I gained outlaw status without even trying. My upbringing and my personality, or just some vague essence of "me" proved too different for my matriarchal mother-in-law to tolerate, and very early on in my relationship with my husband, she instructed his siblings to exclude me, not accept me into the family, and to make me uncomfortable and unwelcome.
Of course, I didn’t know this thirty-three years ago when I struggled desperately to find my place in the dynamics of my husband’s family. Within the first six months, though, I learned that I could never raise my voice or correct any of David’s brothers or his sister. The first lesson came quickly as we unloaded and hauled our meager belongings up three flights of stairs into our first apartment in San Antonio. Two of David’s brothers decided to pitch the football into my own brother’s face, and as Charles carried a box at the time, it made it impossible for him to dodge the shot. The other boys laughed hysterically.
“You stop that now!” I shouted at them. “If you think I’m letting you into this apartment after doing something like this, you’d better think again!”
“What did they do?” my mother-in-law asked.
“They threw that football into Charles’s face and laughed! I’m not feeding them dinner if they’re going to be mean!”
I didn’t anticipate the slap. My family doesn’t hit. My mother gave me my last spanking around my sixth birthday. My father yelled. My sister sometimes squished my cheeks together and told me I’d better listen to her, and my little brother never once raised his hand to me in anger.
I stood, dumbstruck in my new little apartment, tears brimming and cheek burning from the impact. My mother hastily set down the box she held and hustled me into the small bedroom.
“Well, Elizabeth Anne, you’ve definitely learned a lesson with your new mother-in-law,” she whispered as she put a cold washcloth to my face. “Don’t criticize her children. Ever!”
That dire warning became increasingly difficult for me to follow over the years. My husband’s family gathers almost constantly, so the potential for saying or doing the wrong thing loomed into my destiny with certainty. Although I longed to fit in with the family, I just couldn't. I came from a family that encouraged differences and independence. David's family wanted everyone to fit into the same mold. It was difficult because I didn’t drink. I didn’t smoke. I didn’t lie, or cheat, or manipulate. I didn’t hit, or scream, or even verbally defend myself from the little mean and cruel digs that stabbed at me during their family gatherings.
The Exclusion Game began during those first years, too. The rules are easy. Make certain Liz and David know about some planned outing or activity at the last possible moment so they have to decline the belated invitation. It always made us look like the ones who weren’t trying to get along because we couldn’t make a function. They always overlooked the fact that often we received the invite an hour before the event started. This game extended to the next generation, and my mother-in-law would claim she couldn’t include our son on sleepovers because “one more child was just too many.”
I cried many times, and I threw up often after visits. Whenever I did visit my husband's family, I tried even harder to fit into their expectations. During those early years, I called to suggest shopping trips or lunch out with my husband’s mother and extended invitations for dinner at our home. Most of the time, I received rejections for my suggestions. Sometimes my mother-in-law would accept an invitation, but then call to cancel at the last minute, or not show up at all. After three or four meals ruined because of no shows, I stopped trying. My husband insisted that his family didn't intend to hurt my feelings. They were simply "thoughtless."
One Thanksgiving, my family came to San Antonio to celebrate the holiday. We couldn’t make it to my in-laws until that Saturday, when the entire clan gathered for a second meal. As the kids played football in the front lawn, my mother-in-law came out onto the porch and stood next to me.
“You ruined my Thanksgiving!” she snarled.
“What do you mean? You had everyone here on Thursday but us, and you have everyone here now,” I responded. Then I continued, “I hadn’t seen my parents in four months. This was the first time this year all of my family has gotten together. You have you family together at this house every month!”
“I don’t care about you or your family!”
A simple truth.
My dysfunctional dance with my in-laws continued for more years than I can remember until eventually one brother-in-law physically harmed me. The details of that day burned forever into my psyche. The ability of this family to circle around, protect each other, and rewrite the event within hours made it clear that I could no longer count on being safe in their company.
And so I divorced my husband’s parents and siblings. This decision came after advice from many friends and even other members within my husband’s extended family. They’d watched the shunning over the years. They’d heard the comments not just spoken to me, but also said about me in my absence. They offered a more objective point of view and had enough distance from the situation to suggest I simply sever relations except for public events like weddings and funerals.
I recently asked for suggestions for blog topics from friends, and one posted the idea of writing about people in our lives that we’d love to hate, but have to love. For many years, that conflict of emotions swirled into every interaction I had with my husband’s family. I don’t think I’d love to hate them, but I also grew to learn that I don’t have to love them. Eventually, it dawned on me that I don’t even have to like them because when it’s all said and done, they never bothered to extend friendship to me, and they never accepted my tentative gestures. For some reason, from the very beginning, they simply didn't want me as a member of the family. I'm not even certain they know why. It makes me sad that they've missed the opportunity to get to know me, but so many years have passed now that I've lost all interest in anything but nodding courtesy at functions. I honestly believe that since I divorced them, they’ve felt relief in not having to deal with the unexpected catalyst my presence created within their family.
Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman