Dear Dr. Gail: My husband wants to spend every Sunday at his parents’ house. I thought things would change when we had a child, but it has made no difference. If I refuse to go, he just takes our daughter and goes anyway.
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I feel that he prefers to spend time with them rather than me. I have been married six years and am pregnant again. We have never spent a whole Sunday together. I am hoping this will change for Mother’s Day, but I know it will not.
My husband refuses to talk to me about anything, and I am getting so frustrated. I do not get along with his mother. What advice can you give me? — Lonely Mom
Dear Lonely: As you know, for a healthy marriage, spouses must separate from their own families of origin to some degree or another, and form their own family unit. The degree of separation is partly based on how oriented you are toward your extended families. It’s good to understand, before you marry, the extent of the involvement you both want to have with the extended family.
It’s harder to renegotiate after you have fallen into a pattern of spending every Sunday at your in-laws’ home. It is certainly reasonable to want to spend weekends alone with your own husband and family. Days off are also times when you build your own extended peer group.
In some cases, sons are very attached to their mothers. When they marry, they have trouble making their wives a priority, or they enjoy remaining in the role of favored son. Sometimes they feel guilty at abandoning their mother — or the mother induces this guilt and is unwilling to let go.
The result is a battle of the mothers — both lay claim to the coveted spot as female head of the household. It is wise to be sympathetic to the difficulty your mother-in-law has relinquishing her stature, while at the same time insisting on getting your due as a wife. This is something that needs to be negotiated, preferably with the full cooperation of your husband.
Given your description of how you and your husband negotiate, or don’t, I am concerned that your marriage has real problems, which extend way beyond where to spend Sundays, but I will get to that point in a moment.
In general, a couple can ease into less frequent contact with the parents. You can first take one Sunday a month for yourselves, then two Sundays, then three. You should also make concrete alternate plans, like going to a movie or a museum, or visiting friends with kids the age of your kids, or you will find yourself back at the in-laws’.
Rather than refusing to go, I suggest you participate in some Sundays with your husband’s family. At the same time, either you or your husband should make it clear that you need to have your own space if you wish to be a thriving, healthy family. Your refusal to go only stretches the battle line. Compromise is needed.
Even though I suggest you deal with this soon, Mother’s Day is not the day to force a confrontation and stake your claim upon your husband. Mother’s Day is already emotionally fraught, particularly for a mother who fears losing her son. There are other days when you can take a stand.
In your case, this has already turned into a hostile situation. You have reached a stalemate with your husband and his mother. It’s no surprise you don’t get along with her. The more you protest, the more they both dig in their heels. It is worth backing off to see if they also become less rigid.
But if your husband refuses to talk to you, and the way you both deal with conflict is by stamping your feet and storming off in a huff, then it sounds as though your unhappiness about Sundays is merely a symptom of substantial problems in your marriage. You would benefit from working on better communication and compromise in general.
Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: If you’re married to a man who spends too much time with his mother, it is fine to demand your due. But don’t challenge his mother on Mother’s Day, which is already a volatile day.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie,” by Dr. Gail Saltz. She is also the author of "Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts," which helps parents deal with preschoolers' questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com.
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