatched priorities are dissolving this couple's relationship. Can this marriage be saved?
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Her Turn

"Don is juggling way too much, and unfortunately his family is last on his list," said Lisa, 44, who lives near Boston with her husband of eight years and their 5-year-old daughter, Carrie, and 3-year-old son, Zack. "For three years Don has been overwhelmed with caring for his ailing parents, who are in their mid-70s, and rebuilding his struggling architecture firm. He's so worn out he has no energy left for me or the kids. On the nights he doesn't fall asleep in front of the TV, he clowns around with them until they get so wound up that he explodes. They don't understand why he is so short-tempered, and I don't understand why his parents always come first.

"Don functions as his parents' personal ATM, paying for everything from car insurance to roof repairs. His dad, Tony, is a former stockbroker who lost everything to risky investments and gambling debt. He declared bankruptcy when Don was 17, and then worked low-paying retail jobs; Ann, his mom, was a receptionist. Their combined income could barely cover their monthly expenses, so about 15 years ago — before I even met Don — they started coming to him for handouts.

"Don thinks nothing of secretly slipping them $1,000. I always find out, of course, because in addition to holding down a full-time paralegal job, I manage our finances and the books for Don's business, which took a hit after 9/11 and has yet to recover. We can't afford to support Tony and Ann anymore. It's tough enough to pay our own bills, let alone theirs. And we've put nothing aside for the kids' college education or for our own retirement.

"Three years ago, Tony suffered a massive stroke, which left him partially paralyzed and often confused. That increased Don's involvement in their lives. Even though Don has three sisters who all live no more than a few hours away, Don's the one who arranged for Tony's rehabilitation and care — practically a full-time job in itself. In the past three years Don has forked over more than $60,000. If I complain that he's putting our own financial future in jeopardy, he accuses me of being heartless. I'm not heartless! I love Tony and Ann, too, and they're doting grandparents. I want to help them, but we cannot continue at the current level.

"Unfortunately, Don and I just don't communicate. He avoids conflict by walking away, which enrages me. So I keep pushing until we're screaming at each other. We've even divided the kids. Carrie takes Don's side, yelling 'Be nice to Daddy' while Zack tells his dad 'Don't be mean to Mommy.' We're setting such a bad example! Lately I've been so angry that I've lost all interest in sex — something he then jokes about to our friends. Does he think embarrassing me is going to rekindle my romantic feelings? If so, he's dead wrong."

"My own childhood was very happy. I grew up in a suburb of Indianapolis, the third child of a homemaker and pharmaceutical executive. Mom and Dad had, and still have, an extremely loving relationship and my brothers and I are very close to them. I talk to my parents every day and see them about six times a year; fortunately, they're healthy and financially secure.

"After I graduated from college, I moved to Boston, became a paralegal, and married Bob, an investment banker. We bought a house in the suburbs and were talking about having children when tragedy struck: Driving home from work one night, Bob was hit by a drunken driver and killed instantly. I was left a widow at 34, with my world turned upside down. Consumed by grief and craving a change of scenery, I moved back to the city.

"About a year later I spotted Don in the fitness center of my apartment building. He was tall and handsome, with a sculpted physique and piercing blue eyes. I approached him in the free-weights area, and before long we were laughing and swapping life stories. At 41, he was a divorced dad of an 8-year-old son, Adam, and had recently moved into the building. I looked forward to chatting with him in the fitness center, but he didn't ask for my number, and I was too shy to give it to him.

"One evening about a month after we met, Don knocked on my door and asked if I'd watch Adam while he ran out to pick up a pizza. Adam introduced me to his stuffed animals, and when Don returned with dinner, he held them up and made goofy noises, charming both Adam and me. I accepted Don's invitation to stay for pizza, and when I left his apartment a few hours later, he asked me to dinner. Midway through that first date, Don stared into my eyes and said, 'I'm going to marry you.' I just laughed, assuming he'd had a little too much wine. But our chemistry was undeniable; within weeks, we were deeply in love.

"We got married 10 months after we met. Our newlywed years were bliss. We bought a house in the suburbs to be closer to Adam, I enjoyed my paralegal job and Don's business was thriving. We were thrilled when three years later, at 39, I became pregnant with Carrie and again when Zack came along two years later.

"Don was an involved father when Carrie was a baby, but unfortunately our son's arrival coincided with his dad's stroke and the downturn in his business. Since his stroke, Tony has undergone multiple surgeries and months of rehabilitation. Don has been at his side every single day. Ann quit her job to care for him, with help from a home healthcare aide that Don pays for. The stress is intolerable for her, too, so she calls Don at all hours for emotional support. I know both Tony and Ann feel bad about how much they lean on Don, but that doesn't stop them from doing it.

