QUESTION FROM A GREEK TRAGEDY READER: I have been married for 13 years and have lived in the same small town for 13 years. During these years I’ve become very frustrated with the dynamics of my husband’s family, especially my mother-in-law. She is a tyrant and a bully. She bullies her son and/or ignores him completely. She does the same with her grandsons. I have persevered long enough. I cannot seem to accept that my husband has no strength to face his mother about how she treats him and his sons. She acts like they don’t exist! They are a prominent family in the town, so there is a constant reminder of their presence. Since my husband doesn’t have the courage or strength to stand up to his mother and call her out on her actions, I have to do it. Now my in-laws and husband blame me for the family disconnect. I am tired of being the scapegoat and have encouraged my husband to change, but he is unwilling to make a change in hopes his mother will accept him one day. I feel like the only way I’m going to grow is to leave this dysfunctional family, which means leaving my husband. I am unhappy and have an emotionally void husband that has mastered blocking anything uncomfortable out. It is toxic and continues to crop up and poison me, no matter what. I am at a loss and feel my marriage is on the brink of divorce and do not know where to turn. I feel healing together without the presence of his family in the same vicinity would help us. My husband’s retort is basically "Suck it up. We are not going to run away. We have a nice home." I am at a loss and feel torn, as I love my home, as well. Do I present an ultimatum to my husband? I think this is the only way, but then he says I am threatening him.
What strikes me most about your letter is that this is your problem. That is to say, it sounds like everyone else is actually accepting of the way things are. Maybe your husband is mildly unhappy about the way his family is, but it’s also what he knows. This has been the dynamic, I’m guessing, forever. It’s his familiar. It’s worth noting that you’ve been married for thirteen years, and this dynamic was always what it is, and yet NOW you’ve become very frustrated. I wonder, what is it that has changed in you, what has ignited this… hurt. I’m guessing that what you’re really feeling is wounded. It’s a gut instinct. Because you feel he’s choosing his mother over you. And you feel wounded that he doesn’t respect you enough to change. And you feel hurt that she treats you this way, too. And, quite frankly, I don’t blame you. It does hurt.
Yes, it’s frustrating as all h-e-double hockey sticks, and you wish your husband was a different man. But this is the man you chose to marry, a man you vowed to love in sickness and in health, and right now, that sickness is his infectious mother-in-law. And you’re letting it get to you.
I hear you. Been there, divorced that. But I didn’t divorce him because he wasn’t man enough to stand up to his parents. I actually accepted that it was one of his limitations in life. That is the world he knew, and it wasn’t going to change overnight. I just saw it as a flaw; no one is perfect. You know what I learned to do? I stopped complaining to him about his mother (not the world, I was fine with that, but to him). Putting him in the middle doesn’t help anything, and will actually only frustrate the fuck out of you because it’s highly unlikely that he’s going to change. It’s why ultimatums just don’t work. No one wins there. Because what you’re saying is, it’s me, or it’s her. Instead, there’s a way to soften it.
On a scale of 1-10 of importance, this is a 10 to me. I know you have lived and operated this way all your life, and I don’t expect it to change overnight, but if I’m important to you, you will at least show me that you care about how this is affecting me, and will make steps toward changing this dynamic. I know you’re okay with it. But I’m not. It’s a very big issue for me, and I need to know, that you, as my partner, want to work on changing this dynamic. I’ve helped to create this dynamic by not expressing how much it has affected me over the years. But things cannot continue this way. I don’t want to put you in the middle, so from now on, if I have an issue with your mother’s behavior, I’m going to speak with her about it, and I need to know that you will support me, no matter what, if she then goes to you to talk about it. I need to know that you will tell her to deal directly with me about it, that you, as my husband, are fully on my side.
I’ll also say this. A friend of mine began having mother-in-law issues as soon as she got married. She and her husband sought couples counseling, as the mother was making them fight constantly. The therapist told the man that if he wanted to make his marriage work, he had to realize that his wife was his family now. He said that a husband and wife should be a two-person team that supports one another 100%. If any outside force (his mother) were to try to come between the team, he should always choose his wife over the other. Although this is what his wife had been saying all along, the husband needed to hear it from an outside party. He didn’t choose his mother, but he did choose you as his family, and he does need to put you first. If he admits that he cannot put you first, that he’s incapable of respecting how important this is to you, then I would, in fact, think long and hard about what this marriage means to you.
"Now my in-laws and husband blame me for the family disconnect." They happen to be right. You’re the one who has a problem with it, not them. That dysfunctional way they live is what they know. Here’s what I would do, if I were you. I would tell your husband that YOU have found a therapist, that you’re at the end of your rope and need help. I would tell him that you plan to see the therapist whether or not he wants to go. You would like it very much if he went with you, so the therapist could hear both sides of things, so the therapist doesn’t only hear your ranting and raving, but if it’s not important to him, then you still plan on going. I would, in fact, make an appointment with a therapist who deals with couples therapies. And then, most importantly, I would tell your mother-in-law that you’re going. Tell her that you don’t want to live like this anymore, and that you welcome her to come to therapy, that you are going to discuss everything that goes on with her and your husband, and you welcome her to voice her side of things. Let her know that the dynamic has to changeand you’re no longer going to sit around and complain about it. You’re taking steps to do something about it.
She may laugh, she may ignore you completely. But she’ll fall asleep at night wondering what the hell you’re telling this therapist, and she may just want to put in her two cents and get into that therapist’s room. Even if she doesn’t, she’ll know, she’ll expect the dynamic to change.
That’s all I’ve got. Perhaps others will join in…
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