I am married to a wonderful, funny, smart man. We have an amazing two-year-old and I just found out that I am expecting again. Life is good, except that his normally-long-distance family is suddenly in the area (an hour’s drive away) and thus all the issues about my dislike of them that we have managed to gloss over are coming up in a big way. (The stuff I found in the archives about in-laws involved a partner’s family being just as toxic for him/her as for the LW, and this isn’t so much our case.)
His family history is too long and sordid to get into, but it involves active addiction, physical and sexual abuse, and my husband being informed at nine years of age that he was now responsible for everyone else, including not just his siblings but his mother. (She was the one informing him of this.) This resulted in an incredibly responsible and patient man, but one unable to see his siblings and mother as anything but helpless victims who need him, when in fact there is major manipulation going on in order for them to maintain the hapless lifestyles to which they are accustomed.
It is not reassuring to my husband that I love him more for the disaster zone from which he emerged (I haven’t used those words to him); he wants me to love his family. And he keeps comparing them to my family, and asking how I would feel if he didn’t love my family. When: well, if this were a Hollywood rom-com, my family would be the uptight prissy overeducated East Coasters, and his would be the lovable “honest folks” who teach my family to open up. But in real life, my overeducated parents and brothers are the kindest, funniest, most liberal people you can possibly imagine, and his family drove me to tears on my wedding day with their social boorishness and constant pressuring of me to drink (I am a recovering alcoholic AND was visibly pregnant). So when my husband says, after a nightmare afternoon with his brother during which said brother indulged in belching, farting, cursing, and homophobia in front of the toddler, and ignored social cues to the extent that he was there three hours longer than either of us wanted him there, “How would you feel if I didn’t like having [your brother] here?” I want to scream that I am just too tired to keep up the pretense that All Brothers Are Created Equal anymore.
And in a few weeks his mother will be here, for seven months’ stay. (Not actually in our house: small mercies.) She will be here my entire pregnancy, because that’s not already enough of a stressful or emotional time. And she’ll want to see her granddaughter, so I imagine she and the aforementioned brother will be at our house nearly every weekend. In addition to the broken record she plays about her victimhood (divorced almost thirty years but How He Ruined Her Life comes up in every conversation), she is a rabid conspiracy theorist, and bases her right to judge how her son’s kid is being raised on a lot of debunked stuff. Like, anti-vaxxer stuff: that level.
I try really, really hard to be polite, to guests and in-laws especially. But “polite” is going to be the best I can do, if the latest visit from his brother is any indication. Pregnant, working full-time, and parenting a toddler, I do not have one-tenth of the social acting energy I would need to pull off a “Yay! You’re here again!” And pulling that off is what my husband wants from me, despite how he’s seen my wickedly-introverted self get completely drained by a few hours with people whom I genuinely adore, and his having watched one pregnancy wipe me out already. He wants me to be delighted that these people are descending on us every weekend.
Is there any way I can talk to him about this without making him feel I want him to choose between his family and me? How can I convince him that it has to be enough, because it is all I have, for them to be fed and given places to sit down and allowed to chat at the toddler (at least until they say something offensive)? And is there any way – there may not be – for me to convince him to stop equating a visit from Racist Uncle Stoner with one from my thoughtful, compassionate, brilliant brothers? I know the family comparisons make him extra-defensive, but he’s the one who brings them out. I don’t, for exactly that reason.
There may be no possible answers to this, but there is no possible answer to “just force yourself to love these people”, either!
Like Chekhov But With More Theories About Government Plots
Dear Like Chekhov,
We can’t undo a lifetime of your husband’s relationship with his family in a blog post, so, I want to start by saying: There is probably no script where you set boundaries about his family that will necessarily make him see things your way, where everything is resolved pleasantly without further friction.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set boundaries with him about their visits. The truthful answer to his question: “How would you feel if I didn’t love your family?” is “Dude, I would be really sad, but I’d also try to work with you about what kind of visiting schedule you could handle, and as long as you were polite to them when we did see each other, I wouldn’t pressure you to feel any kind of way about them. Not everyone is meant to be best friends!”
When his mother arrives, could you handle something like:
- 1 visit per month from Grandma & brother at your house where you act as pleasant joint host. You will break out the good dishes and smile. You will try not to say “You can’t possibly be serious.“
- Husband can take your daughter to see Grandma and on outings with Grandma as many times as he wants.
