Dear Therapist:

My husband has a very difficult time getting along with my parents. I am not sure what the source of this is but it's been like that for a while. My husband is a great father and wonderful husband and man, and my parents are wonderful too. We all have our quirks and somehow my husband and parents just grate on each other the wrong way.  We have somehow managed this over the first 5 years of our marriage but it seems to be getting worse to the point that the relationship seems to be at the brink of breaking off completely. I have, very carefully, tried to broach the subject with both sides. My parents respond with denial that anything is wrong and pretend they don't understand what I am talking about. My husband acknowledges that it is an issue but seems so triggered that I don't think there is much room for work. I am worried about where this is going to end up and how I am going to be stuck in the middle. I would appreciate any suggestions you have for navigating this. Thank you. 



You are obviously in a difficult situation. It seems like you feel torn between your relationship with your husband and your relationship with your parents. You may feel like you’re being pulled in two directions that are mutually exclusive.

Nonetheless, it appears that you are not currently being pulled into the conflict. You’re concerned that you will be stuck in the middle at some point in the future. Your parents are specifically denying that there is an issue, and it doesn’t sound as if your husband is trying to involve you in the conflict. Also, it seems that your husband’s struggle may be largely emotional, rather than based on particular disputes or confrontations.

If your husband’s reactions are, in fact, mostly due to an internal struggle, I wonder how aware he is of this. If he is introspective enough to recognize his triggers and understand their causes, he is less likely to involve you in a conflict that he recognizes is provoked by this.

It is when there is a perceived insult or problem that people tend to get others involved. Part of the reason for this is that there is a strong trigger that they are unwilling or unable to deal with. Therefore, their focus is placed on the perceived issue. They need others to agree with them and to take their side. Of course, since their emotional energy is dedicated to what is only a façade, this typically doesn’t resolve the problem. The underlying issue continues to fester until the person begins acknowledging and dealing with it.

There are two aspects to your situation. I have been making some assumptions, and I don’t have all of the facts, so I will respond from a general perspective.

You are trying to figure out how to deal with the current problem. You want to maintain your relationships with both your husband and your parents. If your parents continue to deny that there is a problem and your husband is dealing with his issues on his own, your concerns may never come to fruition. If either your parents or your husband tries to involve you in some way, setting clear boundaries can help you to steer clear of much of the conflict.

The first step would be mental and emotional. You would clearly remind yourself that any issue that exists between your husband and your parents is between them. You would acknowledge any emotional involvement that you already have, and mentally separate it from the actual conflict. Instead of feeling a part of the conflict, you would view it as something outside of your relationships.

Once you are able to mentally and emotionally separate yourself from the conflict, you would be better prepared to set boundaries with both your husband and your parents. If they try and pull you into the conflict, you would be more prepared to explain that your individual relationships are separate from theirs. Each side would need to understand that your relationship with the other side has nothing to do with your relationship with them and is not an indication that you are taking sides. In fact, it’s a statement of the fact that you specifically are not.

Of course, this is not necessarily as simple as it may sound. One person or another may feel betrayed by your adherence to another. However, calmly explaining your dispassionate approach to the situation can go a long way toward alleviating hurt feelings.

If your husband hyper-focuses on perceived issues in order to repress the underlying issue, other problems will likely arise. These could manifest within other relationships or take the form of other problems entirely. If his negative reactions toward your parents is largely due to his own triggers and insecurities, this is something that he needs to deal with. Whether he seeks professional help or addresses this on his own, it is imperative that he identify and resolve these emotions.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


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