How's Your Marriage, Doctor?

Physician's Money Digest, June 2007, Volume 14, Issue 6

Here's a story of a physicianwho felt "caught in the middle" between his wife and hismother. This isn't the most devastatingof marital woes, but nevertheless it cancause a lot of heartache in both partners.And it can be protracted unlesssomething is done about it. The followingis an account of my sessionswith a couple struggling with this.

Mama's Boy Dilemma

Dr. Wilms (Jonah) was a resident inpsychiatry and Mrs. Wilms (Rachel)was a physiotherapist. They were pregnantwith their first child, and their initialvisit began like this.

Rachel:

I don't want to waste yourtime. So let me be blunt. I hate Jonah'smother. She's an undermining witchwho is out to destroy our marriage.She has never accepted me. I'm notgood enough for her precious baby—not educated enough and not classyenough. She's a psychiatrist too andvery accomplished. She's famous forher research and administrative skills,certainly not for her heart. It's as coldas a cadaver. I don't care if I ever seeher again, and I hate the thought ofher holding our child and pretendingshe's the perfect grandmother. I thinkyou get the picture.

Jonah:

What can I say? Rachelhates my mother. Is it justified? Sortof. But what Rachel doesn't understandis how emotionally impaired mymother is. She hoped for a touchyfeelymother-in-law, but my mom isn'tcapable. It's a long story. My dad—hewas a psychiatrist too—died when Iwas in medical school of a braintumor. My mom was already a bit ofan ice queen—another long story—well before he got sick and died. Butshe's worse since then. She's neverdealt with his death. She left to give apaper in Europe 4 hours after hisfuneral, if that gives you any insightinto her. And Rachel's mom is inextended care. She has end-stage multiplesclerosis. She doesn't recognizeRachel anymore.

Rachel:

He'll make a great psychiatrist,won't he Dr. Myers? He has apsychodynamic explanation for everything.There's always an excuse.Well, I'm tired of bad behavior beingjustified by lousy parenting or unresolvedgrief. We have to live today,not in the past.

Jonah:

I rest my case. This is whywe're here. I love Rachel and I love mymother. I cannot cut my mother out ofmy life to save my marriage.

Here is what happened. After Ihad a full conjoint visit with the twoof them together and a detailed individualvisit with each of them alone,I explained that I wanted both ofthem to write down their answer tothe statement "Why I feel the way Ido." I asked them not to discusstheir answers with each other untilthe next visit with me. Each wouldhave 10 minutes to explain themselvesto the other without interruption.Then I would speak first andask questions based on what theyhad said, and when I was done thespouse would respond.

Getting Past It

What worked? With my cueing andprobing for their many painful andvulnerable emotions—hurt, sadness,fear, guilt, and more—Rachel andJonah could finally hear and comforteach other. With this kind of solidarity,Jonah's mom was no longer thethreat that Rachel believed her to be.She felt honored by her husband, andJonah no longer felt divided.

Michael F. Myers, a clinical professor in theDepartment of Psychiatry at the University ofBritish Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, is theauthor of Doctors' Marriages: A Look at theProblems and Their Solutions (Plenum PubCorp; 1994) and How's Your Marriage?: A Book for Men andWomen (American Psychiatric Press; 1998). He is the pastpresident of the Canadian Psychiatric Association and welcomesquestions or comments at myers@telus.net.