"Ever since our 22-year-old daughter graduated from college and moved home with her new puppy, Sean and I haven't been getting along," said Meg, 45, a paralegal who's been married for 24 years. "It was my idea for Kim to live with us while she looks for a teaching job. But I wasn't prepared for the chaos she'd bring.
"Kim's our only child, and when she went off to college I worried that Sean and I would have trouble adjusting to the empty nest. But actually we got much closer. It was wonderful to see a movie or eat out on the spur of the moment without worrying about making dinner or supervising homework. Sean started helping around the house without being asked, and for the first time in ages our sex life was great. We developed little rituals. On Sundays, for example, we'd walk into town, buy croissants and coffee at a cafe, and just sit together and read the newspaper.
"We haven't been able to do that once in the five months Kim has been back. Instead, I've become a live-in maid. I have to assume that somehow Kim managed to do laundry, clean her room, and feed herself while she was in college. But you'd never know it from the clothes piled everywhere and the fact that she expects to be waited on. My jobs include walking her puppy and cleaning up his accidents — though to be fair, Sean usually does that.
"But the main problem is Kim's attitude. If I ask if she'll be eating dinner with us, she accuses me of keeping tabs on her. No — I simply want to know how much chicken to defrost. And I'm not treating her 'like a child' if I want her to call to say she's going to be late.
"Meanwhile, Sean is backsliding. He leaves dirty dishes in the sink, just like before. And it never occurs to either Sean or Kim to start dinner or ask if I need something from the grocery store, even though I often don't get home until 9 p.m. Even worse, Sean and I are arguing about parenting, as we did when Kim was little. He says everything is my fault since I never made any demands of her. It's true, I didn't, because I believed her main job was to do well in school. She put plenty of pressure on herself to get good grades and she didn't need more from me.
"I also used to love cooking and making a nice home for my family. Well, I'm sick of all that now! But if I complain that her room's a mess or that college paraphernalia is spread all over the house, Sean just shrugs. The extent of his advice is 'Get over it.' When I try to talk to him, he says he's listening but he's watching the basketball game out of the corner of his eye. So we fight about that, too. He's often affectionate, but I'm usually too angry to respond.
"I don't mind supporting our daughter until she lands a decent job, but things have to change. I know it's hard on her to be back home, and I'm sad she and I aren't as close as we were. That goes double for Sean. The past four years were the happiest we've ever been. It breaks my heart to see all that progress go down the drain."
"Last night I got up to go to the bathroom and stepped in a puddle of puppy pee," said Sean, 47, a financial planner. "So it's not as if I don't get what Meg's talking about. Still, I think she's making mountains out of molehills. Are a few dishes in the sink that big a deal? Lately Meg has been overreacting to everything.
"What did she think would happen with Kim home? Our daughter has been on her own for four years. We didn't know where she was every minute. Why would she call now and tell us where she is? Meg needs to lighten up.
"When Kim was growing up Meg and I rarely saw eye to eye on parenting. I grew up on a farm and while I wasn't thrilled to do chores, I knew they were important. So I always believed Kim should have regular duties. But Meg wouldn't hear of it — she insisted that 'school was Kim's job.' Meg was always scurrying around, making sure that Kim's life ran smoothly. One time she drove to Staples at 10 p.m. to buy paper because Kim didn't have any and needed to print her English essay, which was due the next day. I thought that was a mistake. As far as I was concerned, it was our daughter's responsibility to keep track of her supplies and to face the consequences if she ran out. How can a child learn self-sufficiency if her mom bails her out each and every time?
"Now that Kim is back home, Meg's at it again, doing everything for the kid. But this time around she complains constantly. I'm sympathetic — but only up to a point. If Meg thinks Kim doesn't appreciate her efforts, then she should stop, pure and simple. Don't do something and then moan about it. When Meg starts storming around the house, I don't want to be anywhere near her. So I make myself scarce — and then she gets mad at me for not listening.
"I'm not saying I don't have issues with Kim. She swore she'd take care of her dog, yet I'm the one who walks him most of the time. But it's not easy to live under your parents' roof after being on your own. To me, a lot of her 'problems' aren't really problems at all.
"I honestly don't know what's going on with Meg. She snaps at me for no reason. If I try to hug her, she pushes me away. She never wants to have sex, even if Kim's out of the house. In the space of five months our marriage has gone from fantastic to miserable. And I don't believe it's Kim's fault."
The Counselor's Turn
"Like many empty nesters, Meg and Sean had enjoyed a kind of second honeymoon while their child was away," said the counselor. "Ironically, rekindling their romance obscured some issues that had simmered for a long time beneath the surface. Kim's reappearance exposed those issues.
"When Kim moved home, Meg automatically fell back into a maternal role she no longer wanted. She bristled at Kim's messiness and felt defensive about her own parenting. Sean loved his wife and wanted her to be happy, but he'd never known how to empathize with her. When she unleashed her anger, his reaction was to withdraw.
"In our first session, though, I sensed that perimenopause might be contributing to Meg's turmoil. 'I'm not suggesting it's the cause of your problems,' I said. 'But it may be intensifying your reactions.' Meg saw her gynecologist, who prescribed birth control pills. Her moods evened out almost immediately.
"She acknowledged that this period had been hard on Sean, too, who felt both rejected and ambushed. I advised her to ask, 'Can we talk?' to give him some warning. 'If you do say something hurtful, apologize,' I said. 'Simply respecting each other's feelings helps you both communicate better.'
"Meanwhile, Sean had to see that he was part of the problem. 'You may think Meg is overreacting,' I said, 'but her feelings are as valid as yours. You can't dismiss them.' Sean apologized for not pitching in and promised to listen. 'If you want romance, behave in ways that show it,' I advised. I recommended they spend 10 minutes a day catching up with each other — a habit that had lapsed when Kim came back.
"Once they'd pulled together as a couple, Meg and Sean focused on Kim. 'She needs to do her share,' I said. 'This starts with the two of you being clear about what you expect.' We set up charts specifying everyone's duties. Meg and Sean would each cook two nights a week and go out or eat leftovers on the other three. Kim was on her own unless she told them otherwise. Meg insisted that Kim let them know if she was running late. And she was assigned three chores: taking out all the trash, cleaning her bathroom, and caring for her dog. Meg worried that these new rules would trigger more friction, but I reassured her. 'Kim is anxious about her future, and her behavior reflects that. You're doing her a favor by treating her as an adult.'
"Over the next several weeks Meg and Sean resumed their Sunday walks and went away for two long weekends. Kim's attitude improved: She was pulling her weight and remembering to call. Best of all, she found a temp job teaching. If it becomes permanent, she may move into her own place in the fall.
"The couple spent four months in counseling. In our final session, a smiling Sean reached for his wife's hand and said, 'We learned how to welcome our daughter home without losing ourselves. Thank you.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2010/January 2011.