- “Husband, please go have fun hanging out with your brother! The operative word here is “Go!” When Brother overstays his welcome, kick him out! “Brother, good to see you today! We’re kicking you out, though – got a million things to do. See you soon!” Or, consider putting him to work on unpleasant chores. “So glad you’re here. It’s gutter-cleaning day! Thanks a million for helping!” He’ll either bail or you’ll get your gutters cleaned.
I suggest these arrangements for illustration purposes, what’s more important is that you decide what you can live with and then ask for it.
There is stuff that your husband values about always having an open door to family and that’s real, primal stuff. There is also stuff you need about sufficient down-time and not having to play hostess to people you dislike all the time so that he can perform filial piety, and that is also real, primal stuff. I know you want to avoid a situation where he feels like he has to “choose between you and his family” but this is that situation! That is what you need him to do, and you need him to choose you and the family you have together. Choosing you in this instance doesn’t mean not ever seeing his family, but it does mean not shoving them down your throat and then berating you when you don’t love that.
This honestly might be a good time to bring in a couples’ counselor to referee. Whether you involve one or not, I suggest stating every request about his family strictly in terms of your needs.
- Start with visits from Brother, since he’s here. “If you want to see Brother this weekend, can y’all go out? I am not up to hosting anyone tomorrow.“
- “Husband, I need time to myself today. Why don’t you take Toddler to see Grandma instead of having her come here?“
- “I have about one family dinner or outing in me per month right now. If you want to hang with your family more than that, enjoy! But I can’t commit to more than that.“
- You’re a working mom, so isn’t it just so helpful that your husband’s family is here to help? So helpful!”Hi Mother In Law, hi Brother, good to see you. Have fun with Husband and Toddler – I have some errands* to run. Gotta go!”
- You’re pregnant, so you need naps. So many naps**. “Sorry to bail right when the fun starts, but if I don’t close my eyes right now I’m gonna pass out!“
- It’s risky, but sometimes invoking your doctor can help. “Doctor says I’m supposed to take it easy right now!” “Doctor suggested that stress is bad for me right now.” “Doctor recommends not taking on additional stressors right now.” Your husband is going to be horribly hurt that his family are considered “stressors” as in, “But they’re faaaaaaaaamily! That’s not the same as something stressful” and that’s maybe where the couples’ counselor or doctor comes in because the truth is they ARE stressful… to you… and no amount of his wanting it to be different makes it so.
Bailing on togetherness time won’t be without friction or consequence. Your mother-in-law is definitely gonna pick up on it if you are not around 100% of the time faking happiness to see her and her wack ideas, and she is 100% gonna make remarks about it to her son, who is 100% gonna try to persuade you to get with their family program of “Boundaries Are Mean.”
Scripts for when that happens:
- “I want you to have a wonderful relationship with your family, but I am limited in how much I can or want to play host to anyone, especially right now. I appreciate you being a buffer.“
- “Our house does not have to be In-Laws central every weekend! I literally cannot handle that, and if you want to see your family that often I need you to find another way to make it happen!“
- “I don’t think the conversation about whether I love your folks ‘enough’ is fair or productive. If I’m going to love them like you do, that will have to develop in its own time. I can tell you that being forced to host them for hours every weekend is not improving my affections!!!” (BTW your “I’m done pretending that all brothers are created equal!” script is good.)
- “I’m okay being the bad guy here. Tell them you want them to come but I’m just not up to it today! Tell them that you forgot that we already had plans! Tell them whatever, but I cannot do this every weekend.“
Letter Writer, this all sucks, and I don’t think it’s gonna be easy, but I don’t think you’re being unreasonable to want to take care of yourself and limit stress. Turns out that limiting exposure to people you know stress you out is a very effective way to limit stress.
Like many abused kids, your husband never got to learn the life skill where other people can have all the feelings they want about something that he needs to do to take care of himself, and he can make the best choice for himself even if it pisses them off and annoys them. That’s very unfair and sad, but it’s not fair for him to try to impose that pattern onto you. Now is definitely the time for you to exercise that skill, as in, “I can’t handle having your family here every weekend even if you have different feelings about that.” There is no prize for being the world’s most accommodating person, and the prospect of your husband (or his mom or brother, by proxy) having sad feelings doesn’t obligate you to play eternal gracious hostess! It is okay to have conflict sometimes and to risk pissing people off!
*”Errands” could be “going to the movies” or “seeing friends.”
**”Naps” could involve headphones, and reading.