Dear Carolyn: I have been married for over 30 years and throughout the marriage, my in-laws have made fun of my interests and certain traits of my personality under the guise of teasing. I have never spoken up and defended myself against these comments and neither has my husband.
Only recently, I have been able to better articulate to my husband how much these comments bother me (slow learner).
My husband and I disagree on who should speak to his family about this. I have asked him to talk to them because I sense my in-laws will better accept this discussion from my husband, and because it is my husband’s responsibility to protect me from this criticism. My husband believes these are my hurt feelings and I should speak for myself.
Having My Back
I am long on the record that each spouse serves as marital spokesperson with their own parents. Sending a spouse instead to do the talking with in-laws usually just means the sender is dodging the folks.
But: This case is a little different, because I don’t think the Big Talk With the Parents is what will serve you best right now.
Your in-laws have bullied you for years. While it would be right and decent of your husband to stand up (and have stood up) for you — which I’ll talk about more in a moment — the voice with the most potential impact here is your own. There’s nothing more powerful than when the target of the bullying stands up and says, no. No more, not funny. I will not put up with this treatment again.
So here’s the division of justice-labor I recommend: 1) Wait till your in-laws pull their usual teasing shtick. 2) Tell them you’ve had enough. You say you now can “better articulate” what’s wrong with their teasing, so do it. 3) See how they respond. 4a) If you get through to them and they back down, thank them and cautiously treat this as the beginning of a beautiful, or at least not a one-sided mockery of, friendship. 4b) If they push back, then their son, your husband, needs to step in to tell them how unacceptable their behavior is now and has been for years.
Not because he’s their son, and not because you’re his wife, but because when bystanders side decisively with the victims, that’s when a bully is done.
Which brings us to the fact that your husband is, in retrospect and armed with this new information on how you interpret your in-laws’ criticism, perfectly fine with his role as disengaged bystander.
Really? You’re finally able to put words to your decades of discomfort, and he’s got nothing for you?
He chose you, and his parents have ridiculed that choice for decades. I could easily make a case that it’s in his own self-interest to stand up to his parents on that — especially if they’ve “teased” him, too, into this current submission.
But he acknowledges that your feelings are hurt, and since when does any of us get to justify remaining a spectator to a loved one’s mistreatment? Assuming he has a sense of self independent of his parents, this is exactly when he needs to use it.
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