Today, we’ll tell the story of how Elena met Mike and how they arrived at the point they are today.
“Here I am, almost two months pregnant, and so depressed and scared I don’t know what to do,” says Elena, twenty-four, a tall, slim brunet whose eyes flooded with tears as she spoke. “I just don’t know if we’ll make it to our third anniversary. “I think our problems started when we moved to New York City from Florida two years ago. Never in a million years did I think I’d end up living here. The city has always scared me. Plus, my whole family is in Florida, and I’m very close to them. To leave them was the most emotionally trying thing I’ve ever done.
My parents were political refugees from Castro’s Cuba. My father, who’s fifteen years older than my mother, was raised in the old ways. There was no doubt that he was the head of the household and mother put him on a pedestal. Even if she didn’t agree with him, she never said so. Dad’s word was the law. In Cuba, he was a highly respected doctor, but when he moved here, he wasn’t allowed to practice. The only work he could find was as an X-ray technician at a hospital. My mother’s family, also from Cuba, were aristocrats. Here, Mother worked as a domestic to help support the family.
My husband, Mike, comes from a very affluent family and, from my point of view, has always been pretty loose with money. Not me. My family was poor, and I was always babysitting or working at the local fast-food joint to bring in whatever I could to help out. Still, it was a happy life, and I knew I was loved very much. I was the baby—a good ten years younger than my two brothers—and the light of my mother’s life.
When I entered my teens, though, this idyllic relationship began to change. I began to question everything my parents said and did. Whenever I tried to be independent, Father would cut me off. He’d yell first—wild tirades that shook me to the bones. But worse, he’d shut off his love. Sometimes he wouldn’t speak to me for days.”
DR. EVELYN MOSCHETTA:
Once again, we see how childhood relationships with parents and family have an impact on us as adults. Elena’s earlier experience of her father pulling away from her emotionally, his love conditional on whether she obeyed him, is beginning to trigger anxiety in her marriage today. She can’t help wondering to herself, If Mike and I don’t agree on something, will he turn off his love, too?
DR. PAUL MOSCHETTA:
As a child, Elena, like her mother, revered her father and put him on a pedestal. As she got older, however, she understood the imbalance in her parent’s marriage and was determined not to replicate that in her own. Nevertheless, now it appears she has.
ELENA'S TURN, Part Two:
“I met Mike through my best friend in college, Darci. We attended the state university, which was located in a charming resort community in Florida. For months, Darci had been telling me about this terrific, handsome, funny guy she wanted to fix me up with, but it just never happened. Then one afternoon she surprised me by showing up with him at the library where I was studying. She introduced us, and it was love at first sight.
He was a junior studying business administration. Soon after that introduction, we started dating, and were very happy together for the next few years. We both loved the laid-back lifestyle of where we were, the warm weather and beaches, the easy pace.
I dropped out after my junior year and started working because I needed the money. I never finished college. But I loved my job teaching preschool. After Mike graduated, we found a lovely apartment right near the beach and Mike was hired as an assistant manager at a small hotel. I continued teaching. I was so happy—until the day he told me about his father’s decision to retire and leave the family leathergoods business to him.
Apparently, it had always been assumed that Mike, who was the oldest son, and a cousin would inherit the business. But it came as news to me. Mike insists that he told me, but I can’t remember it. I do remember that when he asked for permission to marry me, he promised my mother he’d never take me away!
Mike kept trying to convince me that moving to New York was a terrific opportunity for us, that we’d have lots of money. He raved about all the wonderful things there are to do there and how all his great friends from high school were nearby.
But it was like he had already made the decision. There was no discussion. Mike announced the plans, and they just happened. Right before our first anniversary, he flew to New York to take over the business. I stayed in Florida. For a while, we had a long-distance relationship. He’d come down for weekends, or I’d go up there. It was horrible, but I just wasn’t ready to move. I was so torn. Finally, I said to myself, Elena, you married this man for better or worse. Reluctantly, I packed my things and flew to New York.
