Dear LetterBalm: My husband of 20 years has taken to wearing better clothes, using aftershave and paying more attention to his hygiene. He’s 43 with a beer belly, but he’s joined a gym and lost some weight. He’s also been talking about a younger female co-worker, whom I haven’t met. She joined the company he works for several months ago. He constantly refers to her and talks about how smart and funny she is, etc. My husband’s behavior worries me; I hope he’s not having an affair. What should I say to him?
–Just the Wife
You’re probably right that your husband’s new behavior is all about his new colleague. But Ms. L.B. thinks your fears are unfounded. It sounds like your husband is having a wee bit of midlife crisis and is looking to recapture his younger self; it’s unlikely he’s in the throes of a full affair. In fact, the woman may not even notice his new improved self, or she may think of him only as a colleague. It is the wise wife who doesn’t challenge her husband on something like this. In fact, browbeating him about his new behavior will make him resentful and embarrassed. If you’re hurt that he isn’t making himself special for you, why don’t you work on yourself? Can you recapture some of the romance of your earlier life together? Can you try something unexpected and fun with him? Can you benefit from a session or two at the gym? You have the power to change the dynamic. One of the best ways is gentle, sweet mockery when he mentions her and lovely compliments about his changed look. You want him to know you’re not jealous, just very aware of the situation. A sampling, always said with a smile and occasionally a kiss on the cheek or pat on the shoulder:
- Darling, you’ve mentioned Gloria so many times, she must be CEO by now.
- I have to meet this Gloria. She sounds like a superhero with all her talents.
- I think you’ve developed a bit of a crush on Gloria. It’s so sweet.
- You’re looking fine, my good man, more handsome than ever.
- You big gorgeous guy, I can’t resist being around you. I’ve booked a sitter tonight and a reservation at Marcel’s. Let’s have steak and red wine and see where the evening goes.
- You’ve gotten so sweet and adorable, I can hardly keep my hands off you.
Dear LetterBalm: My husband’s mother is a real piece of work. During our engagement and in the early years of our marriage, she was kind and sweet. I actually regarded her as a second mother. But when we had kids, she changed over time. She wanted no one else to babysit but her and got angry and argumentative when we occasionally hired sitters. (Whenever my husband and I go out, we have to keep the information from her.) She insisted on buying expensive, fussy and too-small clothes for the kids and sulked when they couldn’t wear them. She gave unsafe toys to our daughter and our two boys and quizzed them afterward about whether they played with them. She’s raged in front of them. (“You’re horrible children! You don’t know how to be good!”) My husband confessed that she behaved like this when he was growing up, but he didn’t say anything because he thought she had changed when we got married. She’s gotten so bad with inappropriate and dangerous behavior, that my husband and I don’t trust her with our kids. They’re old enough to be asking questions about their grandmother. What can we tell them?
–Living in Lunacy
Ms. L.B. suggests that the family try to get your mother-in-law to her doctor for a full workup, including a neurological one to rule out physical reasons for her bizarre conduct. She trusts that you and your husband are working out strategies – perhaps with the help of a family counselor – to deflect the damage your controlling mother-in-law is inflicting. Since it looks like she bays at the moon and grows hair on her palms when kids are in her life, it’s safe to assume she has ingrained behaviors that she’ll find difficult to change. If your husband can’t convince mommie dearest to get therapy, there’s not too much more you can do. You and he must decide how much contact you want with her. Concentrate on your kids. You and your husband sit down with them and keep it simple. Obviously, you won’t badmouth Grandma:
Kids, your dad and I know you’ve been pretty upset and concerned about your grandmother. We’ve been worried too. She hasn’t been feeling well for a long time. And, because she’s sick, sometimes she says and does things to you and all of us that aren’t very nice. That doesn’t mean we don’t love her and hope she gets well. But until that happens, we won’t be spending time with her. This is a sad thing, but what you can do is send good thoughts to Grandma and keep her safe in your heart. Is there anything you want to ask us? You know we’ll listen and try to answer all your questions.
Dear LetterBalm: My wife and I grew up in households where a swat on the backside was sometimes used to keep us in line. We don’t want to do any form of hitting or spanking to discipline our son. But yesterday he had a meltdown at home when he didn’t get his way, screaming, racing through the house and throwing things. He’s three and quite a handful. We’re pretty good about structuring time outs and a time out seat. But sometimes he doesn’t stay on there, and it’s a real battle of wills – it’s all we can do to keep things calm and consistent. What can we say to him?
–Tantrum Boy’s Parents
Ms. L.B. says your parental instincts are on the mark, that calmness and consistency are important. You know that a time out should be in one spot and last a minute per year of your son’s age (reset the clock each time he leaves the time out seat). Also, time outs shouldn’t be in the bedroom – too many fun distractions there. And, a meaningful time out should conclude with you or your wife calmly kneeling down to your son, getting an apology from him and a hug. But the experts say time outs shouldn’t be the automatic solution for all misbehaviors – they work best for acting up, disrespect and bad manners. Two other discipline techniques that fit the infraction can make sense to a three-year old. You can introduce a Special Box. You confiscate a toy (not a comfort toy, though) if your son is fighting over it with another child, if he’s breaking it or if he refuses to pick it up and put it away. The toy goes into that box and is taken out a week later. Or, if your son acts up in public, you can leave. Sit in the car with him. Let him rage and scream; you don’t budge until he calms down, and you take him home. Here’s what you can say to him, keeping it simple:
[Toy Removal] Oren, after I’ve given you two warnings, you haven’t stopped fighting over this toy/you’re still playing too rough with this toy/you aren’t picking up this toy. It’s going into the Special Box we showed you. It will stay there until Sunday, when you can get it back.
[Leaving] Oren, we’re in the car and I’m sorry we’re here. Your dad and I told you that if you act up when we’re outside, we will leave and go to the car. Here we are now. We can’t be in the supermarket/mall/restaurant if you can’t behave. When you calm down, we’re going home.