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My Wife's Family Puts Her Last

I’m hesitant to post this here because it’s not really about me, but it makes me really angry and sad.

For starters, my wife is the youngest in her family. Anything she wants needs, accomplishes, or otherwise does has already been achieved by her older sisters. Everyone in the family is fairly self-absorbed, though just pointing that out is self-serving and disqualifies itself. In the time I’ve known her, it’s been evident that her sisters acknowledge her only as much as it suits them, which is to say they talk on the phone a couple times a month. The phone calls are mostly surface stuff, how’s work and how’s the weather and how are you in general terms.We live 1200 miles apart, and I’m not big on obsessive family dynamics, so most of the time that’s okay. Her dad loves her, but he traveled for most of her childhood, and it took her moving across the country and him scheduling business trip layovers here for them to start fostering a relationship. She has a good relationship with her mom, but a would-be civil divorce alienated her sisters from her mom, and it feels like her mom is more concerned with the daughters she doesn’t have a relationship with than the one she does. In general, they treat her like an also-ran and take her for granted.

They went through the motions of supporting us in our wedding last year, but that’s a whole other post. More to today’s point: last night, after over 10 years, she finished her last final for her bachelor’s degree. I’m so proud of her I want to yell about it outside! We’re supposed to go visit her family next week, so last week I texted them asking if they wanted to do something to celebrate. They’re still worried about COVID, her sister just had a baby, and they don’t really want her mom around, so they pretty well nixed the idea of doing anything more than maybe cooking a fun meal. That is all understandable on paper, but the tone of the response was not one of “We’re so sorry, we wish things were different” so much as a lukewarm “Now isn’t the best time.” Meanwhile, everyone has stars in their eyes over the new baby, and the family (minus mom of course) gets together every weekend at the lake house, which kinda takes weight away from the COVID argument. I’m disappointed that they’re not more excited, but she said just let it go and let’s go have a good time next week. Then yesterday, she got a congratulatory candygram in the mail, signed by all of them. She just finished her college degree, and the most thoughtful thing they could come up with was a cute box of candy?! There wasn’t even a heartfelt letter attached! I think it’s insulting, and would have rather they just ignored it. She’s as upset as I am, but we’re taking turns trying to calm each other down. After all, what do we do? If we “assert ourselves” that she deserves more attention for her huge accomplishment, then it just sounds like we’re being ungrateful and crying “look at me.”

Why does a new nephew have to overshadow a college graduation? Why can’t everybody be excited about both? How is this not a big deal to everyone? Her sisters both finished their degrees and had big celebrations and got the VIP treatment. She got a box of candy and the vague offer of a home cooked meal of her choosing, which may not happen if we don’t specifically ask. I’m trying not to focus on the disparity in tangible celebrations or gifts, but it equates to a disparity in the thought and care and importance they give it. And maybe I could look past all of this, if it wasn’t just a symptom of the attitude they generally hold toward her. Why isn’t my wife important to her family!!! She’s the most important person in the world to me, and even my family has shown more genuine excitement about her finishing than hers has. It’s not right. She’s not blind to it–she knows what’s going on, and it really hurts her; but she says that’s just the way her family is, and that really hurts me.

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Hey friend,

First off: CONGRATULATIONS to your wife! This is, indeed, a huge achievement and something that should be celebrated as it deserves. There’s no doubt that she invested a lot of energy in getting her college graduation. I hear how proud you are of her right now, and I hope she’s proud of herself too. I’m super glad for you guys. It’s beautiful to see how supportive you are to her, and I understand your frustration about this situation with her family.

I can only be honest by saying that I recognize my own family in this. Of course not exactly the same way, and I certainly didn’t hold a similar position, but we had - and still have - our share of similar issues. I’ll try to put my thoughts in order - sorry if there’s too many details.

I have two siblings (a brother, who passed away, and a sister - I’m the youngest one) and they both always had a very difficult relationship with our parents. My brother always said to me that he felt like he was kind of and outsider in the family. And for as long as I can remember, my sister has always felt like she was not considered by our parents. She never felt like she was a priority to them. In the middle of this, I always witnessed quite silently how much all of them never discussed together or directly. And how much not saying that kind of thing let them have destructive conclusions about each other… and about themselves. Same for my parents. I can’t count the amount of times when they said to me that my sister wasn’t taking the time to call them, etc. Awesome to be always in the middle of this. And awesome to hear the same things again and again. I repeated a thousand times the same things to all of them, but they still don’t discuss honestly. One day I sent them a general message explaining how much I was tired to be in the middle of this - I was astonished to realize that it actually didn’t change anything and they keep seeing me as their personal counselor. I had to set some boundaries.