That was a year ago. This past year has been even worse than I anticipated. We live in a tiny studio apartment, and since I have no job and no friends, I spend most of my time in this one room. Mike has no time for me. What’s worse, when he does come home, he immediately turns on the TV to watch sports. He’s a fanatic. Before we set our wedding date, he had to make sure there wasn’t a game on that weekend. God forbid I talk to him when he’s watching a game. You should hear the way he barks at me.
The thing is, he won’t even include me in his social plans anymore. Forget about the things I thought we’d do in New York, the things that Mike promised when he was trying to convince me to move. He has this group of friends he’s known his whole life. They’re stockbrokers or something on Wall Street and have a lot of money, which they flaunt. Many of them are still single. I tried for a while to tag along to their parties—otherwise, I’d never see my husband—but I just don’t fit in with them. It’s a real party crowd. I don’t have much in common with their girlfriends, either. I know they must think I’m dull. Finally I started making excuses not to go.”
ELENA'S TURN, Part Three:
“Mike’s family is nearby, but they don’t make life any better. I get along fine with his father and stepmother, but his mother is always making snide remarks when we get together and is just terrible to me in general. The first year we were married, she gave Mike a photo album of pictures she’s collected during his life. There wasn’t a single picture of me in the whole album, but there were plenty of photographs of his ex-girlfriend, whom his mother adored. When I saw the album, I burst into tears. Mike didn’t understand why. He was totally clueless. When I explained how I felt, he looked at me like I was crazy.
I guess everything started to build up inside me. On top of the fact that he’s been treating me like this, I’ve had to wait on him hand and foot. He never chips in. Mike doesn’t take out the garbage, put the dishes away or make the bed unless I ask him to. I try to say, ‘Look, Mike, such-and-such is really bothering me,’ but he doesn’t listen. He yells, puts me down and gives me one argument after another about why I’m treating him badly. Somehow, he manages to turn the whole thing around. I get so confused and upset, I just clam up.
A few weeks ago, all my frustrations came to a head. Mike, his friends and I had gone to the racetrack. They all were drinking beer. Mike was getting very loud and I lost it. I screamed, ‘Shut up!’ in front of everyone. Suddenly, there this stunned silence. I knew that I embarrassed him to death but I just couldn’t take that immature carrying on for another second. Mike threw his empty beer can at me and shouted back, ‘I can’t take this anymore! I want a divorce!’ Then he stormed off and took a cab home. I drove home by myself.
Then, last week, I discovered I was pregnant. I had my suspicions, since my period was late, but I wasn’t sure until I went to the doctor and had a blood test. I want this baby more than anything, but how can we even think about being good parents when our marriage is such a mess?”
DRS. MOSCHETTA'S COMMENTS:
Elena is despondent and we can understand her frustration. What she doesn’t understand is that you can love a man, even pamper him if you want to, but not at the risk of losing your own identity. Because she feels out of line speaking up, Elena nags Mike to wash the dishes, or make the bed, even purposely interrupting his sacred football games just to get his attention.
“Well, somebody in this relationship needs help, but it’s not me,” says Mike, twenty-six, a tall, athletically built man who can’t sit still.
First of all, I most certainly did tell Elena that I would some day take over my Dad’s business. She’s choosing to forget. What does she expect, anyway? I’m the oldest son. The business has been in my family for five generations. I should tell my father, a man I grew up worshiping, ‘Forget it, Pop, but my wife wants to stay in Florida?’
Besides, look at the financial security we have here. My folks’ marriage broke up over lack of money at one point. I don’t want the same fate for us.”
DR. PAUL MOSCHETTA:
Right away, Mike is on the defensive. Like many people, he’s come to counseling with an agenda and he doesn’t hesitate to announce it: His wife needs fixing, not him. Mike is typical of many people we see, even those who come willingly for help. They may admit that their marriage is in trouble, but they can’t, or won’t, acknowledge to themselves or their partner the part they play in the problems.
DR. EVELYN MOSCHETTA:
Right—yet the ability to see what you’re doing wrong is critical. It’s the first, and most important, step to getting any marriage back on track. Too often, we self-righteously blame our partner and miss clues to what we could be doing differently. This relationship is also so new that Elena and Mike haven’t figured out yet how to resolve conflicts with talk and compromise.
