My husband and I are in our early 30s and have been together for 10 years. His parents live 45 minutes away; mine live on the other side of the county. Here’s the deal: My in-laws are too nice. My husband and I run a business together, and for the last five years my in-laws have worked for us, unpaid, one to two days per week. They shower us with gifts at every opportunity. They mail us cards for special occasions and give us treats on Valentine’s Day and Halloween. We celebrate all holidays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and birthdays with them every year. They house-sit for us when we’re away and are currently looking to a buy a house so they can live closer. My mother-in-law cooks and brings us five meals a week. My father-in-law yells “good morning” across the parking lot every time I see him at work and waves with an enthusiasm that baffles me.
All of these things are so nice, but I feel suffocated and resentful, Sugars. I need space, and I don’t know how to get it without hurting feelings. My husband is on board with all of the ways his parents are in our lives (he’s an only child, by the way). He says they want to do these things because they love us. He feels hurt when I can’t come up with a list of gifts that I want his parents to buy me or when I suggest that he could meet his dad for a Father’s Day lunch without me.
Are my in-laws excessively attentive or am I just a Scrooge? Do I need to set boundaries or accept these kind people in my life as they are?
Cheryl Strayed: Even good-problems-to-have are problems, Over-Loved, and, while I’ll admit to being wildly jealous that you get dinner delivered to your house five nights a week at no charge, you have my sympathy. The most important part of your letter is not the section in which you list all the nice things your in-laws do for you, but rather the way you feel about being the recipient of all that thoughtfulness. Your husband is content with the dynamic. You are not. They are crossing boundaries that you do not want them to cross. Which means you need to set those boundaries.
Steve Almond: The only way you’ll be able to accept these people in your life, Over-Loved, is if you set boundaries. Otherwise, you’re stuck pretending to be grateful for their kindness. It’s this pretending — the muzzling of your true feelings — that leaves you feeling “suffocated and resentful.” You need to have a candid conversation with your husband, and then your in-laws, in which you acknowledge your gratitude but also express your need for more space. Hot meals delivered to your doorstep are great. But only if you want them. What if you want to prepare dinner yourself?
CS: I don’t think you need to have a discussion with your in-laws about how you feel when they do X, Y or Z. Such a conversation has a high potential to lead to hurt feelings and the likelihood that in your desire to soothe them, you’ll be persuaded to allow things to remain as they are. The most powerful aspect of setting boundaries is that in doing so you aren’t asking others to change their behavior; you’re opting to change your own.
You feel suffocated by your in-laws’ generosity, so stop accepting the “gifts” you have control over. Start paying them for the work they do at your business as employees and stop using them as house sitters. Thank your mother-in-law for all the good dinners she’s cooked for you so far and tell her you and your husband will be cooking your own from now on. Tell your husband you want to celebrate some holidays with your own family of origin (or others) and do it. Once you establish these boundaries, the things you have less control over — the onslaught of cards, the way your father-in-law greets you — will very likely feel far less suffocating. You might even come to appreciate them.
SA: Your husband is a beloved only child accustomed to this level of involvement. To him, lunch with dad on Father’s Day is standard practice. To you, it registers as mandatory attendance. There’s no right or wrong here. You simply grew up in different family cultures. You’ve written us now, no doubt, because your in-laws are considering moving even closer. All the more reason to come clean. You clearly cherish your in-laws and want them in your life, but on your terms. That’s not mean. It’s just how you feel.
CS: Suffocated is indeed how you feel, but the way to make change is not a feeling, it’s an action. You have to do things differently than you did them before if you want things to be different. Doing things on your own is not a punishment directed at your in-laws, it’s a reasonable decision you’ve made for the betterment of your relationship with them. You are part of the equation, so put yourself in it. You know how they like to interact with you. How would you like to interact with them?
SA: People are much better equipped to put up boundaries against folks who are inconsiderate and mean. But it’s also true that controlling behavior can disguise itself as love. So can neediness. I’m not suggesting that your in-laws fall into this category. But I am suggesting that you’ll embrace their acts of kindness and generosity much more authentically if you don’t feel controlled by those acts. You have a right, even an obligation, to be honest with them about who you are. It’s awesome that your father-in-law waves at you with such vigor each morning. I suspect you’ll feel more inclined to return that gesture if you know that you’re also allowed to tell him you’re having a bad day.