Fighting for Family Time

Dear Shera,

My husband continues to talk negatively about and complain about my family. It has gone on so long now, pretty much our entire marriage, and I am finely fed up to the point I have to do something about it. It seems one-sided to me because if I even utter a negative word about his family members I might as well count on him withdrawing and giving me the silent treatment for at least a day. There is so much effort made on his part to spend time with his family, especially during the holidays. I rarely get to see my family for the major holidays because I am always giving in to his desires just to avoid fighting. His thoughts are that my family is dysfunctional, he can’t stand being around my brother, and my mom is high maintenance. My family is not any more dysfunctional than your average family. Believe me when I tell you that his family has its big issues as well, it’s just that I don’t blow them up and remind him about them all the time. My husband said he just never feels like he fits in or is totally comfortable around them. This leads to him being somewhat stand offish when we do actually get to hang around my family, which only makes it worse! How do I communicate to him that it’s hurtful when he is always bashing my family? How can we get to a place that is equal to both of our family time?

Thank you in advance,

Fighting for Family Time

 

Dear Fighting for Family Time,

Sorry to hear about the hurt and unfairness that is occurring for you in your marriage. It definitely sounds like this has gone beyond the typical few comments here and there of being annoyed by your in-laws. Unfortunately the issues of favoritism and your spouse talking poorly about your loved ones are commonly seen in couples. So you are not alone. The sad part is that it is much more corrosive than it may appear. It sounds like you are feeling those effects. The good part is that there is hope because it can be improved with intentional work and communication.

I see attachment as the primary source of the issue here and I will explain. Some basics on attachment theory are as follows: based on John Bowlby’s theory of attachment, we form emotional and physical attachments to our caregivers. The type of attachment formed in childhood determines our attachment styles in adulthood that we act out in our adult relationships. When a secure attachment is formed, it provides a sense of security and stability within the relationship. An insecure attachment leads to fear, isolation, clinginess, and other behavioral symptoms. There are three main insecure attachment styles: anxious-ambivalent (commonly referred to as just ambivalent), dismissive-avoidant (commonly referred to as just avoidant), and fearful-avoidant, a.k.a. disorganized (basically both ambivalent and avoidant). More on attachment styles in this brief but informative article here. If your partner has a working anxious-ambivalent attachment style then it would make sense that they constantly need to be around their family. He needs consistent attention and reassurance from his relationships. Does it seem like the attentiveness you give him is never good enough? When his needs are not met does he get resentful? Does he look for validation from others more than within his own self? Being controlling of you and your time is common for someone with an anxious attachment style. If this sounds like your husband, then it is likely he has an anxious attachment style. If this is the case, then you having a deep, connected and loving relationship with your family is seen as a threat to your husband. The more you want to be with your family, the less he gets to spend time with you and his family – the people to whom he is anxiously attached. This also explains the bad mouthing of your family members. Again, making your loved ones seem less likeable/appealing lessens the threat that they are to his control and possessiveness of you. It is possible that the reasoning for this behavior is all happening outside of your husband’s awareness, so lets not go all merciless on him now!

Now that I have explained the behavior, let’s address the hurt you feel. There is no doubt it is hurtful to hear your spouse talk poorly about your family. Those are the people you have attachments to and it is part of your self-identity. In a nutshell, a piece of our self-identity comes from our relationships with kin. If someone we love and trust verbally batters our family, it is the same as them saying it to a portion of us. This likely hurts and causes shame, which can be an equally painful bodily response as physical pain. Ouch!

All of this information seems daunting I’m sure, but it is possible to work ones way out of insecure into a secure attachment style. I would highly suggest therapy in order to guide your husband in changing his maladaptive attachment patterns. However, your husband would need to be on board with this plan first, of course! Well, the first path to change is awareness and in this case there can’t be awareness without communication. So, here are some tips on how to address the issue with your husband:

  1. Express your concerns using the Caring Communication technique.
    • Caring Communication: observation, feeling, need
      1. Example of expressing hurt: When I hear you talk negatively about my family (observation), it has me feeling ashamed and hurt (feeling). What I am needing from you is to please respect my feelings and limit your criticism of them (need).
      2. Example of expressing the unfairness: When I see you putting more effort into spending time with your family (observation), it leads me to feeling alone and unworthy (feeling). I would like it if you could put my needs and desires as a priority too so I could feel valued and respected (need).
  2. Begin having conversations about attachment style.
    • I would suggest doing this at a separate time than communicating the above so it isn’t overwhelming for your husband to process.
    • A safe introduction might be to simply take this quiz and share with him your results. This quiz is great because you also get an email of a more in-depth explanation of your attachment style. Offer for your husband to take it as well. Make it a fun bonding moment and then answer some non-threatening questions together to get the wheels spinning.
      1. Sample questions (these are set-up for anxious-ambivalent but you can substitute the other attachment styles as needed):
        • What pieces of your childhood do you think could have led to you feeling anxious-ambivalent about others?
        • In what ways was your relationship with (Mom/Dad/caregiver) reflective of an anxious-ambivalent attachment?
        • How do you see this play out in our relationship?
    • You could always show him your anonymous entry you wrote to me and have him read the response here. I would advise to be delicate with this option because depending on how you present the subject; he could feel very betrayed and disrespected. If you go this route, I imagine it would be important to make sure you communicated how you needed some help and thought that an anonymous request for guidance could only help. It won’t hurt to also add that you care deeply about your marriage and wanted to see if there was a way to make it even better!
  3. Communicate your boundaries – communicating your boundaries needs to happen if the behavior that is hurting you is not changing. If you have a caring conversation with him about your feelings and he responds positively to your needs, then there is no need to place a firm boundary. However, boundaries are necessary when protecting ourselves from further harmful behaviors.
    • This type of technique is successful because it communicates your boundary and also places the choice on the other person. In order for a behavior to change, there often times needs to be a boundary put in place to help that change occur. I look at is as road signs, just helpful signs to remind you how to behave respectfully in order to prevent harming someone.
    • First you state the boundary and then you provide the option the other person has in the situation.
      1. Template: (State boundary). If you choose to (undesirable behavior), then you choose to (consequence of behavior). *This also works for encouraging favorable behaviors, but in this specific case the behavior is undesirable.
      2. Example: I need to spend Christmas with my family as well as yours (boundary). If you choose to only spend time with your family, then you also choose to not spend part of Christmas with me when I am with my family.

I have listed multiple action options to hopefully support you in the different possible scenarios that precede you in the journey ahead. The best piece of advice I can offer is that most importantly – we are more likely to be heard by others when we hear them first with compassion and empathy. If you start there, your conversations will likely feel better for you and be more constructive. I am optimistic the tools I have shared will help you get closer to where you want to be. Feel free to keep me posted on your progress. Best wishes on the conversations ahead and as always; the most strength is in asking for a helping hand!

Your fellow family time cherisher,

Shera

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