Dear Carolyn: After another weekend hosting my parents, I’m at a loss for how to end a recurring fight with my mother. She perceives that we spend more time with my husband’s family and/or enjoy their company more … and as a result, her feelings are hurt.
We’ve tried to minimize comparisons, not tell her about our activities with his family, ask her to let us know if she doesn’t feel she’s had enough time or wants to do something specific with us — to no avail.
The truth is, although I appreciate that my parents provided me everything I needed growing up, I didn’t have a very happy childhood, I don’t have very many good memories, and I don’t enjoy my parents’ company. So, I spend time with them primarily because I feel it’s the right thing to do.
My husband and I have a great relationship with his family and genuinely enjoy their company. He also has a bigger family, so, more people to catch up with!
Short of saying, “I don’t like you very much and I’m just barely tolerating you so that I don’t have guilt later in life,” how do I stop this cycle of my mother resenting the time I spend with my in-laws while I resent time spent with her?
There’s an easy, surface option here, where you just point out to your mom that if she wants more and happier time together, then perhaps she oughtn’t spend a chunk of that time dredging up an old argument. Delivered warmly, this line could disarm you both.
Still, it leaves the real problem unaddressed: that she’s on to you. You don’t like your parents, you’d rather be doing something else when they visit, and it shows.
Well, that’s half the real problem. The other half is that your mom is not emotionally healthy enough to tackle this problem in a productive way, and instead defaults to complaints.
Ideally each of you would tackle your half of the problem, meaning she makes a better effort to be pleasant company instead of a bean-counting nag, and you make a better effort to be pleasant company instead of a resentful box-checker.
But aside from my opening suggestion – to explain that negativity undermines her cause – you can’t make her recognize her part in this, and you can’t make her change it.
So it’s on you to change your part, with love and care: Get out of the past and present rut. Become more thoughtful in planning these visits, for example. Plan to cook together, sightsee, get tickets for a game or show; plan to go to (or meet at) a destination that interests both parties. Note that all of these minimize your need to make conversation from scratch.
Or, run it by your husband to include your parents in his family’s gatherings.
Or, note your parents’ interests, pick the most palatable to you, and cultivate that interest yourself. It doesn’t have to become a life goal – just a willingness to read up on X, binge-watch Y, learn to cook Z.
These suggestions are all versions of the same thing: Instead of getting by, try getting creative. Duty gets you there but it doesn’t bring you closer. Make that your cue to figure out something that will.
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