Dear Carolyn: The dread holiday season is almost upon us and I’m compelled to ask for advice: How do I deal with my husband’s unwillingness to spend time with my family? We’ve been together 15 years. He’s never really liked my parents. I’ve had issues with them, too (what child doesn’t?), but they are my parents, and I love them. They live on the other side of the country, so I don’t see them nearly as often as they would like – once a year at most.
When they come here, he makes himself as unavailable as possible. When we go there, admittedly he’s miserable. They live a different lifestyle than us and tend to want to monopolize our time (I haven’t seen any of my friends who live in the area in a decade or more because all time gets devoted to the parents, typically). So he’s not without cause for finding the trips difficult.
But nobody is getting any younger and I do want to see them. The last few trips I’ve made alone, simply making excuses for my husband. They want to see him, too, because he’s part of the family to them. But he simply won’t go. He doesn’t want to “waste” our precious vacation time.
What do I do? Go for the holidays again, alone? Lie so their feelings aren’t hurt? I’m finding it hard not to be quite angry with him – this feels very selfish to me. Am I off-base?
Funny how much power can lie in a throwaway line.
Parentheses usually indicate an aside, and in fact I was coached early on that using them was basically telling editors what to cut.
But your long parenthetical is the crux of your letter. It changed my answer from a sympathetic one – where I feel your frustration and suggest ways to approach a compromise – to one where I fall solidly on his side.
You cave so thoroughly to parental demands on these visits that you’ve blown off seeing old friends for 10 years? While you’re literally in the neighborhood?
That’s a lot of wow in 26 words.
This subject came up recently in a chat (wapo.st/1WwqGYR): Guests’ comfort is inversely proportional to how extensively they must contort themselves to indulge their hosts. If you’re that upset at seeing your parents alone, then it’s time to do something to acknowledge your husband’s time has value, instead of just expecting him to go as blobby as you do in your parents’ presence. Promise him, and mean it, that if he comes with you, you and he will get off your parents’ leash.
Given how long and extensively you’ve been capitulating, I suggest not trying to make such a promise this year. Instead, visit solo again and treat it as a test run: Make plans with some of those old friends. Get yourself out the door to prove to yourself you can do it.
I’m addressing the husband issue because that’s what you asked, but there’s a deeper, better reason to meet old friends for a beer – namely, to reclaim yourself. Look again at your own words, my emphasis added: “I don’t see (my parents) nearly as often as they would like.” Also note that you settled roughly 3,000 miles from them. Throw in your oh-by-the-way-I-never-leave-their-sides-because-that’s-what-they-want remark, and it’s not too stretchy to infer that your “issues with them” aren’t exactly resolved.
The 1-2 tactic you seem to be using — to go nonconfrontational in your parents’ presence, and to make sure you’re in their presence as little as possible — has its advantages, if used mindfully and sparingly. Were that the case here, though, you wouldn’t be so agitated by your husband’s refusal to hold up his end of the facade. It says you’re performing not for your own peace of mind, but for their approval.
So please consider your husband’s boycott not as a favor he’s refusing to do for you, but instead as a choice you’re making that he merely declines to endorse.
In doing that, you give yourself room to make your choice a conscious one this time: Either you keep subordinating yourself to Mother and Father, or you start asserting yourself as an adult and their equal, one with a spouse and friends and a lifestyle all your own.
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