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.