NOTE: This archive only contains Carolyn Hax columns through March 2011. Her more recent columns are located here.

Tell Me About It

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By Carolyn Hax
Sunday, August 12, 2007

Dear Carolyn:

As my wedding approaches, I'm worried about the future relationship between my wife and her in-laws. She's wonderfully open-minded and much more progressive than they are. While they still believe that women should work only as teachers or nurses, she came from a family where the woman is the breadwinner.

They have already mentioned how they want her to quit her job when we have children. She calmly responds that the decision will be made by her and me, but I know she's reeling inside. These aren't minor disagreements; they are life choices, and I know it's going to lead to big problems in the future.

She'll play their game to a point. For example, after getting berated by my mother for helping me carry bulk groceries ("because that's a man's job"), she has never lifted more than what goes on the dinner table. I've spoken with them about how it is disrespectful and devaluing to both of us, but I don't know what else I can do.

Groom-to-Be

You don't know what else you can do. Good one.

You're hardly the first to marry the antidote to your parents. It's an emotional strategy with a long history, a key component of any good, multifaceted assault on a past you don't care to relive.

But if you let your spouse do your dirty work of distancing you from your parents without your explicit, consistent and constant support, and without also contributing in kind, then you're just the coward who couldn't take on Mommy yourself.

Strong words, I realize, but there are no others that fit. They're also general; I have no personal beef with you.

I will have one, however -- and, more important, your soon-to-be-wife will -- if you don't figure out quickly and surely what else you can do:

When your mother berates your wife for anything, you make it clear to your mom that she's to back off. Adults don't scold adults, period.

When your parents apply their pressure on your life decisions, you make it clear they're out of line and you intend to decide for yourselves.

When your wife is "reeling inside," give her a safe place to get it all out.

When you agree with your parents and not your wife, honor her by sharing your viewpoint in private, and not tossing her out to the wolves.

Whenever it's a close call, start your reasoning process every time by owning the decision you made to break from your family ways. Then, no matter which path you choose, you'll have your role at the front of your mind.

When your wife "plays their game" out of respect for your bond with your parents, appreciate her. Let her off the hook, too; it's not her job to pretend she can't lift five pounds of cheese. Your parents' views are, by current standards, out there. Getting in their faces about it would be needlessly disrespectful -- but there's also no cause for you to tiptoe through their delusional little terrarium as if you can't bend even one blade of grass.

And finally: When pressure and bad feelings escalate, rise to meet them, even when you'd rather just disappear. When needed, keep your wife safely out of their reach.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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