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Welcome Meddleheads, to the advice column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.
I am a 29-year-old man with a wife but no kids. My wife is a teacher and she earns more money than I do. I am an academic, and I work from home. My in-laws have been staying with us for around three weeks and will stay with us for the next three months. My mother-in-law is constantly picking on me.
For example, she praises my wife for even the tiniest things, but she does not acknowledge anything positive that I do. Whenever I get out of my chair during work and get to make a cup of coffee, she asks “Have you finished work?” even when she knows my working hours. She is always willing to wash up and clean up after my wife; not so for me. Moreover, my mother-in-law and my father-in-law constantly point out to my wife that I am not handy around the house.
To be fair, they’re right. I’m pretty useless when it comes to simple electrical, plumbing and landscaping tasks. But, hey, it’s my home, and I’m willing to pay for such things to be done.
I am feeling devalued, underappreciated and looked down upon. While I acknowledge my shortcomings, my in-laws are making me feel like I am worthless. I would appreciate any advice for how to handle this situation.
Dear Frustrated Husband,
Yikes. I realize that I’m getting just one side of this situation, but it sounds like a pretty rotten arrangement. I’m not sure that you need your home to be a castle. But you’re describing a scenario in which you feel under siege. It’s not clear to me whether your in-laws are conscious of how their comments make you feel.
Regardless, the whole situation is fraught with gender stereotypes. Your wife makes more money than you do, and works outside the home. This leaves you at home with in-laws who continue to make comments meant — consciously or unconsciously — to emasculate you. In other words, they know where to stick the knife.
Here’s what I don’t get: has your wife been present for any of these exchanges? If not, have you told her how you feel? And how, in the first place, did your in-laws wind up in your home for nearly four months? Who extended this invitation?
So some of this has to do with you and your wife having a frank but respectful conversation about how her folks behave toward you. This shouldn’t be framed as a loyalty test (i.e. “It’s me or them!”). But you do need to tell her that you feel antagonized and belittled by her folks.
They need to learn your boundaries. That begins with honesty on all sides, especially when it’s hard.
I’d also discuss with her the best course of action. I don’t recommend that she try to act as go-between, or as your defender. It’s important for you to stand up for yourself in these matters. But also for you and your wife to talk, get on the same page, and stand together. With her support, you need to say, in essence, “We’re happy to host you in our home. But that means we have to be respectful of one another. And there are certain comments you make, and behaviors you engage in, that make me feel disrespected. I want those to stop. Period.”
There’s no need to send this message angrily. A better way to think of it is simply as an expression of self-respect.
One way to diffuse your own anger is to recognize that their comments are probably coming from a place endemic to most, if not all, in-laws: the idea that nobody is good enough for their child.
I’m not trying to excuse their contempt, especially the passive-aggressive stuff. I’m trying to explain where it may be coming from.
I also think you’d do well, before you talk to them, to think about whether, or to what extent, self-doubt makes you susceptible to their comments. Is there a part of you that buys into the patriarchal notion that men should always be the primary breadwinner? And that any man who isn’t somehow deserves to be looked down upon? Meaning: how much of their antagonism is interacting with doubts and anxieties you’ve internalized about your role in the marriage?
This is why it’s important, especially for you and your wife, to bring these feelings into the light, if they exist.
Look: with any luck, you’ll be dealing with these in-laws for many years. It’s important to establish a respectful relationship with them as soon as possible. They need to know that the way they behave toward you is hurtful. They need to learn your boundaries. That begins with honesty on all sides, especially when it’s hard.
Author's note: Oh my. What a thorny situation. To have these in-laws in your home for three more months! Anyone with in-law troubles: please offer your take in the comment section below—especially if you think I’ve given him a bum steer. Frustrated Husband needs our help! And please do send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.
Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.
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