Allison Keating answers your queries about life & relationships
Question: My in-laws are driving me nuts. My husband is an only son and they think he is the best thing since sliced bread. Whenever we spend time with them, he is insufferable afterwards. His mother keeps talking about how tired he is and how hard he works. And over Christmas when they were up, they kept talking about a special surprise they had for his birthday, which was last week. For his present, they have paid for him to go on a week’s holiday playing golf with his dad — without even consulting me as to whether the time suited or anything like that. To make it worse, it is booked for Easter when our kids’ creche is closed and I’m very busy at work. My husband, of course, is delighted but I am raging. I can’t actually articulate to him how inappropriate this is, and how it really isn’t possible. Help!
Allison replies: Oh, this is a fine mess you didn’t get yourself into. Let’s take one thing at a time and start with how you are — this is a fresh injury on what seems like other possibly undealt with pent-up wounds. Years of unresolved comments that felt uncomfortable, personal, and pointed.
It can be hard to be told how tired your husband is or how hard he has been working when I’m imagining there are two of you feeling like this. To help with perspective, his mother is only thinking of her only son. I’m saying this to ease how it is for you. I know you are acutely aware of this but knowing this in a matter-of-fact way can make it feel a little less personal, as it has nothing to do with you — and yet directly impacts you. This is where it needs to be discussed between you and your husband.
Accepting her as she is can help direct your attention to where it needs to be, which is upon how you are, and what this means for you as a couple and a family. This is not giving in — acceptance of others can bring clarity that is easily clouded when you feel upset. Ask yourself what the themes or patterns that frustrate you with your in-laws are, and why. Write it out — do you notice anything? Are there particular times of year such as Christmas, Easter, holiday time, birthdays or big events where similar friction occurs?
Frustrations occur because people speak or act in ways that are outside our control. It is even more frustrating when those behaviours directly impact you. However, noticing other people’s patterns — even though they are frustrating, and upsetting — gives you back something. You will begin to know in advance how it will go, and can make plans or have important pre-chats to inoculate or discuss how you hope it can be within your relationship and family.
Even in situations like this where it seems the choice has already been made, it can be met with an initial pause before a yes is given: ‘What a wonderful birthday surprise, thank you so much. Let me check with (yourself) and see how that would work with the kids that week.’ Knowing patterns can be like sighing a breath of relief — if there are familiar patterns such as controlling behaviour, you can work on ways you’d prefer to respond, and inject a sense of autonomy that works for everyone.
Back to you — can you identify what is beneath the rage? Write ‘Rage’ in big letters at the top of the page and imagine it like the tip of the iceberg. Now tune into how this word is showing up in your thoughts and body below the initial rage surface. Thoughts first, ask and answer: What has made me feel so angry? Why? Has something like this triggered this response before? What happened? How was it resolved — or was it? What was that like for you?
When you think about this, where do you feel it in your body? Take a moment to connect to how it is present in your body. Is it a sense of unfairness, irritation, fast and circling thoughts? Write them down, as they need to be identified. Do you feel minded or cared for? Is this bringing up an unmet need for you? How would you describe your relationship with your parents? Do this with each parent.
On a practical level, what plans had you made for childcare for the week of Easter? Perhaps you didn’t have time to talk about this together, as the plans were made before you could discuss Easter, which feels far away just after Christmas. I’d suggest having this practical conversation after you have worked through the emotions first.
Some prompts for this could be to ask him what he thinks needs to happen that week — explore what plan needs to be put in place to support you whilst at work, and what other alternatives are available, as this is a family decision. Role reversals can illustrate points well without it being personal. ‘Can I ask you to imagine if my parents surprised me with a trip away and hadn’t talked it through with you, I’m wondering how that would be for you?
The reason you can’t articulate how you feel is because the emotions feel so strong that you can’t access the pre-frontal cortex — it isn’t possible. By answering the questions above, it will help process and clarify exactly why you feel the way you do. Learning how to self-regulate is one of the most important skills, which then can facilitate important conversations like this with your husband.
The myth of ‘never go to bed on an argument’ isn’t true, and is certainly unhelpful. However, it isn’t going to be productive having an important conversation when you feel the red mist is there. It is OK to say ‘I’m very upset/angry about this and would like to talk about it. But I need to think and then I’ll come back to you, as this is important.’
Ongoing conversations to work through the different issues here can explore competitive tiredness, and/or how hard one person works; how it feels to not be included in family decisions that directly affect you; and ways to future proof so this does not happen again.
Tending to the rage and processing what may be built-up resentments, are a step toward healthier ways to communicate, and to protect from the inner circle out.
Allison regrets that she cannot enter into correspondence. If you have a query you would like addressed in this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org