How Living with Family Makes You Feel Exposed

Because no couple is an island

Leading up to our wedding, Nick and I spent a few days staying with family before checking into the hotel. On one of those days, Nick said or did something that aggravated me. I don’t remember exactly what it was now, but I’d guess it had something to do with him not tackling the remaining tasks on his wedding to-do list as quickly as I might’ve liked. Or maybe it was because he had made his way over to the TV while I was still in front of the computer, panicking over the seating chart. What I do remember is that I snapped at him, then literally winced at how it sounded. Did I always sound that shrill? No one else seemed to notice, but I was left wondering just when I had become such a grouchy, impatient nag.

The funny thing is, I probably would not have given this exchange another thought if we had been alone, as we usually are these days. Over the past few years, we’ve been all over the place in terms of living arrangements. Back when we were spending every night together but still not officially on the same lease, we embraced each other’s roommates as our own, along with all the chaos, hilarity, and occasional drama such living situations can entail. After graduation, we crashed with family for over a year while we worked on finding jobs and becoming financially stable. In relatively close quarters with parents and soon-to-be in-laws, a relationship can start to feel a bit exposed. A harsh word might garner a raised eyebrow, and if we behaved like bickering children on occasion, well, we could expect a gentle parental scolding, just as if we had been having the spat with a sibling instead of a significant other.

Then we made our big move to an island where we didn’t know anyone. I hadn’t specifically noticed the sudden absence of listening ears, and I definitely hadn’t noticed any impact that might be having on our relationship or the way we spoke to each other. But on our first extended trip home, surrounded by people, I unexpectedly felt hyper-aware of our interactions. We were on display in a way we hadn’t been for over a year. While we didn’t exactly feel the need to be on our absolute best behavior, we did resort to some old habits, like getting our spats out of the way on quick drives to the grocery store, or having whisper-fights in the dark after everyone else had gone to sleep.

While living out the early years of our relationship with relatively little privacy had its challenges, it certainly wasn’t all bad. We’re blessed that we had couches to crash on in a difficult year, and genuinely loved the time we got to spend with our respective families. We have hilarious memories of the years we spent with roommates, dealing with eccentric subletters, and witnessing awkward late-night romantic encounters. (Although, the day you wake up to a find a kiddie pool in your kitchen is a good day to start thinking seriously about getting your own place.) Besides, in retrospect, there are certainly benefits to having multiple witnesses to your occasional bad behavior.

When it’s just Nick and me, it’s all too easy to hit the snooze button and skip that morning workout. It’s not like anyone will know! Plus, let’s say I have a bad day on Monday, and talk Nick into grabbing pizza for dinner because I don’t feel like cooking. But then on Tuesday, it’s Nick’s turn to have a rough day—and I can’t really turn him down for takeout when he indulged me on Monday, right? If I snap at Nick for something minor, there’s no one there to roll their eyes at me and make it painfully obvious that I’m overreacting. When we’re alone, there’s no check on our behavior—real or perceived—and it can be all too easy to start to let these things slide.

Maybe it’s good to have people around that will make me occasionally cringe when I say something more sharply than I intended, or lose my patience a little too quickly. Wasn’t that kind of the point of having all those wedding guests—people who listened to us make our vows, and promised to hold us to them? Meddling is one thing, but being a quiet witness, just perceptible enough to keep a couple on their toes, is another.

Now that we’re back home on our island, in relative isolation with only the occasional coffee shop employee or grocery store cashier to observe our interactions, I’m going to put a bit more effort into self-regulation. After all, we didn’t promise to “love, honor, and cherish… but only when other people are listening.” Perfection may not be the goal, but I don’t need listening ears to guilt me into being a little more patient and kind toward my husband, and we certainly don’t (or at least, shouldn’t) need witnesses to shame us into getting to the gym. I’ll have a good opportunity to practice patience this week, as we work through our respective lists of wedding thank you cards. In return, I hope Nick will do his part to keep me away from the snooze button and out of Domino’s Pizza.

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  • Laura C

    Thank you for this. Getting ready for a big, non-wedding family event (A’s law school graduation, complete with his brother and cousin staying with us and his mother, three aunts, an uncle, and two more cousins at the graduation or dinner after), the witnesses part of this feels awfully relevant, and I’m going to try to remember the good aspects you identify. Through gritted teeth if necessary.

    (Though on the flip side, sometimes having family around can make it harder to move away from the way the family you grew up in did things to the way you want your baby family to do things.)

  • Kayjayoh

    I always wince a little at words like “shrill” and “nag.”

    I also think we all need to give ourselves breaks on the shrill/nag front. Men rarely wonder if they are being shrill or nagging, but I don’t think those are gender-specific traits. Women are told that they are being shrill or that they are nagging when they are simply making their voices heard. It silences us, and makes us second-guess ourselves.

    My suggestion, the next time you wonder if you are being shrill or nagging, is to think more about the message that you are trying to convey, and try not to police yourself about it. Yes, it’s better not to be mean about things, and to speak from a place of kindness and understanding, but don’t invite the self-doubt that the shrill/nag question brings.

    I think you make very good points on how having other people around to witness can help us remain aware of our own behaviors. I love this line, “Wasn’t that kind of the point of having all those wedding guests—people who listened to us make our vows, and promised to hold us to them?” It really brings home the point of the essay.

    • Dawn

      Exactly. I really like the piece, but the concept of nagging is not good. “Nag” to me is a term used to keep women from expecting men to share responsibilities!

      • Kayjayoh

        We need to forgive ourselves for our perceived nagging and shrillness.

        Hell, I sometimes catch myself telling my fiance, “I don’t mean to nag but…[something that I shouldn’t have to ask in the first place].” It really is ingrained, isn’t it?

