I hosted Thanksgiving for the first time this year, and I invited my parents, my sister, “Carol,” and Carol’s children. My parents live very close and I see them many times a week. Carol doesn’t live too far away, but I don’t see her as much. My husband, “Dan,” and I have a 3-year-old who adores my sister. Unfortunately, my sister smokes and has been smoking a long time, and Dan hates it. Personally, as long as you don’t smoke around me or in my house, which Carol doesn’t, then I don’t have an issue with it. But Dan is a whole different story, and it came to a head on Thanksgiving.
On Thanksgiving, as soon as my sister came in, Dan cracked a window open (because of the smell of smoke on her) and the atmosphere changed. I could feel the animosity from Dan. He became very short with Carol and acted like she wasn’t there, so she just quietly sunk into the background. I can recall her going out to her car to smoke three times during the four hours she was visiting, and each time she came back in I could smell the smoke and perfume on her. Each time she would come back in, my husband got angry. The tension became so thick—-it was like everyone was afraid to say or do anything—-and it upset me because this was about everyone being together.
After everyone left and our son was in bed, I had a talk with Dan about why he acted the way he did, and he said it was because of Carol coming into “his” house smelling like smoke. I pointed out that he was treating her horribly all evening and it upset me because she is my sister and he shouldn’t be treating her like some sort of disease. He said she is a disease because of her horrible smoking habit and he doesn’t want our 3-year-old to be around her because she smells of smoke.
I was floored, to put it simply. Never have I felt so betrayed and hurt. She is my only sister and has been nothing but good and kind to him, and he can’t see past that she smells like smoke. I’m not saying that he has to like her; I just ask that he treat her kindly while she is at our house, but he says he is adamant about her not coming over again unless she stops smoking or doesn’t smell of smoke. I don’t know what to do. She can change her shirt and she washes her hands after she comes in, but the smell of smoke is strong on her. I want my son to continue to have a relationship with his aunt and I don’t want there to be a hostile environment in my own home. What can I do to help remedy the situation? — Up in Smoke
Listen, I’m probably as uptight about cigarette smoke as your husband is, but I couldn’t imagine treating a family member – or anyone, really – like your husband treated your sister on Thanksgiving and like he treats you, his wife, by extension. His lack of regard for your feelings, his lack of compassion toward your sister, and his bad manners are real hindrances to long-term harmony in your home. This goes beyond fostering a relationship between your sister and your son; there are clear warning signs here signaling a crack in your marriage that I urge you not to ignore.
You can figure out a way to see your sister away from your husband and outside your home. You could go to her house, meet at your parents’ house, or plan outdoor activities together. But this isn’t going to solve the dilemma you have with your husband, which is the real crux of your concern, I think. When one person makes unilateral decisions without consulting his or her partner, like your husband has made regarding your sister’s presence in your home, that’s a bigger problem than an advice columnist can address in a single column. What you need is a trained therapist, or at least a mediator, to help you communicate your viewpoints and find a compromise.
You don’t share enough information for me to have a clear understanding of whether your husband has always been this way – “this way” meaning a controlling jerk who prioritizes his own desires and needs over everyone else’s, including his wife’s – or whether this behavior is new. If there has been a behavior shift recently, it is worth exploring – again, with a trained therapist – what the possible triggers of that shift might be and to address those issues. But if Dan has always been controlling and it’s simply gotten to a point or extended to a position that you can’t tolerate – like banning your sister from your own home – then it’s worth exploring why you married him in the first place, knowing he had a compassion deficit and a controlling nature.
In the meantime, do everything you can to continue seeing your family – your parents and your sister – whether it’s in your own home, against your husband’s wishes (because he isn’t the boss and he doesn’t get the final say about who is allowed in your home) or at your parents’ house or in neutral places. I have a feeling that, in the coming months to years, you will need their support, and they will be in a uniquely helpful position of having witnessed themselves why their support is needed.