Stuck in the middle of spouse and parents
August 7, 2012 6:46 PM   Subscribe

Stuck in the middle of spouse and parents - How to tell parents to lay off? How to support spouse while also seeing my parents/visiting my hometown when I want to?

Throughout our marriage, I've struggled to equally please my spouse, my parents, and myself in terms of how much time we (us as a couple) spend with them (my parents). Spouse and I are equally emotionally close with all our parents (which is to say not extremely) and have our issues with them. However we live much closer to my parents, and to all my extended family, who have gatherings roughly once every two months. His family is spread out in all corners of the U.S. and planned family gatherings are much rarer and logistically difficult. Also my family still lives in my hometown, which is a really nice area with a lot of outdoor recreation (which both spouse and I enjoy) and a few of my good friends still live there as well, so I like visiting well beyond just seeing my parents. We already have a deal that the main holidays (thanksgiving and christmas) are split evenly between our families so that's a non-issue.

Spouse gets upset whenever I want to visit my hometown/parents and usually feels pressured into joining me, which I understand. My mother gets upset when I try to tell her we don't want to go to the next family party, or when I tell her I'm visiting but not sure if spouse will be joining me or not. Spouse doesn't want to be the "bad guy" to my family and skip out and have them ask me about him when he's not around. I don't want to make up excuses for my spouse as to why he's not around/isn't coming. My friends in the area now have little ones and staying with them vs. my parents isn't really practical.

I am mainly on "his side" and believe that as spouse, he should come first, and he has a right to "skip out" on my frequent family gatherings every now and then (after all if the tables were turned I think I would feel exactly like he does about it). But... sometimes I feel like it's every single one he wants to skip or shorten the length of our stay, and then I feel pressure to not spend time in my hometown, with my friends and family, which frustrates me. I have declined family gatherings on behalf of us both in the past, I don't jump at every single one.

So - I'm not sure how to tell my mom to lay off and sometimes my spouse just doesn't want to visit with me and that's ok? (mom gets very easily upset/emotional/defensive). I'm also not sure how to deal with spouse's frustrated reaction every single time I bring up going to my hometown/visiting my parents/another family gathering? We've had some open discussions and some issues have been brought up to help us better understand where the other is coming from but it hasn't helped resolve anything.

(Another piece of this pie is that my parents pay for an annual week-long stay at a vacation spot - for which they adamantly refuse any contribution from us - and while I try to enjoy the week balancing time with just spouse vs. family, my parents put on the pressure for us all to do everything together and my spouse puts on the pressure for me and him to just do things alone without my family. This year especially it really wore on us and spouse brought up not even going on the vacation, which horrified me even though I know my parents can be frustrating to spend a week with).

We want kids and I can only see this situation getting messier. This has probably been our top marital issue overall and I just don't know what to do anymore, which is why I'm asking the hive mind!
posted by wannabecounselor to Human Relations (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Can you sit down with your spouse and come up with some kind of schedule/quota that is acceptable to you both? Something like "Six visits per year, and you can back out of two of them, plus the week vacation". Once it is agreed upon, you can both count on it and rely on it, and the stress and anxiety about it will be gone. It also provides a valid reason you can give your Mom for why you can't come every weekend or whatever -- "Mom, this is the compromise that Spouse and I have agreed on, and it is important for my marriage that you help me make this work, OK?"
posted by Rock Steady at 6:59 PM on August 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

Is your spouse still getting frustrated when you (I assume) offer to go alone? That's the point that is confusing me.

As for your parents, set boundaries - "Mom, this is between Spouse and I. I know you want what is best, so I appreciate your support with this." Don't engage any further than that.
posted by quodlibet at 7:01 PM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Have the two of you sat down together and determined
a) how much time he wants to spend with your family vs his maximum
b) how much time you want to spend with your family vs your minimum?

It seems like once you have a more concrete idea, you can manage things. Speaking from experience I push back (very hard) when it feels like I am being pressured into spending too much time with in-laws. What works for me is saying, and might work for you, would be to say to your parents, "yes, husband is so great. He makes sure that I have time with just the two of you to bond."

