Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax
Columnist

They married after an affair; now his family is rude to her

Dear Carolyn: Long story short: Lost my partner to pulmonary embolism soon after a married friend lost his adult daughter to sudden death. We bonded through grief, engaged in an affair (on and off) across five years during which he initiated divorce proceedings twice.

The third time he followed through, and we are now married (nine years after the deaths). His family disapproves, and they have been rude during family gatherings. My husband says give them time. I would prefer to opt out of his family gatherings and have no interest in hosting his family at our home either. Thoughts? — Mistress Becomes Wife

Carolyn Hax

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997 as a weekly feature for The Washington Post, accompanied by the work of “relationship cartoonist” Nick Galifianakis. She is the author of “Tell Me About It” (Miramax, 2001), and the host of a live online discussion on Fridays at noon.

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What exactly did you expect?

Forgiveness is something to hope for, especially given the way grief can compromise judgment, though you don’t seem to be asking for it. Or expressing anything that resembles remorse, for that matter. Maybe you don’t think you need to — it was your now-husband who took the vows he broke, after all — but he did break them with your witting and willing assistance.

So consider what this family has had to process. The adult daughter was their loved one, too — and while they were grieving her loss, one bereaved parent was cheating on the other. Surely you can imagine the anger they felt toward your now-husband when all of this came to light? For kicking his then-wife while she was down? For forcing them to deal with this, of all things — and then, of all times?

Now imagine how they felt when they risked losing another loved one — your husband — by unleashing on him their anger and dismay and (presumably) protectiveness of his ex-wife.

Maybe they said their piece anyway, but their antipathy to you suggests they used a tempting loophole: directing most of their anger where it involved less emotional risk. At you. When a loved one does something bad, it’s easier to rationalize the bad thing away than it is to shun the person. When a stranger does something bad, it’s easier to shun the person than it is to rationalize the bad thing away. If all this sounds about right, then you know what you are to them: scapegoat; awkward presence; painful reminder x 2. You’re also their rock and hard place, since embracing you will likely feel like abetting the infidelity, even this long after the fact. In embracing your husband, at least they have an ethical fig leaf in Family.

Is this fair? Not entirely. But it’s real, and it’s what you’re up against. With that in mind, your preference to avoid his family can be called reasonable, as long as you’re honest and clear on what you hope to accomplish: “Declare my penance over,” for example, “even if it puts Husband in a difficult spot.” Yet you can’t deny the cowardice of this choice. You can instead set a loftier goal: not to make any more divisive choices. That means donning your finest hair shirt, showing up and, most important, forgiving his family for their unwillingness to forgive you. If you haven’t tried this in earnest, then don’t kid yourself — the family sees your lack of effort. Make that effort now, before you retreat into that hard refusal to give them any more time.

* * *

Dear Carolyn: So, my brother’s fiancee asked me to be a bridesmaid. I declined due to budget and time constraints (I live on the opposite coast). I thought she’d be mature and understanding, but it turns out she was offended by my decline. I also have panic and anxiety disorders that I’m being treated for. How do I deal with this situation so it doesn’t affect my relationship with them for the rest of our lives together? Thanks! — Bridesmaid drama

You admit your miscalculation. Since “I thought you’d be mature and understanding but, wow, was I wrong” isn’t likely to advance your cause of lifelong comity, maybe try, “I was thinking about your invitation in terms of time and money, but I was obtuse about feelings — you gave me the gift of inclusion and I took it too lightly. I’m sorry.”

* * *

Hi, Carolyn: What do you do when you are beyond offended? But at someone you can’t and don’t want to eliminate from your life? After accepting the apology, what do you do if you’re still angry about the offense? — Anger

You figure out why the apology wasn’t enough. Then you figure out what would qualify as enough. Then you ask for it — of the offender, if that’s where it needs to originate, or of yourself, if it’s a change that must come from within.

Then, fun part, you learn whether “enough” is possible. If it turns out not to be, then you make a choice: Keep the anger, or keep the person in your life. It’s not fair to keep clinging to both.

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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