How can I support my husband while he sets boundaries with his family?
December 26, 2012 12:17 PM   Subscribe

How do I best support my partner when he sets boundaries with his passive-aggressive family, particularly when the boundaries are about how they've been treating me? Wall of text, with bonus holiday drama, inside!

My husband and I are both in our late twenties, and we've been married for five years and together for almost ten. We are foster parents of a twelve-month-old and I'm four months pregnant.

HISTORY. My husband and I are both middle children, raised in Catholic families, and we've both had guilt used against us to get us to comply. My relationship with my parents is very healthy now. My husband's family, on the other hand, still expects him to be "the good one" and capitulate to make it easier on everyone else. Now that we have a family of our own, we've been setting boundaries and are in that very difficult time where his family is pushing back. They've been pushing back at me, never at him, and it's when he's not around and with subtle digs or comments.

The boundaries boil down to us choosing to spend our time in the way that works best for us. His family has never been tightly scheduled, but we're insisting that we will arrive at X time, stay for Y amount of time, and leave by Z time. This is seen as rude and pushy and is blamed on me.

My husband's parents live five minutes from us, and his mom's a heavy smoker who smokes indoors. When our foster daughter arrived last January, we went from going there for dinner almost every week to deciding that it was not healthy for the baby to be in that house, so now we only go there on holidays. The few times we've seen them in neutral places, like a restaurant for dinner, his mom has spoken directly to me about how she wishes they could see us more. When my husband steps in and reminds her that the smoke is unhealthy for us and the baby, so WE'VE decided not to come to their house much, she gets very defensive and starts listing other places we've been in our lives that allow or have allowed smoking. Any time we've seen her since our decision not to go to their house has been at our instigation. This is very hard on my husband, who used to be very close with his mom.

My husband has two sisters, both of whom live at least four hours away. We have only seen them at holidays for years, and there have been comments for years about my husband and me choosing to leave "early" when, in their opinion, the party's not over yet. My husband's older sister has been the topic of several never-posted AskMe questions: she is very dramatic and is very immature; she finds it funny to do things like stand directly in your way when you're carrying something "just to mess with you". She likes to acknowledge boundaries in an exaggerated way, in a way that suggests she thinks I'm being ridiculous. (Example: she LOVES Facebook, and our county's regulations prohibit pictures of foster kids being shared on social media. I reminded her of this twice when we first got the kid, and now any time she takes a picture of the baby she turns to me and says, "I KNOW, no Facebook. I know." I haven't mentioned that rule in about eight months.)

His younger sister is much easier for me to deal with, as she has grown up quite a bit in the last few years. She used to be the source of a lot of conflict but about a year and a half ago, due to a chronic health condition, she spent several days alone in the hospital in her new city and I sent her a care package and texted her a lot to help keep her spirits up, and her attitude towards me seems to have really turned around. I do not think she sticks up for me to her mom and sister, but she treats me with respect most of the time. However, this sister's fiance and last boyfriend were both allergic to cats (the parents have two) and smoke, but the sister insists they stay with the parents when they come into town, putting her mom's feelings above the boyfriends' health and misery.

CURRENT DRAMA. The past year, since we've stuck to the boundaries we've set, has involved WAY more comments and digs than ever before. This all came to a head yesterday, when we were over for Christmas. My husband told his mom that to get the baby in bed on time, we'd be out the door by six at the latest. At 5:50, we started packing up, and the older sister decided it was a good time to have a toast for the recently engaged younger sister and her fiance, and she pressured me to stay "for an extra minute." His older sister was having a blast being mysterious about what she was up to, even though I had overheard her talking to her mom an hour before about doing the toast, so she didn't give any explanation about why she wanted us to stay. I told her that we'd stay if it really was only a minute, and my husband's mom, without turning to look at me, sighed deeply and said, "SeedStitch, please give a little." It was very clear from her tone that she thought I was being totally out of line.

My husband saw the exchange and saw my face but didn't hear what was said, so he came over to put his arm around me and we continued packing up. We did the very rushed toast and then left. I explained what had happened, with plenty of tears (thanks, hormones!). After we got home, my husband sat down and composed a letter to his mom and both sisters and had me read it. It was very firm, and we worked together to make sure it accurately represented how his mom and sisters, in the past year especially, have seemed to get the idea that I am the reason behind our choices as a family. He explained that any decision we make is fully made by both of us and that it is unfair for his family to act as if I am pulling him away in any form. While we love his family very much, we will continue to make choices, as a team, in the best interest of our family. He sent the email through Facebook, which he knows they all check frequently.

We have gotten no response from his mom or sisters. At his best guess, they're all sitting around talking about what they could have possibly done to provoke this and how my hormones are making me crazy and how could I possibly think they don't like me and wasn't that totally uncalled for and why did he have to ruin Christmas, first by leaving so early and then with that totally awful email.

We will be seeing his mother and sisters at his younger sister's wedding on New Year's Eve. (She has been engaged for less than a month; we have been enthusiastic and supportive, and I offered to do any paperwork stuff that needed to be done before they got into town.) We have a plan if the older sister tries to corner me and cry about how I could possibly have thought those things about her; I expect the mother and younger sister to be distant but not downright unpleasant. My husband and I will be side by side for as much of the event as we can, to prevent any triangulation attempts.