After that, if your parents continue, just be firm and stand up for your relationship. That is what you will be doing, and it is important to put the relationship first sometimes.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 7:01 PM on August 7, 2012

You talk a lot in this post about doing what your spouse wants you to do versus doing what your family wants you to do. How about what YOU want to do? Do you even know what your preference would be, outside of influence from either side? I think figuring that out will help you a lot here. Try to avoid obligation and just figure out what you want to do for your own self. You are never going to please everybody; it sounds like you've been trying to do that for years and it's not working, is it?

In the end, your life is always going to be easiest if you set firm boundaries with your parents and present yourself as a united front with your spouse. Whether that means he stays home or he goes with you or some combination of the two, you need to be in agreement on what is appropriate and what you both feel comfortable with. No defensiveness; you get to make your own decisions here, and you don't need to explain those decisions to anyone outside your marriage, even if those people are also related to you.

But back to my first point: Your wants are just as important here as your mom's and your husband's. Until you know what you want to do, it's going to be hard to move forward.
posted by something something at 7:02 PM on August 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

Why does your spouse not want to go? I see a lot of statements about that, but not why.
posted by corb at 7:03 PM on August 7, 2012

Spouse needs to deal with the reality that seeing people who are near is easier and naturally more frequent than those who are far. And also needs to own his resentment and consequences for not wanting to see your relatives.

You don't need to choose sides. You get to do what you want, and that is not the same as favoring our spouse, who you see every day, over your hometown gang, whom you see what, every eight weeks? You are not slighting your spouse by going.

Your spouse, like you, gets to what they want. But unless your family is insulting you or your spouse, part of the spouse deal is going to family events, and it's on your spouse to accept your wanting to go with grace and schedule their own thing if they don't want to hang out. Similarly, it's on them to accept the consequences for ducking out on family events; it's not on you.
posted by zippy at 7:06 PM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

"So - I'm not sure how to tell my mom to lay off and sometimes my spouse just doesn't want to visit with me and that's ok? (mom gets very easily upset/emotional/defensive)."

How does, "Mom, I want you all to myself this weekend!" fly? At least on occasion.

Also, if he gets out of a couple visits a year, is he more charming and less stressed at the other visits? When you stand up to your mom and take the unpleasantness for him a couple times a year, he should step up and be stress-free the other visits.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:09 PM on August 7, 2012

You can't have it all ways. If spouse doesn't come on a trip (how far away are your parents?), then there may be some grumbly "Where's spouse?" to which you reply Spouse had other plans. Don't apologize or over-explain.

If there's a Big Family Trip to someplace fun, and you and spouse want to go to that place, then you make a plan in advance. You'll go on some family jaunts that are fun for you both, as well as being sociable. You'll go to some sights on your own (again, no apologizing or over-explaining). You'll decide on a day-to-day basis about the rest, and you will both support the decision, i.e., if you decide to go rock-climbing with your brother-in-law, and spouse decides to go sit in the sun with a book, you will both consider that a fine choice.

You have to accept that you have a new family, namely spouse and potential kids, and tell your parents to cut out the pressure. Mom & Dad, you know how much I value our family, and I love being with you. But it's not as much fun if I have to argue about how spouse and I spend our time. Next time they pressure you, don't argue, explain, defend; just get off the phone. Good talking with you, Mom, but I've got to go now. Bye. In person, Hey guys, you know I love being with you, but spouse and I have made plans and go do what you planned.

Your parents pressure you because it's effective; they get you to do what they want. You can be loving, sweet and cheerful, and do what you and spouse choose to do. You have to define your boundaries, and stick to them, because you and spouse have made clear decisions about where the boundaries are. Also, you will be able to enjoy time with your family more, without feeling so torn.

When you have kids, the boundaries are even more important, so setting and enforcing boundaries now will have payoffs later.
posted by theora55 at 7:24 PM on August 7, 2012 [7 favorites]

You talk a lot in this post about doing what your spouse wants you to do versus doing what your family wants you to do. How about what YOU want to do? Do you even know what your preference would be, outside of influence from either side?