"When he's not tending to his parents, Don is working late trying to get his business back on track. When he is home, he unwinds by watching TV. If I ask for help, he'll say he's too tired or that 'the kids go to sleep better for you than they do for me.' Well, that's because he's a terrible disciplinarian, and the kids take advantage of that. He'll play with them until they get hyper, then scream at them for not listening. That makes them cry and cling to me; and I yell at Don for raising his voice. Sometimes he'll say, 'I'm too old to have little kids,' which just breaks my heart. The tension in our house is unbearable, and the kids pick up on it and fight constantly. Adam, my 17-year-old stepson, doesn't come over as often as he used to, and when he's here he's sullen. Don says I pick on him; well, if trying to engage Adam in conversation is 'picking on him,' then I plead guilty.

"I do sympathize with how overwhelmed Don feels, but he brings some of that pressure on himself. He can be a good son without being on call to his parents 24-7. If he'd only delegate some responsibilities to his sisters, he could focus on rebuilding his company and spending more time with us. I miss the funny, warm, and affectionate man I fell in love with — and I want him back!

"Last week, as I was paying our mortgage, I noticed our checking account was short. I confronted Don, who insisted I'd made an error. But after I pressed him, he admitted he'd given several thousand dollars to his parents. That was the last straw. 'I won't let you continue to deceive me, put our financial future at risk and keep our family life on the back burner,' I told him. 'I'm filing for divorce.'"

His Turn

"Lisa is right: I am juggling too much," said Don, 50, with a heavy sigh. "And I'm every bit as overwhelmed, exhausted, irritable, and distracted as my wife claims. That said, I take exception to her perspective: She acts as if I've deliberately chosen to neglect our family and don't care about our marriage and our kids. That's not true; the way I see it, I'm trying to manage two major crises at once — rebuilding my business and taking care of my parents.

"I'm under constant pressure to be a good father, a good son, and a good businessman. Why can't Lisa cut me a break? Her own parents are healthy and affluent, so she can't empathize with what I'm going through. But how can I walk out on my parents now? I love my mom and dad, and as their only son, I feel responsible for them. I'd never forgive myself if I didn't look out for them.

"Lisa is also making too big a deal about the money I've given them. We're not even close to retirement and our kids are still in preschool. We'll have time to catch up once business picks up at my firm. It's true that I'm not always forthcoming about the money because I'm afraid of igniting Lisa's temper. Of course, this approach backfires because she always finds out anyway and then goes on a tear. But at least I buy myself some time.

"When I was growing up, Mom and Dad were good-natured, but very self-absorbed. They concentrated on their jobs and social life and never pushed me or my sisters to succeed. They were generous with stuff — toys, gadgets, vacations — but I can't recall them ever saying they were proud of me. When I was a senior in high school, Dad lost everything. My parents sold our house to cover Dad's gambling debts — no one knew about his habit, including Mom — and moved the six of us into a tiny apartment and told me that they could no longer afford the private college I was set to attend. I was devastated — and furious at Dad's irresponsible behavior. I moved into an efficiency apartment and took a construction job to pay for community college, and eventually a four-year college and graduate school. Over time I let go of my anger and became close to my parents. It seemed pointless to stay bitter after I'd made it on my own."

"I married my first wife, Bonnie, when I was 26, and we had Adam when we were in our early 30s. Our relationship was placid but it lacked physical passion and the shared interests I wanted for the long haul. Realizing we were better as friends than spouses, we ended our 12-year marriage.

"I'd been divorced for four years when I met Lisa, who was — and still is — the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen. She's tall and slender, with blond hair, hazel eyes, and a dazzling smile. Plus, she's smart and sophisticated. On our first date, it wasn't the wine talking when I said I'd marry her. I felt it in my gut, because of the intense physical attraction and the way our personalities clicked. I felt that she understood me in a way Bonnie never did. 'You're my soul mate,' I told her after we'd been dating for a few weeks. 'I want us to spend every moment together.'

"Now, nine years later, I avoid her whenever possible. She is always in attack mode, pouncing on me the minute I walk in the door. I'd rather stay late at the office or help my parents than face Lisa's tirades and the kids' unruly behavior. I'm sad that Adam keeps his distance, but I don't blame him, because Lisa either ignores him or makes snide remarks about his clothes and friends. Sometimes I think Lisa mistreats Adam as a way of punishing me for spending time with my parents — and that upsets me more than anything else Lisa does, including rejecting me in bed.

"We haven't made love in a year, and believe me, it's not for my lack of trying. She just pushes me away. I miss not just our lovemaking, but also holding hands and kissing good morning — the routine affection that was once part of our daily lives. Yes, I know I shouldn't crack jokes about our sex life in front of friends, but I'm so frustrated I can't help myself.

"I love Lisa and still consider her my soul mate. The other night, after she blew up about the money I gave my parents, she said she wanted a divorce. I can't bear the thought of losing her. 'Please, let's try marriage counseling,' I begged her. I'm not terribly hopeful, but it can't hurt."

