Grieving Family, Once Removed

10 Jul

Dear LetterBalm: I’m engaged to a young man who lost his wife to cancer six years ago. He remains close to his late wife’s family, particularly her parents. I’m very supportive about this, and I want to get to know them, too. Because they mean so much to my fiancé, they must be good people. But I’ve been with him for three years now, and they’ve told him many times that I’m not welcome in their homes and I’m not invited to any parties and dinners that he’s invited to. Apparently, the loss of their daughter is too much for them to take, even several years later. They can’t accept that my fiancé has moved on, and they want nothing to do with me. He invited the family to a Memorial Day barbecue, and as soon as his late wife’s mom saw me she got so upset that her daughter had to take her home. The rest of the family was noticeably cool to me for the rest of the day, to the point where my fiancé and my sister tried (gently) to talk with them about it. My fiancé is saddened and mystified by all this, and he apologizes every time they are upset by my presence in his life. Thank goodness he didn’t have children or the relationship would have been even more complicated. I love my fiancé very much, but this behavior hurts me. How can I reconcile all this?

–In Exile

Ms. L.B. is astonished. The death of a beloved daughter and sibling at a young age is, indeed, tragic, and no one – certainly not you – is denying her memory. But this family has institutionalized its grief to the point where it blocks any normal interaction and ability to move on. It looks like the parents, particularly the matriarch, call the emotional shots for the clan and have cruelly focused on you. You recognize the importance of your fiancé’s closeness to his late wife’s family, but you can objectively see that this is unhealthy for your relationship with him. Clearly, they supply a level of intimacy and acceptance that are important to him. You may wonder if he is completely over the death of his wife. Certainly, six years later, he should be able to enjoy himself in their presence with his new fiancée. You can give your fiancé an ultimatum, but be aware he may choose his dysfunctional ex-in-laws over you:

Keith, I have to talk with you about Tori’s family. I’m in a bind, and there doesn’t seem any way out. I’ve always wanted you to continue the close relationship you have with them – it makes you happy, and they are good to you. But their goodness stops with me. They are forbidding me to be a part of your life in their presence. This is cruel and manipulative, and even you admit it makes you sad and confused. They’ve never gotten over Tori’s death, and they’re using me as a way to punish you because you’re moving on. You’re apologizing for merely having me in your life. Obviously, unless they change their attitude toward me, I can’t see them. This is a huge problem in our relationship, darling. What are we going to do? Can you bring yourself to tell your ex-in-laws that unless they change their behavior toward the woman you’re planning to marry, you will cut back contact with them? Can you do this, because if you can’t we have to talk.

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