I would bet serious money that what the poster really wants to do is to have both sides not unhappy with him/her for picking sides, and not want to have to deal with making the parents miserable if s/he doesn't show up to everything, and not want to make the spouse miserable by forcing him along on all family obligations. Unfortunately, it sounds like the spouse is well aware of the crap he's getting (especially behind his back) for not showing up every time even if the OP does. Even if the OP is okay with spouse not going to everything, it sounds like spouse staying home and not going with OP every time the OP goes is a problem. Hence why spouse would rather OP not go much at all--except that gets OP in trouble with the parents. (Just wondering, has spouse flat out said that it makes things better if YOU don't go as much, even if it's by yourself?)

...Yeah, kinda been there and felt this myself.

I suspect what it really boils down to is, someone is going to be upset no matter what, and you absolutely can't make both sides happy. You have to pick your spouse if you're married, really, but your mom is going to get easily upset no matter what. There's no magic words to cover up what's really happening, because she can figure it out. And there really isn't anything you can do to mollify that short of doing everything she wants--which you can't do while married to this dude. Your husband gets more shit if you go without him, even if that's okay with you. He thinks it makes it better if you don't go as much--I kinda doubt it, actually.

I think you're just going to have to keep on choosing sides and making people unhappy. Which means you may need to cater to your spouse's wants more than your parents', even if you get a lot of shit for it yourself. I'd do what everyone else said about hashing out a compromise number of how much time you do with the parents, and realize that sometimes you have to make your parents unhappy. I suck at it myself (yes, I'm a hypocrite for saying it, but I can't handle being the asshole and this is why I will never date again), but realistically, that is why everyone says you have to put your spouse first if you want to keep him.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:24 PM on August 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I am mainly on "his side" and believe that as spouse, he should come first, and he has a right to "skip out" on my frequent family gatherings every now and then... But... sometimes I feel like it's every single one he wants to skip or shorten the length of our stay.....Spouse gets upset whenever I want to visit my hometown/parents and usually feels pressured into joining me, which I understand.

So it sounds like theoretically you are ok with him not coming with you, but in practice he ends up coming with you every time under protest. He protests every time because he never actually gets to not go. So you have to change this so he gets to actually skip some, and agree that he'll come (e.g) 50% of the time and be gracious about it those times, you'll suck it up and make excuses to your family the other times and not pass on any pressure from them to him. If he knows in advance that he will get to skip some events, he doesn't need to bring it up every time.

Same thing with the week long vacation, in miniature. Set some boundaries. 'Mom/Dad, spouse. This week I will spend two days alone with spouse, two days with Mom/Dad and not spouse, and one day we will all be together.' It's much easier to get that kind of thing set up as a whole than to decide at each moment who you should be hanging out with.
posted by jacalata at 7:25 PM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Well, just to pose a third-way, split-the-baby possibility: Does your spouse have any hobbies? Have they considered acquiring one?

If your better half were to take up triathlons/scuba diving/stereo burping/pulling plastic bags off trees, you'd be able to be like "oh, man, he's super-into it and it really makes him happy and that makes me so happy for him, but I just get bored out of my mind at those things, so when he had this race/dive/track day/hike he wanted to go to, i said of course I'd be there to support him but he suggested I come visit you guys for the weekend instead, he's such a sweetheart."

This paints him as self-sacrificing and allows him to skip on the weekend trips without getting either of you guilt tripped by your family. Perhaps if he gets out of the weekend gigs he'll put up with the vacation better, since that seems quite important to you.
posted by Diablevert at 8:33 PM on August 7, 2012

Families do this a lot; parents have trouble realising that kids are now actually a new family unit themselves. Remember, living with them 24 hours a day wouldn't be enough. I know these parents, they are my parents. You and your husband will literally never be able to spend enough time with them. A reckoning is inevitable. Call their bluff; you keep caving into your parents.

Negotiate an acceptable level of contact from your spouse, then enforce it with parents. Have a conversation with your parents along these lines - only once - "Mum and Dad, I love that you love seeing me as much as you do, I detest how you try to make me and my husband feel guilty or inadequate for not seeing you more. Our love for you is independent of how many hours we are together, and we both have busy lives, and jobs and other family and committments. I want you to accept that however much we see you, it's as much as we are able to.

"I don't want to hear any more from either of you, ever, about how much time we're spending with you. If you bring it up ever again, I - and husband if he's there - will leave immediately. I mean it. If you bring it up before we arrive, we will cancel our plans, and you won't get to see us at all. It's hurting our feelings, and it taints the time we spend together. I'm only going to say this once, so please take it in and change your behaviour. We both love you very much."

