She said, he said: Thanksgiving stress
She Said He Said
Dear Jeff and Lori,
I’ve never fully clicked with my husband’s family. They are genuinely decent people with good hearts, but their way of interacting is just different from what I grew up with. They don’t live near us, so spending time together is concentrated into visits a few times a year, including over the holidays. This year they are coming to stay with us for over a week. I tried to share with my husband that 4-5 days was probably the most healthy amount of time and he agreed, but his parents insisted on coming for longer. They often bicker with one another and his mother makes little comments that feel judgmental of how I am as a wife and mother. When I share my experiences with my husband he validates that being around his parents can be stressful, but doesn’t ever actually stick up for me or set boundaries with them. Then I get frustrated with him. I don’t want this visit to end with us being upset with each other. Any advice would help.
Lori and Jeff: In-law relationships have the power to create a unique type of stress for many of us. Because we love our spouses so much, we want to feel integrated into and accepted by their kin. But it’s often not easy to fit into a system that has been operating for decades without you. Learning how to become part of their family without compromising yourself is a dance between patience, openness and firm but loving boundaries.
Lori: When it comes to in-laws, it’s common to struggle with understanding whose responsibility it is to set which boundaries. Many couples operate from a stance of “It’s your family, you deal with them.” For larger decisions, such as how long they stay, it’s important to be united. If your husband has a pattern of altering or abandoning the plan, be curious about what might be affecting him (Jeff will help shed light on some possibilities below). However direct interactions that you have with your in-laws is your relationship, so take ownership of it.
Your frustration with your husband stems from you feeling powerless and not having your needs acknowledged. It’s time to stop avoiding your conflict with his parents and learn how to communicate directly with them. This is particularly true regarding your felt experience with his mom. Acknowledge for her the wisdom and strengths she has as a mother (she did raise the man you love) and also let her know the felt experience you have of being criticized by her. Moving forward, make more initiative to ask her for advice or support in areas that would be meaningful so she has a clearer understanding of her role and value as mother, mother-in-law and grandmother. Then when she does offer unsolicited criticism, gently remind her that you respect her way of operating and you’d like her to give you space to show up in the way that is authentic to you.
Jeff: In the broader sense, one of the more challenging aspects of relationships is to be triangulated between your spouse and one of your parents. For your husband, this dynamic with you and his mother can make it very difficult for him to set proper boundaries. The mother-son
relationship is often one that often rife with ambiguities. As boys, we typically enjoy the same close, nurturing relationships with our mothers as our female counterparts. But, once we become teenagers, we’re supposed to separate and individuate from our mothers and become men. While this transition can be confusing and ungrounding for us, it can also create a sense of loss for our moms that gets even further impacted when we fall in love and decide to commit to a partner. While our mothers are typically well-intentioned and want the best for us, sometimes their emotional experience can subconsciously come out sideways. This manifests in not fully respecting the boundaries we try to set and potentially overstepping their roles as mother-in-law or grandparent.
This is not to say that your husband has permission to let his mom steamroll your relationship and drive a wedge between you, but it might help bring a deeper awareness to his experience and why it’s difficult for him to stand firm, seeming like he doesn’t have your back. You might be able to support him in understanding the tough position he’s in, and together try to figure out how to be a stronger united front when confronted with an attempt to undermine your boundaries. Also understanding her experience of being less connected to her son might help you have a bit more compassion and a more generous interpretation of her sometimes inappropriate behavior.
Lori and Jeff: You’ve created internal narratives that your mother-in-law is being critical and your husband lacks a spine with his parents. It’s your responsibility to seek a more balanced view of both of them. Relationships and people aren’t that one-dimensional. Be curious about the needs and felt experiences that might be driving their behaviors and remember at the core we all (including you and them) just want to feel that we are loved and that we matter.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.