Question

I have a son-in-law who is a great father and husband, but he does something that makes the rest of the family terribly uncomfortable. When he’s in mixed company, he’ll openly argue with his wife and children. I can see the look on their faces of how embarrassed they are and it’s so uncomfortable for everyone else. He’s not loud or abusive, but he acts as if no one else is even in the room when he’s talking to his family this way. We’re not sure if it’s even any of our business, but we feel bad for our daughter and his children and how embarrassing it is for them. My daughter is respectful to him and never complains or says anything to us about it. We just see it happening. Please don’t get me wrong. He doesn’t do this every time we’re around him. It’s occasional, but when it happens, it makes things very tense. I’d love your input on how to handle this.

Answer

It’s difficult to watch your loved ones be on the receiving end of bad behavior. Every protective instinct surfaces and you want to protect them from experiencing even one second of mistreatment. You’re telling me his behavior isn’t abusive, it’s just tense. I’m going to take your word and respond as if it’s not abuse. If his behavior were abusive, my answer would be different.

I don’t believe you need to do anything different. It’s not your responsibility to intervene with their family dynamic. If you personally can’t handle the emotional tension in the room when this happens, you don’t have to stick around to see it. If it’s really that bad and the room clears when he begins speaking this way to his family, hopefully they’ll all get the message that it’s the wrong time and place.

He might have a completely different comfort level with emotional intensity. When I married my wife over twenty years ago, it surprised me that she was comfortable discussing emotionally charged topics in front of other people. She grew up in a family where they passionately discussed ideas in mixed company. On the other hand, my family preferred to keep intensity to a minimum and conflicting ideas were handled privately. It took us years to dial in the right balance of these two different styles of talking through issues.

You intuitively know your daughter’s comfort level, as it’s probably similar to yours. Be careful to not elevate her style above your son-in-law’s style and judge his as harmful unless it really seems to be. They have a responsibility to blend their styles and figure out a way to communicate their concerns with one another. For some couples, it’s more natural than others.

Even though your daughter might look uncomfortable, she’s not uncomfortable enough yet to do anything different with this interaction. It’s easy to focus on your son-in-law as the only one who is being insensitive. Every time this happens, your daughter has an opportunity to do something to address it with him. If it’s truly humiliating and embarrassing to her, she can set clear expectations with him that she won’t publicly participate when this happens. She can also ask him to speak differently to her and the children. If she says nothing, then she’s just as responsible for allowing this to happen.

She has plenty of options for how to respond. She could wait until they leave and discuss her concerns. She could ask him to go with her to a private area to discuss. She can even just walk away and send a clear signal that this isn’t the right place. Give her the benefit of the doubt that she will get this figured out if it’s really bothering her that much. She has to learn how to use her voice to ask for what she needs. She may actually be more used to his style, but when she’s around you, she knows it would make other family members uncomfortable.

Recognize that this may never change. It could simply be the way they interact with each other for the rest of their lives. You want to make room for unfamiliar styles in your family as long as they’re not abusive. If you’ve seen movies like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” or watched reality shows like “Cake Boss”, you know that some families can get dramatic and still have plenty of love and connection. Outsiders may be confused, but everyone in the system understands the implicit rules of how everyone treats each other. You’re witnessing a family subculture within your larger family, which will look different.

Your daughter is the wife and the mom and needs to take ownership for how she responds to this dynamic. If it’s not working for her or if she’s worried about how it might affect others, she needs to speak up and do something about it. She’s not a victim and powerless to effect change. Give her the space and permission to do that important work for herself and her family.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at geoff@lovingmarriage.com

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.

 

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