And then, do it. Really. Do it. They will test you, so you'll have to enforce it at least once, and when you do there will be rage, tears, imprecations and a 1st class all-expenses-paid-guilt-trip. And when that happens, tell em you'll do it again. It will only take once or twice, I promise. And then they will bee ecstatic to see you, whenever they can.

I used to be like you, until I spent 3 1/2 hours on a train once Christmas Day in a misguided attempt to satisfy the demands of both my (separated) parents. Everyone was happy except me. My brother, meanwhile, sees my parents maybe once a year and calls practically never (I call once a week); they can't get enough of him, and never give him shit to his face. Dear reader, I copied him. By doing what worked for me (no negotiation, no big colloquys about it, seeing them still much more than my bro), the torrent of guilt stopped. Do it. You will never regret it.
posted by smoke at 8:53 PM on August 7, 2012 [18 favorites]

As base as it sounds to have to "pick sides," you have to pick sides. Pick your spouse's side. That doesn't mean that your spouse will never have to compromise and that there won't be tension about when it's appropriate for him to spend time with your family. But it will provide you with a guiding principle that will make these interactions much simpler for you: when in doubt, you're taking your spouse's side.

Yes, your mom will be upset by this. But do it anyway.
posted by MoonOrb at 9:16 PM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

If it were me, I would sit hubby down and make it 100% clear that he really and for true does not have to go to any of your family gatherings outside of the agreed split holidays thing. I would inform him that I am declining my parents offer to vacation with them for a week on their dime this year because the money issue creates a conflict I cannot resolve.

If hubby agrees to decline the paid vacation, I would then call mom and advise her of the decision to not go this year. If hubby says "whoa, wait a minute. I want a free vacation at their expense", I would advise him that accepting their money obligates him to participate in this week-long event as a family instead of trying to essentially rob them by trying to keep you to himself while vacationing on their dime.

If they were willing to simply write you a check to go wherever you want for a week, that would be different. But the arrangement sounds like they are paying in part so they can see you. Either earn your keep by dutifully showing up or turn it down outright since they won't split the expenses at all. I strongly suspect that if you either get hubby to be more sociable that week or decline the paid vacation entirely, this sense that you "owe" your parents the rest of the time will probably largely disappear.
posted by Michele in California at 9:30 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

A good friend of mine had this problem with her partner, except she was on your partner's side. They never did resolve it (they ended up divorcing, with this as a contributing factor).

It's tough because families are so different, and every family thinks everyone else is doing it wrong. My friend's extended family saw each other once a year max. Her partner's saw each other two or three times a month. His was closer geographically, but the real issue was expectations -- he came from a totally enmeshed family, and hers was much more independent.

I'd advise you to start by asking your spouse to define for himself what he thinks is reasonable in terms of seeing your family -- is it the week-long vacation + one main holiday, one main holiday + three weekend visits, or whatever. Tell him whatever he decides you'll back him up, but for those visits he needs to be a good soldier.

Once you have that agreement, then manage your family. You should visit them whenever you want, without him. It will be easier for you to explain and support his absences if i) you know in advance what he's up for and ii) you know that when he's there he'll have his game face on. All you'll need is one boilerplate excuse that you can use repeatedly.

Some options:
* (Like Diablevert said) -- "Spouse has gotten obsessed with [x hobby, ideally something your parents would respect], and he's doing that all the time now, so I thought I'd come alone.
* "Spouse is just crazy busy at work these days, so I figured I'd come alone."
* "I get way more vacation than Spouse does: he just can't get any time off at all."
* "I'm here mostly to see old high school friends: why on earth would Spouse want to be with me for that?"

Good luck. You are not at all imagining or exaggerating this: it's a tough one that people, for some reason, don't talk about much.
posted by Susan PG at 10:57 PM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Agreeing w. Susan PG re: family culture thing. Growing up, most of my friends saw their extended families weekly. Mine? We hung out one week a year, Mom & Dad's side each. As adults? Extended family maybe once every five years or so; I see my parents ~monthly because I'm nearby; my sister sees them once or twice a year (600+ miles away). I have known plenty of folks who are abhorred when I tell them this. But for lots of reasons on both sides, that's how it is and it works for us. We're a genuinely happy family with lots of affection for each other who happen to not hang out a lot. There's a definite need to negotiate this with your spouse (she understands her family culture best) and then be a united front with her family for however many visits you both decide is appropriate.
posted by smirkette at 11:23 PM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Spouse gets upset whenever I want to visit my hometown/parents and usually feels pressured into joining me, which I understand. My mother gets upset when I try to tell her we don't want to go to the next family party, or when I tell her I'm visiting but not sure if spouse will be joining me or not."

