Dr. Tracy's Advice Column

Cartoon Kiss


Culture Clash
A Woman of Independent Means
First Love

Culture Clash

Dear Dr. Tracy,

My husband and I have almost reached the point of divorce, so I would appreciate some advice from you.

I am a 35 year old American woman, married to a 38 year old Iranian man. We dated for 4 years, have been married for 4 years, and have a 2.5 year old son. We both work full time, in established careers, and we live in the U.S. I respect my husband's culture, and I knew we would have extra difficulties because our marriage is "mixed", but it seems that he is not working as hard as I am to bridge the gap.

Starting one month after we married, his parents and siblings have visited and/or lived with us to the point that I feel smothered and disrespected in my own home. These are not 2 week visits - the shortest I remember had a one month duration. His parents are "retired" and live in Europe, so they often visit for 2 and 3 months at a time. During these times, one or more of the siblings comes for part, sometimes all of this time. My sister-in-law lived with us for one whole summer with the hopes of immigrating to the U.S. My brother-in-law lived with us for a while too, with the same purpose. The year I was pregnant, I had my mother-in-law, sister-in-law, another sister-in-law (pregnant also), her husband, and my brother-in-law all came for an extended visit. Talk about stress! Just to give some scale here, my husband has NEVER met my brother and sister. The first time he met my mother? When she came to be with me in labor, having our son! He has never visited them, and my mother is somewhat timid about traveling, so I often go for over a year without seeing my family. (My father died of cancer when I was a teenager...).

I tolerated his intense family involvement, tried to be "family" and "get along", and burned myself out in the process. To make matters worse, my father-in-law is very sexist. Even though I work full time, and pay bills right along with my husband, my father-in-law comes to our home and treats me like everything is "his son's" and that I basically provided a womb for a male offspring, and that's it. He does whatever he wants in our home, he makes remarks about how we raise our son, and his chauvanism is driving me crazy. He has a 100% double standard, even with his own wife and daughters. My in-laws have all remarked to me that my father-in-law considers my son "his favorite". (One sister-in-law has a little boy, born 3 weeks after mine, and the other sister-in-law just had a little girl.) My in-laws (including my husband) have explained that my father-in-law feels this way towards our son because he is the offspring of my husband, the oldest male child in their family.

My sister-in-law now lives in the same city as us, and is married to an Iranian. However, my father-in-law always insists on staying with us, AGAIN, because it is better in his eyes to be in the home of his son, than the home of his daughter. (Because it's not really her home, it's her husband's home.) And my sister-in-law is the one who explained this one to me - I'm not drawing a twisted conclusion here. When I asked my husband about this one, he claims it's because he is older than the sister.

I have seen the sexist way my sister-in-laws are treated (the youngest daughter was accepted at college about an hour away from their home, and my FIL would not allow her to go because he did not consider it appropriate. However, the youngest son, who is only one year apart in age from the daughter, was allowed to leave immediately for college.) My sister-in-law still has a huge scar emotionally over this one, and her education was thwarted because of it.

My mother-in-law was "given" to my father-in-law as his wife when she was a 16 year old virgin. She has told me she was scared, and didn't even want to go to bed with him because he was much older than her, she didn't know him, and she was terrified and just wanted to go back to her parents.

Sorry to drift here, but I felt it important that you have some background.

I have tried repeatedly to discuss this with my husband. I have asked him to help me set some boundaries on all the visits and socializing. I have told him that his father's behavior is hard for me to understand, and that it hurts me, but that I know he is too old and old-school-Iranian to change, but that I would like my husband to give me a little "cover" from it all. His replies run the gamut. So far, I am "overly sensitive", "Western in my behavior when it comes to family", "disrespectful of elders," "an exaggerator" and more. He claims that he handles the hurtful things his father does to me "in his own way." And my personal favorite - "This is why people always told us never to get married. Culturally mixed marriages don't work, because this kind of thing always gets in the way in the end."

Dr. Tracy, I am at my wit's end. What are some reasonable guidelines to set pertaining to married couples and in-laws? I am convinced that my husband is a victim of emotional incest with his entire family, and my only future in this marriage is a smothering, hurting, second tier position I'm don't think I want.

Thanks for any advice you can offer. Sign me, Hurting in the Homeland

Dear Hurting,

Your story sounds like a nightmare. Having all those relatives moving in with you must make you crave privacy. It must also take away your time with your husband and keep you from developing your own family relationships.

However, you are fighting generations of tradition. And you can't be totally surprised. You dated your husband for four years; surely you must have learned something about his culture and his family before you married him.

In any case, you've now tolerated his family and tried to get along for another four years. That certainly gave him the idea that you were okay with the situation. Changing the rules now will be even harder than if you had put your foot down in the very beginning, and I don't think you have a chance of getting your husband's family out of your life.

