My parents are very old-fashioned, and are constantly guilting me to visit. Each time I go and visit with my wife, I get anxiety that someone will say something wrong and my wife and I always get into an argument on the way home. The following day, my parents will call and argue with me about either my wife's or my behavior; they expect me to behave as they would and want us to always put them first. It is a constant battle to the point where I do not want to go over anymore, but I just feel that I cannot abandon my parents. Any help would be appreciated.
I remember reading an article a while back written by a psychologist who said that even though she helped so many of her clients with their problems, when she went back home to visit with her folks, she felt like she was five years old again! Indeed, the umbilical cord often stays connected long after the actual cutting of it.
For most, our parents play a very important part in our lives. And even though you are an adult, you still want their approval; or at the very least, you don’t want to disappoint or upset them.
In healthy marriages, parents understand that part of the role of parenting is to raise their children in such a way that eventually the child is an independently functioning adult. The child will move out, maintain financial security, and create his or her own family. As a matter of fact, these are all indicators that their development has gone well.
And so, even though in the context of your folks being old-fashioned (whether attitudinal or because of their culture), their behaviors really are inappropriate. You mention that you and your wife end up fighting on the way home and, the next day, you have to defend her actions. It is quite understandable that the matter you raise would cause you anxiety and distress.
Let me start by assuring you that you are not doing anything wrong. Unfortunately, you are being put into a position that leads you to question yourself. Based on what I stated earlier regarding the connection one feels toward parents, it is very reasonable that you would have these emotions and even that you would hesitate wanting to visit.
Responding to Your Out-of-Bounds Parents
When one starts a marriage, the rules change. By that, I mean that the spouse should now take priority in one’s life. Though parents should still be respected and cared for, they are now secondary in the pecking order. Some parents get this and will actually step back so that the couple can honor their new partnership. When they do not, a conflict such as the one you are experiencing develops.
I would imagine that you and your wife are arguing on the way home because she either senses, or you verbalize, things that sound like she is not your priority. And though in your heart she may be, my guess is that your conflict is what is actually getting expressed. Let her know clearly and directly that she is your number one priority and how badly you feel when your parents say or do whatever it is they say or do. If you are more open and honest about your feelings, it will be more likely that she can validate them, which will result in the two of you being more harmonious.
Now, here is the harder task: At some level, your parents can sense your ambivalence as well and so they can continue their behavior as they are now. In a very loving and respectful way, you have to let them know that your marriage and relationship to your wife is your first concern. Be sure to tell them that they are still important to you and that you will always be there for them, but share with them how difficult it is for you to hear their requests and complaints. I would even let them know that, at times, it makes you feel that you are hesitant to visit.
If you think one of your parents would be more open to this, speak to that one first and let him or her be your advocate. Some people have found that writing these types of thoughts in a letter is useful so that their message is clear and cannot be forgotten or rebutted during the delivery process.
Though this will be difficult to do the first time, I think you will feel more empowered. If their behavior continues as it has, it will only take a gentle reminder that it is upsetting. Though you may not be able to change who they are, you have every reason to believe that they will be able to modify their behavior. It may take a little while to see a change, but give it a chance and I am fairly certain it will turn out for the best overall!
Karen Sherman, Ph.D., (www.drkarensherman.com) is a practicing psychologist in relationships and lifestyle issues for over 20 years. She offers teleseminars and is the author of "Mindfulness and the Art of Choice: Transform Your Life" and co-author of "Marriage Magic! Find It, Keep It, and Make it Last." You can sign up for her free monthly newsletter with relationship tips at www.ChoiceRelationships.com