Saturday 21 April 2018

Dear Mary: His family are causing problems

Illustration: Tom Halliday
Illustration: Tom Halliday

Relationship counsellor and psychosexual therapist Mary O'Conor offers relationship advice in her weekly column.

Question: My husband's family are causing major problems in our marriage. I feel as though I am living in a soap opera. My husband is one of the youngest of his family, and he is constantly being told how to run his life. When we married, we were told to move into the family home and build a house for his parents. We weren't happy about this, as our wish was to build our own home, but it was agreed, and we reluctantly went ahead. The house and farm were signed to us after a few years.

My husband hasn't been too well over the years, and we have struggled financially as he has been in and out of work, and trying to run a farm with little income and pay household bills has been a huge strain on him. We have young children, who are very aware of our situation, as the arguments with his mother and siblings have been witnessed by them.

I have spoken to his family about this, but it got me nowhere, and it continues. All of them are married with families of their own; they have good jobs and foreign holidays every year, but are still interfering in the running of the farm when they are around at weekends. My own family are aware of this but don't interfere - my mother knew I would have a hard life and advised me not to move into a family home in the first place as it would never be my own, only on paper. His mother has made it clear from day one that she still gives the orders and tells us what has to be done. The whole family is involved, because she keeps them up to date on what's going on. I worry all the time when my husband gets a phone call or text from them as it upsets him and I don't know whether or not he can take any more of this. I went to see our solicitor for advice but he is already aware of our situation.

I can see my husband is at breaking point. One of his siblings recently rang our home to tell him that the reason their mother was sick lately was because of him. That broke his heart, and he told me that he was being threatened by another sibling who has tried to take over the running of things behind his back. We don't know where to turn to for advice. We try to avoid family gatherings as there is always something said to us about what we are doing wrong. I have had to speak up about this, as I feel I have been too afraid of them in the past. When I do have to be in their company they are sarcastic towards me and rude. They are constantly on his back about something, usually about keeping their mother happy. Our marriage has been from day one about his family. I'm not happy - I love my husband and children but this is not the life I expected to have when I married. We have no privacy because there's always his family keeping tabs on us. I wonder is it like this for other farm families or just this one.

I want to say a lot more about my life here but I hope our children will make a better life for themselves, not be tied down to a farm that has brought us nothing but misery.

Mary replies: There is a huge imbalance regarding your husband's family and their involvement in your lives. When a couple marry, what should happen is that both partners' families of origin have some, but not very big, input into the new family - which is the one you created - but that is not the case. Instead, you have a hugely critical group of people who are constantly telling you how to live your lives and watching everything that you do. Your own family of origin seem to have got it right as they maintain a good balance and don't interfere.

Unfortunately, it is very often the case that when a family home or farm is signed over there are all sorts of jealousies as a result. You have allowed the situation to go on for a long time, so it is difficult now to try to change the status quo. You haven't had any success in speaking up on your own, so now is the time for you and your husband to present a united front and speak up together. All of the stress he is under is damaging his mental well-being, and so it cannot be allowed to continue. He is from a large matriarchal family and if there is even one sibling to whom he can communicate his unhappiness then he should try to get them on his side. If not, then it is the two of you against all of them.

You have two choices - continue to accept all their interference or stand up to them and tell them (including his mother) that enough is enough and you simply cannot take any more. So next time there is a criticism you should tell whoever it is that you are going to leave the room/house if they continue. Explain that you are doing your very best to run the farm efficiently and to keep on good terms with everybody but that they are making it impossible for you. Then carry out your threat and let them see that they can no longer bully you. You really have nothing to lose.

I don't know if I want to be with her

Question: My story begins when I left Ireland to work with a voluntary organisation in a third world country. Shortly afterwards, I met and started dating a native                                       girl. We moved in together at the end of my third month and continued to live together for another three months before I left to go travelling. I returned to her for another two months before coming back to my home country. She didn't want me to go travelling or return to my home country and was unhappy about this. I felt under a lot of emotional/manipulative pressure. She often said things like 'why does everyone I love always leave me?' or 'I know you will never come back to me'.

There were many other things that concerned me. She never contributed to our apartment financially either, but I don't know if she was able to or not. I also caught her and her friend reading personal conversations I had with friends after only two months together. Some of what they read were general questions to and advice from another female friend about my new relationship.

I'm back home and we're still in contact. I couldn't contact her for two nights and she warned me to improve my behaviour and accused me of not caring about the relationship, even though I offered to pay to bring her here for a holiday. I feel like I'm the only one putting in all the effort and making all the commitment, or am I wrong?

I constantly feel pressured to return too, but all I want to do is travel further for a while. I'd love to keep in touch with her and see where it takes us after my travels. However, I'm afraid to discuss anything with her and I don't know why.

I'm in my thirties and I've had a childhood of poverty, bullying and molestation. Financially, I'm hugely insecure about supporting her, but she thinks nothing of it as she says if we're in love it shouldn't be a problem. She constantly mentions a desire for children and I feel under pressure all the time with that as well. I lost my childhood and I'm unsure if I want to give up my life to children or not.

I went into the relationship totally blind because it was my first and I didn't know what I was getting into, or indeed, what I wanted. With the early excitement I said things about a future with her that I shouldn't have. Then I kept changing the long-term plan as I didn't know how to handle things. I was still learning about myself and what I wanted in life. Now, I don't know whether I love her or whether she really loves me like she says she does. Does this sound like the normal pull and tug of a relationship or is it all wrong?

I can't face breaking up either as I keep remembering the good times we had and we had some great times. However, I'm tired, pressured and lost and would dearly love some advice.

Mary replies: I have indeed some advice for you - follow your instincts and you won't go far wrong. You should not feel under pressure to do anything - on the contrary, you should very much want to do things like settling down or having children and you are simply not ready for that. It seems to me that you are enjoying life for the very first time after an extremely difficult childhood, and now you are sampling what it has to offer in terms of travel, relationships, new experiences and all that goes with that.

It would be wrong to go back to her when you are not ready, and I have to question why she didn't take you up on your very generous offer of a holiday here. By all means, keep in touch, but on your terms, and when you are ready to settle down you will know whether it is with her or not. Perhaps the original excitement of being in a relationship, as well as being in a new country, has now abated. Whether the spark can be re-ignited remains to be seen, but you will have to explain to her that you are not yet ready to return to her, and that you cannot guarantee how you will feel in, say, six months time. This will be a difficult conversation for you to have, but it is better to have it rather than suffer and worry for a much longer period of time.

Being in a loving relationship isn't about being pressured, lost and tired. It's about wanting to be with someone when you are not with them, smiling when you think of them and looking forward to a future together. I don't think this describes your feelings, at least not right now.

You can contact Mary O’Conor anonymously by visiting or email her at or write c/o 27-32 Talbot Street, Dublin 1. All correspondence will be treated in confidence. Mary O’Conor regrets that she is unable to answer any questions privately.

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