Home About Dr Gayle Counseling Services Speaking Services Online Seminars Articles Press Room Books Contact

Ask Dr. Gayle

Wife is Mad Because
I Don't Speak Up to my Parents

QUESTION: I have been married for three years and have the most amazing wife and six month old daughter. The problem comes in when we are around my parents. I came from a very close knit family and when I'm around my parents, I can't seem to break the parent/child relationship. Any time there is any friction at all between my wife and parents, my inclination is to say nothing and hope it works itself out. Naturally, my wife feels left out.

I keep trying to avoid making anyone mad, but I'm making the person who means the world to me the most angry. My wife says she's sick of it and wants no part of me because she feels secondary to my parents. My parents live out of town, but we see them about four times a year for about a week each time. My parents will be visiting again in about three months and I couldn't be more nervous.

Any thoughts, comments, suggestions, or reading material would be greatly appreciated.

Your insight about what needs to be done in the situation and your empathy for wife's experience are both remarkably clear! You are already aware that your contribution to your problem is to remain silent and in a child's role, instead of an adult role at your wife's side. So what is stopping you from taking action to align yourself with your wife and set boundaries that are appropriate with your parents?

Your loyalty must rest with your wife, but this does not mean you do not love your "folks". Talk with your beloved about her feelings and needs in the conflicts that arise with her in-laws. Reflect her experience to her, but do not stop there. Identify what behaviors she feels need to change in order to feel respected in her role as your wife. What changes do you need in order to feel respected by your parents in your new role as a husband and head of family?

Do not shy away from taking the lead in to talk with your parents about specific behaviors which need to stop. For example, you may need to explain to your parents that their comments are disrespectful or intrusive, even if they mean well. Be specific about what is causing the pain and ask them to stop. Let them know that while you do not require that they love your wife as you do, you expect them to respect your boundaries around these issues as a couple and to "live and let live".

You may begin this process by phone. If you do, be sure to speak with each of your parents separately. This way you will feel less intimidated, and have a fair chance at having a more adult to adult conversation. You might decide to address it by letter first and let them know you are calling and want to establish separate adult relationships with each of them, now that you are establishing a family of your own.

Focus on your desire to develop an adult friendship. Let them know you want to change the nature of your relationship with them from child to adult. Keep this focus the foundation of your discussion. Address the issues you discuss with your wife. Be specific about the behaviors you want changed, but keep this part short. By setting the framework for your discussion about you and your needs for a change in how you relate to them you are more likely to create the necessary shift that is no doubt at the root of this transition.

Marriage is the blending of two family cultures. It is your job to take the lead in determining the rules and guidelines with your wife that you will create together in you family. It is possible that one of the reasons for your lack of leadership with your parents is that you are avoiding your own conflicts with your wife, allowing your parents to express your own desires. Or you may be shying away from clearly stating your preferences (that are shared with your wife) to avoid conflict with your parents!

Whatever your reason for avoiding conflict, this pattern could spell trouble for the future of your marriage. Conflict-avoidance can lead to unresolved feelings which result in a fractured relationship. You may need to strengthen your communication skills not only to address your parents, but to maintain a healthy and vibrant marriage.

It is not always possible or necessary for in-laws to "love and cherish" your spouse. It is important that family members tolerate differences without intrusion and judgment which curtail family interaction. Holiday visits, celebration dinners and grandparenting roles are all a part of family life. Establish goals which include your parents but do not insist on "instant love". Blending families, including in-laws, can require time and patience from everyone involved.

If your parents feel (and raised you to believe) that to have differences is disloyal, you may be suffering under the belief that differences cannot be accepted in a family. To take your place as an adult with them may include expressing your own views of family, including tolerance for differences!

Sometimes it is hard to grow up because we idealize our parents. Still, it may be your turn to teach your parents something new about family. Do not forget that we are all, forever "growing up"!


Return to Article Archive

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

Return to Dr. Gayle Peterson's Home Page

Copyright 1996-2003.  Gayle Peterson All rights reserved.

Send Comments and Inquiries to Dr. Gayle Peterson at gp@askdrgayle.com