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?
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.
Read: Dear Therapist: I can’t stand my sister-in-law
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.