Ask Andrew – My husband and I come from different cultures and different attitdues to family and pulling us apart
My husband and I have one particular area of contention that we are struggling with… his sister, although I do think it is slightly more general. My husband hates confrontation and at times I feel like he compromises our relationship to keep others happy. I am the opposite and struggle with trying not to be too aggressively confrontational.
The reason his sister is a particularly tricky area is that she has lived with us since her mother died 3 years ago when she was finishing school. To complicate things further my husband and his sister grew up in a completely different culture from me. This means that the seemingly small things to me are quite difficult for particularly her (my husband can appreciate where I am coming from as he has lived in the UK for some time).
I am finding it a very difficult situation especially now that my husband and I have a baby. One of my biggest complaints is that she is quite careless and the house ends up being dangerous for our now 1 year old. A few weeks ago he ended up crawling around on broken glass and then even worse tipped some of his cereal onto it and was eating cereal mixed with small shards of glass. I hardly saw any sign of anger in my husband although he did assure me that he had talked to her and was angry. This was not the first time broken glass was left on the floor.
After this incident my husband and I agreed it was time for her to move to the apartment downstairs.. it had been on the cards as we don’t have enough room in the main house and my husband and I needed out bedroom back (meaning the baby needs a room). But my husband hasn’t really made it happen. So now half her things are downstairs and half upstairs and she has clearly been living upstairs while I have been away and has left small choking hazards around for my baby (my husband is still away).
I have immense frustration and tonight a lot of that was aimed at his sister (possibly unfairly) which is unusual as normally I leave it for my husband to deal with, however, that usually leads to more frustration. He was supposed to ask her to finish moving her things by the time I got home but he forgot. He often complains that he feels stuck in the middle and I’m sure it must be awful but if I say anything it upsets his sister and she runs to him any way begging for a tranquil life. But now it has built up so much I am starting to feel depressed at home. Nobody here seems to complain about anything and my husband has said at times that all the problems seem to come from me as life here in S. America is just more chilled out, people don’t complain they just get on with life.
I made a very bad job of dealing with his sister tonight and now she is refusing to talk to me till my husband gets home next week. I am at a loss as to how we can make this dynamic work. I feel a bit like the outsider at times, my husband often seems so much more excited to chat to her after work than me (so yes there is a bit of jealously thrown in too). He has said before that she is easier to live with than me due to the lack of complaints. I do feel that I complain too much and I hope much of it stems from the frustration although I suspect some comes from childhood experience.
Any advice on how to improve the situation would be gratefully accepted.
First of all, I want to congratulate you on a thoughtful and insightful letter – despite your evident frustration.
I know from first hand experience what it is like to marry into a S.American family! So I can imagine how these arguments might go and just how bewildering it is to someone from the UK (where I imagine that you come from). When you meet someone outside their own culture, you don’t really realise that you’re signing up for! We love our family but we live at two steps removed. In Latin culture, family is everything and I do mean everything. Which gives them free reign to say what they think, get involved in your stuff and expect you to run round in small circles to make them happy too!!! I know you didn’t think it was going to be like this but I think you have to accept the inevitable. You can take a man out of S.America but you can’t take the S.American out of him. So give up expecting him to be something else and look at the advantages. You have lots of cousins, aunts, and maybe even a sister, who will be happy to babysit!
Let’s go back to your letter, what impressed me is that you are prepared to admit part of this comes from your childhood. If you can work out what parts of the anger is from the past and what’s about the glass on the floor, it will help defuse the arguments. (Have a look at ‘Learn to love yourself enough’ to help with this task).
Next you can make things better by changing the way that you communicate, re-read the section in ‘Resolve your differences’ on assertiveness – because that’s what you need to be. (Rather than letting your frustration build and letting personally reasonable requests come out as demands – and therefore easier to paint you as the bad guy). Your husband sounds passive aggressive – so read that section too – so you know how to deal with him better. I would also look at ‘Help your partner say yes’ as this will help your communication too.
Finally, I would apologise to your sister-in-law for what you regret about your most recent argument. It will get her attention and help the two of you move on. (It can’t be easier for her to have lost her mother at an early age and it sounds like her father has disappeared off the scene.) I know this involves you being the ‘big one’ but it will show willingness to change (to your husband) and that will encourage him to see things differently (and hopefully when he’s not so busy defending his sister can realise just how difficult it is for you to be all alone in a foreign culture with a new baby)