ACTUAL QUESTION. So. My husband is struggling a lot with guilt and apprehension about this. He sent the email to make things better for me, and I appreciate that. Besides talking to him about how much it meant to me (which I've done and continue to do) and continuing to remind myself and him that what he did was healthy and reasonable and that their responses are not our responsibility, how can I support my husband here? He is very hard on himself and will feel shitty about this for days, and I'm certain the younger sister's wedding will involve more push-back. What can I do to make it easier for him, however slightly?
posted by SeedStitch to Human Relations (38 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have the ability to host and have his family over to your house sometime? Maybe it would help smooth things over if they could spend time with you at a place you didn't have to leave at a certain time (since you're already home).
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:25 PM on December 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

Whoa. Whoa. Whoa.

Why must more be done? You're fine. Keep doing what you're doing. But, also, no more letters and formal ultimatums. Remember, everyone is responsible for their own relationships. If they don't think their eye-rolling and harrumphing will affect the relationship that they have with you then they are just plain wrong and will need to live with things being frosty.

Also, acknowledge that people don't change easily or quickly. You two are changing, not them. It's sad that they're not making a better effort to roll with it but I think you're taking things way too personally. I think you should have responded to the "no Facebook" thing with a big, exaggerated smile and said, "that's right! Thank you for remembering." And then turn away.

They don't like that brother is suddenly all special with kids and a wife and special accommodations. Well, tough titty. Y'all need to rise above it. Let some of this shit roll and start turning some of your closer friends into supportive family.

Short answer: stop engaging.
posted by amanda at 12:34 PM on December 26, 2012 [9 favorites]

I will do my best not to threadsit, I swear, but TPS, I took out the whole chunk where I explained that when we have them over, they disrespect our timelines there too and stay for hours later than I'm okay with - like until 11 pm on Thanksgiving, until after we've hinted and suggested and outright said, "Okay, it's time for us to clean up and go to bed," at which point his mom started trying to clean our kitchen. We have tried issuing invites for "X time to X time" and the closing time is flat-out ignored. Most recently we had them over for the baby's birthday a few weeks ago, and my husband told them we wanted to be cleaned up and start bedtime - sans guests - at 6:45, and they were out the door, after we essentially pushed them out, around 7:15.
posted by SeedStitch at 12:34 PM on December 26, 2012

I think trying to see them before the wedding is probably a good idea. You don't want everyone to be anxious and focused on this situation instead of the wedding. That's a bad situation for all. I think you should just tell your husband that its time he talk to his family in person, face to face. If they choose to not listen, then at least you tried. Offer to reinstate family dinners at your house, where they can't smoke inside and you can control the timing. Maybe not every week but once a month? Explain again why you have rules and boundaries. Ask them what bothers them the most and offer to discuss and try to cone to a compromise that can make everyone happier.

These conversations are difficult and no one likes to have them, but they are part of life and we all have them at some point in our lives.
posted by Georgia Is All Out Of Smokes at 12:50 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I mean this as nicely as humanly possible - you are being very rigid. You wanted everyone out the door by 6:45 and they left half an hour later - jeez, for most people that turns into 2 hours, not half an hour.

You're entitled to stand your ground, but really, pick your battles. The smoke thing is a battle worth fighting, the Facebook thing is also one - when you or they leave is not so much a big deal (and you and your children will cope; in life, shit happens that you can't control).

Flip it around - they want to see you and spend time with you and you're saying, frak off, we've got more important stuff to do - we'll give you x amount of time but that's it.

The older sister being immature has really nothing to do with you - she's probably like that with everyone.

What can I do to make it easier for him, however slightly?

Relax the rules a little. Give a little to his family. Just a little. Stand your ground on major issues (MIL, you have to go outside to smoke or we won't come over), but let go of the smaller ones like needing to leave at a precise, exact time.
posted by heyjude at 12:59 PM on December 26, 2012 [58 favorites]

Why not meet them at a restaurant or someplace neutral like that - when you're ready to then go. Your mil probably won't to allowed to smoke there so that's one thing.That way you can still see them but not be a part of the drama of time keeping. Keep in mind this won't work during holidays but for every other time. Also I think your husband needs to figure this out for himself and you support any decision he makes (esp. since he sounds like he's doing it for you and the kids). It sounds like you guys are in sync with each other and all you can do is support your mutual decisions.
posted by lasamana at 1:01 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's hard to avoid going to peoples houses at Christmas but maybe make more arrangements to meet in neutral places. Going out for family dinners in a restaurant has a natural finishing time when the meal is done you have to leave and on the plus side no smoking. If you guys were to do that once a fortnight or so instead of going over to someones place your husband could still spend time with his family like he wants but the boundaries you both want in place can be respected and reinforced by the environment..

I don't have any ideas for what to do at the sisters wedding except possibly acting "as if". Act as if they are going to respect your wishes, and that your behaviour towards them isn't going to change. Basically be yourselves but with your boundaries in place, ignore the pushback. Passive aggressive BS only works if you give it the power to, be polite and friendly and let them be a little distant if that's what they feel they have to do, that is their problem, and you and your husband just do what you have to do for your family.

You have every right to have your own boundaries, but I might suggest you be a maybe a little more organic (for the want of a better word) about them. If someone came to visit me and told me from the start I have to leave at 6 and then at 5.45 told me they were leaving at exactly 6 and then hurried out at exactly 6 on the dot I'd be thinking they didn't like me very much and were only visiting out of a sense of duty. And hey that might be exactly what you are doing, visiting out of a sense of duty is all something we've done but I can see how it might make his family prickly and make rude comments.

With crazy families boundaries are important and it is possible have them and be a little less obvious about them. If you have to leave at 6 leave at 6 but they already know you need to leave at that time, so at 5.55 you just get up and and say well it's be lovely we have to go and go. Don't engage in any of their excuses to get you to stay and carry on just act like they are wishing you a friendly goodbye and leave with a cheery wave.
posted by wwax at 1:09 PM on December 26, 2012 [7 favorites]

Perhaps it wouldn't be a problem if it weren't for the other times when they really have far overstayed their welcome, but there are a lot of people in this world who don't really work on rigid schedules. It's just not something they're really capable of. If the overstay is half an hour or less, you should consider letting it go.

