READER’S QUESTION: “My husband and I are visiting his family (whom I've never met) next week. His dad was a serial cheater and the fallout from it had big impacts (poverty, emotional issues, etc.). He claims to be reformed, but to me, a man who risks the wellbeing of his entire family for MULTIPLE affairs has something irredeemable in his character. My husband knows I could never truly like or respect his dad, which hurts him. He also knows I'm very good at hiding feelings like that to get along when needed. I feel it's unreasonable to expect me to like everyone as I can't make myself feel something I don't. The best I can offer is a convincing act, but he can read me like a book and will still be hurt. Are my husband's expectations too high or am I being too inflexible? Sincerely, Reluctant Daughter-in-Law"
EVIE’S ADVICE: It sounds like both you and your husband will need to adjust your expectations for a situation like this. It’s possible for anyone to change their life around and try to make amends, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that your father-in-law has. It’s totally reasonable for you to be hesitant, but you should also try to be cautiously open-minded for indicators of your FIL’s current actions and intentions, whether the proof points to a change or continued poor behavior.
You and your husband should also clear the air before the visit and discuss each of your hopes and expectations for a future relationship with him. Does your husband feel ready to forgive his dad and welcome him back into his life? If he’s able to do the work to get to that point, even considering the circumstances that damaged his relationship, you should respect your husband’s wishes and do your best to get to know him as he is today. You could be totally surprised and feel hopeful about the dynamic after meeting him, so it’s important to do your best to leave past judgments in the past. It’s totally reasonable for you to still proceed with caution however, especially if the relationship between them was bad enough that you two never met prior to getting married or at your wedding, or if your husband has been talking badly about him for years. Your husband should accept that you have valid reasons not to immediately trust or like his dad, and it takes time to overcome that hesitation.
You and your husband should discuss what he wants out of a relationship with his dad.
Now, you’ve said that you’re good at hiding your feelings in order to get along when needed, and we actually would argue that that’s a great compromise for the time being. Being polite even when you don't like someone isn't a terrible thing – it's a very common and even decent thing. If we humans acted how we were genuinely feeling every moment of the day, that would be terrible and would lead to much more unnecessary confrontation and petty arguments. So being polite during your visit is the best option, regardless of how you really feel. Hopefully, your husband can understand that your opinion and feelings toward his dad aren’t going to change overnight and will accept your politeness during your visit as you doing your best.
Even after your visit, however, it’s essential to continue the conversation between you and your husband about what he wants out of a relationship with his dad. Since this is a father-son wound, there is a biological drive to receive parental love and approval. Being treated badly by a parent can't erase that primal urge, it just creates internal confusion, as the child is both innately drawn toward the parent who should love and protect them and pulls away from the parent who hurts them. The parent is both the source of distress and the source of comfort. Some long-term resources to look into are attachment theory and couples and individual counseling, just to thoughtfully sift through family of origin experiences. We'd also recommend both you and your husband get on the same page about how involved your father-in-law will be in your life before your family expands and you have your child(s)’ relationship with him to worry about as well.
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