Kim: 32, stay-at-home mom
Rob: 41, real-estate developer
Married: 5 years
Kids: Nick, 2; Dylan, 1
Martin Novell, Los Angeles, California
Kim thinks her mother-in-law is too intrusive and demanding. She wants Rob to set firm boundaries. Rob insists his mom is just old-fashioned. He wants Kim to show her more respect. They can't stop arguing about it.
Kim: Rob won't say no to his mother and it's driving me insane. She shows up unannounced all the time and is always interfering. She asks me incredibly personal questions — "How much do you spend on clothes each month? What medications are you taking? When's the last time you made my son his favorite chicken dish?" — and if I complain to Rob, he tells me I'm being too sensitive. On top of that she insists we have a family dinner at her house every Tuesday, and he gets annoyed if I want to make other plans. Since we've had children, the situation has gotten totally out of hand. She'll call and say, "I want to come see my grandchildren tomorrow at noon." When I remind her that it's their nap time and ask her to come in the morning or late afternoon, she'll say, "Let me check my schedule." Then she'll call Rob and insist that noon tomorrow is the only time she can make it, and he'll say, "Come on over. The boys can nap some other time." He's not the one who has to deal with them when they're cranky and exhausted from having their schedule disrupted! But when I get mad, he accuses me of being inflexible and of being disrespectful to his mom.
Well, nobody seems to respect me, including my husband. I feel like I always come second with him. We've been arguing about this stuff more and more, and his mother has picked up on the tension. A few weeks ago, on the phone, she told me, "Rob works so hard. You need to stop stressing him out." I snapped at her, saying she was a big part of the problem, and she called Rob and said I'd been really rude. That led to a huge fight between Rob and me, and I wound up spending three days at my parents' house with the kids. Rob got me to come home by promising he'd speak to his mother, but he never followed through. We're barely talking to each other now, and when we do it turns into a screaming match.
Rob: I love Kim but I don't feel I should have to choose between loyalty to her and to my mom. Maybe it's a cultural thing. Both of our parents immigrated from Iran and Kim and I were both raised in the United States, but my parents are a lot more old-fashioned than hers. In Iran it's traditional for the husband's mother to play a major role in his household. The daughter-in-law is supposed to defer to her. I don't ask Kim to do that, but I wish she could be a little more accommodating. She comes from a family where you're free to do and say whatever you want. In my family that kind of attitude is considered shocking.
Kim: Come on! He's making it sound like I'm rude and out of control when all I'm doing is standing up for myself. When I first met Rob, I thought he was an enlightened, modern guy. Before we got married we agreed that we wanted a relationship based on equality and mutual support. That's what my parents taught me to value, and I thought he felt the same way. But it turns out that he really wants things to be like they were for our parents, back in Iran. He was brought up to think that the husband is the boss, the husband's mother is sacred, and the wife is there to make everybody else's lives easier.
Rob: That's not what I think! But I do think it's important to respect your elders. That has nothing to do with being Americanized or non-Americanized. And Kim doesn't seem to appreciate that I work 60-hour weeks to make life easier for her. I hate it when I come home tired after a long day and she starts whining, "You've got to do something about your mother!"
Frankly, I'm not a confrontational person, with my mother or anyone else. To me it's easier to say yes and make some adjustments than to risk hurting the other person's feelings.
Kim: I'm usually very polite to Rob's mom. I answer her prying questions even when I want to tell her to mind her own business. I don't snap at her when she comes over and wakes up the kids right after I've gotten them settled down. But if I say, "I'd prefer that you didn't do that," she'll call Rob and claim that I'm disrespectful. And the worst thing is that Rob always believes what she says. He apologizes for my behavior instead of standing up for me.
Rob: One thing Kim never considers is how my parents see her — as someone who's making life tough for their son. My dad's upset about it, too. He was talking about helping us buy a house, but now he's having second thoughts.
Kim: Look, I'm not going to kiss up to anyone for money. I'd rather be broke and independent than let somebody else tell me how to run my life. That's not good for me as a person and it's not good for us as a couple.