To put it in Middle Eastern terms, you've let the camel get into your tent and now it's used to sleeping there. There's no way you can get it out. The camel (your husband's relatives) will simply knock your tent over (read destroy your marriage) trying to get back in.

So basically, you're stuck. You can either accept that what you've got is what you're going to get and stop fighting it, or you can get a divorce. Your husband isn't going to change, and neither will his father or the rest of his family. They're set in their ways, and not you nor all the pressure in the world will change them.

You're trapped in a classic culture clash. If you stay in this marriage and try to set reasonable guidelines, I doubt if they'd be kept. Of course it's unreasonable for relatives to come and stay with you for weeks and weeks. In Western culture, there's an old saying that company, like fish, starts to stink after three days. Relatives, no matter who, should be limited to a maximum of 10 days a year. Husbands should give their first allegiance to their wives, not their parents, children or other relatives.

Those rules are easy to set, but hard to keep without going to war with your spouse, which will eventually destroy your relationship. It may be time for you to consult a lawyer and find out what your rights are. Be careful though, more than one American married to a Middle Eastern man has found that instead of giving her a divorce and sharing custody, the man has disappeared into the mysterious East with her children in tow, never to be seen by her again.

Good luck,

Dr. Tracy

A Woman of Independent Means

Dear Dr. Tracy,

I am 28 years old, never married, with a master's degree in engineering and a bachelor's in English. I've been working full-time for about four years with a major engineering company, and do a great deal of volunteer work. I own my home, have a business on the side, and am taking courses toward my doctorate. Appearance-wise I'm plain but not unbearably ugly. I like to flirt, I have lots of friends, and I have a sense of humor. But I'm one of those "Achievers" you talk about in your articles: the kind of woman you say a man shouldn't waste his time dating. I tried changing myself into something more man-friendly a few years ago, but I ended up being miserable so I stopped. I'm happiest when I'm tackling an "impossible" problem, and I never need to go looking for power and responsibility, because they come to me naturally. As an Achiever, I'm not trying to save the world (or conquer it); I just want to play with the bits I find interesting.

My relationship needs and expectations don't overlap much with what your articles say "normal" women want. I dislike babies and small children, I hire other people to do my housework, I hate shopping, and romance novels make me ill. I was engaged about five years ago to a "high maintenance" fiance. It didn't work, because I wound up feeling like a mommy substitute while he flitted from one self-inflicted emergency to another. I don't mind being in the driver's seat sometimes, but I have no desire to dominate (or to be dominated). What I want from a relationship is hot sex, emotional companionship, some intelligent conversation, some snuggling, and at least a few shared interests. I'd prefer to just live with the man but would be willing to commit matrimony if that's the only way to keep him. Older children would be OK. I don't care what kind of income the man earns, as long as he has something to do with his time that lets him exercise his own will and ambitions. If I make more money than him, it won't matter because I'm already financially secure. If he makes more money than me, that's fine too, as long as he doesn't use it to try to control me. The most important part is the "compromise" and "share" mentality. I've seen marriages and relationships that are genuine partnerships: they usually happen when two Achievers knowingly and intentionally hook up with each other.

So: how do I find myself a pool of suitable Achievers to find one with whom to form a strategic alliance? Please don't suggest church; my religious community is small but I have no intention of changing religion (or politics) just to score with a man.

Thanks and best regards,

Dear Achiever,

At your age, it's easy to say, "I don't want kids or a marriage," but in the next five or ten years, you could very well change your mind. So don't do anything to permanently limit your options with regard to marriage and children.

You need to find someone who is as self-directed as you are, who is also dedicated to his career and who won't put demands on you about "women's work." Believe it or not, there are men out there who will fit your needs exactly.

The problem is you have to cast a wide net for such a man, since he will be, like you, different from the ordinary. The Internet is perfect for such a search. You can put down exactly what you want and what you have to offer. You can also search through a quantity of men and find someone who is looking for a woman just like you.

Don't depend on accidental meetings at church and other traditional venues. The kind of man you want won't be there.

Good luck,

Dr. Tracy

First Love

Dear Dr. Tracy,

I am a 36 and have been married to my husband for 11 years (my first marriage, his second). Our marriage has been one complication after another. His kids, mine, his family, his work ethics...I could go on and on. I don't live in a fantasy world, I know the realities of life! Nothing is perfect. Now, in the last few years my husband has made some dramatic changes. He is nearly everything I have always wanted. Everything I thought I was looking for in all my failed relationships.

In the middle of my husband realizing he didn't want to lose me...I ran into my first boyfriend from high school. He was my first love, my first kiss. The feelings I had when he loved me is what I had been searching for all my life! I had broken up with him simply because I was too young and couldn't handle how serious he had become. But I regretted the break up for 20 years! It seemed after him, I always chose the losers. And over the years I often wondered about him, and also how our life may have been if we had made it.

