By Esther Mann, LCSW
I’ve been married for almost 35 years. We’ve had our ups and downs personally and financially, but overall I can say we’ve been pretty happy. One thing that I feel contributed greatly to the success of our marriage is the fact that my husband and I are both generous with each other. For example, my husband goes out of his way to buy me something special every now and then that is over-the-top. Last Pesach, he surprised me with a beautiful diamond brooch that must have cost him an arm and a leg. It made me feel so special. He once surprised me with a gift certificate for a new wig for the holidays. I feel that his generosity has contributed to a certain appreciation between the two of us, especially because we are not at all wealthy.
Around five years ago, my second daughter got married to a lovely man. He is a good husband and father, but he is thrifty. I don’t think he buys my daughter anything but a card for her birthday. My daughter never says anything but I can see they have tension in their marriage because of her husband’s tight watch on the spending. I just wish I could tell her husband the secret of my happy marriage. My husband says it’s not my place. I agree with him, but it hurts me so much to see my daughter always tense about money when her husband makes a decent living.
I give my daughter gifts here and there—for example, last year I offered to buy her a new couch because the one she had was secondhand and in terrible shape. She was excited and thanked me so much. A month ago, I decided that I would buy a beautiful piece of jewelry and give it to my son-in-law to give to my daughter and tell her it was from him. I figured he would see how happy she was and it would sort of jumpstart him into becoming a little more generous with her. Well, that plan backfired big time, and now my son-in-law is not talking to me. He claims that I implied that he is cheap (which he is) and said he doesn’t feel gifts are at all necessary. I was just trying to show him how important generosity is in a marriage. It makes the other spouse feel so special.
How do I fix this situation? I probably did the wrong thing by getting involved, but if he did not see and learn generosity when he was growing up, how will he ever learn?
All normal parents want the best for their children. We want to see them happy in every way. Whatever successes we’ve created in our own lives we’d like to see happen in the lives of our children. And then some. We also expect each subsequent generation to do better, grow higher, achieve more than our generation. Even more so, if we view our own lives with disappointment, regretting decisions we’ve made, we desperately hope that our children will not suffer the way we have—will not make mistakes, experience hardships, fall down.
During our childrearing years, we try with all our might to instill in our children proper ideas about what constitutes a good, meaningful life. But inevitably there comes a time when our children are on their own and have to figure things out for themselves. Part of growing up includes making their own mistakes, as difficult as it often is for parents to witness.
Yes, there are certainly those grownup children who still check in with their parents for advice and approval before making a move. Technically, some professionals may view these young adults as not fully baked. But we’ve all seen families that operate successfully in this fashion. So long as everyone is on board, and nothing outrageous occurs to knock anyone off their game, it’s a lifestyle choice that can work.
More typical in a young marriage are two people each bringing into the relationship personal and distinct ideas about how a marriage should function. These different perspectives were usually learned from their respective families of origin and can sometimes be starkly different, with each side believing they’ve got it right.
As these two newly married individuals grow together as a team, fine-tuning their alliance, compromising when necessary, influencing each other when appropriate, expressing what they need when they believe their needs are not being met adequately, and in general, working through differences in order to redefine an often unspoken marital contract that ultimately feels right on both sides, a successful marriage is actualized.
The journey to this happy place is not always a straight line without bumps along the road. It takes effective communication plus time and patience for two people to establish their rhyme. But no one can do this work for them. And the more energy they put into creating a harmonious relationship, ultimately the greater the payoff, enabling a solid relationship to take hold.
Back to your question. You’ve already given me the answer, because in your heart you know the answer. Correct—it was not your place to intervene between your daughter and son-in-law. You had the best of intentions and you want to share with them the secrets of your own satisfying marriage. But the expression “no good deed goes unpunished” comes to mind. You decided that your daughter could use a new piece of jewelry and that by gifting it to your son-in-law to give to your daughter, you would not only enable your daughter to enjoy this beautiful gift, but also mentor your son-in-law in the art of gift-giving. It sounds nice on paper. But it’s only nice if your son-in-law asked you to pick out a beautiful piece of jewelry for him to give his wife or, even more, if he had asked you to share with him the secrets of your fabulous marriage. Since none of this was forthcoming from him, your place was and is to stand back, swallow your concerns, and stay out of trouble.
Most people can read the subliminal messages behind the smile and contrived acts of kindness. Your son-in-law assessed the situation loud and clear, felt judged and unworthy, and decided you were out of bounds. And you were. Good intentions, bad execution. You meddled in an area where no one invited you. Therefore, your only recourse is to apologize sincerely, validate your son-in-law’s discomfort, and reassure him that this won’t happen again.
And if eating humble pie isn’t going to be hard enough, even more challenging for you will be your need to take a step back and tolerate watching your daughter get less from her husband than you got from yours. It won’t be easy. But unless they ask for and welcome your marital advice and open up a conversation about their marriage with you, it will be up to your daughter to learn how to speak up for herself and express her needs to her husband. Perhaps her needs aren’t as strong as you assume they are when it comes to her husband’s generosity level. And what for you would be intolerable is really not such a big deal for her. But if it is a big deal for her, this has to be your daughter’s challenge, not yours.
Yes, it’s hard to watch our married children struggle. Their happiness is what we want more than anything. But through their struggles, they will hopefully grow as individuals and as a couple, emerging stronger, healthier, and happier. Like watching a butterfly struggle its way out of a cocoon, it’s so tempting to lend a helping hand. But if the butterfly hasn’t struggled through this process, it will emerge unprepared to tolerate life outside of the cocoon and fail to flourish. This applies to a young couple as well. We need to stand back and allow the process to proceed. If both the husband and wife have enough good stuff going on inside, they will emerge on the other side, well-developed and secure.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.