"My mother-in-law is the most demanding, intrusive, and irrational woman I've ever known," said Kathy, 34, a third-grade teacher from Baltimore who has been married for five years and has two young daughters, Julia, 2, and Emily, 14 months.
"Barbara is a troublemaker. She has always been jealous of my relationship with her son, and she's constantly trying to drive a wedge between us. If John doesn't return her calls promptly, she blames me. She thinks I withhold her messages, but in fact John is slow to call back because their relationship is so troubled. What's more, Barbara expects to be included in all family events. And she doesn't make it easy to be with her: She becomes indignant if we decline her dinner invitations, acts defensive if we ask her not to smoke in front of the girls, and goes ballistic if we ask her not to bring her dog over. She's a nightmare, and the sad truth is, she's tearing us apart.
"I've called John 'two-faced' because he criticizes Barbara behind her back but won't stand up to her in person. He calls me a nag if I encourage him to have more contact with her. If he phoned every week instead of once a month, maybe she'd be less difficult.
"If only John and I could communicate better. I let my anger build until I can't take it anymore, and then I dump on him. He screams and takes out his frustrations by pounding furniture or throwing things. Afterward, he'll give me the silent treatment and sleep on the couch until he has cooled off. We're so angry with each other that I can't even remember the last time we made love.
"I grew up in a blue-collar family, the youngest of six children. Dad worked in construction; Mom was a homemaker. When I was a toddler, my 5-year-old sister drowned in a neighbor's pool, and her death changed the family. Mom coped by going to church every day, Dad by drinking too much. He was verbally abusive to my mother, and their fights kept me awake at night. My siblings quarreled a lot, too, but I got along with everybody. I was the one who was always trying to 'fix' everyone else's relationships.
"I met John when I was 26. He tended bar at the restaurant where I was a waitress. I had just graduated from college and was job hunting; he was a graduate student in architecture. I was drawn to his classic good looks — wavy black hair, deep brown eyes, a chiseled jaw, and a sexy smile. On our first date, a picnic in a park, John and I discovered how much we had in common: We each had had less-than-ideal upbringings, were the first in our families to attend college, and enjoyed hiking, camping, and biking.
"John was more worldly, intelligent, and witty than the other guys I'd dated. But what I liked best about him was his ability to discuss his feelings. He told me that his grandparents raised him until he was in ninth grade, when his mother reentered his life. His father wasn't in the picture at all. 'Mom is crazy,' John said. 'Our relationship is on again off again, and right now it's off.' I was touched by his candor. He was the first man with whom I shared my family secrets, and I confessed how scared I was by my father's alcoholic rages.
"Six months after we started dating, Barbara married Frank, her long-time boyfriend, and John reconciled with her. I quickly saw the irrational behavior he had warned me about. When John showed her the pearl earrings he had bought for me, Barbara whined that he loved me more than he loved her. A week later she berated him for not spending enough time with her. After she calmed down, things were fine for a few months until she exploded again — this time because it took John two weeks to return her call. We were relieved when Frank got transferred to Seattle.
"Our marriage was conflict-free during the three years she was away. John and I played tennis, spent weekends in the country, fixed up the house, and started a family. The troubles resumed just over a year ago, when Frank's job brought them back to our area. Barbara started calling every few days, dropping by unannounced, and pressuring us to get together.
"I feel guilty that John ignores her, so I call her once a week and go shopping with her twice a month. I'm on edge the whole time, though, because I never know whether she'll explode over some trivial matter. And she never misses a chance to probe for information about our marriage. I try to dodge her questions, but once I accidentally mentioned that money was tight. Barbara told John what I'd said, and he got upset that I'd divulged our personal business.
"Then there are Barbara and Frank's monthly visits, which I dread. She insists on bringing Cuddles, her frisky Jack Russell terrier, who once nipped Julia's nose. It didn't break the skin, thank goodness, but I don't want Cuddles around the girls. John says I'm overreacting, but I suspect his real reason for not supporting me is that he doesn't want to tell Barbara that Cuddles can't come over. We tried once — and she flew into a rage.