Quite honestly, it is a bit rude to be so rigid about it that half an hour sets you off.

That said, it sounds like they do have trouble respecting boundaries, so you need to be sure to insist that they respect them when they are violating them in a meaningful way. Conversely, offhand praise when they're doing relatively well could hopefully help encourage them to do better.
posted by wierdo at 1:10 PM on December 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm of the opinion that you do what you want to do, and fuck them if they can't take a joke.

Who CARES if his family is pissed off and blames you? You're still getting your way and they can think what they want to think. You can't have it both ways. You can't set boundaries for a very intrusive family, AND expect them to like it.

Your husband's guilt isn't your responsibility. He'll learn to deal with it. He's still new at this.

If you live close by, why not drive two cars to his Mom's. You leave with the kids, and he can stay and please them with his presence if that's an issue.

So they huff and roll their eyes. Make a joke of it. "I know, it seems weird to you, but if I don't keep to my schedule, this shit unravels faster than a Wal-Mart Sweater." Then do what you want to do.

I think the email was a mistake. There's no reason for it. So your feelings got hurt. Why not address it at the time?

MIL: "Just give a little"
You: "That's how they get you. Give 'em an inch and they take a mile" Flash shit-eating grin.

Be yourself. If you and your husband are happy in the way that you've decided to run your family, then that's how it is. His family can all go jump in a lake.

Be assertive, be a bit of an asshole if you want. It feels good sometimes.

When your SIL stands in front of you to mess with you, dump the soup down her pants.

As for your SIL and her fiance and the cats. That's on them. Not your problem.

Now, let's talk about flexibility. Sweetie, I think you'll feel a lot better about things if you're flexible. Stay an extra 15 minutes, hell, plan for that. Don't let your family know that you're arriving at X, staying for Y hours and leaving at Z. Just show up and leave. You're not the president, you don't need a minute-by-minute secret service schedule.

If you need to bug out and everyone makes complaining noises, just say, "I wish we could, but BabySeedStich will be howling all night if we don't get her to bed."

If you can be a hair more flexible, it will be much easier for everyone when it really is important for you go pack up and ease on down the road.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:11 PM on December 26, 2012 [15 favorites]

In general when I know I have to leave someplace early, I prepare for even earlier than that, since I know not everyone is so scheduled. So if you want to leave at 6 on the dot, I would recommend telling people you have to leave at 5:30, and allow for some time to say goodbye.

Also, it sounds like you told your husband's mother, not his sister, that you had to leave at 6, so I'm not sure how his sister did anything wrong this time.

It was good of your husband to be supportive of you! To support him, if I were you, I'd make a conscious effort to be polite and unhurried at his younger sister's wedding.
posted by mlle valentine at 1:20 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

From dinner almost every week to holidays only is a big switch. You have the right to do whatever you want, especially regarding health concerns, but I am not surprised that they are acting (for want of a better word) huffy. Holidays firm time limits on those occasions when you do come around...would put a bad taste a lot of people's mouths, rightly or wrongly.

I second the restaurant idea. But for some families this just isn't the same.

It sounds like to them you've become That Person, the First Baby Oh NO We Couldn't Possibly person. Now, in reality, you may be the most mellow person in the whole world, except for these few things. But to THEM you may be That Person. Do you want to be? Is it worth it?
posted by skbw at 1:52 PM on December 26, 2012 [11 favorites]

I dunno, Seedstitch. Please don't take this the wrong way, but I think you're the one being incredibly rude.

Your husband is uncomfortable because he is being put in a position where he has to write long drama-filled Facebook messages to his family, where a sweet gesture like a Christmas toast to AN ENGAGEMENT for a wedding in less than a week is being cut short, and where when you leave at 7:15 instead of 6:45, you pitch a fit.

I really, really think you need to let this go. Go when you need to, but allow 30 minutes leeway on either side. If you need to leave at 6, tell them you need to leave at 5:30, and be mentally prepared to leave at 6:30.

Stop sending long messages about your boundaries and blah blah. All of these people love each other, want to see each other, and care about you and your husband. Don't let the little things get in the way of that.

/opinionated rant
posted by 3491again at 1:57 PM on December 26, 2012 [33 favorites]

This seems like you and your husband are looking for support or validation that these people don't want to give. Stop seeking their support or approval (and co-operation!) and the problem dies from lack of fuel.

Stop taking the bait each time they chum the waters. Do what you want to do, but drop the guilt, drama, and self-importance. Who cares if anyone makes snide comments or tries to make stuff inconvenient? Ignore them and proceed with whatever you and husband are doing.

The letter you sent over FB was ill-conceived, a drama bomb. Your husband and you owe his engaged sister and his entire family who received that FB communication a huge apology. Shit timing on your parts. I hope you can smooth this over before the wedding.
posted by jbenben at 2:03 PM on December 26, 2012 [13 favorites]

His family has never been tightly scheduled, but we're insisting that we will arrive at X time, stay for Y amount of time, and leave by Z time. This is seen as rude and pushy and is blamed on me.

I can see how this approach could come across as rude. Maybe arrival and departure times give you some sense of control but I think you feel out of control here.

This seems like classic MIL, daughter-in-law weirdness. This is most likely about jealousy, control, and insecurity.

Reading between the lines, it seems like maybe you are whipping yourself into a frenzy over perceived or very minor slights. You're trying to control too much. You probably have some anxiety that has nothing to do with your in-laws. You're feeling very insecure for whatever reason.