Rob: I'm not saying Kim has to let my mother control her life. I just want the two women I care about most to at least be able to get along.
Kim: Until Rob tells his mom to back off, that's not going to happen.
The Counselor's Turn
When I first met Rob and Kim, I learned that Rob had been born in Iran and came to America when he was 7 or 8. Kim was born here, to parents who were eager to adopt the ways of their new country. That helped me understand why they clashed so sharply over his mother's behavior. Kim was brought up in what we think of as a typical American nuclear family: mom, dad, and the kids. Rob grew up in an old-fashioned extended family where grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins play a much larger role in the family dynamic.
Kim and Rob hadn't given their family histories much thought. So I laid out some key differences: In a modern nuclear family, the husband and wife are basically equal partners. When they start a family, they do it on their terms, without interference from their parents. In a traditional extended family, the husband is usually seen as the head of the household. What's more, the couple's parents continue to exert authority over them and the grandkids. In fact, the husband's mother may have more power in her son's home than she ever had in her own.
Kim and Rob agreed that they wanted a modern nuclear family. But Rob had no experience with that type of family dynamic and his mother wasn't going to accept being suddenly demoted to secondary status in her son's life. Although Rob sincerely wanted Kim to be happy, it was unrealistic for either of them to expect that his relationship with his mom would change overnight. It would be up to Kim to deal more effectively with her mother-in-law. Rob's crucial responsibility would be to support Kim's efforts.
First, I suggested that Kim invite her mother-in-law to visit the grandkids every week, at a designated time, instead of waiting for her to call. Kim could say, "What are you doing tomorrow? Why don't you come over for an early dinner?" That way, no one would accuse her of being rude or standoffish. If the timing didn't work for Rob's mom, and she called him to complain, Rob had to back Kim up: a simple "I'm sorry, Mom, but Kim's in charge of our household scheduling" would do the trick. And if his mother wanted to come at a different time, he should tell her, "Talk it over with Kim."
For Kim, of course, talking with her mother-in-law wasn't always pleasant — she often came away feeling insulted. But instead of responding directly, she would blow up at Rob. I advised Kim to carefully consider what bothered her about her mother-in-law's remarks, and then to tell her — calmly but firmly — the next time it happened. For example, "When you ask me if I've cooked Rob that chicken dish he loves, it makes me feel like you don't think I know how to make him happy." That opens up a dialogue, and gives them a chance to understand each other.
But the most important thing was for Kim and Rob to start communicating better. When Kim was frustrated with Rob she tended to lose her temper. Rob withdrew and went silent at the first sign of a quarrel, but when he felt backed into a corner he would counterattack vigorously. Kim accused Rob of betraying her trust by siding with his mother. Rob accused Kim of being selfish. They were so intent on defending their own territory that they were destroying their relationship.
They each needed to understand the other's position. That meant holding back before blurting out something hurtful. It meant trying to compose their thoughts before talking, listening respectfully to the other person's response, and calling a time-out if the argument was getting too intense. It also meant accepting that compromise is not a weakness — it's a crucial part of a successful marriage. Neither spouse was likely to get 100 percent of what they hoped for from the other. Rob might never learn to stand up boldly to his mother. Kim might never learn to be even-tempered and diplomatic. But if they could focus on their common values instead of their differences, they could move forward together.
These days, that's just what they're doing. Kim has established some ground rules with Rob's mother, including an end to the Tuesday-night dinners and nap-time visits. She's also had some serious talks about privacy with her mother-in-law, who has become slightly less intrusive as a result. Rob's mom still calls him sometimes to try to get around Kim's rules, but he no longer takes the bait. Kim and Rob's fights are shorter and less intense, and the peaceful stretches last longer. They've begun to rediscover their old pleasure in each other's company. They're even thinking again of buying a house — and Rob's father is ready to help them out.
Can This Marriage Be Saved? is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. The story told here is true, although names and other identifying information have been changed to conceal identities.