The Counselor's Turn

"Stretched thin from raising children, holding down jobs, and caring — emotionally, physically, and financially — for elderly parents, Lisa and Don exemplify the 'sandwich generation' to a T," said the counselor. "When they started therapy, both were consumed with anxiety and rage. Yet despite their mutual hostility and litany of legitimate complaints, they said they were still in love. They also accepted responsibility for their own shortcomings and expressed a desire to change. For these reasons I believed that Lisa and Don could repair their relationship.

"Lisa's chief complaint was Don's excessive involvement with his parents, so we began by examining why he felt so responsible for them. His upbringing explained it: Like many successful people whose parents lavished them with material things, but withheld their pride and approval, he suffered from the 'imposter syndrome,' believing his success was undeserved. Such people often chase their parents' love well into adulthood. In Don's case, he appointed himself Tony and Ann's caretaker to gain their approval and seem important in their eyes.

"In a breakthrough session, Don admitted that he was conflicted. On one hand, he felt it was honorable to help his parents. On the other, he resented them for being financially irresponsible and demanding. Don was especially angry with Tony for mismanaging his career, gambling the family's savings, and staying underemployed for decades. Once Don opened up, he realized that Lisa was right: In his quest to be the perfect son, Don had shortchanged her and his children. Helping his parents was admirable, but he needed to do it in a way that worked for everyone. Furthermore, he had to stop deceiving Lisa. 'In lying to her about the money you give your parents, you're repeating the sins of your father, who lied to your mother about his finances,' I pointed out. 'This deception has eroded Lisa's trust — and trust is a cornerstone of a successful marriage.'

"At this point, we discussed how Don could reduce his involvement, freeing up time for his family and business. First, I advised him to investigate whether Tony and Ann's low income qualified them for state assistance. It did, and now the cost of Tony's aide is covered by that. Second, Don asked his sisters to take turns being on call for their parents, as well as to contribute money as needed. They agreed, so now Don spends less time with his parents and is no longer their sole support — a result that has actually made everyone happier, including Ann and Tony, who had felt guilty about over-relying on their son. Third, to rebuild Lisa's trust, I encouraged Don to include his wife in discussions about his parents' needs. 'If you want to write them a check, you must clear it with Lisa first,' I said. Recently, when Tony and Ann couldn't pay their car-insurance premium on time, Don and Lisa scheduled a conference call with his sisters and they decided to split the bill four ways."

"Next, we addressed Don's business problems. Though the economy had rebounded in the years following 9/11, his business had not. Don blamed it on being too distracted to cultivate new clients, but when he mentioned being chronically disorganized and hating to delegate, I sensed that his work style might be a factor. I urged him to hire a management consultant to evaluate his business. On the consultant's recommendation, he fired some underperforming employees, hired new ones, and delegated the daily running of the business to a trusted colleague. This allowed Don to focus on his strength: selling his company's services. Soon he'd landed enough new accounts to move the firm into the black.

"Next, Lisa and Don needed to overcome the cycle of screaming and name-calling. 'If you don't modify the way you communicate, you'll inflict lasting damage on your kids,' I cautioned. 'From your example, they've learned it's okay to be verbally abusive and will repeat this behavior throughout their lives. Do you really want them to mistreat their spouses?' Framing the issue this way motivated the couple to change.

"In session, we role-played how Lisa could make a request. I encouraged her to replace accusatory 'you' statements with heartfelt 'I' statements. I also urged her to adopt a gentler tone and hold Don's hand to demonstrate affection: 'I know you've had a tough day, but it would mean a lot to the kids if you'd put them to bed tonight.' This approach has worked wonders. 'Lisa approaches me calmly now, without screaming or calling me names,' Don marveled in one session. 'Sure, we still disagree sometimes, but we don't raise our voices.'

"As the couple's communication improved, the tension in the house decreased dramatically. Deprived of the opportunity to participate in their parents' disputes, Carrie and Zack began fighting much less, and their stepbrother became more comfortable at their house. Adam and Lisa have bonded over listening to alternative music, to Don's delight.

"The final step was to help the couple develop empathy for each other. Don needed to be more loving and attentive to his wife, while also assuming a larger share of parenting and housework. He admitted that it was unfair to expect Lisa to work every day, manage his company's books, raise their kids, and run the house by herself. For her part, Lisa needed to be less demanding.

"With more time and reduced stress, Don became a doting husband and father, bringing Lisa flowers, cleaning the house without being asked, pitching in with childcare, and planning family activities. Thrilled with these changes, Lisa lost her critical edge. They began spending more time alone, which helped rekindle their physical attraction. Not surprisingly, both report that their sex life has improved.

"Don is back to being the fun-loving guy I met in the fitness center and the same attentive husband and father he was early in our marriage," said Lisa.

"Don is equally happy with the 'new' Lisa. 'She's sweet and supportive,' he said. 'And my best friend!'

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2007.

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