I think you might be on high alert to find any evidence that these people are against you:

His older sister was having a blast being mysterious about what she was up to, even though I had overheard her talking to her mom an hour before about doing the toast, so she didn't give any explanation about why she wanted us to stay. I told her that we'd stay if it really was only a minute, and my husband's mom, without turning to look at me, sighed deeply and said, "SeedStitch, please give a little." It was very clear from her tone that she thought I was being totally out of line.

Maybe the sister wan't being mysterious. Maybe you have no idea what she was thinking or doing. Maybe, probably, there is no conspiracy. The MIL should have held her tongue but maybe you do need to give a little. Relax a bit. If the kid isn't screaming, why not stay for the toast? Stay for the toast, be gracious, and say your goodbyes without giving them a time limit?

There is a much easier, and loving, way to go about things. I would advise to give your in-laws the benefit of the doubt. Approach them with as much love as possible and take it easy and try to go with the flow. I understand that the smoke is a dealbreaker. (Does MIL smoke outdoors?) As for the rest of the stuff, why not come to terms that some events (like Thanksgiving) are going to be longer days? The fact that they stayed until 11 had probably everything to do with having fun and enjoying family than trying to overstep your boundaries or trying to control you.

In the future, I would never, NEVER, send a Facebook message or email about this sort of thing. What's done is done. Maybe the Facebook message will help you in some way but these kinds of things rarely do. They probably had no idea you were so upset.

Your MIL's sins are smoking and wanting to spend time with her family. I would caution you to stop trying to look too much into things (Catholic guilt, "the good son" etc.) and stop trying to control every encounter. Stop viewing them as the enemy. You are a grown woman and can leave whenever you want and accept or decline any invitation that comes your way. You don't have to feel controlled if you don't want to.

I would suggest on working on your own anxieties and vent about your in-laws to your friends and leave your husband out of this kind of stuff. Your husband sounds like a lovely person, who completely has your back, but this is the kind of stuff that can destroy a marriage. It is in your best interest (and your unborn child, and your foster child) to stop complaining about your in-laws to your husband. They sound like good people with normal flaws. When you complain about them to your husband it stresses him out, makes you look petty and immature, and weakens your relationship. He wants you to be happy because he loves you. He loves his family, too and wants y'all to get along.

This is a perfect time to understand your issues surrounding his family, your issues of jealousy, insecurity, and control. You're going to have a long life with these people. It's best for you to get a handle on it now before your baby is born. I know it's not easy. When we get married we think we are going to be in our own little worlds and our parents won't have much influence over our lives. They are a part of your life, they are your family, and you'll have a much happier life if you can calm down and get along.

Good luck.
posted by Fairchild at 2:04 PM on December 26, 2012 [18 favorites]

It seems that timing, and specifically baby's bedtime, is a big factor in your conflict here. As an officially card-carrying member of the Babies that Don't Sleep Well parenting club, I completely understand where you're coming from with regards to routine and schedule. I really, really do. However, it really does seem that, at 12 months, there should be some leeway there, and an assumption of good-will on the part of his family. They may not be perfect, but they love your husband and your baby and want to spend time with them. It's not unreasonable to make exceptions for holidays and family visits.

They're grandparents. They're going to bend the rules. (Ask me how many times Toddler Snickerdoodle actually gets put down for her nap on time when hers are babysitting babysitting.) My husband used to stress out about it, checking the baby monitor and everything, but you know what? She was fine. She was having fun with Gramma and Grappa, and we all adjusted. With another one on the way, you're going to be much saner if you start adopting more principle-based rather than rule-based policies. The exact time is less important than the kid not getting over-tired, so rather than spending time stressing about the One True Bedtime, teach them to recognize the signs.

For what it's worth, my in-laws (and parents) didn't respect this at first either. In their fond memories, their babies drifted quietly to sleep in their loving arms with nary a peep. You know how they learned? I had them come over, and let the baby stay up just "five more minutes" until baby had a meltdown and took an hour to fall asleep. They really wanted to go out to dinner at 6:30? Sure. Oops, baby is flipping out and now we have to leave. That reminded them.

In general, I prefer to think that my parents' and in-laws' parenting differences are really a result of the fact that they simply don't remember what infancy was like (because seriously, who does with all the sleep deprivation). They're not criticizing you. They just blocked out the the bad parts.
posted by snickerdoodle at 2:09 PM on December 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

[Folks, question is about the OPs relationship with her husband, not all the other ancillary issues in this question]
posted by jessamyn at 2:15 PM on December 26, 2012

What can I do to make it easier for him, however slightly?

Besides stopping complaining about them and creating drama where there is none? I would call the family member who you feel most comfortable with and discuss it and apologize for the letter. And stop trying to convince him that this is in this best interest of your family and what you did was "reasonable and healthy". I'm not sure it is healthy at all. These people are family. Their feelings do matter.
posted by Fairchild at 2:24 PM on December 26, 2012 [10 favorites]

How explicitly have you and your husband defined your boundaries for yourselves? Not as you've communicated them to the in-laws, but how you both understand them?

If you can articulate the boundaries with some specificity you can see if you're both on the same page or if there is some discrepancy between how each of you feels. It could also make it easier to determine where you might be able to relax your requirements with the in-laws and where you really need to keep the boundaries firm.

I suggest asking your husband what the best outcome looks like to him when he imagines it, and then discussing honestly how much of what you desire from the in-laws' behavior is reasonable to expect (I'm not saying that wanting to be treated with respect is unreasonable, but expecting these folks to modify their behavior that way might be unrealistic). It can also be worthwhile to discuss your options in case the in-laws continue to behave in ways you cannot accept.

