Q: My wife is mean to my mother. She criticizes her to other people and is rude when my parents come to visit. What can I do about it?
A: You have a problem that is likely as old as mankind. No doubt a lot of sabre-toothed tigers were killed because it was easier for the caveman to face giant fangs than the wrath of his disgruntled mate shouting, ‘I can’t stand your mother!’
I work with a lot of strong, decisive men in my private practice, from firefighters to CEOs, who turn into little boys when they have to stand up to their moms (ladies, does this sound familiar?). Many of them repeat this pattern in marriage and cannot stand up to their wives, either. So when they are caught between mother and wife, they become trapped in ‘flooding,’ a state of physiological overload where adrenalin and the stress hormone cortisol race through the body. The man who wishes to please both mother and wife can’t win. He is psychologically paralyzed. So he does nothing, turning on the hockey game and tuning out his spouse.
If this is you, it’s time to take action. Break the psychological paralysis that makes you feel helpless and weak’and no doubt enrages your wife. You would (and should) fight a sabre-toothed tiger for her, but you should not be expected to condone her nasty or childish behaviour. It is time to help her see the difference.
Sit down with your wife and address the problem. Explain that when you took marriage vows, you also took a private vow to do your best to take her side. However, when you disagree with her behaviour, you’ll speak with her in private, and you expect her to take your needs into account.
Explain that whether or not she likes your mother, it is her responsibility as a partner to be polite and reasonably accommodating to your family. During the conversation, if she raises legitimate issues, try to be objective, and if you need to make changes, make them. For example, if your mom ‘drops by’ unannounced and disrupts your wife’s plans for the weekend, tell Mom that she needs to call first and you’ll let her know if a visit works. This is your job, not your wife’s. Why? Because she is your mother, and you are all grown up now, and you can say no to her.
I see this problem so commonly in couples’ therapy that I want to print my advice on matching T-shirts. His: ‘My mother raised me right, and that’s why my wife chose me. I love them both, I respect them’and sometimes I say ‘No’ to them.’ Hers: ‘She’s not ‘The Other Woman;’ she is ‘The First Woman.”’
Tell your wife you love her and your mother’but reassure her that she’s the one you go home with at night.
Cheryl Fraser, Ph.D., is a psychologist and sex therapist who lives in Duncan, B.C. She teaches a couples’ workshop, the Awakened Lover Weekend. What do you think? Do you have your own advice to share?
This article was originally titled “Ask a sex therapist” in the September 2011 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!