I am 29-years-old and my fiance is 31-years-old. We were engaged this past September and plan to marry this upcoming September. About 2 months ago, we found the house of our dreams, placed a bid on it, were approved for a mortgage, and moved in together three weeks ago. We broke the news to my parents (who live a few miles from us), and although they are faithful Christians and were initially disappointed in our decision, they love me and my future husband. After expressing their anxiety at our decision, and seeing our commitment to it, they have chosen not to judge us, to support our right to make our own decisions as adults, and to continue to embrace our presence in their lives.
My fiances parents live quite a distance away -- about a 7-hour drive. When my fiance shared with them that we would be living together, they were extremely upset. They were non-practicing Catholics throughout their marriage (my fiance isn't even baptized) but have re-embraced Catholicism about 3 months ago and have been in Catechism classes since. But, even my fiance feels that their objections stem far more from personal feelings than the opinions of the church. They are entitled to their opinions, and we don't really seek their approval in this situation, even as we are sorry for their pain and anger.
However, the "in laws" (easier to clarify that way) have called my parents 6 or 7 times now (my parents remain unmoved in their support of us) in 2 weeks, and have called my fiance no less than that too to rant and rave, cry and accuse, judge us, and frankly, make all of us miserable. They have tried calling me many times too, but I have avoided the phone after a conversation that made me cry at work wherein my mother-in-law shared that I was responsible for the destruction of my fiances relationship with his family, and our marriage would be "illegal" if we lived together before marriage. My fiance wrote an e-mail to them this week saying that neither of us would be moving out, our wedding would take place as planned in September, and asked them to please not phone us anymore at work, as a measure towards setting boundaries. Further, he said he hoped very much that they would still attend. My future mother-in-law called my fiance and parents this week tearfully to say they would attend the ceremony, but would not attend the reception at all. My father assured her that a plate would still be set for her right up until the moment of the reception. My fiance and I live in a kind of anxiety about the next explosive phone call, judgmental tirade, tears and drama on the phone. Also, my fiance loves his parents (as all children do) and is much saddened about all of this, and they are really taking the joy out of the planning stages of our engagement.
How should we continue to set boundaries with these parents? How can I support my future husband and assert my wishes for him to "stand up" for us without coming across as another controlling, manipulative woman in his life? Any ideas for keeping this from becoming a tug-of-war between the mother and new wife? Any ideas for encouraging them to come to the wedding and reception? My fiance has asked that I not reach out to them with an e-mail, letter or phone call, as he believes they could be cruel to me in response, but I am communicative by nature, and wish I could speak to them and try to make them understand. Any ideas for keeping our attitudes positive and happy when we feel kind of beaten down? Are these people overreacting in 2002, without strictly moral backgrounds? It seems so incongruous!
Paige (29 year-old woman)
You asked a lot of questions, and I will do my best to answer them as best as I can. First, though, I have to say that it seems that you and your fiance are already handling the situation in a very mature and healthy way. As the two of you seem to have good instincts as to how to best handle your in-law conundrum, I think that the most important thing is for the two of you to continue to communicate with EACH OTHER about how you both feel and the actions you plan to take. Remember that the purpose of your conversations with your fiance is first and foremost to understand how each other feels - so before you each begin arguing your point and trying to convince the other of the merits of your plan, first take the time to repeat back what you heard your partner say, let go of your own agenda for a moment, and just try to really understand the other person's point of view. You still may not agree 100% on each and every issue, but doing this will help to strengthen your relationship and will dissolve a lot of the "stuckness" that can result when each person is locked into his/her respective viewpoint. It's good practice to keep in mind throughout your marriage.
