Mimi, 29, a housewife, and Carl, 30, who owns a small marine construction business, have been married nine years and have two children, but Mimi still feels she's playing second fiddle to her husband's family. "It's clear he cares more for them than for me," she snaps.
Carl spends so much time at his mother's, she says, he should move back in. "He has dinner there at least three times a week, and he doesn't have the courtesy to call and tell me he's there."
Ironically, one of the reasons Mimi fell in love with Carl was the contrast between his Ozzie-and-Harriet-like family and her own background. But her need to be accepted was long ago satisfied, and now Carl's involvement with his family has become a burden.
She's tired of hearing Carl report his mother's advice on raising kids, tired of having their lives revolve around his family. According to Mimi, Carl never talks to her and never helps around the house, yet he still expects her to do extra secretarial tasks for his business. "He has no idea what it's like to be home all day with two small kids," she fumes. Mimi feels overwhelmed, depressed and ignored, and the feelings are familiar.
As a shy, introverted child, Mimi yearned for her parents' attention, yet felt she could never please them. "They made me feel insignificant, just like Carl does," she says. "Am I wrong to ask that the kids and I come first?"
Carl thinks she is, and he's tired of having to defend his family against her attacks. Not only is she supersensitive, he says, but she makes mountains out of molehills. "My parents are only trying to help. What's the big deal about my eating at their house? I figure I'll save Mimi the trouble of having to cook for me.."
Carl can't comprehend why his wife is so furious when he asks for her help, either. "I ask her to mail a few packages and do a little bookkeeping," he explains. "It's not a full-time job, and, besides, the boys nap, don't they?"
Carl feels he can't win. "I work 16-hour days, then come home to a pile of paperwork. How can she talk about building a bigger house -- which means I need to work even harder -- and in the next breath tell me I never spend time with her?"
Carl bristles at Mimi's inflexibility. "Everything's a big deal to her. My mother had six kids and never complained. Why is she always so miserable?"
Mimi is her own worst enemy, notes Paul Moschetta, a New York marriage counselor. Though her expectations are reasonable, the way she presents them is not. This difficulty lies at the root of many marital misunderstandings.
Lacking in self-confidence, Mimi is supersensitive; instead of expressing her feelings, she blames her husband or his family for her problems. She needs to rephrase her comments in a way that safeguards Carl's self-esteem.
Use this structure when you're upset with something your spouse has, or hasn't, done:
First, state the behavior that upsets you. Next, state how you feel about it, and finally state the consequence of that behavior. For example, instead of saying, "You never call me when you're late" "You're always at your mother's" "You never have time for me" (phrases that imply criticism and blame), say: "When you are late at work and don't call [the behavior], I worry [the feeling] that something might have happened, because I don't know where you are [the consequence]."
This technique allows you to speak in a way that your partner can hear. Instead of being defensive, he can address the issues that are bothering you: "I do love you, but I thought that eating at my mother's house would make the dinner hour easier for you."