June 23, 2024
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How Can I Talk to My Husband About His Family?

Dear Dr. Chani,

I enjoy reading your column. Since I have a pretty good marriage, I didn’t think I would end up writing for your help until now. For the past few weeks, my husband and I have been in a cold war about our summer plans. Even though we see eye to eye about most things, when it comes to discussing plans about spending time with my husband’s family, things can get really tense.

Somehow, whenever we need to make a decision about spending time with my husband’s family, we just cannot have a normal conversation. Each conversation starts off calmly but ends with us both feeling frustrated, confused, misunderstood and hurt. Even now, when writing this message to you, I’m beginning to get teary-eyed.

The pressing issue right now is that a few weeks ago my husband’s family informed us that they would like to take the entire family on a week-long cruise to Alaska. We’re all supposed to go: Eric and me, his younger brothers and sister, and his parents. Eric is super-excited, and I’m dreading it. I don’t want to spend so much time with them, and going on a cruise does not fit into my values. Eric also wouldn’t pick a cruise as his choice of summer activities, but once his family is going, he wants to join. Every time we talk about it, we both get more and more upset with each other. What’s worse is that most people would love to be in my situation—and I hate the fact that I wish I did not have to deal with this!

What is the right way to deal with this decision? It seems to me that Eric should side with me and not his family, especially when there is a clash in values. I think that it is extraordinarily important for Eric to back me up. Even more so, since I know that going on a cruise is not in sync with Eric’s own values. I would love it if you would say that Eric should follow his own values, respect mine, and not compromise them because of his family.

Thank you,

Tammy

Dear Tammy,

Navigating family dynamics as a couple can be challenging and overwhelming at times. Both you and Eric have your own individual personalities, needs and preferences that you should take into account. On top of that, you must take into account those of your families of origin as well. This is no easy feat to accomplish.

It sounds like you and Eric have reached your breaking point regarding discussions about summer plans, values, family and the cruise. What is going wrong?

When you hold a belief or opinion strongly, it can lead you to adopt a firm position when presenting it to your spouse. You might be dismayed that you have to explain yourself to your spouse when the way you see it is so clear to you. You might be hoping that your spouse will recognize that you are right. Or maybe you feel that since your position is so important to you, he should be willing to go along with it even if he doesn’t share your point of view.

When a conversation between spouses becomes heated, does not seem to be getting anywhere and ends with frustration, it suggests that there is a deeper dimension that is being neglected. Sometimes spouses get entrenched in reiterating their positions, without going deeper into explaining the underlying feelings.

It can be difficult to deepen the conversation and explain where your position is coming from. You yourself might not be in touch with your underlying reasons and motivations, or you might think your spouse will not be open to hearing them.

One way to move forward is for you to first think about why you feel the way you do. Ask yourself: “What are my needs? What past experiences may shape the way I feel about this? What are my expectations?” Sharing your answers to these questions and asking Eric to share his own can help you to understand each other and to feel more connected.

Here is an example of a deeper conversation you might have with Eric. “I’d like to explain some of my thoughts about going on a cruise with your family. In general, I find it so hard for us to talk and have quality time whenever we visit your family. I’m the youngest in my family, so I’m not used to having to play with younger siblings and give them so much attention. It is sometimes too much for me to be focused on your family instead of on us. Since we have so little vacation time, I expected that we would spend our summer vacation with just each other. Also, when I was growing up, my parents used to talk about extravagant vacations as an example of hedonism and secular behavior. I know that not all vacations are like that, but having those voices in my head makes it hard for me to feel comfortable going on a cruise.”

Eric’s job in this conversation is to welcome you sharing your feelings with him and encourage you to share more of them so that you add more clarity and insight to what you already said. Ideally, at a later point, Eric should do the same. When you both share your deeper thoughts and feelings, and explain where you think they might be coming from, the conversation can become one of greater connection,
understanding and appreciation for one another. Ideally, this should be one of many deep conversations over time.

Ironically, when a couple has deep conversations about making a difficult decision, the actual decision becomes less important than the experience of having quality conversations. It is also easier to live with your decision when you approach it together from a place of deep understanding of what you are both feeling.

Another point to consider is that you may be disallowing yourself your own emotions. You write that most people would love to be going on a cruise and you hate yourself for not being excited about going. It sounds like you are stifling your emotions. It’s OK to have mixed emotions or doubts. Shaming yourself for feeling a certain way can increase your own internal frustration with the situation. Don’t be afraid to be honest with yourself and with Eric, even if it means confiding to him that you have mixed emotions.

You may be pleasantly surprised by the decision that you ultimately make together and the creative ways you find to address your needs and concerns. Hopefully, this summer discussion will be a catalyst for you both to have a healthier, more intimate and more connected relationship.


Dr. Chani Maybruch is a social psychologist and relationship coach, specializing in teaching emotional connection and communication skills for over two decades. She coaches individuals and couples, and teaches online courses to help you create your ideal relationship. Get free relationship resources and contact her at www.chanimaybruch.com.

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