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When His Family Dislikes You

I received a request for advice last month from a woman who was preparing to walk into a very difficult holiday gathering. Sometimes, when I read your requests, I think, "I am so glad I am not in this person's shoes!" And then I put myself in your shoes to try to get a different perspective on the situation, one that might help.

She and her husband had hit a rough patch in their marriage last year, then gotten things back on track. But while things were bad, his mother had received a call from an old flame of his, asking how to contact him. Mom gladly provided it, a near-affair ensued, and his brother's girlfriend became friends with the old flame.

When she had asked her mother-in-law if she was glad to hear her son and his wife were now back in love, she replied snarkily that he was a big boy now, old enough to make his own decisions.

And now it was time to spend a weekend with the mother-in-law, the brother's girlfriend, and the rest of his family. Could she just stay home, she wondered? Was there anything she could do to make it more palatable?

Here was my answer, just in case you face anything similar.

You have one point of agreement with your mother-in-law already: he can make his own decisions. You have another, too: you both love him. Your husband did not get involved with the other woman because your mother-in-law passed along the phone number. He did it because he was temporarily uninvolved with you.

Staying involved with him means staying involved with the woman he calls mom, warts and all. You don't have to like her, but showing her respect in spite of her failings will mean a lot to your husband. Treat her the way you would the maniacal Chairman of the Board who shows up at your office twice a year. He may be crazy, but you respect the position and look forward to the other 363 days of the year when he's off at a distance.

To men, it is the respect that matters, not who is wrong or right. It's built into the testosterone (really -- it goes away when they are given estrogen). And many men have very little skill at relationship issues. If forced to side with one or the other of you, he'll be miserable. And if he's miserable, he's likely to resort to childlike behavior, and she was all that stood between him and death when he was a child, so you know where that is going.

Investing in a long-term relationship with your mother-in-law on this visit is one of the best ways to demonstrate your intention of a long-term relationship with him. (Feel free to take your smart phone into a rest room and Facebook message me with whatever you wish you could say instead of being respectful.)

As for the girlfriend, if she brings up the other woman, try this: "I feel sorry for her -- I know what a wonderful catch my [insert husband's first name here] is -- but I prefer not to hear how she's doing without him." If necessary, repeat it word for word if she returns to this subject or pretends not to hear you.

You might also want to make plans with your husband before you go if, for example, you will be there long enough for it to be appropriate to go out to breakfast or lunch or a walk with just him. If it's planned in advance, he'll have a chance to prepare his response to any comments from the peanut gallery, and it won't look to him like you are responding negatively to the people he loves when you ask for a break from them.

I think we women react strongly to the childish ways men can behave around those they were children with, while we're interacting as adults with adults and reaching around for the hand of that other adult who usually has our back in social situations. Going back to being your two adult selves for a while is a refreshing break and a reminder that it's normal and only temporary.

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Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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