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Ask Sahaj: My husband’s family stays for weeks, but he doesn’t consult me

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Sahaj Kaur Kohli, creator of Brown Girl Therapy and an MA.Ed, is answering questions about identity, relationships, mental health, work-life balance, family dynamics and more. If you have a question for her, please submit it here.

Dear Sahaj: I have married a wonderful man from India (and by extension his entire family); I am from an American background (and a nuclear/single-parent family). We’ve had conflicts several times regarding having family coming over and staying for extended periods.

We’re planning our long-overdue celebration/wedding with friends and family, and yesterday he informed me that his parents would be coming six weeks ahead of the celebration and staying with us, instead of the previously discussed two or three weeks.

I understand their importance to him and am open to it (although my mother-in-law constantly around does give me anxiety), but I can’t seem to get through to him that he needs to at least discuss it with me first! We’ll thankfully have more space than the last visit, but at least saying, “Hey my parents are thinking of coming a month earlier, what do you think?” would have been so much better than, “BTW, they’re coming.”

We argued about this because he would be fine with my mom coming, but I can’t seem to get it through to him that I would have at least cleared it with him as my partner. Please help, is there a way to calmly get through to him that doesn’t end in a fight/standoff?

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— Husband doesn’t consult me

Husband doesn’t consult me: It’s easy to see why you’d be frustrated right now: On a granular level, this is an issue of your husband excluding you from the conversation about his parents extending their stay. But this also sounds like one example of a bigger issue: You don’t feel respected by your partner, and there doesn’t seem to be agreed-upon boundaries in your relationship.

First off: the immediate issue. I can imagine that planning this long-overdue celebration is already taking up a lot of emotional and mental energy, and perhaps it feels like your husband isn’t taking that stress into consideration. Understanding the parameters around your own mental and emotional capacity, and being able to communicate them to him, could help him understand this as something separate from “an issue with his parents.”

However, the fact that your husband doesn’t understand why this is a big deal to you — and that he made the decision without you — indicates a deeper-rooted issue of differing marital expectations and roles.

Because this has been a recurring conflict, I can imagine your frustration has been slowly building into resentment. If it goes unaddressed, this type of resentment has the ability to create an insurmountable wedge in your marriage.

But it’s not doomed yet, if you both can come to the understanding that choosing to build a life with a person of a different culture is about creating your own family norms that bridge both cultures in ways that feel good to both partners.

Culture, family dynamics and gendered socialization contribute to our understanding of these roles and norms, and both you and your husband have your own framework in which marriage and family are defined. It’s obvious to each of you. Of course you’d be fine with hosting my family for longer. Or, Of course you should talk to me about it first.

You’re both convinced you’re right. Hence the standoff.

But just because it’s obvious to you doesn’t mean it is to your partner. I wonder if you have explicitly discussed how your cultures have helped you define your own values and understanding of family/marital roles?

You’ll also want to discuss your expectations of each other, and expectations you feel are placed on you as a husband, a wife, a son, a daughter-in-law. If you lead with kindness and curiosity, this may help you uncover the feelings that are presenting themselves in your conflict.

As a daughter of Indian parents who is also in an intercultural marriage, I understand that there are cultural considerations in regard to an extended family’s role and presence in the marriage. The focus, however, should be on the fact that as a couple, you should decide why and what boundaries are important.

You’ll want to develop a clearly stated understanding of shared expectations. (For example: “If we host people, no matter who it is, we have to discuss it with each other before making a decision.”) Creating a list of agreements and new family norms you both feel good about can help you develop a united front.

If creating shared expectations and a mutual understanding of your roles widens the chasm between you two, I would encourage you to seek out a couples therapist. It’s not a sign that you can’t solve this, but you may require a professional to help guide you in the process and hold you both accountable.

Remember: You are both responsible for making your marriage a priority, and you both bring your own family experiences to the relationship. Each of your cultural and familial norms are important, but they are not meant to serve as an excuse for hurtful behavior.

Just because we have normalized certain dynamics doesn’t mean they’re healthy.