MIKE'S TURN, Part Two:
I had a very carefree childhood. I was the first child, the favorite, and always in the limelight. I was a pretty good student, good athlete and I had lots of friends. My folks were always there for me and my brothers, and I’ve always been close to both of them. But they divorced when I was a freshman in college and the split really messed up my mother.
Can’t Elena see that my mom’s a lonely, mixed-up lady? That photo album business with my mother is a perfect example of how my wife blows everything out of proportion. I haven’t seen my old girlfriend in ten years, nor do I care to now—no matter what my mother may think. Elena should just let her comments roll off her back. I do.
These past two years haven’t been a picnic for me, either, you know. I’m responsible for keeping this business going. My father had to retire after he had a heart attack. He’s fine now, but the doctor said he should lead a less stressful life. I’m the logical one to move into his position. Of course, he’s had some good people working for him who are helping me, but the spotlight’s on me. There’s so much pressure—decisions to make, questions to answer, people to hire and fire. When I come home, I just want to tune everything out. I wasn’t any different in Florida, by the way. Elena just never noticed—or only now decided to make waves. I’ve always been a sports nut; I’ve always relaxed by watching TV. But now she’s just looking for things and trying to push my buttons. You tell me why she picks a Sunday afternoon when the All-Star game is on to discuss a new couch for the living room?”
DR. PAUL MOSCHETTA:
As Mike describes his childhood, we can’t help but wonder: Was it as carefree and idyllic as he thinks? Most likely, money issues and other problems were already driving his parents apart—and Mike and his brothers must have sensed the tension on some level.
MIKE'S TURN, Part Three:
“I know it wasn’t easy for Elena to move. But I’ve told her, ‘Anytime you want to visit your mother, you have wings. Fly down. Or call whenever you want.’ Instead of doing that, she turns reality inside out.
Take this business with my friends. Those guys have loved her from day one and have always treated her fine. But, like I said, Elena misinterprets many things. If I go to a ball game, she thinks my friends are stealing me from her. No one puts her down, either. She puts herself down.
I’m tired of hearing about how awful things are for her. I try to set up getaway weekends, but either she doesn’t like the people we’re going with or she doesn’t want to drive two hours to get there. Then she says she wants to get to know the city but she’s not giving New York a chance. If I say, ‘Hey, let’s go to a Knicks game and feel the electricity of nineteen thousand people screaming at the top of their lungs,’ she’ll say no. I have a million examples like that.
Elena has changed so much. I fell in love with a sweet, sexy lady who seemed up for anything. Now, I’m living with someone who does nothing but scream and bitch. She likes to give marching orders: ‘Take out the garbage! Wash the dishes!’ The reason I don’t clean as much as she does is because we have a totally different idea of what’s acceptable when it comes to keeping house. She’s a neatness fanatic. As far as I’m concerned, if the bed isn’t made, so what? Who’s going to see? We’re just going to sleep in it at night, so what’s the big deal?
Worse than her bitching, though, are her silent treatments—three, maybe four days in a row without a word. I can’t stand that; I’m an up-front kind of guy. But when Elena’s mad, she refuses to talk. And then the next thing you know she’s ready to blow up. Like last week at the racetrack. I was having such a good time that night. If I was getting too loud, she could have said, ‘Mike, mellow out.’ Instead, she screams like a banshee in front of all my friends.
I’m here, in therapy, for one reason: Because I’m a team player. But in my opinion, the problem is ninety percent Elena’s."
The first two years of a marriage are as critical to future development as the first two years of a baby’s life. Too many couples ignore early problems until it’s too late. They stop talking, they stop making love, they quarrel constantly—and all of that begins to feel normal. But at least Elena and Mike, for all their arguments and despite the chilly distance that’s growing between them, have committed to getting counseling help. But can they resolve their difficulties?
