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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’ve been married to my wonderful husband for two years now, and while I’m very much in love with him, I’m not so in love with how he acts around his parents. When we go to their house, he becomes the most obnoxious person I’ve ever met.
When I say he’s a wonderful husband, what I mean is that he’s kind and considerate, and he takes our marriage seriously. If there’s an issue between us, we argue like any other couple, but if he’s in the wrong, he tries to do better (and if I’m in the wrong, he doesn’t rub it in). He treats me with respect and love. But when we’re around his parents, he acts like an angry teenager who simultaneously yearns for his dad’s love and attention and can’t keep from pointing out all his faults and bringing up past hurts. He wants a mea culpa that will never come. And witnessing this is painful. He will goad his father until the man becomes exasperated and yells at him. It’s impossible to change the subject once he gets started because my husband manages to turn everything into a story about himself. If someone brings up one of his siblings, he talks about how they got away with murder while he was always expected to be the good one, how he was obliged to help out at home and his siblings got off scot-free, how the younger kids were given whatever they wanted while his diet and activities were restricted.
And if it’s not a conversation about past hurts, it’s one in which he turns into a know-it-all about politics, the economy, the neighbors, parenting, the way the wind blows, the proper way to chew gum. Still, past hurts play the biggest role, and his dad insists he doesn’t remember or says that my husband is making things up. The thing is, while he might exaggerate some details because he’s angry and hurt and wants to be right, I have it on good authority from other relatives that he absolutely is not making anything up. There have also been some things that I witnessed firsthand, like his having to pay for his own college education (my in-laws insisted for years that they financed it, which they did not!).
We’ve talked about his childhood and his family a lot, so I’d say I’m well aware of where this hurt is coming from. In a nutshell, it goes back to the fact that his mother died when he was a child, leaving his dad to take care of him and his two sisters. Overall, it was quite tough on his father, working full time and raising his kids. But he comes from a large family, so a brigade of aunts and grandparents did a lot of the child rearing for him. Later, he married a woman the kids didn’t like and with whom he had two more children. All of this seems to have left my husband and his older sister traumatized from feelings of parental neglect. I am sympathetic, of course, but I can’t fix this problem for him, and I wish he could understand that his behavior is making things worse. He is so unpleasant around his father and stepmother that it’s getting to the point where I wish I could tell him to shut up. (If you’re wondering whether he’s seen a therapist, the answer is yes, and, as far as he’s concerned, been there, done that, no intention of revisiting.)
We have a child and I don’t want him to witness my husband acting this way, much less catching wind of my in-laws acting like my husband has a screw loose. So my question to you is: Is there anything I can do to get him to knock it off? I’m afraid that if I tell him how to act he will feel I’m taking their side or that I don’t understand how he feels, when I do.
Dear Worried Wife,
I don’t think there’s anything you can do to get him to knock it off. I would, however, not participate any longer in these visits. Tell him plainly that you can’t bear to anymore—that it’s too hard to see him suffer (you don’t have to spell out how obnoxious he is; that is, speaking the truth doesn’t always mean including every single detail of the truth), and you worry about the effect on your child. If your husband feels he can’t manage these visits without you, this might be a good time to gently suggest that perhaps he step back from them too, at least for a while, since they are so painful for him. And I would try to catch him when he’s feeling especially loving and respectful and ask him if he’d consider trying another round of therapy, perhaps with a different therapist. The one thing I would not do is keep the status quo. Good luck to you—I know this sort of boundary-setting isn’t easy. But I also know from experience that it can be done.