I’m a 27-year-old guy who got married several months ago. My whole life, I always felt that I was so lucky because my family was so incredibly close-knit. I have one sister who is two years older than me and still single. When my friends would talk about how annoying their sisters were, I would think about how different my family was and be grateful. My parents, my sister, and I did everything together. Looking back, I’m surprised that I even had time for friends. Sundays were for family time. We’d often go to the movies together, eat out, or go into Manhattan. Though my parents were in charge, I still felt like I could tell them personal things that I think most teenagers probably wouldn’t dream of telling their parents. In particular, I’m close to my mother. From the time I was young, she would ask me all kinds of personal things about myself and my life and I didn’t mind answering her questions. It made me feel special and loved. I remember that a friend of mine once overheard me on the phone with my mother telling her stuff about my day, and he looked at me like I was crazy; he said, “You talk to your mother about stuff like that?!” But I took it as a compliment.
It’s a crazy story that I won’t go into now, but I met my wife, Arlene, quite by accident in a chance encounter in a store. When we met, we both felt a connection and attraction to one another. I hardly dated anyone before meeting her. I would like to think that my parents hoped that one day my sister and I would find the right one and get married, but they never pushed us to date much. They seemed quite content keeping things status quo, just the four of us — our happy little family.
Looking back on the time that Arlene and I were dating and ultimately got engaged, I can’t say that my mother seemed too excited. She would sometimes point out things about Arlene that she questioned and would also wait for me after a date and ask me all kinds of personal questions about what we did and talked about. I was used to reporting every detail of my life to her, so I enjoyed our late-night talks. I still didn’t get that there was something not right about our relationship.
Now that I’m married, Arlene is the person I feel closest to, as I know it should be, and I don’t need to be as close to my mother as I once was. Arlene has helped me recognize that my family didn’t really function in the most normal way, and despite all the love and loyalty, my sister and I weren’t encouraged or maybe even allowed to develop meaningful relationships outside the family. Thank G-d, Arlene fell into my life.
The problem is that my mother can’t seem to switch gears and recognize that she is no longer the person I want to report to. When I first got married and Arlene noticed how often I was speaking to my mother and to what degree, she helped me understand that it wasn’t normal and that I had to rein it in, which I’ve been trying to do for a while now. My mother won’t give up. She can easily call me four or five times a day. At this point I’ll pick up maybe once a day, but she’ll give me an argument about why I didn’t pick up earlier. Then she’ll start interviewing me like she did before I was married, and when I tell her that I don’t think she needs to know that information, she gets insulted or angry at me. That makes me feel sad and guilty. Also, she’s always inviting us over — for Shabbos or for dinner on Sunday night or even weeknights. Arlene feels we need to keep strict boundaries and say no much of the time. Arlene has no problem going, but she also wants us to go to her parents and spend time home alone. Again, I am following Arlene’s lead, but I feel guilty.
I love my mother and father, but I know that my wife has to come first. It’s so painful for me when I see how hurt my mother is, but I don’t know how to be there for my wife and not hurt my mother. How do I manage this difficult situation?
I must say that you’re managing great so far! Many young married people who are raised in homes like yours have a difficult time taking the necessary steps to start creating healthy boundaries with their parents as they lean in toward their spouse on all levels. Though one must always act with respect and kindness toward his or her parents, the parents have to know that they are no longer number one in their married child’s life. Expecting to be so is inappropriate and potentially harmful.
The way you describe your childhood sounds warm and loving, but I sense that there was something extreme going on as well. Your mother’s need to know every last detail of your life could have been suffocating for most teenagers. I’m sure there are several good reasons why you didn’t resent it and it was working for you. But it wasn’t properly setting the stage for your ability to ultimately detach from your parents in order to make way for the next leg of your journey — courtship, engagement, and eventually marriage.
Detach you did, with the help of Arlene. Unfortunately, your mother hasn’t yet gotten the memo. Despite that you’re a married man, your mother wants her relationship with you to look and feel every bit the same as it did before you got married. Your mother has some serious work to do in order to understand what her role as a mother should look like now and also perhaps to gain some insight into a possible void that exists in her life, which she really should be filling with other, more appropriate relationships.
Have you tried having a calm, meaningful conversation with her in order to help her better understand why she is experiencing such a sudden shift in your availability and attitude? If not, that’s the first step you need to take. I’m not so certain she will want to hear what you have to say on the matter, and if that’s the case, all you can do is stand your ground and lose the guilt. You may have to provide her with some parameters regarding when you are available to talk on the phone or come by, since she doesn’t seem to have much of a handle on what works for you and Arlene. There is nothing wrong with having healthy guidelines to follow — for you, so that you don’t feel pulled in every which way; for Arlene, so that she doesn’t have to worry that somehow your mother might impact your marriage in a negative way; and, most important, such guidelines will help your mother. It will let her know that you aren’t trying to pull away from her or abandon her in any way, that you are still committed to having a loving relationship with her, but that the time has come when more attention needs to be paid to the specifics of how you interact with one another.
The upside to this shift in your relationship with your mother is that it may generate wonderful growth on her part. This will not only improve the quality of her life and your life, but I’m guessing it may also impact your sister, who possibly has been stunted in some ways socially. Ultimately, your close-knit, loving family will remain so, but you will have created room and boundaries for the natural order of things.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295.