The first time we emailed my in-laws to say that we wouldn’t be joining them for Thanksgiving or Christmas, we hit “send” and literally ducked for cover. We calculated how long it would take his family to drive to us (about 4 hours) and played through a few scenarios for what to do if they showed up to beat down the door or something more sinister.
Of course, none of that happened. His family was politely confused (and likely grumbled among themselves). Which just goes to show how off-the-wall dysfunctional families can be: whatever you expect, they’ll likely do the opposite. And whenever you think it can’t get worse, they go off the deep end.
Family Function Then & Now
When we first started dating, my husband’s family seemed normal to him. Unmarried couples slept together under the family roof because that’s just what they did. All of the kid’s “best friend” was their mother, because that’s just what they did (and you called her every day… and God help you if you did not pick up your phone every time).
His sister and brother-in-law drank nonstop (finding beer cans in the bathroom trash and the car cup holder) because that’s just what they did. On Thanksgiving night, the tween daughters were driven over an hour to the nearest Victoria’s Secret to buy things because that’s just what they did.
When I started coming around, my husband changed. He went to bed at a normal time (not 3AM every night of his holiday). He ate healthy foods at reasonable hours (forgoing the 10PM fast food dinnertime). He exercised. He sometimes said things that… dun dun dun… disagreed with his family. Eventually, he converted to Catholicism (before I came back tot he Church). Very quickly, these changes were attributed to me and I was person non gratis.
At first, being person non gratis was incredibly stressful. I felt controlled and pushed aside. I felt like I had no right to an opinion, and that the only way to participate was to smile and agree to everything everyone said (because in a dysfunctional family, disagreeing is the #1 sign that you hate everyone and reject them completely.)
Over the months of our initial courtship when we went to visit his family or his family came to our town, I would frequently play it off as “not feeling well” and hide in our room alone. When I did have to see them, I would end the night in tears and we’d stay up late rehashing everything that happened.
Catholic Marriage: Two Are One
But that’s the thing about Catholic spouses. It’s kind of hard to accept one but not the other, love one but not the other, or have a relationship with one but not the other.
In this case, my husband’s first instinct was to please both sides. He would sympathize and cater to his family when I wasn’t around (staying up late, eating crazy food, and passively agreeing to whatever was said or done), then sympathize and cater to me when we were on our own again (complaining about the family, spreading gossip about who was making bad decisions).
Can you see where this is going?
That quickly lead to a strain between the two of us as I interpreted this appeasing, duplicative behavior as two-faced. In my family, these things simply were not done. In my family, we valued good decisions. In my family, you speak up when you have a crisis of conscience.
Fortunately, we came across the book Boundaries by Dr Townsend and Dr Cloud and it got us on the path to a normal, healthy relationship between the two of us and then between us and his family.
Catholicism Calls You To Guard Your Heart And Love
The true beauty of the Boundaries book is that it gives us Biblical permission to guard our hearts and defend emotional territory from family members.
God did not design Christmas to be a horrible, stressful, and self-loathing holiday. God did not make us to be pushovers. God did not make us to be the constant companions and servants of our parents or family members.
God designed us to be peaceful, happy, and loving. God designed us to respect our parents (not to be enslaved by them or guilted by them). And the very first step in having love to give is closing off a place in your life and in your heart for peacefulness and God’s presence.
Strong fences make good neighbors, right?
Do my in-laws still annoy me now, or make me uncomfortable sometimes? And do we have to have a 10PM dinner every once in a while? Definitely.
But now that my husband and I are on the same page about what we think is healthy, what is tolerable, and how we will act when things go wrong (including when and how he will speak up for his thoughts or feelings), it is much easier to make decisions about spending time with his family and feel confident that we’ll be able to do and say the right thing when things go downhill.
This article was originally posted in 2014.
Writing about our typical holiday apprehension was very therapeutic for me. Even more therapeutic was getting a comment that someone else felt the same way!
The day I wrote that post kicked off a three-day barrage of stressful phone calls and conversations. Without even seeing my in-laws myself, they managed to create a toxic experience full of power plays and guilt trips specially targeted to my husband. I suffered through it vicariously, but my husband bore the brunt of it.
Here are a few blog posts that helped my husband and me find some strength for the holidays. We’re still stressed, but we’re not alone:
- Dr. Phil helps you understand that you need to choose your spouse first.
- Darlene Ouimet writes a whole blog on recovering from abuse of all kinds. In particular, her post about Dysfunctional Families and Holidays resonated with me. (She also wrote about Toxic Mother-Daughter Relationships, which I found to be accurate).
- Dr. Townsend and Dr. Cloud write the book Boundaries, which my husband and I turn to every year to guide us through his family’s manipulative behavior. Not only is it a great resource year-round, but it got us started on this road to freedom and peace within our marriage (at least where his family is concerned).
Talking helps us the most– analyzing every angle of this situation in as much detail as possible. We’ve also found counselors and psychiatrists for my husband who have touched on these topics from time to time. Clearly we need to touch on it more in sessions, but for the most part this has made us stronger as a couple.
If you are struggling with destructive, dysfunctional families, I encourage you to seek some distance in your relationship and begin to build more firm boundaries. It is difficult and painful, but it is the only way to live outside the thumb of oppressive emotional abuse!