One day, my sister’s husband sent an email to our parents. He expressed, for my sister, how much she was hurting for feeling like she was pushed aside, just like your wife. Not directly, but through things unsaid and repeated disappointment. It was unexpected for our parents to read that, but not for me. What was unexpected for me was to actually be depicted as being the favorite kiddo - quite something I had to deal with for a long time, as people are used to say “the youngest one is the priviledged one”. Which is stupid but it is what it is. This resulted in a long and honest conversation with my sister and her husband (with me, of course, not our parents because… why changing a dysfunctional system, right?). I love her too much for putting this aside. And she actually learned to understand my own perspective about the situation, and also what I was going through for the years she mentioned, things I never dared to discussed in our family. She concluded the discussion by asking this rethoric question: “You’ve been always there for everyone, but who’s been here for you?”. For the first time in my life I felt like I was seen by someone in our family. Truly seen and heard. And we realized that through our different journeys, we were actually feeling the same way in regards of how our parents were treating us.

This conversation helped us both to realize that all of this was 1/ A communication issue - We grew up with the idea that not discussing about how we feel was okay, which is not true, and certainly not somethint we couldn’t change. 2/ Not about us, but about how our parents are and how they behave with their children. 3/ Related to the story of our family, which has been impacted by a series of traumas, physical and emotional abuse. Taboos are part of our story. And I can only be honest saying that I truly believe that family secrets and taboos can destroy someone’s life. I’ll share only one example here, as I think it speaks for itself.

While he was in hospital fighting for his own life, my brother shared with me about a time when our mom tried to end her days. It happened more than a decade ago. Yet he was still living with the idea that she did this because he was a disappointment, unable to have a job, to study, etc. How devastating it was to realize that he was living with this idea for so long. And I can’t express how heartbreaking it was to realize that as usual I was the one that was asked to share some truths while this should have been discussed with our mom. I had to be the one that reassured him, who told him that what happened was absolutely not his fault. That our mom has her own demons. It’s been part of his own narrative for too long. It shaped the way he perceived himself: worthless, unable to do anything. And our mom is not even aware of that. What pushed my brother to have this conclusion is because our parents never discussed with us about what happened. We had to create our own narrative. How convenient for some, how destructive for the others.

The whole conversation with my sister was healing, needed. And it was helpful to feel closer to each other. More than before. If we had remain silent, I think there would have been more distance and useless resentment between us, while this wasn’t about us, but a lot of pain piling up and not knowing how to express it.

I guess what I am trying to say here is:

  • Communication can be such a giant issue. I’m aware that I’m not saying anything new with this, but I know that sometimes even if we know something rationally, it’s hard to think about it when it impacts our loved ones and ourselves. When things are not said, especially when it hurts, it can destroy a relationship. It shapes the way we perceive each other. And it can be hard to cycle back. I guess being fair to ourselves is at least what we deserve in this kind of situation, especially when our parents are not able to do that. Your wife deserves to be acknowledged and respected. And if her parents are missing that, then she still has the right to express how she feels. But it’s not easy, for sure. First, there is a way to say it, and secondly we can only guess others reactions and try to prepare ourselves for that. She has an ally with you. Maybe it could be worth it for her to discuss with her siblings at first and see what they think about it. It depends on their own relationships. But maybe they have an opinion. Maybe they feel the same way. Or maybe they’re absolutely not aware of how their family are functioning.

  • Discussing with others is also important to understand what’s the role and perspective of everyone. If you’re familiar with the systemic approach, you’ll understand what I mean by this. Without honest discussions with my siblings, I would certainly not understand how they were feeling as they grew up and how much it impacted them as adults. Same for them about my own situation. We all had our own perceptions of each other. And when it’s not shared, it can be pretty destructive.

I know my family story really impacts the importance I give to honest communication. And my opinion may be really biased/ I may be a little bit radical about this subject - so, take it as it is. But just like you feel for your wife in her own situation, I too witnessed too much destructive pain because of taboos and silence. And indeed: it hurts. Honestly I hear your frustration and your pain for your wife. 100%. And I think this kind of thing should never be ignored. You did the right thing by sharing it, at least for yourself.

I’m absolutely not perfect and I am still learning to better myself when it’s about family communication. Actually it’s been years now that I’m the annoying person in the family, the one that speaks up when no one tries. I had to learn to wear a kind of emotional shield in these situations, yet it still affects me. But man, through all the mess that my family have been through, and is still going through, I can only testify of how destructive it is to not express it when something is hurting us. Especially when it’s about love and feeling loved in our family. Because if it hurts when your wife is not acknowledged and supported when she gets her graduation - which is absolutely valid and understandable -, then how is it going to be when it will be about other major transitions or events in her life? In your life, for both of you.

