I don’t know how best to help my DH. This message follows us having a long, slightly drunk but happy and loving chat about his life.
DH’s family history is complicated. His upbringing includes some things which, when we talk about them, he agrees were “probably abuse”, but explains that he’s somewhat normalised what happened to him, and tends to say it totally matter-of-factly, as though this were just how things are. His feelings – or lack of – are complicated by guilt. DH was born a sickly child, with complex medical needs that put a lot of strain on the family. His parents divorced partly due to the stress of it all. He did not cope well with his deformities or medical needs and his childhood was a mixture of being a bullying victim, being a bully, having serious anger issues and acting out. I’m sometimes amazed by the wonderful, loving, mentally balanced person he’s become without therapy or help.
DH doesn’t seem to know what sort of relationship he wants with his parents. He is amicable with them, visits his mother about once a month, enjoys talking to his father… but he won’t initiate contact, and he gets anxious if, for example, his mum tries to ask him to visit on short notice. At the same time, he’s just naturally bad at maintaining relationships and has asked me to help him keep in better contact with his gran and siblings. He’s never confronted either parent and even apologised to his father recently for being a “difficult child”.
At the same time, the abuse has only come out over a long time in small parts. and by the time I started to get the picture, we’d been together years and had started to build closer relationships with his parents. His mum in particular, who is always very kind and concerned and helpful, and I don’t know how to feel about her, or the FIL, or any of it. To be fair, DH doesn’t isn’t certain how he feels. He’s given me permission to ask his big sis for more info on their childhood, because his memory can cause him problems. She lives abroad though, and I’d feel weird asking by email.
Because of his relationship and memory difficulties, it’s my job to help him maintain contact with loved ones. But I don’t know how to do this where his parents are concerned. I don’t want to pressure him to get closer than he feels comfortable, but I also don’t want to be the woman that drives him from his family into hers, as his father’s second wife has started doing with him.
I’d love some advice please!
This statement: “Because of his relationship and memory difficulties, it’s my job to help him maintain contact with loved ones.” from your letter set off my Yikes-o-meter. Yikes!
Here is my advice:
Do not volunteer to be the carrier for his communication and relationship with his family, or to sort out these memories. Do not email his sister. It is only “your job” if you choose it, and you get to choose to not make it your job.
You can be a sounding board.
You can be a listening ear.
You should not be an ambassador or a manager. And you don’t have to feel any particular thing. HE doesn’t have to feel any particular thing.
Even in much less extreme situations (history of abuse, memory problems, disability) men sometimes expect that women will do the emotional work of the relationship, up to and including remembering everyone in HIS family’s birthday and buying presents/sending cards/keeping in touch. I think this sets a bad precedent, where his messed up family issues are now something that are the present stuff of your relationship. I’m sure he feels great after this chat you guys had; he just transferred all responsibility for sorting out his messy past over to you and now you’re writing me for advice on how to do it when really HE could write in for advice (not necessarily here, but somewhere) on how to do it.
This is HIS family.
This is HIS history.
This is HIS thing to solve.
I think it is admirable that you want to help your husband, and admirable that he wants to get back in touch with people and start sorting things out. And I think there is no one perfect way that he has to feel about a history of abuse. It is possible for people to have very dysfunctional relationships as children that grow into much more mellow relationships as people age, get power and autonomy, and create a series of positive interactions to build on.
But it is on HIM to contact his sister, sort out his memories, and deal with them (with the help of a professional, if necessary), and keep in better touch with his gran and his siblings. “Terrible at maintaining relationships” isn’t an actual condition, it’s a series of choices that have turned into a habit.
The best way to get in touch with people you haven’t talked to in a while is to send a greeting. People love getting mail that isn’t bills, so maybe write a postcard. “Dear _____, I hope you are well. I read/saw/ate/experienced this thing recently that made me think of you and remember the time that we _________. (Wife) and I are doing well, here is a thing that is new with me. Have a happy (upcoming holiday, season of the year), Love, Husband.” Keep it light, and remember, if communication has really lapsed, the other people don’t know what to say or how to begin either, and will be grateful for you breaking the ice. Make the effort, say something brief and kind, and then keep sending responses when they respond back. It is honestly that simple: If you want to, you will do it. If you don’t want to, then don’t do it, but don’t expect your partner to magically make it happen for you. Either admit that you don’t want to do it and make peace with that, or work on the “I want to want to, I just haven’t figured it out yet” stuff with a therapist.
You can help by dropping stuff in the mail, or picking up postcards, or hunting down addresses, or even helping him come up with things to say, but you shouldn’t manage the entire process.
The problem of making an adult relationship with imperfect relatives is not unique to this guy, it’s something we all have to figure out for ourselves.
My advice is that your mantra becomes “I am always here to listen, and I will support any decision you make, but I am not comfortable (emailing your sister, sorting out your past, taking the lead on how you interact with your family).”
I’m sure the community will have alternate perspectives to my initial “AW HELL NAW” reaction, I hope it will be helpful.