Sunday 26 May 2019

Dear Allison: ‘I get on great with my cousin, but I never want to spend time with his wife again’

Our resident therapist answers your queries about sex and relationships

Allison Keating
Allison Keating
'The relationship you have is between you and your cousin'

Allison Keating

Q I have a cousin with whom I am quite close, or should I say, we used to be. We are in our mid to late 40s and are both married with kids. He lives in Canada now, he married a Canadian woman. My wife and I still live in Ireland, but we meet up once a year or so, on family occasions. The problem is that I find his wife very hard to take.

She is loud, arrogant, boastful and I think, might be suffering from a mental health problem. Every year, she gets a bit worse. We rented a cottage together  at Christmas and her behaviour, particularly towards me, was appalling. She was rude, rolling her eyes whenever I said anything, and kept telling me to relax, even though I was far from stressed. My wife, who likes her, agreed that there was a big change in her and agreed with my reading of the situation. She and my cousin also fight horribly. I don’t want to say anything to my cousin and I would like to stay close, but I never want to spend time with her again. What should I do?


Allison replies: The relationship you have is between you and your cousin. You have drawn the line and set a boundary where you do not want to spend any more time with your cousin’s wife. Respect your decision. Often, dynamics in relationships become tangled when other people enter the scene through marriage, and it is not a given that you will get on. I don’t think you need any guidance on this — perhaps you are looking for reassurance?

In your life, do you look for external guidance when making a big decision? Your wife has backed up how the Christmas experience went. The ties of duty, especially within family, create situations where people feel uncomfortable about making decisions that you wouldn’t give a second thought to, for example, if this was a friend’s wife.

This societal undercurrent and familial experiences leads to a schema (a set of beliefs about ‘how’ you think you ‘should’ put up with unacceptable behaviour), which is leading you to question your own decision. Where did these beliefs come from? Can you go back to the first memory or experience when you were growing up where you made a decision, one that you felt was the right one and you were then chastised, corrected or given out to? If this happened on a regular basis, our external critic(s) becomes an internal critic, with a dialogue to back up why you shouldn’t trust your own instincts or emotions.

The relationship with your cousin sounds like a good one. What would it be like to talk to him about how you feel? 

If you don’t give yourself permission to trust in your own emotions, seek permission to be allowed to feel the way you do and then avoid any potential conflict, it may unfortunately lead to the dissolution of good relationships in your life.

Children who experienced consistent critique can, as adults, often look ‘for a quiet or easy life’ by avoiding the difficult but important conversations required in healthy relationships. I’d advise you to answer the questions I've asked you, for yourself.

Acknowledge how it made you feel when your cousin’s wife openly rolled her eyes at you. If you wouldn’t accept this from a child then I’m questioning why you would accept it from a grown up? Eye rolling is the signature sign of contempt. Being told to ‘calm down’ is like pouring gasoline on a fire, even when you are feeling just fine. Having experienced her open contempt towards you and seeing how she treats your cousin, could you ask him how he found the experience? Contempt is vicious particularly for men. In marriage, contempt is the worst of what the Gottmans, world experts in marriage, call ‘The four horsemen of the Apocalypse’. All relationships experience periods with the other three that are criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling. But contempt is in a league of its own.

Your next steps:

⬤ Acknowledge and write out how the experience was for you.

⬤ Support your cousin.

⬤ Go on trips with him on your own.

You experienced this over a weekend, your cousin experiences this possibly a lot more. Check in with your cousin and see how he is.


If you have a query, email Allison at Allison cannot enter into personal correspondence

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