Carolyn Hax: Finding a middle ground with strong-willed in-laws

Carolyn Hax
Columnist October 30, 2013

Dear Carolyn:

I have been married for four years. We love each other and enjoy being around each other.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

Our families could not be more different. My family is very stoic and quiet. They have educations. If they don’t like/agree with an opinion they keep their mouths shut and change the topic to a pleasant or neutral subject.

My husband’s family is loud, racist and uneducated. They look at science and medicine as mumbo-jumbo they’ll never believe. If I try to change to a neutral topic, they continue to press the subject, not just as individuals but as a group. It feels as though I’m being attacked by a pack of hyenas.

Sitting and smiling pleasantly are not cutting the mustard. Reasoning falls on deaf ears. Silence on my part upsets my husband, who advises, “Just be you.” Hubby does not want to attend festivities separately, so that is not an option.


(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

How can I survive the upcoming holidays without wanting to run screaming?

Holiday Roadkill

So, uneducated = unevolved? Wow.

You’re reflecting your family’s oh-so-proper DNA when you run out of ideas after “change subject” and “be right.”

Likewise, although your husband is different from his family in enough ways for you apparently to make a good couple, it seems he inherited a few hyena genes. Just because he doesn’t want separate attendance, it can’t ever happen? Just because he doesn’t want you to, you can’t remain silent?

All this means — or needs to mean, if you’re both good sports about it — is that on this issue, you’ll both need to work a lot harder to accept each other.

For him, it means adding 2 + 2. “Just be you” is exactly what you have done all this time, hello, and combining that with his family’s . . . habits? hostility? = misery for you. That’s not an appropriate status quo for him to insist upon. Either he sticks up for you, or helps you figure out how to handle his family better — since you’re obviously new to (and overmatched by) tactics like theirs and he’s not — or gives you his blessing to stay home every once in a while, or ideally offers some combination of the three. Ask for this.

For you, “work a little harder” means you don’t give up on mustard-cutting quite so quickly. Maybe you need to want to succeed at it more than you want to write these people off. Maybe you need to stop seeing his family as the collective, intellectual unwashed and train your eyes on them as individuals. Maybe you need a different knife — a sense of humor, perhaps.

Not for the racism, of course. For that, you and he need a strategy, including lines you don’t cross.

One way to start this whole process is by asking your husband how he would handle his family if he were in your place. Make it clear you want to come up with a better solution than just sucking it up to make him happy . . .

Though you’ll keep doing that as a fallback, if he meets you halfway. He may well dig in less if he sees you’re really invested — and I’m guessing you’d also need less of his support if he simply recognized that you needed it. Validation is powerful stuff.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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