Dear Newsweek, my husband and I have been married for 42 years and he has always had strong likes and dislikes. Four years ago, we moved closer to our son’s family.
Until recently I didn’t realize how much he dislikes our son’s mother-in-law, who lives nearby.
This past year he has refused to attend holiday functions if she is there. Of course, she will be there, so that puts a strain on me. Nobody else, including the mother-in-law, knows how he feels. He usually makes up an excuse and I go by myself.
I can’t let my son know because it would not only hurt him but also our daughter-in-law, who we love. I have become extremely unhappy and bitter with my husband regarding his feelings. We have a grandson and I want to see him grow up. Do I need to choose between him and my family?
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You Need to Negotiate an Alternative Solution With Your Husband
Jamie Schenk DeWitt, MA, is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Los Angeles.
I am sorry that you are in this situation with your husband. It is horrible to feel like you have to choose between him and your family. It is understandable that you are feeling “extremely unhappy and bitter with your husband regarding his feelings,” because you may be feeling that he is unwilling to consider your feelings in this situation and negotiate an alternate solution that will potentially work for both of you. I use the word “negotiate” because it is important for couples to realize that relationships are about a healthy balance of give and take, and not at just one person’s expense. That’s why I like to use the word “negotiate” instead of “compromise,” because compromise usually entails one person feeling like they get the short end of the stick. I would suggest talking to your husband about how you are feeling and then working toward a negotiation that will hopefully accommodate both of your needs.
When talking to your husband, it is important for you to ask him when is a good time for him to sit down and listen to how you are feeling regarding this situation. Whenever we have meaningful and difficult conversations with our spouses, we want to make sure that they are in a good head space and available emotionally to be present. Once you start talking with him, make sure to speak from an “I feel” perspective and explain how his unwillingness to attend functions when the mother-in-law is there puts an emotional and physical strain on you that you do not wish to keep experiencing.
If your husband can understand that his feelings and actions also impact you, there may be a way to find a path forward where you both feel like your needs are being met. For example, maybe every other year he attends family holidays with the mother-in-law there, so there is a schedule that you can rely upon. Or maybe you agree that at least once every six weeks, he goes over there to an event even if the MIL is there too.
Your Husband Should Take Responsibility and Tell Your Son the Truth
Dr. Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and the author of Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety as well as Dr. Chloe’s 10 Commandments of Dating.
I’m sorry to answer a question with questions, but there may be some important contextual factors to consider. For example, why does he find her so intolerable, and what has been done to remedy the situation? Has he tried everything, or could he possibly be retreating prematurely because he just needs the skills to navigate better?
The answers to those questions will inform how you might proceed wisely. For example, if the mother-in-law is truly abusive to him, then he may be feeling justifiably abandoned if you overlook it, or simply weren’t aware of it, and blithely expected him to tolerate abuse. On the other hand, if she’s only mildly annoying, then perhaps the two of you could find ways to fend her off as a united front. For example, if she makes passive-aggressive remarks to him, he might feel supported if you are often there with a quick rejoinder. If he just finds her gratingly boring, you could promise to try and throw him a lifeline whenever she’s droning. Also, ask your husband how he’s doing otherwise. If his irritation about her seems to have cropped up suddenly and without reason, probe to see if there might be something else underlying his unexplained shift.
Hopefully, the situation does not have to be black and white to the point where he’s completely refusing to see her under any holiday circumstances. Have an open talk with him and invite him to share why he dislikes her so much. Listen compassionately, and ask questions that show you really want to understand. Next, you might share how much it would mean for you to find a way to make peace during holidays—and offer to brainstorm ways that you can support him through the challenge so that the two of you might find a workable compromise. In many situations, learning to rely on one another and navigate family dynamics as a couple can actually strengthen your bond if it’s done in a reflective way.
If he completely refuses, rest assured that your fear of not seeing your grandson grow up doesn’t have to happen. Regardless of whatever you may choose regarding holidays, you will always be able to see your grandson throughout the rest of the year. If your husband refuses, his reasons may help guide your choice about whether to remain at home with him on certain holidays or venture out. If you do venture out alone, it is not fair that you feel forced to explain his perpetual absence.
If it comes to that, you may consider telling him that you accept his decision to stay home but you need him to explain it to them himself because it’s putting you in an awkward position. You are correct that his potential announcement would likely hurt your son and daughter-in-law. Yes, it would be painful—but it’s usually better to face the truth than to embark on decades of awkward denial. If needed, tell your husband he needs to take responsibility for his own choices, and that his choice to stay home includes the responsibility of having the difficult conversation that his decision to be permanently absent himself will create.
Hopefully, the first step of having a heartfelt conversation and trying to find creative ways that you can support one another will be possible—it may even bring you closer. Don’t hesitate to ask him to see a couples therapist with you if you want some extra support along the way. New family dynamics and life stages can be stressful, and a little support never hurts.