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Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My son’s father and I have been divorced for 21 years and we both remarried soon after. My husband is quite introverted, but is genuinely a very nice person and all three of my sons are very fond of him. I am a fairly quiet person, too, but I am more outgoing than my husband.

My middle son, now grown and married, recently told me that his father-in-law and mother-in-law invite my ex-husband and his wife to go out socially every few months. I am very hurt that these in-laws have never called us and suggested the same thing. I don’t think these in-laws are very kind or considerate people for having done this. I feel like they have chosen sides with my ex-husband, who was a very emotionally abusive father and husband. My son says that his father-in-law knows how to “schmooze” and be very “fake friendly.” My ex and his wife are very much like that as well, and my son thinks that’s why his father-in-law gravitates toward them. He says that his mother-in-law just follows whatever her husband says, so supposedly she’s not to blame.

It upsets me that people seem to judge my husband because he’s quiet. I also wonder if part of it is that my husband is older, 75, and the in-laws in question are around 60. If I were in that situation, with two sets of parents for my son-in-law, I wouldn’t pick one set to socialize with. I would be sure to see both sets just to be kind and not give the impression of choosing sides.

I’ve tried to convince myself that maybe we should call up these in-laws and invite them out, but to be honest, I’m so hurt and somewhat angry at them that I can’t follow through.

Do you have any suggestions on how I can resolve my feelings or handle this situation?

Anonymous
Minneapolis


Dear Anonymous,

There’s a reason that relationships with in-laws are notoriously fraught—while one’s adult children have fallen deeply in love, their respective parents suddenly find themselves related to people they themselves haven’t chosen. Even so, I think that this situation will feel a lot less painful if you can separate your feelings about your ex-husband from your feelings about your in-laws. Granted, if you were in their position, you would reach out to both sets of parents and take great care to treat them equally. But the fact that your daughter-in-law’s parents haven’t done that may not mean what you think it does about you or them.

Let’s start with what you’ve said about your ex-husband. You described him as superficial and emotionally abusive to both you and your sons. You, on the other hand, probably worked hard at being a good parent and spouse, despite the treatment you endured. And because your husband knows how to “schmooze,” he was probably well liked socially, leaving you to watch with confusion and maybe even rage as other people sought out his company and considered him a great guy. This mismatch between your experience of your ex-husband and others’ experience of him may have felt colossally unfair, much in the way it does for children whose parents treat them badly but are nonetheless beloved and admired out in the public sphere.

Now, though, it feels even worse. After all, the people your ex seems to have fooled aren’t just casual acquaintances—they’re your in-laws. How can this be?, you may be thinking. I’m the good parent, and yet here again I’m the one who’s being slighted.

So let’s do a thought experiment: Imagine instead that you have a different ex-husband, one who was a kind and loving father and husband, and that the marriage ended because you both agreed you weren’t compatible partners. Let’s also say that this ex-husband is an avid wine connoisseur or vintage-stamp collector or fantasy-football fan and so is your son’s father-in-law (but your current husband isn’t). How might you make sense of your son’s in-laws socializing with your ex? My guess is that you might still feel somewhat left out—but also that you’d feel less angry, less apt to interpret this as a personal critique, and less likely to consider this a case of their taking sides.

If you can view the situation through this clearer lens, you might see that your in-laws probably aren’t “judging” your husband for being older or introverted—from their perspective, they simply have more in common with your ex and his wife. I’m sure you, too, reach out socially to those you have more in common with, and while it’s nice if in-laws choose to socialize with one another outside of family occasions, it certainly isn’t expected.

Meanwhile, because you and your husband aren’t “fake friendly,” it doesn’t, in fact, sound like you’re missing much. Do you actually want to sit through an awkward dinner with people who seem superficial and don’t share much in common with you and your husband, or do you simply want to feel as socially desired as your ex? If it’s the latter, maybe it’s time to lay this competition to rest, especially because you may be the only person competing—not just for a dinner invitation, but for the moral high ground, or your son’s loyalty.

In other words, I doubt your competitor even knows he’s in the game. Your ex probably doesn’t give much (if any) thought to whether you’re socializing with the in-laws, so your real loss isn’t dinner with the in-laws but the time spent ruminating with envy over something that, as you note, wouldn’t enrich your life in any significant way. Of course, if you do want to see if a friendship can be forged, there’s nothing keeping you from inviting the in-laws to dinner. You may find some common ground and have an enjoyable time, or perhaps learn that they mistakenly thought you didn’t want to socialize with them because you never reached out. But even if you have absolutely nothing to talk about after the appetizers are cleared, or you never get together because they’re “too busy,” continuing to stew over these people will only magnify your pain.

Instead, you can focus your mental energy on the relationships that matter most here—the ones with your son and daughter-in-law. It’s possible that your anger toward your ex and your in-laws has affected how they view you, and if you want to have a good relationship with them, it will be important to keep your feelings about her parents—and your son’s father—to yourself. To let those feelings take over would be to let the residue of your past blind you to the relationships that are right in front of you now.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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