My Iranian In-Laws Are Driving Me Crazy And I’m Struggling To Set Boundaries

Hello Dr. G!!

I’m married for 7 years now but dealing with my in-laws is no longer tolerable. My husband is the sweetest man and perhaps even too sweet, wanting to please everyone; especially HIS PARENTS!

While I never truly hit it off with his parents, we were always polite and respectful of each other. But now that my husband and I have a 2 year-old daughter, they are wayyyyy too involved in our lives. I feel like my personal boundaries have been blurred and privacy is shrinking week by week. They live locally and while I appreciate their help from time to time, they are becoming a bit too ‘poh-roo’ with their behavior and involvement.

My list of gripes is long but I’ll trim it down to to two:

  • Repeatedly dropping by our home unannounced
  • The frequent critiques of my parenting style and abilities either made to me directly or to my husband (which almost always gets back to me)

Don’t get me wrong, my in-laws are good people, but they’re not my cup of ‘chai’ if you know what I mean. They gossip more than I care for, value things I do not and are a bit cynical about people, life and so on. The dynamics were tolerable before we had our daughter but I’m at my wits end with them. They’re in my hair, in my house, in my kitchen…it feels like they’re in my space 24/7. And worse, my husband doesn’t want to offend them so he’s passive, seldom defending me when I’m being criticized or pushing back when they drop in unannounced.

In fairness to him I do not want to rock the boat either, but come on dude, it’s your parents!! Talk to them. Let’s reset the ground rules for what is and is not acceptable. Sorry, I’m rambling on but this venting is cathartic.

My questions are:

1. Is it fair for me to expect my husband to defend me and/or push back on his parents when they’re criticizing my parenting? Such critiques are tremendously painful and are damaging to my relationship with them. I’m not sure he gets it.

2. How should we (myself or him) go about gently telling them to STOP COMING OVER ALL THE TIME.

Thank you soooo much for listening.

Sanaz, 29, Irvine

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Dear Sanaz,

Thank you so much for taking the time to write in with what I can only imagine is a fairly universal experience of families who actually maintain relationships with their family members! I’ll answer your questions first, and then let’s explore your situation a bit further.

1. Yes, you are allowed to expect your husband to advocate for you (well, both of you actually) ;-). This issue is less about your in-laws and more about the dynamic between you and your husband.

2. I’m not sure there will be a “gentle” way of doing this, or even what you mean by the word “gentle” so we will discuss this more. As far as who does it, it would be preferable for your husband to discuss this privately with his parents.

Okay, so now let’s dig in. You have definitely communicated your frustration well, and it’s jumping off my computer screen. Let me first validate your feelings and say that I am so sorry that you are struggling with this situation, and I can totally understand how uncomfortable it may be for you (and others in your situation). I think one thing that may help is identifying the core issues. Is it the unexpected visits that you feel are most intrusive? And if so, why? Is it because you feel that you may be criticized? Is it because you would like to feel comfortable walking around naked or in pajamas and they are intruding on this? Or is it because it interferes with your ability to spontaneously have sex with your husband? Is it because you are more inherently introverted and it takes you a little while to gear up to socialize? Or do you simply need “alone, you time” and this somehow interferes? What is the reason the unexpected visits are bothersome?

I think most of us can appreciate the “critiquing” situation without even knowing anything more than this! I’m also pretty confident in saying that I think most parents (or grandparents technically) will feel that they have good advice or guidance to give…I mean, after all, they must have done a pretty decent job because you’re alive and lived long enough to now start your own family. Naturally they will want to impart their wisdom to you, so that you, too, will live to be a grandparent! I am in no way minimizing your feelings about this, but the good news here is that you can change how you experience this reality simply by changing your attitude or beliefs about it. And, in a world of mostly uncontrollable events, situations, and entities, I would strongly recommend you grab a hold of the very few things we do actually have control over – our thoughts, our feelings, and our behaviors.

Your husband is the same man you met a really long time ago before you knew his family, and you fell in love with him.

So here’s the deal. Your husband is the same man you met a really long time ago before you knew his family, and you fell in love with him. My guess is that his “passivity” was interpreted at the time as kindness, value of family, closeness to his parents. I’m also guessing that at the time, these were viewed as very positive traits, endearing you to your husband even more. Now, as time has passed, you have recognized that he is simply passive, lacking assertiveness, and this is not as attractive or helpful. This is a tricky one! I don’t want to presume, but do you think you tend to communicate your distress about this in the context of frustration (anger), and more in an accusatory approach? If so, then there’s an easy fix, and perhaps trying communicating in a more calm, direct manner and telling him more effectively:

“Azizam, I’m really feeling frustrated by this situation, and I could really use your help. It would mean the world to me if you could let your parents know that we need a heads up when they plan to come over because life is stressful and we need our privacy and alone time as a family too. What do you think about that? Would you be willing to do that for me?”

