Dear Carolyn: When my husband and I first married, I had a wonderful relationship with his parents. However, over the last decade his mother’s health has deteriorated such that she is now both severely disabled and depressed. My father-in-law is a wonderful man who has devoted his life to her care, but, despite his devotion, she directs her unhappiness at him. Spending time with them is difficult.
My husband agrees they’re not easy, but also mourns his mom’s disabilities. They are local so we probably see them monthly.
They recently announced their plan to join us on the annual beach vacation with my side of the family (who is not local). They plan to rent a house nearby during the same week.
Carolyn, this time with my husband and children is dear to me, and the prospect of an in-law invasion makes me miserable. When I shared these feelings with my husband and proposed alternatives (a weekend getaway with them or time together during a different week) he flipped out and was devastated. He said he cannot tell them no and I am unreasonable for not accommodating them.
I’m not the type to put my foot down, but I’ve done so and my husband is now sleeping on the couch and not speaking to me. Aside from this one issue, our relationship is great. I need a sanity check; am I in the wrong?
Anonymous: No. Even if your mother-in-law were in perfect health and pleasant company, you’d have every right to veto, saying, “We see your parents monthly; this is my family’s time.”
And, his “flipping out” on you is not okay regardless. Even when such an emotional outburst is understandable, a loving, mature adult will de-escalate and apologize for losing his composure. Sticking with it over days, against someone who is making clear efforts to both honor her priorities and make reasonable trade-offs to do so, is not acting in good marital faith.
It’s important to recognize, though, that being right can still be wrong if you don’t recognize the emotional stakes. Even a loving, mature adult can buckle under the strain of helplessness in a crisis like his mother’s, and when that happens, it’s not unusual for someone to unload some of the excess weight onto the nearest “safe” person. In this case, you.
Or in the case of his mother: his father. You say she unloads on him “despite his devotion,” but I would argue it’s because of it. Whom can we blame for infirmity, mortality and loss? The universe? So, we blame our best friends for burning the toast.
People generally don’t do this consciously, they just drop their guard around the person they trust not to leave.
If your husband’s flip-out is indeed uncharacteristic, then I think you can safely treat this as his attacking not you or your family time, but the Human Condition — by the nearest way available means.
So approach him accordingly. “Your mom’s ordeal is tearing you up. I see that.” Wait a beat for a response. If none, then say you didn’t mean to add more stress and you’re there for him when he’s ready. Then, patience. Hold firm on the beach or relent — up to you — but either way, he needs the best listener you can be.