In honor of the upcoming holiday season, I am re-posting this column that was originally published on November 8, 2011. It was written by guest columnist, Billie Criswell, while I was taking maternity leave.
I’ve been married for two years to my high school sweetheart, Mark, but we’ve been together as a couple for nearly 10 years, so I’ve had plenty of time to get to know my FIL, Hank. But the more I know about him, the less I want to have anything to do with him. Hank loves being inappropriate and making intentionally over-the-top bigoted comments just for the reaction. On two separate occasions when we’ve dined out as a family, we’ve been seated near a table where two women were dining alone, and he couldn’t stop snickering the whole time about how they must be lesbians. He also slut-shames one of his nieces because she’s 30, unmarried, was an NFL cheerleader for a little while and dresses sexy. After one of Mark’s other cousins brought a new girlfriend to a family event, Hank couldn’t stop talking about the size of her breasts. I have actually snapped back at him a few times, but teasing is common in Mark’s family – you only earn respect with them if you can “dish it out” as well as you can take it, so if I do fire a comeback at him, he takes it as playful banter.
Hank’s behavior has only gotten worse in the past couple years. Mark doesn’t like his father that much either, but family is family and he still loves him, of course, as he should. Mark is getting less patient with me when I vent out my feelings after a visit. His parents live on the opposite side of the state from us, a four-hour drive. But because the drive isn’t *that* long, we do end up seeing each other about once a month or so – the next occasion on the calendar is Thanksgiving at their house. I dread having to put up with Hank if he’s in one of his “ornery” moods. My patience with him is thin and I honestly wouldn’t feel that bad about exploding and chewing him out if he provokes me. I’m not expecting him to change, but if you have any suggestions for how I can tolerate being around him without blowing up in feminist rage or annoying my husband by complaining, I could really use the advice before Thanksgiving. — Offended In-Law
While I certainly don’t blame you for being insulted, holidays are not — I repeat NOT — the time to unleash a possible family feud. This isn’t something new that popped up; this situation has fermented over time, and now you are feeling the pressure, but you should keep it corked while celebrations are ensuing, especially since you’ve decided to attend. [I hope it goes without saying there is the obvious solution of just not going.]
The first and best thing that you can try to do is not take it personally when he starts in on his rants. Expect them to come, and know that you are just going to tune it out when it does. Ignore him. It doesn’t sound like these comments are aimed at you (thank God!) so just decide not to participate. Try to focus on good qualities that he has too, because I am sure it’s not all black and white. There must be some redeeming qualities in other areas of his life that you may be overlooking in your frustration. See if you can dig deep to think about what they are. And when you feel frustrated with his behavior, concentrate on something else — compliment your husband or your mother-in-law’s cooking. Use shifting the conversation to your advantage. When his talk becomes too much for you, just leave. Excuse yourself for one reason or another. Bring a great book, your laptop, or a giant book of crossword puzzles and immerse yourself in something else for a few moments until you are cool enough to rejoin the group.
Lastly, have a talk with your husband before the holiday, as a preventative measure. You have got to stop your complaining to him because it’s not getting you anywhere and it’s not healthy for your relationship. Tell him you love his family, but the offensive language from his dad is becoming less tolerable for you at this point. Let him know that you have in mind a couple of coping strategies, but that in the coming months, following the holidays, you feel that you either need to limit your contact with his dad, or you’ve got speak up for yourself… and then the two of you need to form plan together.
Perhaps, following the New Year, you can both sit his father down and explain that you love him, but that he needs to be more mindful that he is offending you. The aim is not to “catch him in the act” and then have a big explosion, but to talk to him in a neutral moment, and to express your feelings sincerely. If you feel you can’t talk to him, I’m always a big fan of letters (not emails, letters) because it gives the person time to absorb what they are being told.
One thing you said was that your father-in-law thinks this is all in jest, or is intentionally trying to get a rise out of people… if I were giving him the benefit of the doubt, I would say that he might be shocked to learn how offensive his behavior has been over the years. Also, keep in mind that as we age, we are constantly redefining our boundaries, and so where you might have been able to put up and shut up before, you just can’t now, and that’s perfectly acceptable. You have to be able to articulate this clearly and without a big hoopla so that your stance can be respected and meaningful to those around you, especially to your father-in-law.
* Billie Criswell is a columnist and blogger from the “Delaware Seashore.” She loves zumba, bloody marys, and cooking. You can follow her shenanigans at Bossyitalianwife.com.