"José is a traditional Latino," said Maria, 41, a mother of three teenage girls who has been married for 20 years. "In his mind he's a good husband because he gives me plenty of money and doesn't drink, swear, gamble, or sleep around, like a lot of married men he knows. Yes, I appreciate those qualities, but how about some consideration for what I want?
"Basically, José has the same macho ideas as my parents' generation. My dad worked construction in the small Mexican border town where I grew up; my mom raised 12 kids and did whatever my dad told her to do. After high school I worked in a food factory for two years to help support my brothers and sisters. I dreamed of escaping to the United States. I was terrified of ending up like my mom — constantly pregnant and dependent on a man who bossed her around.
"I got lucky when relatives in Chicago took me in. I learned English and data processing in night school. I met José at my cousin's wedding when I was 20, and he proposed six months later. I loved José — he was romantic, attentive, and had a good job. But I told him I wanted to be fluent in English and go to college before getting married. And I didn't want kids right away. 'We'll have kids later,' he kept saying. 'You can go to school.' Well, I accidentally got pregnant with Eva on our honeymoon, and José pressured me to stay home. Then Carmen and Gloria came along and I was too busy for school. But I never gave up my dream. When Gloria started kindergarten I secretly applied for and won a scholarship to a local junior college. I was thrilled, but José wouldn't let me take it: 'Your place is at home,' he said. 'I'm the breadwinner.' I was furious at him for being so sexist and at myself for getting stuck in a marriage just like my mother's.
"I felt miserable but threw myself into being a good mother. I've loved seeing the kids excel, but I'm lonely. José works six days a week — he runs his own plumbing business — and on Sundays he's too tired to go out. And talk about a control freak! He gets mad if I chat with people in line at the bank. He accuses me of flirting, but I'm just being nice. And he gives me a hard time every time I go out with my friends.
"Maybe that's because I want to be more like them. Most have jobs. They don't rely on their husbands to pay for every pedicure! José has lived in Chicago his whole life, but all his friends are Latino and think the same way he does. If he knew a few American men, he'd see that wanting to be equal with your husband isn't 'crazy' at all.
"That's what he called me last month when I finally told him I was unhappy. 'You never spend time with me. You never compliment me. You don't support my dreams,' I said. 'Treat me better or I'm leaving.' José was shocked. 'You're crazy,' he said. 'I've given you everything — a nice house, a new car, fancy clothes!' Now we fight all the time. And he can't understand why I don't feel like having sex with him?
"José thinks I'm chained to him, but I have options. I could stay with friends if I leave him, and I'm bilingual, so I could find a job. But believe it or not, I still love José and think we could be happy. One thing is certain, though: I'm through with being the obedient Latina wife."
"I don't know what's gotten into my wife," said José, 45. "I thought everything was fine with us. She has always made me happy. She's a wonderful wife and mother. I thought I made her happy, too. I've given her a comfortable and secure life — far better than what she could have had in Mexico. And I haven't looked at another woman since the day we met.
"If Maria is so unhappy, why did she wait until now to tell me? She gets really mad when I say she's crazy, but that's the only word I know to describe it. For 20 years Maria never complained or lost her temper. Now all she does is scream and threaten divorce. And she refuses to have sex with me. Is this some kind of punishment?
"So what if I don't tell Maria that she's pretty 20 times a day, call her from work in the middle of the afternoon, or kiss her all the time? I still love her. And I know I'm a good husband. Our marriage is just like my parents' marriage. They moved us to Chicago from Mexico when I was 10, but their relationship was more Latino than American. My dad, an auto mechanic, was the head of the household and my mom stayed home with seven kids. He didn't hold her hand or say 'thank you' — at least not in front of the kids. I thought that was the way marriage worked. And it does work for them. They just celebrated their 50th anniversary.
"As a husband and father, my main job is to provide for my family. When the kids were young I worked night and day to build my plumbing business. In the past few years, I've hired four employees, so I've cut back to 50 hours a week. I give Maria and the kids whatever they want, so I don't understand why she carries on about going to school and getting a job. Money's not an issue. Besides, if she starts now, she'll be nearly 50 by the time she graduates. What's the point?
"I don't like how much time Maria spends with her friends. She says they just go to restaurants, drink margaritas, and gossip. But I think it's her friends who've given her all these ideas about what's wrong with our marriage. And I'm sure she flirts with men when they go out, because I know Maria. She starts conversations wherever she goes. She says it's normal for 'American women' to be friendly to strangers. Well, it doesn't seem normal to me. I think it's improper behavior for a married woman.
"I have no idea why Maria thinks our marriage is in trouble, but I'm tired of fighting and I don't want to lose her. So I'm willing to give counseling a try."
The Counselor's Turn
"All couples have an implicit 'contract' at the time of their marriage," said the counselor. "The relationship is stable as long as both spouses stick to their agreed-upon roles. But when one spouse decides he or she wants something different, the marriage can fall apart. This was the situation Maria and José found themselves in.
"Maria got married at 21, intent on being a dutiful wife. But after being in the United States for many years, she yearned for a more equal partnership, like those she saw among her friends. José's view of marriage was no longer compatible with hers.
"José genuinely believed that earning a lot of money and being faithful made him a good husband. By calling Maria 'crazy,' he effectively blamed her for her own unhappiness. I told him, 'Wives today not only want to be equal, but they also expect their husbands to be affectionate and emotionally available. Saying "thank you" and "I love you" would show Maria you value her.'
"Being the sole provider enabled José to maintain his dominance and ensure that Maria couldn't leave him — an unconscious motivation but a powerful one. He also felt that if Maria had a job, it would undermine his authority, because in his experience, women worked out of necessity, not for fulfillment. I didn't mince words: 'You've known for 20 years that Maria wants to go to school and pursue a career. If you don't support this dream, she'll leave you.' I also pointed out that female friendships provide a vital social outlet, and that small talk between men and women is not flirtation but a cultural norm in this country. After living here for more than half her life, Maria identified more as American than Mexican, and José needed to accept that.
"Maria also doubted whether José truly loved and respected her. I was certain that he did but didn't know how to express his love in the concrete ways that Maria craved. 'To get what you need without putting José on the defensive, ask directly and nicely,' I suggested. 'Try, "Let's see a movie on Sunday night," instead of "Why don't you ever take me out?'"
"I helped the couple recognize the vicious cycle they'd created: The more Maria complained about José's attitudes, the more inflexible he became, which triggered her rage and threats of divorce. It took six months of therapy before José could admit that he had neglected Maria's needs. 'I'm sorry I hurt you,' he said. 'Please forgive me.'
"It was another six months before he was fully on board with Maria's agenda. This radical shift in thinking was clearly stressful for him, but slowly he began to pitch in around the house and to encourage Maria to see friends. Daily walks and monthly date nights have brought them closer. Best of all, José supports Maria's decision to enroll in junior college and work part-time for an airline, where her being bilingual is an enormous asset.
"'I thought José was a hopeless case, but counseling turned him into a new man,' Maria said recently. "'I'm so glad I didn't give up on him.'"
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Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2010.