Mamma Mia!

updated 08/21/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/21/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In Italy they call a man too close to his mother mammone—mama's boy. Often, it seems, these otherwise macho men cower when their mothers act like she-devils toward their wives. It is a cause of serious marital strain, and, says Italian lawyer Paola Mescoli Davoli, 62, "more times than not, if a man has to decide between his mother and his wife, he'll choose Mom."

To help deal with this problem, a year ago Davoli created a course—now widely known as mother-in-law school—in her hometown of Reggio Emilia in Italy's north-central region. Though the class is open to both wives and mothers-in-law, the former seem the most aggrieved, weeping as they relate tales of the latter tapping their phones or hiring private detectives to keep tabs on them. For her part, Davoli counsels her mothers-in-law not to "go along on vacations" or "humiliate her with your superior cooking." To daughters-in-law she advises, "If you have to, move." One participant, Emanuela Croti, 50, fled her long-term marriage, which had begun to erode by her first married Christmas. Says Croti: "She told me, T wanted to get you a mink coat, but I thought this would be better.' " "This" was a prepaid burial plot. No wonder Davoli's two-hour sessions draw up to 120 participants each and are sanctioned by the local Roman Catholic parish.

Davoli is the mother of four children (and a decidedly unmeddle-some mother-in-law) who adored her husband Xeno's now deceased mother. "I was very lucky," she says. Nonetheless, she says, more than 30 percent of her clients blame interfering mothers-in-law for breaking up their marriages. Davoli adds that many of her male clients show up at her office with their mothers in tow. She sends these mammoni away, admonishing them, "Next time, come by yourself!"

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