June 8, 2024
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June 8, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Dear Dr. Chani,

Over the holidays, I had the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time at the home of my wife’s parents. We’ve been married for only two months and this was the first time I really got to experience their real family dynamic. I was shocked to find that my mother-in-law and my wife’s siblings were very critical and insulting to her—even though it was mostly things said as a joke. I felt bad for my wife and wanted to defend her, but I didn’t know the right thing to do.

After the first family meal, when my mother-in-law made a joke at my wife’s expense and then my sister-in-law belittled what she does for a job, I cringed. I turned to see my wife’s expression. She had a weak smile on her face. I made eye contact with her and looked at her with surprise, but my wife just looked away. Later that day, I asked my wife how she felt about it. She said that it is “no big deal” and she can handle it. It seemed to me that my wife didn’t want to talk about it so I dropped the subject.

Yet, now that I am aware of the issue, I am highly sensitized to someone in my wife’s family criticizing or humiliating her. It is difficult for me to hold myself back from reacting. I find that I have lost some respect for my mother-in-law for insulting my wife, and for my father-in-law for standing by idly while it happens. I feel that I have to do something, but I don’t want to create a family conflict.

How can I help my wife and stop this behavior? What is the best way to handle the situation?

Thanks in advance,

Gavi

Dear Gavi,

Your situation is very difficult and uncomfortable. It seems like you feel helpless when your wife’s family puts her down or criticizes her. She doesn’t want you to say anything, so you are stuck playing the role of the defenseless bystander. Watching your wife being put down by her family clearly affects you. Ironically, right now it might even be affecting you more than it affects her.

Let’s consider the various ways this dynamic may be affecting you. Firstly, you empathize with your wife and imagine that, on some level, she must be pained by the negative comments. You care for your wife and it hurts you to see her get hurt. Secondly, you feel degraded when your wife is insulted. Since you see yourself as a couple, to some extent you have a shared identity. So when your wife is the target of the family jokes, you inevitably feel that you are in the ring there with her.

You are also noticing that your relationships with some of your wife’s family members are deteriorating because of this dynamic. You mention that you have “lost some respect” for your in-laws. It sounds like you are judging your wife’s family members when they are involved in mistreating your wife or in neglecting to stop the negative energy. This leads to you feeling emotionally distant from them.

So what can you do? You may be fantasizing that you could be your wife’s hero and rescue her from this damaging dynamic. Maybe you wish you could hold up a virtual mirror for her family so they would realize how hurtful their comments are and change their ways.

Yet, ultimately, your wife is the gatekeeper of her family. This means that it is not appropriate for you to say anything to her family if she would prefer that you stay out of it. It is important to respect her wishes and trust her instincts. Your wife may have had to adapt to this difficult situation for a long time. It sounds like she has created a way that she can deal with how her mother and siblings treat her by ignoring their behavior or shrugging it off. If that has been working for her, it is important not to tamper with it. Just like your hands and toes can grow calluses to protect them where this is a constant pressure that is exerted, we can do the same emotionally. If she has developed an emotional callus to protect her, it is important to leave it there. This way, she will be able to continue functioning the way she has been so far.

Follow your wife’s lead regarding how she deals with her mother and her interaction with her. As long as your wife expresses that she doesn’t want you to intervene, try to interact as respectfully as you can towards her parents.

Even though you may not show up in public as your wife’s knight in shining armor, you can still play a critical role in the impact the family dynamic has on her. Right now, you are newly married and your relationship is fresh and relatively fragile. Your wife “didn’t want to talk about it” this time. Yet, you planted a seed in her mind when you privately asked her about her reaction to the dynamic. As your relationship grows and blossoms, you can become your wife’s most reliable support and strong sounding board. You can be there for your wife to let her discuss things that bother her and help her unburden herself from her negative feelings.

Eventually, your wife may want to discuss her observations and feelings about her family with you. You can ask her follow-up questions about her experiences growing up and how they affected her in the past. It is probable that the way her family talks to her now is just the continuation of a pattern that has been around for a long time. It can be helpful to explore together how your wife might have been affected by this, how she deals with it, and what can be done to improve the situation.

You might be eager to engage her in these conversations. At the same time, it is advisable for you to tread carefully. You can gently bring up the issue and discuss it with her, but take your cues from her. If she would rather not talk about it, do not press her to, even if you think that it is best for her. Your wife has constructed a way to deal with the hurt and mistreatment, and if you push her to analyze it when she doesn’t want to, it can open up wounds that she may not be ready to deal with. It might be that she doesn’t yet feel comfortable discussing it with you now, but she might want to in the future. From time to time you can check in with her and bring up the subject. As your relationship progresses, your wife may be ready to open up to you more. Give it time.

Another way you may support your wife is by using nonverbal communication to express your dismay when someone speaks disparagingly about your wife. For example, if someone insults her in a laughing manner, you can avoid smiling or laughing, and take on a serious or shocked expression instead. This indicates that you do not appreciate their humor and demonstrates your allegiance to your wife.

Letting her know that you care for and support her is a powerful way to help your wife in this situation. By allowing her to deal with things in her own way and at her own pace, you will be giving her the respect and consideration that she is lacking from her family and bolstering her sense of self.

Wishing you much success,
Chani


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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