Dear Doctor… My Wife Can’t Stand My Parents and It’s Creating a Big Rift. What Do I Do?
Dear Dr. Coleman,
My wife can’t stand my parents and it’s causing a big rift in my relationship with her and with them. At this point she wants nothing to do with them after an event last summer where she felt like they were criticizing her parenting. I actually don’t think that they were, but I haven’t had any luck persuading her that she’s misinterpreting what they say.
They’re first generation from a culture where people tend to be direct in their advice or opinions —they don’t think of commenting on parenting or children’s behavior as being disrespectful and frankly neither do I. I love my parents and had a good relationship with them before I met my wife. I love my wife too, but she gets her feelings hurt really easily. And when she does, it’s hard to deal with her.
At this point, she’s saying she doesn’t want anything to do with them. Worse, she's saying that she doesn’t trust them to be around our two young daughters. As a result, she hasn’t let them see my daughters for the past 6 months. My parents are loving grandparents to my girls, and it is hard on them not to see their grandparents. And it’s really hard on my parents not to see my girls given how involved they were. But my wife says that she feels too triggered by them and that makes it harder on her to be a good mother if they’re in our lives.
She was abused as a child and has been in therapy since I met her over it. She doesn’t speak to either of her parents or her sisters. She said that a good husband would be prioritizing the mental health of his wife over that of his parents. Is that true? I love my wife and want to be a good husband, but I also want to be a good son, and I don’t like feeling like I have to choose.
I’m sorry to hear that you feel so caught in the middle between your parents, your wife, and your children. At this point, it sounds like you have decided to comply with your wife’s request to not let them have contact with your children in order to help her not feel triggered by your parents. Given her history of child abuse, I could see why you would feel protective of her and not want to do anything to make her life more difficult.
The question is at what cost? You said that they were good parents and grandparents, and your daughters love them. So, this isn’t an issue of protecting your children from harmful grandparents, it’s an issue of protecting your wife from the ways that she feels upset by them. I understand that you want her to feel safe and secure, but she is asking you to protect her from emotions that she could be working on in therapy rather than avoiding through estranging your parents.
In my practice I have found that many first-generation parents, like yours, are baffled by the way their American-born children are raising their own children. While I could see why your parents would feel confused by her reactions, it is also reasonable to ask that they modify their behavior if it is too upsetting to your wife. You could say, “I think you’re both great parents and grandparents and our kids adore you. But (let’s call her Jane) feels criticized when you comment on their behavior. I know that you don’t mean it as a criticism, but it sounds that way to her, so I’d like you to refrain from it.” If Jane is able to communicate this directly, that would be better since it may give her a greater sense of control and help her to not feel so victimized by them—especially if they can be coached to respond with empathy and an openness to change. It also takes you out of the middle, which is better for you. But if she’s not able or willing to communicate with them, then you should let her know that you have spoken to them and that going forward, you’ll let them know if they’re crossing a line.
She has already cut off her parents and her sister and is now encouraging you to do the same with yours. This isn’t great role modeling for your children. What does this communicate to your daughters about you or their mother? That Mom’s feelings are so powerful that she can’t be around anyone that provokes her? That Dad can’t advocate for us with our grandparents whom we love because he’s too worried about Mom? That our worry for Mom should supersede everyone else’s desires; theirs, yours, or your parents? You may feel like you’re being a protective husband by giving in to her demands, but you’re not being a very protective father or son. Nor are you role modeling how to deal with family when they behave in difficult or problematic ways.
Sadly, this kind of dynamic where one spouse holds the other hostage with their emotionality gets worse rather than better over time. That’s because if she sees that threats work, there’s no reason for her to abandon that strategy going forward.
So, you are going to have to be a little more assertive and she may escalate things in response if she’s not used to seeing that in you. You could say, “I love you and you’re a great mom. And I am more than happy to intervene or set limits on my parents whenever they say or do things—within reason—that cause you to feel criticized or hurt. I’m also happy to support you if you want to tell them that yourself. However, they are good grandparents, our children love them, and I want them to have a relationship with them. This is not something that I can compromise on anymore. If you think I’m being unfair, I’m happy to go to couple’s therapy to discuss it. But I’m not willing to tell my parents that they can’t see our girls.”
We can’t shield our spouses from the hurt that the world can offer from the past, present, or the future. Being a good spouse doesn’t mean caving into every demand asserted on behalf of their happiness or mental health. It requires a willingness and ability to stand up for what you value which may include others you love and those she doesn’t. You shouldn’t have to choose. If you do, it’s time to get a little clearer with her and with yourself about what you’re willing or not willing to do. Otherwise, your resentment will grow over time and start to ruin your feelings for her. And that would be a tragic loss for everyone.
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Joshua Coleman, Ph.D. is a psychologist and Senior Fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families. He has written for the Atlantic, the NYTs, Behavioral Scientist, CNN, NBC, among others and has appeared on Sesame Street, Today, 20-20, NPR and many other media outlets. His latest book is Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict. Learn more at www.drjoshuacoleman.com