Carolyn Hax 298x298

Columnist Carolyn Hax

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Question: My parents live fairly close, but my brother and family are a plane ride away. They will be up at my parents' house in a few days. My husband has limits to how much time he can spend with my family — really with anyone, as he is very introverted — and I respect that by not "forcing" him to join in anything or spend more time at my parents' house than is comfortable.

Because we are about an hour's drive away, I maintain I can spend the time I need to with my family during this visit and he can join when he is comfortable. However, he has taken to declaring that I will only go at certain times because he should be my priority and spending time together should be what's more important to me. Because he is spending time with my family for a night/day, he says, this is what he is owed in return.

I want to slam my car door and get the hell out of there when he talks like this. But he is so convincing about prioritizing "our" family, currently just the two of us, that I have myself second-guessing. Is this what compromise looks like? — Priorities vs. Control

Answer: No. I was about to type out what I think compromise does look like, but that's actually beside the point. A healthy relationship just doesn't have the kind of anger, declarations or coercion you're describing here. The whole thing has an awkward and disturbing feel to it.

Two people who function well together certainly can be at odds in circumstances like the ones you describe here — wanting different things out of your leisure time, having different tolerance levels for socializing and/or each other's families, even having a different idea of what "our" family means — though that issue lives right at the border between differences and incompatibilities.

To make a partnership work amid such differences, what both halves of a couple need are deep investments in each other's happiness and strong boundaries around their own needs.

So, if one of you has to put up major resistance or to deny the other something seen as essential just to get a little of what you need, then you're in trouble.

The way it applies here is pretty basic: For this to work, he needs to see your family time as something you value and encourage you to take it. You, in turn, need to see that his offer costs him valued one-on-one time with you, and accept it judiciously.

This works if he genuinely wants you to see your family and you genuinely don't want to abuse his generosity.

What you have going on now is the reverse — you're pushing him to get your family time and he's pushing you to curtail that time. That's the unhealthy dynamic. And the unnerving part is that, by your account, your husband is using manipulation tactics and outright assertion of control to get more of his needs met. You will only go at certain times, on his orders? Wow.

If this is anything but a onetime outburst that he has since retracted, then I urge you to see a good marriage and family therapist. Solo. Marriage by fiat is not OK.

Email Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com or write her c/o The Washington Post, Style Plus, 1150 15th St., NW, Washington, DC 20071.

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