He was also married (second marriage ) with a newborn. We had barely spoke in high school after the break up, so I was shocked he had recognized me, even more so that he said hello. For months we talked. We talked about high school and got out all the hard feelings. We talked about everything. He told me that he had always dreamed of us being together. We became the best of friends. He called me every morning to say hello, and every evening to say good night. I lived for his calls.

I was so proud of what he had made of his life. He surpassed all my expectations. He was very much a success. Very ambitious and moving up the corporate ladder. He also praised me. In my parenting skills, in my career. I was also very ambitious and was promoted regularly. We were so much alike. And neither of us were happy in our marriages, both of our spouses didn't like our jobs or our ambitions. Foolishly, I kept telling myself that it wasn't an affair. We were just friends, talking. Although, I dreamed of it becoming more. And neither of our spouses knew of our friendship.

On September 11, 2001, everything changed. He travels a lot for work, so I was terrified when I heard of the terrorist attack, and that airports were cancelling all flights. I knew he was flying out of town that morning, but I didn't know what flight. I called his cell over and over, but it was turned off. I left him several messages. I begged him to call me as soon as he could to let me know he was alright. I was in a panic for hours. I lost him once, I promised myself I wouldn't lose him again. He had just boarded the plane when the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center. The passengers were all held on the plane for 5 hours, then finally let go. He never went on that business trip. When he finally called me, he seemed more concerned for me. Wanting to reassure me and calm me down. We both seemed more determined than ever to find out if we had anything left between us. We talked about the "what if's". What if something would have happened to him? What if we were meant to be together? We swore we'd see each other more. Then he asked me to have an affair.

I was flattered, but afraid of crossing the line. Still, I thought of his kiss. I figured that it was fate. So, I said yes. We made plans to meet for an evening at a hotel. I had mixed feelings about it. In my heart, I wanted to be with him, but my mind kept telling me to let it go. The night we met was magical. It was a night to remember. We laughed about how we'd have stayed together if we knew it would have been this good. Since then, our friendship became a full blown affair. We even took a trip to New York to see Ground Zero...because that was such a bond between us. It was there that I saw this man isn't all he led me to believe. He's very showy and has the ego that I remembered all too well from high school. He basically let me pay for most of it, always using the excuse of not being near an ATM, but promised to pay me later. He even asked me to buy him things, expensive things. I just laughed him off. I was so caught up in the escape and his attention, that I kept my eyes closed to what was real. And he never did pay me back.

I'm so ashamed to have cheated. I'm devastated to think of what this affair might have cost me. My husband found out about us and begged me to call it off and save our marriage. I agreed and the calls have stopped. It kills me to have hurt him so terribly. Still, being the anniversary of the terrorist attacks, all the thoughts and memories have came back. I still miss him. I want to call him. I feel like I did when he was stuck on that plane and I wasn't able to get a hold of him. I know the logic, and I know I'm being stupid. I haven't forgotten that he's not the man I thought he was, at the same time, I am so addicted to what I thought we had.

I thought I had moved on with my life. I now have the marriage I always dreamed of. It's not perfect, but it's pretty close. How do I get rid of my feelings of addiction to this guy? And why am I addicted to something I know was wrong in the first place? Is this what I have to look forward to every 9/11? I'm afraid my sense of loss could ruin my marriage for good this time. And I feel so selfish, when I know there are thousands of people who really have a loss, when mine is so petty! Please help!

Dear Addicted,

You say you have almost everything you've always wanted in your marriage and that you don't live in a fantasy world. Yet, in this instance, you are indeed living in a fantasy.

In spite of finding that your first love wasn't everything you imagined him to be, you are still fantasizing that he is. You are having a knee-jerk reaction to the triggers that made you want him in the first place. The fact that you could have lost him on 9/11 made you want him more, but then you found out that he isn't all you thought he was. Still, the 9/11 date brings back memories and rejuvenates the hope that he would be everything you imagined he could be.

You may always have fond memories of your first love, everyone does. But don't let those memories ruin the reality of your life today. You've worked hard at your marriage and you've finally got it where you want it. Don't blow it.

Next 9/11, plan to spend a few minutes thinking with nostalgia of "what might have been," and then get on with your life. Accept the feelings you have, but don't let them ruin your life or your marriage. Everyone has a warm place for an ex, but like yours, the reality of the person never lives up to the fantasy.

You're really not addicted to the person, you're addicted to your romantic fantasy. Whenever you have the fantasy or feelings of addiction, remember what a jerk he turned out to be. Remember how he turned out to be all flash and ego. Think about the way he tried to get you to buy him expensive gifts and how he let you pay for everything and how he never paid you back. And be grateful for the man you have.

Good luck,

Dr. Tracy

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(Featured art from cover of Letting Go, by Zev Wanderer and Tracy Cabot, published by "Bitan" Publishers, Tel-Aviv, Israel)
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