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My wife and her family of origin are extremely close. One holiday, for example, we went to their house. On the way back, my wife said, “Boy, mom was really torqued up today.” I replied, “She sure was.” My wife went berserk on me. “That’s my mother! Don’t talk about her like that!” All I was doing was agreeing with her.
Here’s my story. When my wife’s grandfather passed away, we bought (paid the market price) for one-third of his farm. Her parents kept a third, and her brother bought the other third. We had planned to build a house on ours and her brother had refurbished the old house that his grandfather owned.
Walking out of the attorney’s office to complete the sale, my mother-in-law stated that our property “was where everyone would get their firewood and cedar fence posts.” All I could think was: What? How does she get to make this rule?
My wife’s family raises cattle, as does my wife’s brother. Sure enough, they decided to redo the fences and started hinting, jokingly, that they needed fence posts. I would brush it off or say "no thanks." Over a two- to three-year span, my wife’s father and brother started getting angrier and, frankly, verbally abusive toward me about this. Additionally, my mother-in-law would make comments such as, “John has trees you can use as fence posts. He’ll share. Families share. That’s what families do.”
They cut approximately 300 cedar trees. On the third round, I told my wife she should get them off the property or I would. She knows I have a temper and also have several guns. She asked me how I would get them off, and I said I would call the sheriff. This happened about seven years ago.
We’ve been to two counselors over a period of several years. Our sex life before this was normal, probably twice a week, at least. Since this, it is down to maybe twice per year. I recently complained, after being turned down. She replied that she did not feel an emotional bond. She recently acknowledged in an email that, “I didn’t love her enough to fake a relationship with her family.” Her family and I don't talk to each other when watching my kid’s sporting events.
I’m thinking about a divorce or at least trial separation.
Not Ready to Mend Fences
Dear Not Ready,
I’m not sure if this counts as reassuring, but every marriage faces some version of this situation. That is, there is inevitable tension around loyalty to the families of origin, versus the families we create with our spouses. These tensions often flare around more practical matters, such as where a couple chooses to spend holidays. But it usually cuts deeper as well. In my own marriage, there have been issues around how to communicate. My wife complains (understandably) that I insist on burrowing deep into our family histories and dynamics. She sometimes feels I am judging her family. And she’s usually right.
But your situation is complicated by the simple fact that you are inextricably bound to their family homestead. You couldn’t have realized this at the time, but by purchasing land owned by your wife’s grandfather, you were not just agreeing to live adjacent to your in-laws, but also entering into an informal contract with them. They expect you to “share” your trees with them, because that’s what families do.
When you didn’t consent to those terms, it sounds like they came onto your property uninvited. Or perhaps your wife gave them permission. In either case, you viewed it as theft.
It sounds like living on adjacent properties is a toxic arrangement, one that’s potentially dangerous, given the presence of tempers and firearms.
What this means is that you don’t want to have the same kind of relationship with your in-laws as they want with you. Quite frankly, it sounds like living on adjacent properties is a toxic arrangement, one that’s potentially dangerous, given the presence of tempers and firearms.
But the real question here is more fundamental: Do you want to be married to your wife? Does she want to be married to you? Are both of you willing to work to rebuild trust and connection? If the answer to these questions is anything less than a yes from both of you, I agree that a separation or divorce makes sense. After all, it sounds like these troubles have been dogging the marriage for several years, and that the two of you, to your credit, have tried counseling (though it’s unclear from your letter just how committed you were to that process).
But you wouldn’t be writing me if your mind were made up. And that means there’s some big part of you that still wants to work on the marriage. If you decide to do so, you have to be willing to commit to that process. The tensions with the in-laws and the lack of sexual intimacy both matter. But they are symptomatic of the deeper malady here, which is a loss of trust and esteem.
The important thing to remember is that a marriage is a contract made between two partners. You shouldn’t have to “fake” a relationship with her family in order to have a real relationship with her. On the other hand, part of loving her may be accepting that she has this close, but troubled, bond with her family. You can’t work out a compromise unless you’re both willing to bend.
I hope you guys can find ways to bend without breaking your bond.
Author's note: Again, if I had the power to do so, I would move this letter writer and his wife to a plot of land far away from her family. But perhaps they’ll reach that conclusion on their own. Those of you with persistent in-law issues should feel encouraged to offer your advice. Post your feedback in the comments section below. And please do send along a letter to Heavy Meddle, if you haven’t. -- S.A.
Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.