Bianca Bagnarelli

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,

I’m torn between my extended family and my husband. We have been married for 14 years. The last couple of times we’ve hosted a family gathering at our home, my husband has done one thing or another that my family perceives as rude or disrespectful.

For example, at my son’s birthday party, a family member brought him a toy. My son broke the toy within minutes, and asked my husband to fix it. My husband tossed the toy out of the door, saying, “This is cheap and can’t be fixed”—in full view of everyone in the room, including the person who bought the gift. I was horrified and told him he could have waited until they left to dispose of the toy.

Other instances include snide comments or curt responses, seemingly out of the blue. This has been going on as long as we’ve been married, but it used to be subtler. Say, if my mom came over, he would walk into the room but not say anything, as if he didn’t notice someone else was in the house. Now this behavior is more prominent, and I don’t know why. I don’t recall any tension with him and my family when we were dating.

When I discuss his behavior with him, he always brushes it off as no big deal, or as a misunderstanding. I don’t think he has any malevolent intent or ill will toward my family. He’s a good father and husband. I think he is socially awkward and feels insecure. And, in my opinion, this is an area he struggles with.

I think the easy thing would be to stop going to our family functions, but that makes me feel sad and resentful of both my husband and my family. Our tight-knit family has become less close, and I can’t help but think he’s the cause of the growing rift. I’m hurt that my family doesn’t accept him and takes offense at everything he says or does. I’m also saddened by his behavior because he knows how important family is to me. I don’t want to distance myself from my extended family—I want my son to be close to them too—but it feels like my husband and my family can’t coexist. What should I do?

Vee
Atlanta, Georgia


Dear Vee,

Before you can figure out how to improve the situation, you’ll need to gain a better understanding of what’s going on in your family. Families are dynamic systems in which each person’s behavior is both affected by and affects someone else’s.

You say that this tension between your husband and your family has been there since you got married, but that you didn’t notice it when you were dating. Joining a family can bring up all kinds of feelings that people may not even be aware of, and when those feelings aren’t voiced, they come out in behaviors. Whether it’s not making an effort to greet your mom, or making a rude comment about a gift, your husband is probably communicating something he began feeling long ago.

Keep in mind, though, that his behavior might have more to do with his family than yours—if, say, he has unresolved tension with his own parents or siblings, he might be transferring that tension onto your family because it can be easier to direct negative feelings toward a third party. In this way, he can avoid dealing with the pain in his own family relationships.

At the same time, you say that your family “doesn’t accept him” and “takes offense at everything he says or does.” I can imagine that this would make him feel hurt, angry, and resentful, which might explain why his behavior toward them has become increasingly insensitive over the years.

You also mentioned his social awkwardness. Does he seem that way with everyone, or just your extended family? If he tends to be socially inappropriate with everyone, there’s a chance he might not understand the impact of what he says or does because of a condition such as autism spectrum disorder. If that’s the case, it would make sense that when you bring this up, he says it’s “no big deal” or that there’s been “a misunderstanding,” because to him, it really is no big deal and he really is being misunderstood. An evaluation with a clinician can help diagnose the issue, and once that’s been done, educating family members will help them not to take his behavior personally and to understand it in a different context.

In sum, there are several explanations for what might be going on. But so far, it sounds as if your conversations have focused on what your husband and family are doing, instead of why they’re doing it. You told your husband that he shouldn’t have thrown out the toy while your family was present (the what), but you didn’t approach him with curiosity about what made him choose to handle the situation that way (the why). The same goes for your family. You may have told them that they can be hard on your husband for minor things (the what), but it doesn’t sound like you’ve asked them why they seem more easily irked by him than, say, by others.

It sounds as if, in the 14 years this has been going on, nobody has really talked about the why beneath the what. Now would be a good time to start. You can begin by telling your husband that you feel stuck between him and your family, that you love them all, and that this is a very painful position for you to be in. You can say that what he does also affects your son because it prevents him from having the kind of close-knit family that makes kids feel safe and secure, and also because it doesn’t serve as a good model for how to treat others with respect. You can let him know that when he’s disrespectful to your family, he’s also being disrespectful to you, and that it then becomes a marital issue in addition to a family one. And you can tell him that, for the sake of your marriage and your child, the two of you need to talk about why he thinks these incidents are happening. If he truly doesn’t know, and can’t see why they bother you, then talking the issue through with a therapist could help. (Going to a therapist can also lead to getting clarity on whether his social awkwardness is just that, or whether a condition is behind it.)

Meanwhile, you can tell your family about your desire for your husband and your son to be close with them, and explain that although you see how your husband’s behavior can be offensive, other times you feel as though they easily take offense where none was intended. Then you can try to engage them on the why—by asking, for example, what they might be feeling that they haven’t shared with you before.

You might be surprised by what you learn, but keep in mind that whatever comes out of these conversations may not lead to total reconciliation. Although the goal is to create a respectful relationship between your family and your husband, some people are different enough that they just aren’t going to be friends. The people you love may not love one another. Accepting this might require grieving the ideal family you imagined, but ultimately, it could bring you relief because you can take yourself out of the middle and stop trying to forge an impossible closeness. Instead, you can focus on setting boundaries in your own relationships. You can make it clear that when you spend time together, your husband and your family members must act respectfully toward each other—as a sign of respect to you. And you can grow in the process, by deepening your own relationships with both your husband and your extended family through these long-overdue conversations.


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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