When we first met Elena and Mike, we weren’t sure they’d be able to work through their problems. Mike prided himself on simply being in the counselors’ office—but he didn’t seem very committed or willing to work on change. Incredibly selfish, convinced their problems were due solely to Elena’s inability to adjust to life in New York, he spent the first few sessions boasting about what a good husband he is.
Yet there was one factor that we thought, in this case, was quite significant and did bode well for their future success: Though they grew up with different cultural backgrounds, they both came from traditional homes and carried with them the same values and goals for marriage, family and their future. In our work with them, we tried to stress this point whenever tempers flared and it helped put their issues into focus.
However, the negative experiences the two carried over from childhood set them on the course for conflict today. Elena, the youngest of three, absorbed the message early on that if she was a good little girl, she would please Daddy and Mommy even more. She was also raised to believe that a husband, and his needs, are paramount.
Before Elena could be an equal partner in this relationship, she needed to feel better about herself. We told her that she has every right to expect more from Mike than he is giving her in the marriage. By legitimizing her feelings and needs, we gave Elena a measure of confidence. She’s tried to speak up and express herself more often and more effectively to her husband. She’s learned to pose her needs and requests in such a way that he hears, and wants to, meet them. She must always be careful to monitor the tone and volume of her voice so she doesn’t sound nagging and strident, as well as catch herself from constantly reminding her husband to do something without giving him a chance to do it first.
To further bolster her self-esteem, we suggested a plan of action. First, we encouraged her to complete her degree and get a teacher’s license so she’d be certified in New York. Second, since they did have the money, we suggested that they look for a larger apartment, one that would give them each privacy as well as enough space so Elena would not feel so trapped.
In time, Elena has adjusted to New York. She’s met many new people through her classes and now feels less dependent on Mike in general. We pointed out that Mike has told her to call or visit her family whenever she wants to—and he’s said that he means it, we repeated. She must also believe him when he says his friends really do like her. Elena and Mike still see his old party crowd, but they have also branched out and made new friends as a couple, which has helped her feel more accepted.
Since she feels so much better about herself now, Elena has stopped nagging Mike as frequently. ‘To be honest,’ she says, ‘there are some things I’ve just learned to live with. Or I’ve learned to work around. For example, if I want to talk to Mike, I check to see what he’s watching before I try to have a conversation. If it’s not a game, I talk!’’ she adds with a laugh. The fact that her husband is there for her in so many other ways gives her the confidence to do this.
Though Mike’s parents divorced when he was eighteen, we suspect the marriage had been unhappy all along. We believe he never witnessed a healthy relationship in which people thought about each other’s needs and learned to discuss and resolve difficult and divisive topics successfully. Mike also grew up believing that he has to follow in the footsteps of his dynamic father. He’s quite young to be shouldering such responsibility and deep down, he’s very concerned that he’ll never measure up. To hide his insecurities, he puts on a loud and boastful facade. Then, after a hard day at work, he comes home and anesthetizes himself in front of the TV.
At one point, we asked Mike, ‘Are you going to be one of those very successful businessmen who makes a lot of money but whose family life is in shambles? Or will you direct some of your energy toward forging strong bonds with your wife and child?
Mike sat silently for a long time and told us he’d think about it. Over the next few weeks, he showed Elena that he could rise to the challenge. He began to make some real changes in the way he acted at home. He demanded that his mother treat Elena with respect—and when she doesn’t, he quickly points this out to her. He no longer flips on the TV the second he walks in the door. Instead, he helps Elena with dinner, they talk about their day, and maybe he’ll watch TV later. While Sundays are still usually reserved for his sporting events, on Saturday, they do whatever Elena chooses—be it window-shopping, going to the theater or visiting a museum. If Mike wants to go away for the weekend, they plan a trip for two instead of for the whole crowd.
As the sessions continued, Mike was able to see how much counseling was helping Elena and also that much of what she was saying was indeed true. In time, he also began to open up about his own feelings and anxieties.
Mike and Elena were in counseling for six months. Last week, we received an announcement of the birth of their son, Christopher, with a note from Mike: ‘Thanks for helping me get my priorities straight.’
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