"It was a mistake to marry someone so much older," says Mandy, a designer at a printing company, who at 24 is 10 years younger than her husband of three years. "Rob treats me more like a pet than a partner."
When they first met, Mandy was an art student and Rob, a Robert Redford look-alike, owned a ski shop in town. They were friends for months before they started dating seriously, and Mandy was thrilled to discover that Rob was as much in love with her as she was with him. But though she tries to please him, he consistently finds fault. "I'm tired of being told nothing I do is good enough," she sighs.
It's a refrain she's heard before. The youngest of five, Mandy spent most of her childhood trying to gain the approval of her very demanding parents. "I was always the baby, the one who couldn't do anything for herself," she adds. Early on, she slipped into the role of compliant wife: "Agreeing to everything Rob said helped smooth over potential problems," she recalls.
First there were the ornate wedding bands Rob loved and she hated. Now it's household things. If she spends too much on top-of-the-line sirloin, he's upset. If she chooses a less expensive cut, he points out that it's riddled with fat. If she prepares a new recipe, he has at least one suggestion on how to make it better next time. If she leaves her electric rollers on the bathroom counter, Rob lectures her as if she's a messy kid. He even picks on her when she indulges her passion for chocolate, though she's not an ounce overweight: "Rob, the fitness freak, commands me to stop and even threatens not to kiss me," she explains. Mandy refuses to continue to dance to his tune.
Ironically, 34-year-old Rob feels that, as far as Mandy is concerned, he can't do anything right, either. What's more, he can't figure out what's gotten into the wife he adores and tries to protect. "She started falling apart about a few months ago," he says with a puzzled expression, "when I asked her not to stuff herself with candy bars. I said it because I love her, but she got so upset, I'm beginning to get very concerned."
Mandy was the first woman Rob ever dated seriously. "My father was ill with cancer most of my childhood," he says, and while he learned to take charge of things so he wouldn't fall apart, the experience of watching a person he adored slowly deteriorate affected him deeply. "I couldn't bear to lose someone I love again," he says simply.
Still, from his perspective, supersensitive Mandy takes offense at everything. When he helps out in the kitchen, she thinks he's usurping her place. When he tries to teach her to be frugal, she accuses him of being miserly. "Why is it petty to question what she buys at the supermarket?" he wants to know.He's also flabbergasted to hear how upset she is when he makes cooking suggestions. After all, he's the one who studied French and Chinese cuisine. As he explains, "I like to cook, and I'm good at it."
Escaping childhood labels
"In a misguided attempt at chivalry, Rob has tried to take complete charge of household and financial responsibilities," says Kathryn Groth, a counselor with the Family Service of Westchester in White Plains, N.Y. Instead of being delighted, Mandy feels diminished -- though she works hard at camouflaging her unhappiness. "Like many women, Mandy is well-versed in the art of responding to others' needs while ignoring her own," Ms. Groth adds. But the inevitable buildup of frustration has created a distance that neither knows how to bridge.
If you and your husband are stuck at a similar impasse, one obstacle in your path may be the past labels and experiences you, consciously or not, picked up in childhood. It's nearly impossible to escape labels completely, but you can minimize their impact on your relationship.
First, be sensitive to the labels you each grew up with. Ask yourselves: What roles did you play in your family of origin? Were you the Leader? The Baby? Daddy's Girl? The Selfish One? The Brain? Were you comfortable with those labels or do you believe they failed to describe you accurately? Were there alliances between siblings, or between a parent and a child, that affected the rest of your family? How did these alliances affect you? Does your partner have a different perspective or insight on the role you might still be playing?
Remembering early roles can help you consciously rewrite the script of your marriage now. What changes would you both make? Be patient with yourselves and each other. Such changes take time and hard work. Once Mandy realized that her fear of not pleasing was crippling, she began to shed that immature role and to talk to Rob about her real needs and feelings in the marriage. Once Rob realized that he could be in control of his life without being dominating, he stopped playing the rescuer and began to relate to Mandy in a more mature, less controlling way.