Support the news

Heavy Meddle: Must I Spend Time With My Husband's Adult Children?

A happy, later-in-life marriage hits a snag in the form of four grown stepchildren.  (Emiliano/flickr)
A happy, later-in-life marriage hits a snag in the form of four grown stepchildren. (Emiliano/flickr)
This article is more than 5 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions via email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,

Steve

Dear Steve,

I am a mature woman (in my 60s) who recently married a man of the same age. He has four adult children, one of whom, a daughter, lives about 100 miles away. Before we were married, he lived near her and visited often. Now, his other children congregate occasionally at her house, and he likes to visit when they do.

The problem is that I do not enjoy these visits. In fact, I dread them. His children have very different values and mindsets from mine, and the visits are excruciatingly boring and awkward. There is little laughter, kidding or lightness and many long, uncomfortable silences. My husband and I have been to therapy about this and came to an agreement about visiting during the holidays.

Now, however, my husband wants me to accompany him on a visit in a couple of weeks. I cannot tolerate it for as long as he wants to stay, so I have elected to remain at home. In therapy, we discussed telling his family about my discomfort, but I feel that makes me seem like a crybaby. On the other hand, I resent feeling that I have to make such an effort at conversation--and not very satisfying conversation, at that.

I read one of your columns about a husband who can’t stand his in-laws, and this is a comparable situation. I love my husband and would like to accompany him, but the visits are so uncomfortable for me that I really can hardly bear them. My choice is to remain at home. He contends that I will never get to know them unless I accompany him. It’s a stalemate. What do you think?

Signed,

The New Wife

PHOTO

Dear New Wife,

You are not a crybaby. You are a woman in your 60s who has married a man whom you love. This is good! Mazel tov! Rejoice! A good spouse is hard to find! Especially in your 60s.

It just so happens that you’re not crazy about his adult children. This is certainly a pity. After all, consider it from his vantage point: He wants the people he most loves in the world — his new partner and his children — to connect. You can’t blame the guy. And you can’t even blame him for wanting you to spend more time with his kids, in the hopes you’ll come to know them better, and the visits will become less… what is the word you used? Ah yes, here it is: excruciating.

So this is an honest disagreement, by which I mean that you can understand his take on things and he can understand yours. Now comes the hard part: figuring out a compromise. My advice here is to continue working with the therapist around this issue, because it’s clearly not resolved. Nor is it going away.

Awkward silences are a collaborative act... And they result from both sides refusing to make an effort.

I’ve never met these kids, so I don’t really know why your interactions with them are filled with long, awkward silences. But I do know from my own interactions with my in-laws that a little effort to connect goes a long way. I sometimes feel that I’m just making “small talk.” But I also try to talk with them about stuff that’s important to them, if only so that I can understand where they’re coming from. Awkward silences are a collaborative act, is my point. And they result from both sides refusing to make an effort.

I hope this sounds more like a mild pep talk than a guilt trip. Because what matters most here is your relationship with your husband. Ultimately, you two are the ones who have to build a life together. If, for you, that means minimizing your exposure to his kids, you have to be honest about that need and stick to an agreed-upon schedule — in this case, just holidays. You are, after all, in your 60s. You know your own mind by now. (And, unless you’ve failed to mention it, step-grandchildren don’t seem to be a factor in all this.)

The only other thing I would recommend is that you think a little bit about how your husband’s children might view you. I don’t know the family history, but often, a new spouse is viewed with suspicion or resentment, both because they replace the original spouse, but also because they represent a new claim on the father’s attention and loyalty. Exercising this sort of empathy doesn’t mean that you’ll instantly like these folks and have lots to talk about with them. But it may help you understand the unspoken feelings — both theirs and yours — hiding beneath all those tense silences.

Good luck,

Steve

Ah yes, more in-law problems. I trust that you readers will have some opinions to share on this subject. The letter writer has every right to assert her own needs, obviously. But I do feel bad for the dad in this scenario. He’s having to balance his loyalty for his wife against that of his kids. It’s a rough spot. Anyhow, feel free to leave a comment below. And please send your own questions 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." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

Support the news