QUESTION: I have been married for three
years and have the most amazing wife and six month old daughter. The
problem comes in when we are around my parents. I came from a very close
knit family and when I'm around my parents, I can't seem to break the
parent/child relationship. Any time there is any friction at all between
my wife and parents, my inclination is to say nothing and hope it works
itself out. Naturally, my wife feels left out.
I keep trying to avoid making anyone mad, but
I'm making the person who means the world to me the most angry. My
wife says she's sick of it and wants no part of me because she feels
secondary to my parents. My parents live out of town, but we see them
about four times a year for about a week each time. My parents will
be visiting again in about three months and I couldn't be more nervous.
Any thoughts, comments, suggestions, or reading
material would be greatly appreciated.
ANSWER: Your insight about what needs to be done in the situation
and your empathy for wife's experience are both remarkably clear!
You are already aware that your contribution to your problem is to
remain silent and in a child's role, instead of an adult role at your
wife's side. So what is stopping you from taking action to align yourself
with your wife and set boundaries that are appropriate with your parents?
Your loyalty must rest with your wife, but this does
not mean you do not love your "folks". Talk with your beloved about
her feelings and needs in the conflicts that arise with her in-laws.
Reflect her experience to her, but do not stop there. Identify what
behaviors she feels need to change in order to feel respected in her
role as your wife. What changes do you need in order to feel respected
by your parents in your new role as a husband and head of family?
Do not shy away from taking the lead in to talk with
your parents about specific behaviors which need to stop. For example,
you may need to explain to your parents that their comments are disrespectful
or intrusive, even if they mean well. Be specific about what is causing
the pain and ask them to stop. Let them know that while you do not
require that they love your wife as you do, you expect them to respect
your boundaries around these issues as a couple and to "live and let
You may begin this process by phone. If you do, be
sure to speak with each of your parents separately. This way you will
feel less intimidated, and have a fair chance at having a more adult
to adult conversation. You might decide to address it by letter first
and let them know you are calling and want to establish separate adult
relationships with each of them, now that you are establishing a family
of your own.
Focus on your desire to develop an adult friendship.
Let them know you want to change the nature of your relationship with
them from child to adult. Keep this focus the foundation of your discussion.
Address the issues you discuss with your wife. Be specific about the
behaviors you want changed, but keep this part short. By setting the
framework for your discussion about you and your needs for a change
in how you relate to them you are more likely to create the necessary
shift that is no doubt at the root of this transition.
Marriage is the blending of two family cultures.
It is your job to take the lead in determining the rules and guidelines
with your wife that you will create together in you family. It is
possible that one of the reasons for your lack of leadership with
your parents is that you are avoiding your own conflicts with your
wife, allowing your parents to express your own desires. Or you may
be shying away from clearly stating your preferences (that are shared
with your wife) to avoid conflict with your parents!
Whatever your reason for avoiding conflict, this
pattern could spell trouble for the future of your marriage. Conflict-avoidance
can lead to unresolved feelings which result in a fractured relationship.
You may need to strengthen your communication skills not only to address
your parents, but to maintain a healthy and vibrant marriage.
It is not always possible or necessary for in-laws
to "love and cherish" your spouse. It is important that family members
tolerate differences without intrusion and judgment which curtail
family interaction. Holiday visits, celebration dinners and grandparenting
roles are all a part of family life. Establish goals which include
your parents but do not insist on "instant love". Blending families,
including in-laws, can require time and patience from everyone involved.
If your parents feel (and raised you to believe)
that to have differences is disloyal, you may be suffering under the
belief that differences cannot be accepted in a family. To take your
place as an adult with them may include expressing your own views
of family, including tolerance for differences!
Sometimes it is hard to grow up because we idealize
our parents. Still, it may be your turn to teach your parents something
new about family. Do not forget that we are all, forever "growing
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