This might help him see the issue as something other than hopeless, and it will also open the opportunity for him to share with you any points where he might not be fully in agreement with you. It can help increase harmony in your own home, even if it doesn't do much for the external situation.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 2:31 PM on December 26, 2012

You and your husband are not being rude. These people are disregarding your needs and requests and won't give an inch in return. The smoking, the crappy little comments about the rules around the care of your foster child, the big sighs about your not "giving a little" after you've made it clear that your baby needs to be home because baby requires a strict routine - that's all rude and disrespectful.

You have a young child and you're pregnant - if you need to stay on schedule, that's a legitimate need. Your husband is running up against the fact that his family feels that they can bulldoze your joint boundaries and then blame it on you. His family doesn't want to respect his new family and so they're being cruel by treating you both poorly. Reinforce to him that his choosing your child(ren) is the strongest and best thing that he can do. His family of origin is made up of [poorly behaved] adults. The needs and stability of the kids comes first. He is making the right choice, as painful as it is for him.

I'm a strong supporter of the idea that the spouse with the troublesome family needs to be on the front lines of dealing with them. Good for your husband for doing so. If you both stay firm, they may eventually get it. Your family and your kids come first. Period.
posted by quince at 2:42 PM on December 26, 2012 [6 favorites]

My first thought was: move away?

Ok, so that's probably not on your plate.

So, as to supporting your husband: say thank you. Tell him how much you appreciate it. That you know it's hard. That figuring out what the right thing to do is tough for you also. That he's making your life so much easier and making you feel really loved and supported.

Maybe even give him an extra post-Christmas gift of some kind, something he won't buy for himself and isn't expecting.

Families...! They are always a minefield, especially when you marry into them. And even in the comments here, you can see lots of people's opinions and issues on display. But none of us are in that situation with you, and it's easy for us to judge and that's not what you're asking anyway. Some families expect you to conform to them, some treat you as more of a guest they need to accomodate. You got the first kind.

Best of luck!
posted by emjaybee at 2:52 PM on December 26, 2012

I think what you can do to support your husband is to remember that they were there before you, and they'd be there after you. They're not going to go away unless something drastic happens (though it just might have). He's chosen you, and your family, and he loves you and he's making decisions that are healthy for the family he chooses. That's great, because there are plenty of questions on the green where people don't. That sucks for the family he already has.

You can remind him that you understand they love him, and know that he loves them. You don't have to love them, but you have to remember that they are a huge part of who he is (not just was). It's easy to see him as being apart from now them because he's more to your liking than they are -- but if he was once closer to his mom, there's a chance he's grieving that part a little. Treat him like someone who has suffered a loss. Be kind and offer small comforts.

In our family, I'm the one with the difficult parents. mrgood is fantastic at being the buffer - he makes small talk and tries not to leave me alone with my mother because it takes all of two seconds for her to say something that will make me livid. He doesn't act for me - we're a team. For example, when our kid's in the room with my mom or dad we need to watch out for things like casual racism, bigotry and discussions about horrific events, and we need to be able to shut down or redirect such conversations. Because he's good at diffusing tension, when I'll straight out say something that will be perceived as "oh, peagood's just cranky again," he does it naturally without making it a thing. (On Christmas, when my mom was telling my sensitive, anxious and growing kid at the dinner table in front of everyone that she can see that she's starting to "develop" he turned the conversation to how the potatoes got so fluffy, when I was ready to launch into a tirade about her privacy and the need to not make her self-conscious.) I'm afraid because you two have made it a thing, you have more to answer for with them now.

Please resolve to him to stop making his family "a thing." Mine are no longer "an issue" because I can't give them that energy. They are who they are and we vent and laugh about our visit in the car on the way home, congratulate ourselves on our mad skills and enjoy l'esprit d'escalier; and contain it to that space and time.

That's what you can do for him - diffuse tension instead of creating it. Keep it to small talk with them. Be polite. Be the measure of the person you want to be no matter how they are. And if the person you want to be is polite, gracious, unflappable and on a schedule, you can be that without it being a criticism of them and without him being required to "white knight" for you.
posted by peagood at 3:18 PM on December 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, and so as not to abuse the edit window, I'll add the paragraph(s) I deleted and meant to re-write: Encourage his relationship with them without you as a part of it. You're married - you're not joined at the hip.

He should call when he gets a minute. Have fun Facebook interactions. He should send cards and visit and do whatever he did before all your new family's changes came into being. He can pop by for dinner more often on his own. Creating many positive interactions to outweigh the negative ones may help.

mrgood is fantastic about reminding me that if I call my mom, I control the conversation and if I pre-empt her calling me, she can't catch me at a bad time (She has that knack.) Encouraging the positive parts of his relationship with them doesn't take anything away from your household.
posted by peagood at 3:29 PM on December 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

Maybe you need to ease off just a bit so your husband doesn't feel caught in the middle all the time. He has proved he has your back, and things like smoke around a baby are nonnegotiable but you probably should be a bit more flexible on stuff that doesn't matter that much.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 3:39 PM on December 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Wow. There is a really broad mix of answers here, ranging from "his family can jump in a lake" to "you are being inflexible and ruining your marriage." Huh. Clearly, I didn't write the question very well, since the answers I got were almost all about the extensive background (which I realize now is unnecessary) instead of the actual question I asked.

