Woe Is Me! “My Partner’s Family Brings Out Another Side of Him, and I Feel Alone and Sad When We’re Around Them”
Woe Is Me! is a series in which The Swaddle team indulges your pity party with advice you’ll probably ignore.
“I’m visiting my husband’s family for 2 months, but 3 weeks in, I’m sad & lonely. They’re lovely people but INCREDIBLY quiet, with multiple rules for all activities & a huge amount of hierarchy regarding speech (who can talk, who disagrees, etc). They’re not the openly patriarchal type who expect domestic labor or “wifely” ness but I’m sick of the gendered & ageist patterns of speech. Even laughing feels like a scandal! My husband meanwhile enjoys the rigid schedules, choreographed daily interactions & apparent monk-like rules that apply to everything.”
— Waiting to Exhale
LG: I’m sorry you’re sad and lonely! That’s never fun. But look at it this way: It’s only two months! There’s an end date! There is light at the end of the dark, monastic, suffocating tunnel! So many of us are trapped in living situations without an end date, good or bad — not knowing when the next reunion with our loved ones will be, not knowing when we’ll be able to escape our childhood homes and live like adults again. At least you have a set time frame. Count down the days — if you have to, make notches on the bedpost or whatever the modern equivalent is — but focus on knowing that this, too, shall pass.
Now, for survival: Turn it into a game! See how many eye-roll emojis you can text accurately under the table without looking the next time someone makes a casually sexist/gendered statement. Take notes for a screenplay. Pretend they’re aliens and occasionally respond ‘beep bop borp’ to see how they react when someone goes off-script with daily interactions. Quietly debate yourself aloud. (They can’t forbid you from disagreeing with yourself!) Do little tap dances to move around the house, instead of walking. (Hey, they like choreography!) Pick one item and keep moving it around the house and silently giggle at the confusion when it’s never where people think it will be. Wear bright lipstick to remind yourself that you used to laugh and one day — ONE DAY! — you will again. Or use this visit as your own, personal vipassana and see how long you can go without talking and how long it takes anyone to notice. Hang in there, sunshine. You’ll be home soon.
KB: Darling, I know this pandemic is making all of us magnify our quotidian experiences into massive emotional upheavals, but really — stop sweating the small stuff. From your question, I know that you don’t live with this family always, and that you are visiting them for a finite amount of time. This is not a situation your partner is asking you to live with permanently. I also know that sometimes, when adults visit their family homes, they fall back into the more child-like roles they used to inhabit when they lived with their parents full time. This may be how your partner’s family dynamic was when he was a kid, and it gives him some comfort to occupy those roles for some short amount of time. This is not the way you run your household, nor is it the way your partner is asking you to live in your “real” life.
You could kick up a fuss and point out and criticize every aspect of his family dynamic that drives you crazy, but then instead of enjoying this time with his family, he will always remember it as the time you ruined his trip home. Maybe you should seek solace and calm in the quiet, meditative household you’re in for another six weeks. Read a book, ignore the stuff that isn’t ‘you,’ and try to have a positive attitude. In six weeks, you’ll have your life and your partner and your household back to how you like it.
RD: This sounds very uptight and boring. I’m thinking your in-laws, and maybe your husband, just need to chill out a bit. Can you host a game night? Introduce alcohol? Or watch a funny movie? Any activity that can make them loosen up a bit. If you have a different dynamic with your husband when he’s not around his family, draw him into the plan and tell him you’re feeling suffocated.
The thing is, they might just have settled into a pattern that works for them, but might not even be aware they’re imposing it on you. Go be a manic pixie dream girl for a day and stir some shit up. What’s the worst that can happen?
AS: This situation reminds me of the film Khoobsurat — have you seen it? The original from 1980, and then the 2014 remake, are in the same vein: a lively young woman, vivacious and carefree, is forced to fit into this strict, dull household, and ultimately wins everyone over with her, well, vivaciousness and carefree-ness.
Don’t get me wrong — by equating your problem to a romantic comedy, I don’t mean to diminish the seriousness of how trapped you must be feeling. But what I am suggesting is maybe to try having a sense of humor about it. By your question, it seems like your in-laws are nice people, who are just set in their silent ways. I’m sure it’s not easy to feel like the outsider in all of this, but if your relationship with them is here to stay, then you are their family as much as they are yours. So why continue to tiptoe around them? Just be yourself, start changing the rules here and there. Crack jokes, laugh, and create scandals. You’re not the only one who should be doing the adjusting.
DR: Sigh! That sucks for you, I’m sorry. I have visited/know of relatives and family friends who function in this hierarchical way, and it drives me insane. Have you tried having a conversation with your husband about this? I understand there’s a possibility it could instantly make him defensive since these are the people he grew up around. But, since you mentioned that this is not what he’s like when he’s away from his family, perhaps he’s simply fallen into old routines while at home without realizing this isn’t everyone’s version of a normal household? Perhaps, this is what he thinks staying with family looks like because he doesn’t know better?
If you think there’s a possibility that he’s simply never had anyone point out to him the error of his family’s ways, maybe it’s worth a conversation. If the talk works out, the two of you could either make a plan to escape or even rebel — and if not, you’ll have a companion to share your distress with, at the very least. On the other hand, if you don’t think talking to him will be very helpful, perhaps you could start breaking these silent, implied rules his family has, every once in a while. Start small, and work your way up to bigger rebellions, depending on how they’re reacting. If nothing works, there’s always therapy. Or, you could wait for this nightmare to be over — or facilitate ways to end it quickly. Good luck!