Kowtowing to in-laws comes at a high price

Columnist September 12, 2012

Dear Carolyn:

Recently my wife’s parents moved to our city. They have a dog, which their whole world revolves around. I can respect and accept what others do in their home, but I do not want any pets in our home or cars. I am not fond of dogs, and I am allergic to them.

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

These people bring their dog EVERYWHERE: funerals, weddings, church, shopping. They don’t go anywhere without it.

My wife will not say anything to her parents. If I do, no matter how I deliver the message, it will not be well received. These people are overly sensitive and one must watch carefully every word or they get offended.

What can be done to get the message to these folks that they are welcome, but their dog is not? I don’t know, if they see this in print, whether they would even realize the problems they cause between my wife and me.


You send the message by saying, “I’m allergic to dogs.” Why hasn’t your wife said it? It’s a slam-dunk.


She does not want to hurt her parents’ feelings.


So she’d rather have you wheeze than upset her parents? Doesn’t that strike you as . . . problematic?


Of course. Her parents have always been her priority.


So the pet dander and dog-centric in-laws aren’t your problem, or your marriage’s.

Your problem: Your wife puts fear of offending her parents at the center of everything — without regard for cost — and you’ve put up with it.

The former isn’t yours to solve, unless your wife recognizes her misplaced priorities and wants help doing the hard work to change them — or is close enough to this epiphany to be nudged into it through honest conversation.

I should say, the work isn’t technically hard. It’s just a matter of swapping out one set of negative consequences for another — and, call me biased, the consequences of offending emotional tyrants sound delightful compared with the consequence of kowtowing to them, and of having a permanent wedge in my marriage. Where the hard work awaits your wife is in facing that she let her parents be her core value, instead of developing a core of her own. Ouch.

Your end of the problem, meanwhile, starts with this choice: Keep your wheezy silence, or start asserting yourself, knowing you’ll offend your in-laws and undermine your wife’s goals.

The offense actually sounds gratifying to me — biased, remember — but the undermining involves vows, so it warrants a calm and honest declaration of your intent. Such as: “I realize you’re intent on not upsetting your parents. However, I’ve reached my limit. Tiptoeing around them has cost me my integrity, my standing in my own marriage and home, and occasionally my lungs.

“So I will no longer give them everything they want at my, your and our expense. For you, I promise I will stand up to them only when I think it’s really important. I am ready for the consequences, and I’m telling you this so you can prepare for them, too.”

If these read like the first two paragraphs of the end of your marriage, then skip the home remedy and find an excellent marriage counselor. It’s that or keep suppressing your interests to sustain a superficial marital peace.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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