The best way to set boundaries is by continuing to do what you are already doing. Your fiance did very well to explain that your mutual decision stands and the wedding will go forward, and it was lovely that he was also able to express his desire that they attend. Your father also did well to say that they were welcome to change their minds about attending the reception up until the last minute. It is best to continue to simply and quietly state these facts and not engage in any long drawn out debate as to who is right or wrong, morality, the church, or anything of that nature. The real issue is that you and your fiance are adults and are entitled to make your own decisions about your lives, even though all of the respective parents may not agree with those decisions. Your future in-laws are not being respectful of your adult status with their current dramatics. Engaging in a lot of debate only fuels the assumption that you need to justify or explain the decision to the in-laws and earn their approval, which is not true. Adding a lot of emotion to the discussion (such as begging them to come to ceremony and reception, or lashing back with accusations, or telling them that they're ruining your joy) further fuels the emotional drama. As your in-laws are already in a highly emotional state, brevity is best. Allow them to state their opinions. Acknowledge that they're not happy about your decisions. The wedding will go on, with or without them, but certainly you'd much prefer that they come. Period. I would not try overly hard to "encourage" them to come, beyond repeatedly letting them know that you hope to see them there, because 1) they too are adults, and are entitled to make their own decision about attending and 2) pleading and cajoling puts them in a position of increased power, and you are trying to minimize the extent to which they attempt to interfere with your plans.
As to your concern about a tug of war between your fiance's mother and you, and that your fiance not experience you as another controlling woman in his life - it doesn't sound from what you've described as if these dynamics are in place, so where do these concerns of yours come from? Again, talk with your fiance. Does he experience you as controlling? Does he feel caught between you and his mother? Do you feel he's doing enough to set boundaries? The only way to address any of these issues, if indeed they are issues, is by you and your fiance communicating with each other. If he's not worried about you being controlling, then you needn't worry either.
Regarding your desire to communicate directly with your in-laws, which your fiance is against: it's important for you and your fiance, once again, to talk this one through thoroughly. You need to explain to him why you have the desire and what you hope to achieve through an e-mail, letter, or call to them. Is the outcome you hope for realistic? If the purpose of the reaching out is to elicit a particular response from them, it may well be an ill fated venture. If, on the other hand, you will feel better for having expressed yourself REGARDLESS OF THEIR RESPONSE, then it does seem to be a good idea. Suppose your fiance is right, and they are cruel to you . . . how will you react? Can you handle it? What are your fiance's fears about how you will react to their cruelty? More questions for the two of you to consider are - how have you resolved differences of opinion before this? Is the rule of thumb going to be that he gets to decide how you interact with his family simply because they are his family . . . and if so, are you in agreement with that plan?
The sadness your fiance feels in response to his parents' actions is natural and normal. He will do best to allow himself to feel and express that sadness in whatever way is right for him (talking with you or with friends, counseling, journal writing, etc) rather than try to suppress it in the interest of rallying his enthusiasm for the wedding. It is OK for him to be happy about marrying you, excited about the wedding, and at the same time to feel saddened and disappointed by his parents' reactions and behavior. He will need to let go of the way he hoped and envisioned that his parents would react at the time of his marriage and accept that things are unfolding in a different way. It is not easy to do, and he will need your support, understanding and caring throughout the process.
The anxiety you and he feel about the next round of tears/judgment/tirade is also normal and natural . . . but there is something you two can do about it, which is to adjust your expectations of his parents. Stop expecting them to be reasonable and calm. Anticipate that phone calls and tirades will continue up until September, and decide now what the two of you need to do to protect yourselves emotionally. You do not have to take calls, either at home or at work. You do not have to read any letters or e-mails that arrive if they are too painful. You and he decide together how much contact with them you are able to sustain. You can explain to them your decision or not.
You can also change your perspective. Can you see how distraught and powerless they feel over "losing" their son (because he is defying their wishes, and nothing they do seems to change his mind)? Can you have some empathy for their position? Can you see how all that they do really doesn't have to matter, doesn't have to affect the two of you so deeply, because you have each other and feel confident in your decision to be together and to marry? Try letting it roll off your backs a bit more ... tune it out now and then . . . see it as more peripheral and less central to this important time in your life.
Congratulations on your upcoming marriage. I give you and your fiance a lot of credit for handling this painful situation in a mature and responsible way, and wish you the best of luck in your life together.
Susan Maroto, LCSW