Carolyn Hax is on leave. This column originally ran on June 6, 2008.
Dear Carolyn: I have a tendency to freak out unnecessarily, so I need some outside reassurance. I am an American, born and raised, who married an immigrant two years ago. We have a wonderful relationship and he is a great guy. Here’s the freakout: Because his family is abroad, I’ve only been getting to know them slowly. The more we interact, the more I realize they worship their son and fully expect him to return home to lead their country to greatness. (No kidding.)
I don’t mind their country, but I have no intention of moving there permanently. Also, while I love their son, I don’t worship him blindly the way they seem to. I feel that parental pressure could really hurt our relationship in the long run. I also feel myself being colder to the parents out of self-defense. My husband has a very good relationship with them. What to do?
The Parent Trap
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I don’t mean to pile on, but I’m skeptical of three statements you make, and they happen to be three of the only four positive ones.
I don’t think your husband can have a “good” relationship with parents who “worship” him; or that you can have a “wonderful” relationship with your husband when your approach to real concerns is to harbor them in silence; or that external reassurance will have any productive effect on your “freakout tendency.”
These three points address the three primary relationships at work here — parents with husband, husband with you, you with yourself. They may seem to be working OK — and in fact I suspect you all get along, which is essential, of course.
It just isn’t enough. When the main reason you get along is that you studiously avoid talking about anything substantial, it follows that a mere whiff of substance will have the power to destabilize the relationships.
Many extended-family situations, unfortunately, survive on these fragile detentes. But marriages die from them, if not from the fighting, then from the loneliness of being so guarded.
And I can’t think of any more substantial matters for a couple to talk about than what they hope for, where they hope to be, and where they stand with their families.
Do you know your husband’s view on all this? Have you ever asked, in direct response to his family’s expressed expectations?
How would he describe his relationship with his parents? Have you asked whether he feels pressured and, if he does, how he intends to respond? Or how he feels even about the idea of leadership?
Has he asked you where you stand on all this? What is your history together on compromise — flexible and mutually accommodating, or do you both tend to dig in?
A pattern of avoiding these issues is, not coincidentally, a freakout tendency explained: When your response to impending conflict is to do nothing about it but wait, then that’s going to make you anxious. You feel doomed and out-of-control — a self-magnifying pair.
Start talking about these things. “I’ve thought a lot about your parents’ visit, and I fear they have their own ideas for our future.” It won’t change the fact of a conflict; if there is one, it’s coming regardless. It simply allows you to act, instead of divine, dread and react.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.