Adapted from a recent online discussion.
DEAR CAROLYN: I’m tired of feeling caught between my husband and my parents. They didn’t like him and outright told him they thought marrying him wasn’t the best path for me.
Friction increased when I moved to his hometown. I am the first of my sisters to marry and leave the area.
I recognize my family of origin is not the most functional. They are temperamental, judgmental, and resort to emotional manipulation. Growing up, I just went with it; I’m a pleaser. However, husband doesn’t like to see me get hurt so he tries to head off proposed visits by arguing what horrible things they might do/say (plausibly, based on past behavior).
But I think disappointing my parents is more painful than opening myself up to being burned by them. I don’t think they’re toxic enough to cut out of our lives!
On principle he opposes giving in to them, I think. And they are actively not nice to him, so I have to balance how much I’m torturing him by pushing for visits. The latest example: They were upset they aren’t invited to our house — it’s been too cluttered for hosting for most of a year — so I caved after they went on about how hurt they were.
— Between a Rock and a Hard Place
DEAR BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE:
• “[D]isappointing my parents is more painful”? Translation: You’re not choosing toward your desire, but away from pain.
• Husband opposes on principle? Translation: Your husband and parents have stubbornness in common. Pleasing is your emotional comfort zone, so that figures. Your husband does sound more focused on your interests than his own — but still, it’s pressure, which you react to by scrambling to please, so it’s essentially the same problem in a new form.
• Too much clutter to host? Translation: This is the microcosm of your world. Your “no” is about clutter or your husband, your “yes” is about your parents … and there’s no you. No sign of what you actually want. Do you want your parents to visit? Yes/No. That’s the foundation of any decision. The rest is pleaser-y stuff.
Now, I could argue your husband deserves an in-law-free zone, because they’re nasty to him. And he does.
But the main issue here is your inability to tune out what others want and just hear your own voice.
Disabling this decision-making ability is what domineering people do. First, they impose their will on others. All others. Some people are strong-willed enough to resist that, and some aren’t. When they find someone who struggles to resist them, domineering people move in and take over, and push the selfhood of the people they commandeer into a corner somewhere.
It’s not gone, it’s just overwhelmed. And it’s not your fault. It’s the fault of the people who fail to respect you as a fully autonomous human being.
It also feels bad, so when overwhelmed people see an escape opportunity in the form of romantic partners who are strong enough to carry them both out of there, the overwhelmed people often grab on for dear life.
But even if your husband exercises a more benevolent kind of force, you still don’t have room to be you. So please make that room — a good therapist can show you how.