Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.
I am writing to ask your opinion about how to deal with an incredibly stressful situation. My husband and I have been married for more than 10 years, and he and my parents really don’t get along. They tolerate each other for visits, which occur more regularly since we had our first child a couple of years ago. My husband acts aloof or openly hostile towards them, which leads to more arguments between us, which leads to them liking him even less.
I share many of my husband's feelings about them, but they are still my parents, and I love them. My husband and I have very different values than my parents and have very little in common with them. A couple of examples of areas of tension with them: they have very poor diets and are inactive; they always have their noses in electronic devices; they waste their money (and are both retired) and buy stuff for our child that we don't want.
When I've tried to discuss concerns with them in the past, they turn it around and try to make me feel guilty for sharing my feelings with them. They've made it very clear that they don't want to change. My husband is understandably frustrated by them. We've been seeing a marriage counselor about these issues for a while, but we have a blowout after every visit with my parents. I don't know what to do anymore. It is negatively affecting our marriage. What am I supposed to do?
Stuck in the Middle
Dear Stuck in the Middle,
You are in a truly wrenching situation, a situation that, I’m sorry to report, my wife has to deal with, though to a lesser degree. Without violating her privacy, or that of her family, I will just say that we’ve struggled with some of the same tensions, around some of the very same issues. I’m not as extreme as your husband. But my wife does suffer the same anguish as you, because of the clash of values between her husband (me) and her parents.
I could make all sorts of excuses here about why I don’t have a better relationship with my in-laws. But none of those excuses matter. What matters is that my wife is left stuck in the middle, just like you. If I had to guess, I’d estimate that the same dynamic afflicts most marriages, as indicated by all those jokes about “the in-laws.” Just like you, my wife has grown apart from her parents. The life we lead together, the values that we hold (and attempt to enact) are quite different from theirs. But she’s also a loyal and loving daughter. She wants to remain connected to her parents, especially now that they are grandparents to our three children. And my judgments about them—even the ones I never express out loud—only serve to make her feel guilty and ashamed. Honestly, in the long list of crappy things I do as a husband, this one is near the top of the list.
In fact, my wife often plans visits with her folks to coincide with my trips out of town. This is convenient, because her parents can help out with the kids. But it’s also a way for her to avoid the psychic strain of feeling hamstrung.
This is what your husband needs to try to understand. Like it or not, your parents are now a part of his family. That doesn’t mean he has to pretend to love them. But he has to drop the hostility, because it’s clearly provoking your parents, and that’s ultimately hurting you.
I’m not suggesting that her parents don’t behave in ways that are, shall we say, exasperating. They do. And let’s be honest: my wife finds them exasperating, too. But they are basically sweet, well-meaning people. Yes, they try to sneak our kids candy when we’ve told them not to. But they do find ways to connect with the kids that are genuine and beautiful. In other words, they try.
This is what your husband needs to try to understand. Like it or not, your parents are now a part of his family. That doesn’t mean he has to pretend to love them. But he has to drop the hostility, because it’s clearly provoking your parents, and that’s ultimately hurting you. The good news is that you’re seeing a marriage counselor, so you have a safe space where you can tell him this. You should. He needs to understand that this frustration with his in-laws is now starting to infect the life you have made together.
I would also suggest that you speak to your parents more specifically about areas where there are conflicts. They may not want to change their overall behavior. (Who does?) But they need to understand and respect the life you and your husband lead and, especially, your rights as parents. My wife and I have both tried to set clear boundaries with her parents around certain issues. To their credit, they have largely respected those boundaries. For instance, we’ve asked that they not have the TV on when the kids are around during visits.
As noted above, it’s also true that I often skip visits. I’m not suggesting that this is an ideal solution, but it’s a lot better than fomenting huge blowouts. In a perfect world, your husband and parents would shape up, accept one another’s differences, and do their best to get along—not just for your sake, but for the sake of your child (and children to come). But if that’s not going to happen, for whatever reason, the best strategy might be to minimize the ill will by which you suffer.
Here’s what I try to keep in mind as much as possible when it comes to my in-laws: Whatever their limitations, they clearly did a great job as parents. They raised my wife to be the strong, loving person she is, and I’ve been the immense beneficiary of their good work – even if they drive her crazy sometimes, as well. They did a lot of things right. And they deserve to be honored for that alone.
Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.
Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football."