Q: I don’t get along with my husband’s family. I feel unseen and invisible in gatherings with them because all that is discussed is my husband’s work. We have a daughter and I feel bad for her that I miss many of these events. They won’t even speak to me directly, they just refer to my husband. Is there a way to make me feel less awful about this? Am I obligated to go to places where I don’t feel good?
A: As a parent coach, I’m going to take into consideration what matters most for your daughter when it comes to your in-laws and these gatherings. To begin, I don’t know how old your daughter is, and that matters. Young children are “keen observers and poor interpreters,” (a phrase I learned at the Parent Encouragement Program). If your daughter is young, she won’t understand your silence and alienation, but she will certainly feel it. Some children are more sensitive than others, but most children are quick to feel when a parent is upset, angry or sad. In and of itself, this is not problematic, but if it’s chronic, your daughter may associate this anger or resentment with herself (because young children don’t have the capacity to consider multiple perspectives). While not traumatic with a capital T, it isn’t an ideal situation.
Not going to family gatherings is the easier path, but as your daughter gets older, you will be forced to account for this lack of engagement. At some point, your daughter is going to notice that you are ignored at family events, or that you stay home from all of them. How will you account for this? It isn’t for your daughter to solve this (which you know); this is between you and your spouse. And what is glaringly absent in your letter is your husband’s participation in this dynamic.
While I’d love for your husband’s family to engage with you, we know that things don’t always go the way we want them to. And the one thing we know for sure is that we are not responsible for other people’s behavior. However, your spouse is another story. Do they see the avoidance? Does your spouse know how you feel? Have you ever said anything to them about this invisibility? If your answer is yes, there is a whole set of problems that we need to deal with. If your answer is no, we need to answer why. Why haven’t you told your spouse how ignored and hurt you feel? That you feel ignored to the extent that you no longer want to attend events?
For your daughter, it matters far less that you go to these events. What matters is your honest self-assessment and communication with your spouse. You can say to your daughter (if she’s a bit older and is taking note of the family behavior and your resentment), “Dad’s family has been this way for time eternal; I’m not going to change them. And while I have love for them, I also will not attend every event. Dad and I agreed to this and we feel good about it.” A statement like this a) doesn’t try to change others, b) shows self-respect and healthy boundaries, and c) communicates that her parents are aligned. Most importantly,[…]