To respond briefly, the issue about timing has been a point of contention between my inlaws and me since my husband and I started dating. His mom and sisters have routinely resisted us attempting to work by any schedule but theirs. We have spent almost ten years having our departure delayed - often by an hour or more - by last-minute questions or can-you-just-stay-a-minute requests. In the past year, the comments and digs about us sticking to our schedule have exclusively been directed at me.

Also, his mother's house is unacceptable for kids beyond the 30 years of smoking built up in it. There is no area of the house that is in any way baby-proof. Restaurants are a pretty decent solution, but his family is struggling financially and we're not in a position to cover regular outings for them.

I think a lot of the responses here take into account of the posters' own family histories or a lack of experience with anyone passive aggressive, and those are being taken with plenty of salt. My relationship with my husband is very solid, and he agrees that his family's treatment of me in the last year is decidedly worse than ever before and is unacceptable. The letter was his idea; I am not "creating drama" by discussing with him that his family is treating me in ways that would not fly with my own family or with friends. We have discussed this event and others at length, and the guilt he's feeling is about knowing he's doing something his family will not like, and setting boundaries in a family where that "just isn't done" and resentments fester for decades before anyone will speak up.

Thanks, those of you who answered the question about supporting my husband as he does something difficult. Those answers have been marked as best.
posted by SeedStitch at 4:00 PM on December 26, 2012

[Folks, OP has indicated what sort of advice they are looking for and are not anon, feel free to email off-topic responses directly to them.]
posted by jessamyn at 4:16 PM on December 26, 2012

My family is really huge, and loud, and awesome in all kinds of ways, but sometimes my husband doesn't FEEL like being in the huge and loud and awesome (to me!) environment. If you live 5 minutes away from your in-laws, and your husband is actually missing them a bit (which is normal, EVEN if they've been awful to you), an option may be to have him leave with you, get you home, and then he goes back to spend some time with them.

Not that he should do this when they've BEEN mean or snide to you, but peagood has it pat down regarding encouraging HIS relationship with them.
posted by shazzam! at 4:18 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

He explained that any decision we make is fully made by both of us and that it is unfair for his family to act as if I am pulling him away in any form. While we love his family very much, we will continue to make choices, as a team, in the best interest of our family.

younger sister's wedding on New Year's Eve.
We have a plan if the older sister tries to corner me and cry about how I could possibly have thought those things about her; I expect the mother and younger sister to be distant but not downright unpleasant. My husband and I will be side by side for as much of the event as we can, to prevent any triangulation attempts.

ACTUAL QUESTION. So. My husband is struggling a lot with guilt and apprehension about this.
how can I support my husband here? He is very hard on himself and will feel shitty about this for days, and I'm certain the younger sister's wedding will involve more push-back. What can I do to make it easier for him, however slightly?

Keep thanking & praising him enthusiastically.

Stop worrying about what they're saying about you, what they might say, and what they might do. You and your husband have set boundaries and are enforcing them. When you spend time with his family, be gracious and cheerful, and when it's time to leave, again, be gracious. You want us to stay for an extra 1/4 hour for a toast. Sure, we'd be happy to; can I help get things ready so we can get Toddler home to bed promptly? (I'm willing to honor your request and still planning to honor my own boundaries.) It wouldn't hurt to add Thanks for understanding; things really work best for us when we have a predictable sleep schedule. They don't understand, but by acting like they do, you give them an opportunity to be gracious.

You don't need to worry about triangulation or anything else at sister's wedding. Your husband is obviously supportive. Go, have fun, and if anyone corners you, just be bland and polite, and assume good intention. Oh yes, you'd like us to come over more often. That's so sweet of you; we really appreciate it, but the smoking is a dealbreaker for us.

You've set your boundaries, enforced them, and now you should move on in your thinking; let your husband love and respect his family, and enjoy what time you do spend with them.
posted by theora55 at 4:21 PM on December 26, 2012 [8 favorites]

Honestly, try not taking it all so personally.

Think about it -- all these people were raised Catholic. They were all engineered with flaws from the same foundation. Sure, they might be upset that you are imposing time limits, but really, they would probably be upset at anyone imposing time limits. Yet here you are, internalizing all of it, down to the last comment. From this perspective on the green, it does sound like you're picking fights because they are there to be picked, not because they're there for you.

Have you tried reading through Codependent No More? Read up on cognitive distortions too, because you're doing an AWFUL lot of mindreading in your post, when you really do not know what hubby's family's responses are. Also, do try to keep in mind that what worked in terms of boundary-setting for you and your family may not necessarily work for your husband's family simply because, even though they are Catholic, they are not the same people. They are their own flavour with their own quirks and they love your husband. It's unfortunate that their love does not come in a form convenient for your marriage, but that's life.

I think you make it easier on your husband by managing your own reactions to these triggering situations, and by perceiving transcendent outcomes rather than win/lose. And stop engaging in the drama by seeking their validation of your boundaries. I DO think you need to figure out what it is exactly you are looking for from them in order to feel that your boundaries are honored, because I can't hear recognition from your end of ANYTHING they do right (which I'm sorry, but if they were able to produce a man like your husband, they must have got SOME things right). If you're not willing to entertain a more balanced perspective of what they do right, then it's really hard to fault them for not trying harder. The facebook drama bomb really speaks to this, IMO. Best of luck!
posted by human ecologist at 4:21 PM on December 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think a lot of the responses here take into account of the posters' own family histories or a lack of experience with anyone passive aggressive, and those are being taken with plenty of salt.

