Pushed to the limit by mother-in-law’s ill­ness, de­meanor

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - OUR TOWN - CAROLYN HAX

DEAR CAROLYN: When my hus­band and I first mar­ried, I had a won­der­ful re­la­tion­ship with his par­ents. How­ever, over the last decade, his mother’s health has de­te­ri­o­rated such that she is now se­verely dis­abled and de­pressed. My fa­ther-in-law is a won­der­ful man who has de­voted his life to her care but, de­spite his de­vo­tion, she di­rects her un­hap­pi­ness at him. Spend­ing time with them is dif­fi­cult.

My hus­band agrees they’re not easy, but also mourns his mom’s dis­abil­i­ties. They are lo­cal so we prob­a­bly see them monthly.

They re­cently an­nounced their plan to join us on the an­nual beach va­ca­tion with my side of the fam­ily (who is not lo­cal). They plan to rent a house nearby dur­ing the same week.

Carolyn, this time with my hus­band and chil­dren is dear to me and the prospect of an in-law in­va­sion makes me mis­er­able. When I shared these feel­ings with my hus­band and pro­posed al­ter­na­tives (a week­end get­away with them or time to­gether dur­ing a dif­fer­ent week) he flipped out and was dev­as­tated. He said he can­not tell them no and I am un­rea­son­able for not ac­com­mo­dat­ing them.

I’m not the type to put my foot down, but I’ve done so, and my hus­band is now sleep­ing on the couch and not speak­ing to me. Aside from this one is­sue, our re­la­tion­ship is great. I need a san­ity check. Am I in the wrong?

— Anony­mous

DEAR READER: No. Even if your mother-in-law were in per­fect health and pleas­ant com­pany, you’d have ev­ery right to veto, say­ing, “We see your par­ents monthly; this is my fam­ily’s time.”

And, his “flip­ping out” on you is not OK re­gard­less. Even when such an emo­tional out­burst is un­der­stand­able, a lov­ing, ma­ture adult will de-es­ca­late and apol­o­gize for los­ing his com­po­sure. Stick­ing with it over days, against some­one who is mak­ing clear ef­forts to honor her pri­or­i­ties and make rea­son­able trade­offs to do so, is not act­ing in good mar­i­tal faith.

It’s im­por­tant to rec­og­nize, though, that be­ing right can still be wrong if you don’t rec­og­nize the emo­tional stakes. Even a lov­ing, ma­ture adult can buckle un­der the strain of help­less­ness in a cri­sis like his mother’s, and when that hap­pens, it’s not un­usual for some­one to un­load some of the ex­cess weight onto the near­est “safe” per­son. In this case, you.

Or in the case of his mother, his fa­ther. You say she un­loads on him “de­spite his de­vo­tion,” but I would ar­gue it’s be­cause of it. Whom can we blame for in­fir­mity, mor­tal­ity and loss? The uni­verse? So, we blame our best friends for burn­ing the toast.

Peo­ple gen­er­ally don’t do this con­sciously, they just drop their guard around the per­son they trust not to leave.

If your hus­band’s flip-out is in­deed un­char­ac­ter­is­tic, then I think you can safely treat this as his at­tack­ing not you or your fam­ily time, but the Hu­man Con­di­tion — by the near­est avail­able means.

So ap­proach him ac­cord­ingly. “Your mom’s or­deal is tear­ing you up. I see that.” Wait a beat for a re­sponse. If none, then say you didn’t mean to add more stress and you’re there for him when he’s ready. Then, pa­tience. Hold firm on the beach or re­lent — up to you — but either way, he needs the best lis­tener you can be. Chat on­line with Carolyn at 11 a.m. each Fri­day at wash­ing­ton­post.com. Write to Tell Me About It in care of The Wash­ing­ton Post, Style Plus, 1150 15th St. N.W., Wash­ing­ton, D.C. 20071; or email

tellme@wash­post.com

Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group/NICK GALIFIANAKIS

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