In my own family, the disappearance of my brother has been devastating. And it hurts to see that even in this situation the same patterns are repeated. The same silence, the same misunderstandings, the same avoidance and denial. In two years, I had zero conversations with my parents about our brother, their son, and the fact that my sister and I are likely to have the same disease as him. I tried to bring this subject up. Walls, walls and walls. I try my best to understand that this is a painful subject for everyone. As a human being I try to be compassionate. But as a daughter it hurts to feel ignored when you’re only asking your parents to be… parents.

Misunderstandings and resentment flourish in silence. And I wish your wife never had to be in this situation and feel how she feels. It’s indeed unfair.

she says that’s just the way her family is

I guess that now the question is: is that what she wants to be part of? I know it’s a tough question. It’s really uncomfortable. And there’s no perfect answer. But a family is made of the people who are part of it. What’s her position in this? What’s her role? Which steps would it be possible to take in this situation? Her well-being is a priority. There is something toxic in this situation. For her, for you, maybe even for the rest of her family.

I really don’t know if this message is comforting at all. But for what it’s worth, I understand how it feels to be in this position. How heartbreaking and frustrating it is, both at the same time. I guess there is no perfect solution or recipe when it’s a matter of human relationships. But there are still some very fundamental truths that you can hold on to, despite all of this. The fact that you love each other, that you are growing together, supporting each other and just building your own life together. For yourself first and foremost. And not for her parents. That’s beautiful. That’s a real pillar of strength for both of you, without a doubt. But I’m not ignoring the importance of feeling validated and encouraged by our family. I guess this situation doesn’t have to be like this. Even if your wife is used to experience that, she doesn’t have to accept it forever. It is not something she is doomed to endure for her entire life. But it’s not fair to be in this position. I totally get that.

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Wow. That was really comforting. I think you and she are very similar. She’s always brokered communication in her family because they want to pretend everything is fine and don’t want to have the difficult conversations. Also, I think her sisters think she’s the favorite; and on the flip side, I think each of them thinks they’re the least favorite. They all consider their family strong and loving. I really do believe the love is there; but like you said, it’s not expressed at more than a surface level, so it doesn’t come with support for any of them.

When they were growing up, her dad traveled a lot and her mom worked nights, so she and her sisters largely raised themselves. They love their parents and their parents love them, but the relationships were historically pretty shallow. My wife has talked to her mom and sisters to whatever degree she could without breaking down into an argument. They have all told her that they’re sorry if they made her view things the way she does, but that that’s not at all the case, they love her so much, and it breaks their hearts to think that she felt hurt by their words and actions (notice they’re putting the responsibility on her and taking the hurt on themselves). I do believe they mean well, they just don’t know how to be supportive if it means pushing back their self interest.

Since I met my wife, I’ve tried to build her up and encourage her to stand up for herself by asking this question. She’s paid some mind to it, but now her counselors are asking her the same question, and it’s starting to hurt. I believe pain like that can bring about positive change when properly supported. She’s really good at stuffing it away and turning her focus back outward, but I think her walls are wearing thinner. Her counselor and I tell her independently that if she doesn’t care for herself first, she can’t care for anyone else. She hears and acknowledges us, but she needs to train herself to stop putting herself last because it’s what she’s always done. One of the reasons I love her is because she’s so caring and selfless, but what I see that others don’t is the toll it takes on her mental health when she gives and gives without getting back.

What I don’t want to do is poison her against her family. I let her know that I don’t like the way they treat her, and we have dialogues about how she feels about them, but there’s a fine line between supporting her and driving myself between them. I don’t want to cross that line, but it’s tough because I get fired up over this stuff and can’t be diplomatic without lying to myself and to her about my feelings. I’m also hesitant to ask my family to do a little celebration for her. She doesn’t want an all-out party with a hundred people focusing on her, but my family wouldn’t hesitate to carve out a whole evening for her, which is in stark contrast to her family’s concession to squeeze her into their Sunday night, and might sour her on them even more.

Thank you @Micro . This post really spoke to me.

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Late reply here - Sorry!

She’s really good at stuffing it away and turning her focus back outward, but I think her walls are wearing thinner.

Indeed, it takes some time to realize that and to set some boundaries. If I may say: you are a good husband, without a doubt. And this whole paragraph shows how much you care, but also that you respect her own pace. That’s very precious. :slight_smile:

but there’s a fine line between supporting her and driving myself between them. I don’t want to cross that line, but it’s tough because I get fired up over this stuff and can’t be diplomatic without lying to myself and to her about my feelings.