This people-who-criticize-me-must-have-their-own-personal-problems attitude you have adopted will not help your husband handle his family and certainly will not help you handle his family. One way of being supportive to your husband is to relax about minor variances in your schedule. You mention that one of the things that led to your husband writing his family the Facebook message is your reaction to your MIL and seeing your face. I understand that you are seeking advice as to how to help your husband through these problems, but your question is really inextricable from the fact that your responses to these family issues impact how your husband feels about his family.
posted by anthropomorphic at 4:38 PM on December 26, 2012 [29 favorites]

Is it possible for your husband to see his family separately, beyond the minimum level requirements of family time? Perhaps he does.

Either way, they sound mondo annoying.

As far as supporting your husband, I would like to second acknowledging his efforts to support you in the face of his family, perhaps through a gift or some such beeswax. It is very common for partners to abstain from getting involved in tensions between SOs and in-laws, and it can make for problems in the relationship. You are lucky to have him.

Throughout the frustrations of your experience, I think another way to support your husband is to work on deflecting the hard feelings you have when your in-laws are being particularly aggravating. This is the hardest job of all when you feel voiceless and not in control, I empathise! But you have control in when you get to leave those gatherings, more so if you adopt the plan someone mentioned of informing them you need to leave half an hour earlier when you actually need to - it'll also help them feel like you are "being more flexible."

Otherwise, you're doing all you can to maintain your boundaries, it's the being made to feel guilty about it that is the problem. I have the nicest "in-laws" at the moment and boundaries still need to be set (although I have a higher threshold of pain than my SO)! So as much as you can, to heck with their ideas about who's pulling away who! I think working on not being hurt by the fact that they won't change these ideas about you will be a great way to support your husband - ultimately, you don't have to worry about what they think. This is so incredibly hard to do, with in-laws it's like you are brought right into an intimate family situation, but you are rendered completely voiceless because you're still somewhat of an outsider and need to "stay polite," so best of luck to you. Sounds like everything is otherwise going swimmingly and congrats on your baby-making!
posted by mooza at 4:53 PM on December 26, 2012

Pretend I highlighted all of the same statements that theora55 just did.

There are two VERY separate issues going on being highligted here.

For later: with passive aggressive people, you stop trying to "enforce" boundaries. You remain pleasant, and do your own thing. Stop asking for their permission or approval, don't wait on them or put them in positions to derail you. Maintain your own agency and their shenanigans instantly lose their bite. Just, keep this in your back pocket.

Seedstitch, more pressing issue confusing the behavior you and husband are rightly offended by, is that you and he choose the Wrong Moment and the Wrong Way to make a stand.

Your husband feels guilty and anxious because he's done something public and divisive just a few days before his sister's wedding. That's a pretty big etiquette fail.

Tell him to apologize for sending the letter, not for it's content. You might want to do same.

I'm worried the reason you haven't heard anything back about the Facebook letter is because, to his family, it looks like you and husband are stealing attention from his sister's wedding. Which, you kinda are. There was nothing in that letter so urgent it could not have waited until the holidays and wedding were over.

Your husband will feel less anxious and guilty after he apologizes for his poor timing. He can still maintain his steadfast support of you, his wife, while acknowledging how important his sister's wedding is.

Encourage your husband to smooth the way before the wedding. You'll both feel better because it's the right thing to do. Deal with the other stuff separately.

Timing is everything.
posted by jbenben at 5:01 PM on December 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

If you look at my history you can see some similar drama with me and my in-laws. This Christmas it was about how my daughter will ruin Christmas for her cousins because I'm a dick for not doing Santa. And, against our explicit wishes, buying one of those daft fucking crying/pooping/eating baby dolls. My partner ran interference on most of it, took his siblings aside when it became clear they weren't going to let it be about Santa and is going to have another chat to them about our child-rearing choices when it comes to gendered toys (she has some, it's fine, stop restricting her to the girliest toys that offer absolutely no developmental engagement just because she's a girl, and all you 'see' is when she performs gender appropriately to you, you don't actually seem to notice any other aspect of her personality). We are still working out what to do on the facebook passive-aggression from his mother, since blandly stating our wishes does nothing except spur them on to greater heights of pushiness.

I thank him by not losing my shit on his birthday about the Santa thing, by making an effort, by being open and honest and talking to him and by making it easy for him to see them. I rarely ask him to stay home over socialising with his family but I don't always go. I always always try and assume good intentions (difficult, particularly with the toys and the sly digs since he doesn't even notice and I hate having to explain that subtle emotional bullshit). Basically I bottle my rage and let it out in more appropriate situations AND I let him take the lead in how to deal with his family. He's going to talk with his sister about the baby doll thing and is leaning towards me making a post about why I'm not doing Santa (in the hopes that by making it clear it isn't something I want to argue about then they will not argue) (sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't).

This year, instead of having everyone angry at me, we all had a reasonably good time and his sister even thanked him for the work we did. So you can get there.

I empathise a lot - his family never fucking leave and parent very differently so it's really really hard to spend significant amounts of time around them.
posted by geek anachronism at 5:06 PM on December 26, 2012

We've just had a lovely but brief visit with the younger sister and her fiance, who came over to ask my husband to be one of the witnesses at their wedding. We discussed the email at length with both of them; she agrees that discussing anything emotional with the family is difficult at best, and we discussed how we - the four of us - could at least do our best to be open and honest, and bring the others in as much as we can.

My understanding of setting boundaries is that one decides where the boundary is, usually tells the other party where that boundary is, and then sticks to it. Perhaps I am indeed expecting the boundary-setting that works with my family to work equally well with his; I will think hard about this and we'll consider, together, whether or not to start telling them we're leaving half an hour before we intend to, and to just start enforcing the boundaries we set without explaining them. My husband does occasionally see his parents without me, but since we only see his sisters at holidays we attend those events together and plan to continue doing so.