And feel free to throw an “I love you and I just want to spend our free time more with you than anyone.” Either way, two pieces of information will be critical: (1) Why you need boundaries, and (2) Why he has trouble setting them. Perhaps a professional can help you delve into these issues (if it gets a lot worse at home). Remember, we are all trying to manipulate the world around us to benefit us in some way, and if you need something to happen, you’ll get a lot farther by assuaging your husband’s ego by communicating how much you NEED him, versus beating him over the head with frying pans about how useless and ineffectual he is as a husband.

Now, if you’re already communicating compassionately with your husband and he is still unwilling to do anything, then perhaps you could recommend couple’s counseling so that he can gain some insight about potential barriers to changing his behavior. Chances are this same passivity has led to other types of problems for him, perhaps in the professional realm. Perhaps he has a confidence issue. Ultimately, you need to be able to trust him, and he needs to be able to trust his parents. If he has trouble with boundaries, perhaps growing up, it was not a safe place for him to express himself (sorry I digress). Anyway, HE is the one who needs to advocate and here is the reason: To his parents, he will always be their son and they will love him no matter what. If he gets into an argument with them or he hurts their feelings, they will forgive him and get over it eventually. If YOU try to set this boundary, they will end up feeling resentful towards you and they will see you as the enemy who is trying to keep them from spending time with their son and grandchild. This would ultimately be detrimental to you and your husband because if they are not on your side then they can create a great deal of strain among the family members across generations (because we all know just how overly enmeshed we tend to be in this culture).

I cannot emphasize this enough: The message MUST come from YOUR husband because the issue is with HIS parents. And he also must accept some responsibility for the decision and clearly communicate with his parents that both of you need privacy. In other words, if he throws you under the bus and tells his parents that just you need the space and privacy and a heads up if they want to come over or you’ll be angry, then you may as well have just confronted them directly yourself – the outcome will be as though you had. No bueno.

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Let’s take a moment to put things in perspective once again. These are his parents. You love him! So, why is it difficult to love his parents? Sure, I totally get it (and tend to COMPLETELY agree with you because these are aspects of our culture that I too have struggled with over the years), the ridiculous gossip, negativity, pettiness, grudge-holding drama, the obsession (especially in Orange County) with superficial indicators of wealth and status….on and on and on….we hate those traits. Funny thing is that they probably do too! Would it be wonderful if all these folks who tend to sit around and gossip were instead out learning new languages, learning musical instruments, doing tons of charity with all that money and time?! YES! But let’s also be compassionate. Most of our parents came from Iran, and life was different for them. Perhaps just getting an education was nirvana. Or perhaps they were unable to obtain even a college degree and their only desire was to raise their own child in an environment and country where there are more choices and opportunities (and not everyone has to be a doctor! — clearly a cultural fate I did not escape).

We have to be willing to consider alternatives in how we view others. This intrusive dropping by? Perhaps they see you as just an extension of their son, and when it comes to their son, there are no boundaries (clearly) because they raised him and he was a part of his mother (literally). Remember, they will not live forever, and if nature takes its natural course, then they will die sooner than you, your husband, and your child, and you will have many years, even decades, without them around. I don’t say this to guilt-trip you (God only knows we all suffer enough from that syndrome in our culture, similar to Catholic guilt!), but simply to help you take a step back. Also, consider how wonderful it is that your child has living grandparents at all, who are alive and live nearby. Not everyone has that resource.

Now, don’t back down just because of that last paragraph. The more or perhaps most important issues here have to do with your thought-processing (YOU), and also your relationship with your husband (YOU and HIM). You have the power to simply decide that you will not take anything they tell you personally or interpret it through a lens of defensiveness. I doubt they have malice towards you when they make comments. Their critiques most likely come from an ego-centric place where they lack self-awareness about the possible impact on you. You are well within your rights also to respond if they say something hurtful, but if you do, perhaps owning it instead of reacting, would be healthier. So, say something like “Gosh, that makes me feel really badly about myself when you say that” or “That really hurts my feelings.” This will help them gain insight about the impact of their comments to you, and in none of that did you accuse them, curse them, or react impulsively. They will be forced into a position of taking responsibility for what they say to you. Nothing is unhealthier than passive aggression. Learning to be neither passive, nor aggressive, nor passive-aggressive is truly a skill – a bit of a science, and a bit of an art. Assertiveness is the goal always. Learning how to communicate assertively means learning how to communicate effectively, and not emotionally (although this does not mean that you are not mindful and compassionate about how you feel). Now, of course this also requires a receptive recipient of the message, but at least you will always know that you have done your part.

I hope this is thought-provoking. Remember, worst case scenario, you can tell your husband you want to move to Arizona, where you can live in a mansion for half the price! I don’t ever recommend avoidance as a strategy for solving problems, but there are plenty of perks with this option too! 😉

Take care and be well,

Dr. G.

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