Totally. The worst thing for both of you would be to interfere in the middle of this. It’s not easy to find the right words between being 100% honest or too diplomatic. Honestly, when my sister’s husband sent this e-mail explaining why she felt like an outsider, it didn’t help the relationship between him and my parents. They like each other, sincerely, but I think it changed the way they all perceive each other - more than before.

Somehow your wife is learning to identify what she accepts or not, progressively. You witness all of this, you support her, but it is true that it’s still up to her to make her own decisions with her family. She has a right of self-determination. Yet you also have a positive influence, just because of the role that you have through all of this. And I have no doubt that you are a good and positive encourager. There is her, there is you, but there’s also both of you as a team now, which is so important.

Also if sometimes you need to just vent, you can always do it here. I don’t think it’s about lying or hiding, but at least trying to find the right moment to say those things. A person who’s not ready to hear something can show some very negative reactions. It could be counterproductive for all the things you are trying to build together.

I also recognize myself in the description you did of your wife having her walls wearing thinner. I’m still not 100% okay with that with my own family. I don’t feel always comfortable. Because it makes me feel divided between what I believe in, how I perceive myself and what I actually need. I grew up being “the helper” in the family, so there are some layers of grief that I’m still processing. But I did learn the importance of being my very first priority, thanks to my husband. And indeed, it’s a slow process! A real journey that takes a lot of practice. But in regards of family relationships it’s honestly really hard to change when you see your family being exactly the same and repeating the same patterns. It manifests through plenty of painful reminders. Just like for your wife and her graduation. So, it’s easy to feel like you’re dragged back repeatedly, even if it’s just a feeling. In these moments, support is needed.

I’m also hesitant to ask my family to do a little celebration for her. She doesn’t want an all-out party with a hundred people focusing on her, but my family wouldn’t hesitate to carve out a whole evening for her, which is in stark contrast to her family’s concession to squeeze her into their Sunday night, and might sour her on them even more.

That’s a possible effect, indeed. But also, she could feel like she found another family, and this can bring a lot of positive feelings as well. The problems in her own family shouldn’t delete the possibility to embrace the love in your own family. But I get what you mean. There’s indeed a kind of bittersweet taste in this situation.

When my sister got married, it was planned at a moment that happened to be a month after our brother disappearance. Her husband’s family was there. And in our family, there was only me. Our parents said they couldn’t come as they were too sad, but my dad had a lot of regrets because of this decision. My husband decided to ask for a week off his work and traveled to be there too. It was a way to say that my sister’s side of the family was here. It was hard, especially since my brother and I should have been both witnesses at this marriage, but there was only me. Though being there allowed my sister and I to cry and hug each other after the ceremony. But also, I’ve seen how much the fact that her husband’s family was there meant a lot to her too. She hurts because our parents didn’t come. But she’s also very grateful for her step family to be there for this celebration. It’s just two different sides of the same story. Sometimes she can’t help comparing our family and what she perceives in her husband’s family. Which is very natural, and is actually helpful in the long run because she learns to see different standards than the ones we grew up in. When someone learns to see a different way to function and interact, it helps to identify what they’re ready to accept or not in their life. At other times, she’ll accept the fact that it’s two different families and sometimes it’s better to embrace the postive rather than falling in the comparision trap.

I guess there is no perfect solution, but at least there’s always a possibility to discuss with her. Your concerns are valid. You can always make a step without imposing anything. At least to give her the space to say if she’d be comfortable with a kind of celebration in your own family - or not.

Your heart is good, friend. I hope for the best and the peace that you and your wife deserve. :hrtlovefist:

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That’s interesting. I never thought of it as a way to form healthy comparisons. I also never thought of it as something “natural” in a good way. My wife gets along with my family very well, sometimes better than I do, and it makes me really happy that she fits in so well and is so comfortable around them. My parents, for their part, have welcomed her into the family like one of their own children. Shortly before our wedding, after a phone call with her family, she started crying and said it hurt her to realize how dysfunctional her family was compared to mine. That makes me sad, and I try to watch my word choices because I don’t want to pull her away from her family. That said, when we spend time with my family, we don’t dwell on comparing it to time with her family and vice-versa.

She says that the best thing she’s done with her life is move away from home. Her sisters, parents, grandparents, and friends all stayed in the same city. It’s not a small town, but they have kept their community very tight. While that has helped form deep, authentic relationships, it has also limited their views of the world at large; her family and friends have all married and maintained friendships within the community, without expanding their circles to other areas of the country or even the state. When my wife moved, without her community to lean on, she had to become emotionally independent and self-sufficient very quickly, and that’s made her really strong. I know she’s strong enough to handle her family on her own, but that doesn’t make it easy. Families can push buttons in unique ways, and that’s hard for me to watch.

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