"Last Christmas John and I had a huge argument because Barbara and Frank invited themselves to dinner on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. 'They can come one day, not two, and Cuddles stays home,' I said. John disagreed, saying he felt sorry for his mother. I was furious he wouldn't back me up and was a nervous wreck from worrying that Cuddles might hurt our daughters.
"Barbara's behavior and John's indifference to my feelings have taken such a toll that we speak to each other only in clipped tones or raised voices. We used to snuggle on the sofa; now we avoid each other when we're both home. Every time the phone rings I worry that it's Barbara. The stress has given me migraines and insomnia, but John couldn't care less.
"Last week, after yet another blow-up, John punched a hole in the kitchen wall. That's when I decided I'd had enough. I love my husband, but I will not stay married to a man who can't stand up to his mother or control his temper."
"My mother is guilty as charged," admitted John, a 36-year-old architect, with a heavy sigh. "She's a huge embarrassment, the type of person who throws a fit if she has to wait for a table at a restaurant. No favor or gift is ever without strings attached. If she doesn't get her way, she'll mention the toys she bought for our daughters and accuse me of being ungrateful.
"The crux of the problem is that Mom is angry that I won't grant her an all-access pass to my life. So she lashes out, which pushes me away even further. As her only child, I feel obligated to have a cordial relationship, but I don't want a close one. I resent her being absent when I was young, and I dislike her personality.
"I'm the consequence of a fling my mother had when she was a 16-year-old cheerleader. My father was a football player. They got married but split after 18 months. Mom left me here in Baltimore with her parents, while she went off to find herself in New York City. My father was never in my life at all. I saw Mom periodically when she came to visit, but when I was 14, she returned for good, and I went to live with her. Not surprisingly, we didn't get along. She acted like she had been around my entire life, and I knew better. Mom was possessive, emotionally needy, and a screamer. She badmouthed my grandparents and tried to turn me against them.
"When I met Kathy I fell in love fast. She not only was beautiful, with wavy brown hair and sparkling green eyes, but she had a warm, caring personality. I knew immediately she'd be a wonderful wife and mother, and I was right. We had a great marriage until my mother moved back here from Seattle and started interfering.
"She phones so often that we had to get caller ID to screen calls. It's true that I let weeks go by before I get back to her, because the conversations always follow the same unpleasant script: Mom complains about our relationship, then invites herself over. If I say no, she lambastes me. Is it any wonder I avoid her?
"Kathy and I are at odds over what she calls my 'mismanagement' of my mother. Why won't Kathy butt out? I get so sick of her nagging that I'll agree to call Mom, just to keep the peace. But then I won't follow through, which makes things worse.
"It also annoys me that Kathy takes it upon herself to call Mom and go shopping with her — and then complains about it! I've never asked her to get involved; on the contrary, I've repeatedly urged her either to ignore Mom completely or severely limit their contact.
"Despite Mom's faults I do feel obligated to maintain some sort of relationship. She has alienated her parents, with whom I'm still close, as well as her siblings and Frank's adult children, so she and Frank have no place to go on holidays. That's why I didn't mind if she came on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As for Cuddles, I don't think a 12-pound dog will attack our girls, and yes, I'd rather let Mom bring her than risk another battle. I've suggested a compromise — Cuddles stays in her crate while Julia and Emily are awake. What's the big deal?
"I'm so tired of fighting. I hate losing my temper and I miss making love with Kathy. I couldn't bear to lose her, especially over my mother. If counseling can help me manage both my temper and my mom, I'm all for it."
The Counselor's Turn
"In-law problems are among the most common reasons couples go into marital therapy," the counselor said. "Kathy and John's grievances over his mother were legitimate. Narcissistic and emotionally needy, Barbara desperately wanted a close relationship with her son. But she had no idea how to go about it.
"The couple had a choice: Since their marriage was solid when Barbara lived in Seattle, they could sever ties with her permanently. Or they could improve the relationship with her by setting limits both sides could agree on. Since John and Kathy are both caretakers at heart — he felt responsible for his mother and she felt sorry for her — I thought it best that they stay connected. 'You must accept the fact that Barbara probably won't change,' I explained. 'It's up to you to control your reactions to her.'
