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In my husband’s family, the three oldest boys are very close in age. They lived where there weren’t many LDS people. Back when the brothers were in high school, there was a teenage girl in their ward their mother befriended. She took on the role of her mother, helping her with all types of personal errands and other needs. She got tired of this and her solution was to set her up with one of her boys so they could run her around town. The girl tried dating the different brothers, but none seemed interested. However, she just kept at it. Then my husband’s mother passed away. This girl took advantage of the vulnerable state one of my husband’s brothers and began romantically pursuing him. The dad had a revelation that his son should marry her, so he did. The dad was also was engaged merely months after his wife’s passing. I entered the family some time later and married my husband.
Life for these two men (the brother and the father) became immediately more difficult. The new stepmother was very manipulative. She swept in after the death and set conditions that the dad cannot talk about his deceased wife. In fact, every picture and memory of her was removed from the house. The sister-in-law I described earlier is abusive to my husband’s brother. She kicks him out for not doing enough around the house, throws furniture and cell phones, and confiscates his electronics when she wants more attention. She flirts with the other two brothers and reminds me that she’s been in the family longer than me. I’ve directly asked her to stop her inappropriate advances to my husband, but she ignores me. She feels entitled to be familiar with him because she’s been in the family so long. It’s such a messed up scenario. We live several states away because my husband can’t be close to them.
My dilemma is that we are supposedly all going on a girl’s retreat to work on blending the families, but I honestly want nothing to do with her or my stepmother-in-law. How do I handle this without having panic attacks? Help!
I can see how nervous you must be to step into these relational rapids and lose your emotional footing. It’s clear that your husband’s family members have been through some difficult losses over the years that forever changed their relationship landscape. Even though they have all struggled to maintain healthy relationships with their spouses, it doesn’t mean you have to jump right in and swim in their chaos. It’s okay to proceed carefully as you decide how much interaction you want to have with them.
Please recognize that a girl’s retreat isn’t the only way you can build family unity. I understand that, on the surface, it seems like a great way to get the ladies together to build more unity. However, the lack of unity between the women in this family doesn’t appear to be the biggest problem. There are compromised marriages that need serious attention. You described a sister-in-law who shamelessly flirts with your own husband despite your protests. It’s difficult for me to see how getting the ladies together is going to resolve these deeper concerns.
You have to honestly assess whether you have the personal emotional and physical resources to be involved in a trip with these ladies. It may simply be too much for you at this time. You’re an adult who gets to decide how you spend your time and energy. Even though you long for peace in this family, you don’t have to go along silently and put in your time with them. Remember, there are other ways you can influence this family to create unity.
Even though you can’t change these women, you can ask them to consider how their behavior affects your ability to be close to them. They appear to recognize the need for unity between family members. This is similar to your goal. Yes, they are starting in a different place than you, but you can join with them in their acknowledgement that there is disharmony.
Instead of mustering up your strength to quietly endure a week with these women, I encourage you to begin speaking with them about why you’re unsure about going on a trip like this. You can bring up the aggressiveness you’ve experienced with them. You can talk about the refusal to respect each other’s marriages. You can let them know that there is unfinished business with other relationships in the family that make it hard to want to spend alone time with them.
They will likely struggle with your input. They may accuse you of complicating things or picking a fight. Remember that you have the right to add your input and influence to the conversation about this trip. You seek family harmony and can expect them to hear your ideas and concerns.
Stephen R. Covey taught that love isn’t only “permissiveness, softness, [and] ‘nice-guyness.’ True love “involves standards, expectations, requirements, and disciplines.” He teaches that, combined with kindness, patience, and affirmation of their worth, we essentially are telling the other person that we “will neither give up on [her] nor give in to [her].”[i] It’s okay to have loving expectations of these ladies in your family.
You can always decide not to attend the gathering. However, you can still work to influence the family culture as you speak up and let them know why you’re cautious to attend. You can let them know individually why it’s difficult for you to even want to spend time with them at all. They are making choices for how to interact with family members and you have the same ability to choose how you’ll respond as well.
Ultimately, you don’t have to let their chaos drag you into a trip you’re not ready for. They have the priority of getting the women together to fix the problem with unity. You have a different take on how to build closeness in the family. Just because they set this up doesn’t mean you have to automatically go along with it. Your voice matters.
One trip isn’t going to fix the family unity problems, but it can provide an opportunity to build on their recognition and motivation to do something about the obvious patterns. Your influence matters in this family. It’s a long-term conversation and effort, so pace yourself so you can stay centered and non-reactive. You may or may not attend this trip, but your anxiety will go down as you calmly and compassionately describe what you need to feel connected to these other family members.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[i] Covey, Stephen R. “The Divine Center”, p. 146.