I usually don't advocate this kind of move but both your mom and your spouse have a problem and it seems like they are fighting over you in a very subtle backwards manner. So - on the next visit home, while you're sitting around the kitchen with your mom and spouse say something like:

"Mom, Spouse - I'm sick of you two putting me in the middle.
"Mom - I don't always want to visit and neither does spouse. Stop the guilt trips because you are ruining the time I do want to spend with you.
"Spouse, I want to spend time with my parents and friends and it's okay if you don't want to spend the same amount of time as I do. Stop the guilt trips because you are ruining the time I want to spend with you."

Putting this in front of both of them at the same time may alleviate the tug-of-war contest they're holding but - fair warning - it could all blow up in your face. After all, JASOTIOH
posted by jaimystery at 4:20 AM on August 8, 2012

Do you ever take vacation time just for you and your spouse? It sounds to me like it's just family family family!
posted by Carol Anne at 6:07 AM on August 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

I feel you on this. If our family were close, it would be so much easier just to go over for a couple of hours, rather than making a BFD out of a trip to visit.

If you want to go to a family event without your husband, just go. He shouldn't feel pressured, you shouldn't feel that he has to be attached to you. If the situation were reversed would you want to have to go to every event with his family?

As for managing your folks, just say, "Spouse is staying home for some alone time. So, what's for supper?" If you don't make a deal out of it, they won't.

If your Mom says anything, just say, "I thought it would be nice for me to have some quality time with the family."

You can't please everyone, so try to please yourself.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:10 AM on August 8, 2012

However we live much closer to my parents, and to all my extended family, who have gatherings roughly once every two months.

That's six visits a year right there. How many visits on top of that? And then the week-long vacation. There is no objective standard in this situation, but to me that is a huge time commitment, with travel involved too. Most people I know would have no problem informing their families that this is too much, with all the other stuff you have to get done. Do you have any other social life?

Spouse and I are equally emotionally close with all our parents (which is to say not extremely) and have our issues with them.

If it was a situation where a family member was your best friend-- it happens-- or someone had an unusual need to be with you or have you take a burden off them, I would still think you were putting in a large amount of time, if my picture is correct. Your choice, but I can see how a spouse would balk.

As far as your mother goes, it would be extremely reasonable to claim other commitments.
posted by BibiRose at 8:23 AM on August 8, 2012

There's also the issue of, how much time do you and your spouse get as time off from work? Because if I only had X number of days off per year to spend with my partner, I would probably resent my partner using so much of his/her time off with their family (regardless of whether or not I was invited to join) when they could be using that time on a vacation with just me, going somewhere new as a couple.
posted by MrHalfwit at 11:22 AM on August 8, 2012

- Come up with a schedule that is okay with the two of you. The families will just have to deal with it. Be firm with families. Tell parent you don't wish to discuss it and change the subject. Leave room if parent persists. Go home if parent continues to persist.

- Outside of regular visits, if you want to go tell spouse that you are going and plan to do XYZ and you'd love it if spouse came along, but understand if spouse would rather not go. Spouse is not allowed to bitch if you do this unless you are breaking other prearranged plans (but that's another story).

- Spouse is allowed to bail on non-scheduled visits. You are not allowed to bitch as long as spouse has been fulfilling scheduled visits. Spouse should feel no pressure to join you either imagined or real.

- If family bitches about spouse not visiting - spouse has other plans (no need to elaborate even if plans just mean spouse wants to stay at home - staying home is legit "other plans". Again, tell parent you do not wish to discuss it if parent persists in bitching. Leave room if parent persists. Go home if parent continues to persist.

And, of course, although you don't seem to have issues with spouse's side of the family, this goes for both families. Good luck!
posted by deborah at 6:52 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

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