Jbenben, I usually find your advice spot-on, but my husband is not as upset by his choice of timing on this as you are. Neither is his sister, whose wedding it is.

Human ecologist, thank you for the book recommendation. I usually am quite adept at assuming positive intent (instead of doing the mindreading you mention), but the past year and my current pregnancy exhaustion are wearing on me and making it a lot harder to be charitable in the face of frequent little digs. I will work on that as well.

Thank you all for taking the time to think about my question and answer it. I'm going to step away for the night but will think about what you've all said.
posted by SeedStitch at 5:44 PM on December 26, 2012

I think a lot of the responses here take into account of the posters' own family histories or a lack of experience with anyone passive aggressive.

Heh. My family could win the Passive-Aggressive Olympics in their sleep using nothing but eyebrow lifts and well-timed grunts. But you know what? It's not directed at me. They're just That Way, so I take a deep breath, find non-escalating ways to deal with my emotions, recognize that I also have my flaws, and keep maintaining the effort to be on good terms. Even if it means I have to go to the bathroom and chant "These people mean well and love you" between clenched teeth at times.

As for what you can do for your husband -- make sure he knows that you consider your relationship with your in-laws important and worth working on (even if it's only because they're important to him). Accept their quirks (even the ones that you think are rude) and adjust your expectations accordingly. Make the effort, so that your husband doesn't feel he's all alone. Your husband does not need to think that you dislike his family; that's an awful feeling. Instead, try to mentally frame it as a difference in cultures.

We also have a "freebie" rule, which says that once a season, either of us can just bail on a family outing, and the other will provide cover.

On preview: yes, the boundary setting that works on your family may not work on his. They're passive-aggressive; they don't say what they mean. Why would they believe you mean what you say? I'm from a "saving face" culture married into a very blunt, argumentative family, and I know it really helped my husband when I started adapting my communication styles when I was with my in-laws so he didn't feel like he had to hover and "protect" me all the time.
posted by snickerdoodle at 5:55 PM on December 26, 2012

This sort of question is always going to focus on the negative, so maybe I'm reading too much into this, but it sounds like you don't really like his family and are happy enforcing boundaries that mean you don't see much of them. It might help to interpret everything they do in a positive or neutral light, even if that's not how they mean it. So his sister isn't being immature about the no-Facebook thing, she's casually reminding you that she remembers so that you don't worry. And his mom isn't messing with the baby's bedtime by staying late, she's soaking up every moment with her granddaughter. And she's not annoyed by you leaving when you said you'd leave, but trying to get you to stay for something she knows you wouldn't want to miss (the toast) without giving the surprise away. None of this needs to change how strictly you enforce your boundaries, but if you force yourself to only think nice things about them, it'll make it hard to sustain the level of vitrol at them, which probably makes your husband uncomfortable. No, you shouldn't have to be the bigger person, but doing so here will help your husband immensely.

Finally, in addition to encouraging your husband to have his own relationship with his family, encourage your foster daughter and future child's relationships with them as well. Maybe your husband could take them out somewhere with grandma? Or grandma could come over for an afternoon while you have other plans? It seems like you can only enforce your boundaries by eliminating any sort of casual get togethers with his family, which seems like a big loss for everyone.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 8:38 PM on December 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

[A couple of comments deleted. For the third time, if you are not answering the question about how OP can support her husband, you are not answering the question.]
posted by taz at 11:44 PM on December 26, 2012

His family of origin is made up of [poorly behaved] adults. The needs and stability of the kids comes first. He is making the right choice, as painful as it is for him.

Yes. My family is a lot like his, and my boyfriend's family sounds maybe a bit like yours, so from personal experience on both sides: be thankful, say thank you, show him that you love him, tell him how much you appreciate it. That's what it's all about, after all-- you guys having the loving family relationship that you want to have. Celebrate the fruits of your new behavior so he can remember that he's making the tough choices for a very good reason. And it is a good reason-- people like my (mom's) family and your boyfriend's family are only thinking of themselves, want you to do exactly what they want, and will always resent you for taking their son away from them. They're putting all the blame on you because they want your husband back the way he was before he had his own independent family life. They hate that he's different from them and chose you over them. It's reasonable for them to want to spend more time with him/your family, but it's not reasonable for them to make bitchy comments to your face, make this into a huge resentment issue, and act like nothing is never enough when you clearly do spend enough time with them. I've been the angry, hurt person on their side of this conflict before (with my sisters' husbands) and I know I was being completely selfish and unreasonable, and since I've changed my expectations I've had great relationships with my sisters, so the ball is really in their court here. To grow up.

As for the smoking, my mom's fucking asshole family smoked while pregnant, smoke around infants, smoke in the same house as my uncle who's going through chemotherapy for cancer and has severe lung issues, and jesus fucking christ I don't hate smokers but I hate smokers who think their right to suck on a cigarette all day trumps the health, comfort, and well-being of everyone around them. This ain't 1960, smoking is relatively uncommon, and everyone now knows the health risks. I am an ex-smoker and I hate the self-centered, entitled behavior of certain other smokers. Stand your ground about this forever because smoker selfishness knows no bounds.
posted by stoneandstar at 7:55 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

(Seriously if you wrote this question just about the smoking I would totally understand. I don't necessarily mind my codependent, needy, poorly-behaved family, but when on top of the guilt and manipulation I have to deal with runny eyes and dry throat and washing all my clothes and showering the moment I get home and making sure not to take my jacket or purse or phone inside because the residue irritates me for days, I could really go without seeing them for months. If I had to deal with the guilt of taking a child into that environment as well, I would really feel pretty vindicated.)
posted by stoneandstar at 7:57 PM on December 28, 2012

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