"Once they'd made the decision to maintain contact, the couple had to adjust their attitudes, behavior, and communication styles. As they described their marital conflict, I agreed that John had mismanaged the situation, but I also recognized that Kathy needed to stop badgering him and running interference with Barbara.
"During an early session I also suspected that Kathy was suffering from an undiagnosed anxiety problem. She looked nervous, talked quickly, and spoke of obsessing over what Barbara might say or do next. She also mentioned migraines and insomnia. Rather than refer Kathy to a psychiatrist for anti-anxiety medication (which often only masks the problem), I suggested that we work through the problem in counseling, first by examining the root cause of her anxiety and then by taking steps to alleviate it.
"In Kathy's case, the anxiety stemmed from the lack of control she felt as a child. She was powerless to bring her deceased sister back to life or to help her parents cope with this terrible loss. So, like many surviving children, she assumed the role of the 'responsible child' and the 'people pleaser.' But try as she might, she couldn't 'fix' her father's drinking and verbal abuse or her siblings' fights. Nor, as an adult, could she fix the problems in her marriage. All her life, in an effort to please others, Kathy had had trouble setting limits. Her frustration fueled her anxiety.
"Although she didn't realize she had an anxiety problem, Kathy admitted to being in a perpetual state of worry and attributed the feeling to John and Barbara. Once she understood where her anxiety originated, she felt she had more control of the situation.
"I suggested that she learn to set limits and helped her understand that it was okay to say no. If she wanted to talk to Barbara or go shopping with her, fine — but only because she wanted to, not to compensate for John's shortcomings. As for Cuddles, Kathy's fears were not irrational: The dog could be inadvertently provoked by Julia or Emily. The couple needed to reach an agreement — either the dog remained at home or stayed in its crate during visits — and convey the ground rules to Barbara. 'If you present a united front, she won't be able to divide and conquer,' I said.
"John's lingering abandonment issues were understandable, but if he wanted to maintain a connection with his mother, he had to develop an authentic, respectful relationship. 'The more you distance yourself from her, the more aggressively she'll pursue you,' I explained. 'It's not fair for you to avoid her and then leave your wife to counter her accusations.' Indeed, John's indifference to Kathy's feelings about Barbara was exacerbating her anxiety.
"I urged John to call his mother in a timely and regular manner. If Barbara knew she'd hear from John every two weeks, I pointed out, she'd likely be more pleasant. He also needed to set limits. If Barbara became agitated, John should say, 'Mom, I'm sorry you feel that way, but I've got to go now,' rather than engage her in an argument. Plus, he needed to be clear about how often she could visit. Barbara wanted weekly calls and visits; John preferred monthly. Ultimately, he decided on a monthly call, and the couple agreed that Barbara could come over two Sundays a month. They also laid out new ground rules: Cuddles could accompany her but had to stay in the crate while the girls were awake, and Barbara could smoke on the front porch but not inside the house.
"The couple also needed to improve their own communication style. Kathy's pattern of expressing her anxiety by nagging provoked John's anger. I urged her to compose herself and express her concerns more gently. This has helped enormously. For example, the last time Barbara called to complain that the couple had declined her recent dinner invitations, Kathy did not stew about the issue or try to resolve it herself, but calmly related the conversation to John that night.
"John's habit of screaming, throwing objects, and punching walls frightened Kathy, who had every right to demand that he change. Therapy gave John the chance to vent in a safe environment, and as he learned to express himself more effectively, he was able to manage his anger better. John's improved anger management was also the result of Kathy's making it clear that she would divorce him if his physical rages didn't stop. John couldn't bear to suffer that loss. As their mutual anger began to subside, Kathy and John got their dormant sex life back on track.
"After a year in counseling, the couple are now an effective united front. Although John and his mother will never be best friends, they get along much better, now that the relationship has structure. What's more, Kathy and John have learned to ignore Barbara's more annoying traits. 'Counseling gave me permission to step back,' Kathy told me recently. 'I've stopped calling and going shopping with Barbara, and I don't pester John about her. I worry less and my physical symptoms have vanished. Best of all, John and I are happier than ever.'"
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews and information from the files of Stephen J. Betchen, DSW, a licensed marriage counselor and certified sex therapist in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and author of the forthcoming Intrusive Partners-Elusive Mates. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2005.