Ask Allison: My wife and I are very happy together when we are on our own. But we argue about her family – they are very controlling

Question: How do you manage a controlling family? My wife and I are very happy together – when we are on our own. But any time we engage with her family, we end up arguing. The thing is, they are very controlling and uptight. Nothing is easy.

Her parents come to visit, it has to be a three-course meal with buckets of wine and she is stressed and tense in the run up. I react by getting angry and we argue. It is a similar situation with her brothers and sisters. Everyone gets involved in everyone else’s business, telling them what to do. My wife herself is a bit like that with me but it doesn’t really bother me until we see her family. Then I feel swamped. What should I do?

A Feeling ‘swamped’ is a horrible feeling, you know you are losing ground as the circumstances around you feel like they are dictating the pace while simultaneously, you feel stuck as the son-in-law in the midst of your own home. When ‘nothing is easy’, the consistency of that gives good ground to cultivate new ways to deal with the unchangeable behaviour of others.

Your brain becomes overwhelmed when you see your wife in distress. You manage how you feel when it feels like your wife is getting over-involved in your business but as a connected couple it is okay for you.

It’s when the family enter that the dynamic is creating discomfort.

An advantage of being an adult is feeling like you are in charge of your own self. Living your own life with a sense of freedom and personal autonomy. No one likes to feel like they are being controlled.

Entrenched family dynamics and norms can blindside family members when behaviour that needs to be questioned can be unconsciously accepted into family belief systems. Even if people are aware that there are control issues, breaking them can feel like an impossibility.

In one way it is helpful to accept the truth that you can’t change your wife’s family. Your answer lies in what you can do as a couple to set healthy new boundaries.

The anticipatory anxiety is telling its own story. How is the control exerted? Is it through the withdrawal of attention, conditional love or unsolicited ‘advice’ that moves from being interfering to over-bearing?

Guilt is often added to the mix if someone speaks up or resists.

At many levels, control erodes a person’s self-esteem as the message inferred is that ‘their way’ is the right way. This insidiously creeps into your self-efficacy as you doubt yourself and/or ask for too much reassurance to ensure you do it the ‘right way.’

As you are outside the family it gives you the objectivity to see your wife’s family norms. Name and write out how you feel they are controlling, then ask your wife if she is happy to do this, to do the same. Now compare notes.

Tread carefully and with compassionate intent as you say what you see. It will be natural for your wife to feel defensive as any criticism may elicit a strong response.

Take this one step further, how do you feel about being controlled? How, or did your parents control you in any way? What is your wife’s family bringing up for you? This is deep subtle work. Control is often not bold and brash. It is kept in place with comments, and non-verbal body language like sighs or a sulk.

Control can often be normalised under the guise of ‘family traditions’. Let’s take the example of the ‘three-course dinner’. Have you asked your wife how she feels about it?

In your family, if they were entertaining, what was the norm? This will give a good baseline to see how your family norms differed.

What is wrapped up here, are years of learned behaviour. I wonder was your wife’s mother anxious before she entertained? Did they feel pressure to present themselves in a certain way? Are social appearances important in the family? Has this pre-dinner anxiety transferred?

Was the norm, pre-dinner anxiety followed by a controlled public host eager to please?

If we take Brené Browns 3 Ps, they may help frame what is going on for your wife with ‘the visit’. Is there a strong need to ‘please, perform and perfect’?

Talk about this together in an open, constructive and caring way and see how you can come up with a new way to respond as you support each other.

If you have a query, email Allison in confidence at [email protected]

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