      • kcaudad

        not the point of the essay… but, I also hate the word ‘nag’. It is a trigger word for me… call me a nag, and I will flip out even more! If my hubs does it, I then proceed to list off things that he ‘nagged’ me about recently. I just hate the way the word has been used in the past on women and in media. It seems like all the 90’s sitcoms showed the stay-at-home mom being a ‘nag’ whenever she tried to get her beer-drinking lazy husband to actually do something productive!

        • Hayley

          I agree “nagging” is unfairly applied to women in a lot of circumstances so I’m careful about using it. (Actually, I also do the, “I don’t mean to nag but…oh WAIT this is totally not nagging, I am making a completely reasonable request!” thing all the time.) But, sometimes nagging is nagging, and in this case…I was totally nagging.

  • Grace

    Flipside: our 5 year relationship has been conducted away from our hometowns and our families and other than the house sharing early in our relationship, privacy to conduct ourselves however we like is all we’ve ever known. When we visit relatives together it’s rarely ever for more than 3 nights. My parents have just made the very kind offer to take us on a week long holiday to the city we will move to later this year, and I have only just realised how under the microscope we will both suddenly be. Eek!

  • Meg

    This is the opposite for my family, it seems like people are rude/mean to their SOs in front of everyone else and I wonder if…behind closed doors they’re actually nice to each other? (because why else would they still be together). I’m always really cognizant of that and really hope I’m not like that with my fiancé in front of family. I’m not embarrassed of the fact that we still like each other. I do think if it crossed a line my mother would say something “Be nice to your boyfriend!” or something like that

  • Eh

    I know that my husband and I need to get better at this too. One thing I’m going to talk to my husband about is him not bringing up times when I have been mad at him in front of his family times. For example, a few days ago he made a comment about how I was mad at him for not telling me he was going to be 2 hours late coming home from work which resulted in me not sleeping very much that night since he didn’t get home until 2am (I go to bed at 10pm, I woke up around midnight and couldn’t get back to sleep because I was expecting him to be home and he wasn’t home). Since he alluded to the story we had to explain the situation to his family, and it turned out that his mother and his brother do the exact same thing. His cousin was over at our place a few weeks ago and mentioned that he shouldn’t bring up our “fights”. A few months ago we agreed to working on not putting each other down (even as a joke) in front of other people since they might not get that it’s a joke. For the most part we have kept to this.

    But I want to say what it’s like being the person who is listening. One couple I am related to has frequent disagreements in front of family. The wife (who married into the family) is usually the one upset at the husband. From the family’s perspective, they want the best for the husband since he is their son, brother, nephew, cousin, etc. The wife comes off as overbearing and domineering. It is very uncomfortable when you don’t have a choice but to listen because the couple is fighting right in front of you (actually I know someone who left this couples house because the wife was yelling at her husband). For example, the wife comes up from the laundry room and berates her husband for putting socks in their new front-load washing machine without putting them in a delicates’ bag (that conversation apparently could not wait until after company had left). She also frequently criticizes him when he is doing parenting tasks (e.g., how he dressed their toddler, him not knowing that you shouldn’t clean a soother by putting it in your mouth, etc.). The family is thinking, “If this is how she treats him in front of his family then imagine what she’s like when they are alone.”

    • STM

      You bring up really interesting points. I know so many couples who put each other down — and sometimes the little insults almost look like an act, like they’re acting out some “Pow! Straight to da moon!” sort of story. It makes me sad, and makes me worry about how well they communicate when they don’t have an “audience.”
      There’s another side to the outside-viewer relationship too. A while back my FH and I had a sit-down talk where I told him that he really needs to say more nice things about me in front of his mother. It’s not that he was putting me down in front of her… he just really wasn’t giving her any window at all into our relationship, and it wasn’t helping her inherent distrust of me. I told him that it’s not that I need him to perform gratitude or happiness he doesn’t feel, but if I do something nice for him, or if he’s feeling really happy, maybe mention it to his family. This was hard for him, because he’s an extremely private person and not one to gush or divulge. But he tried, for me, and once they started to see how genuinely happy and healthy he was with me, they became much more accepting of me, which in turn made our relationship MUCH easier. Sometimes these outside viewers can play roles in a relationship that aren’t even obvious.

      • Eh

        When my husband brings up things that have happened between us I feel like we are acting things out (it was a disagreement we had days or weeks earlier – we’ve worked things out and moved on by this point) and I’m under a microscope, trying to show his family that I treat my husband well (I’m defensive and it sounds like I’m trying to downplay what happened). One day my husband said something to his brother about me right in front of me and I defended myself saying that I didn’t say what he said I said (it was very terse and he said it in a very naggy voice). His brother agreed that I probably didn’t say it that way though my husband may have heard it that way.

        The wife in the couple I was talking about has had a hard time being accepted by her husband’s family because as I mentioned how she treats him in front of the family, but also because he didn’t say anything, especially nice things about her to his family. They would fight in front of family but they felt that their relationship was private so they wouldn’t let their family in on intimate moments. (There was a rumor going around that she was cheating on him and they decided that it didn’t matter what the family thought, it was a private matter between them and he never defended her to the family so they continue to believe that she cheated on him. He has told some close family members that he knew that she was going for lunch with this guy and that they were just friends. Since this rumor still influences some family members’ view of her, years later she feels that her husband didn’t support her when the whole thing happened.) So the family doesn’t understand what he sees in her. On the morning of their wedding his father asked him if she makes him happy and he said yes and his father decided that was a satisfactory response to improve his attitude towards his now DIL. However it didn’t help that they put up a wall between them and the rest of the family after their wedding because she wasn’t being accepted by the family. So instead of trying to work things out with the family they made things worse by cutting them out which reinforced the family’s view of her. I have seen some private moments between this couple by being in the right place at the right time. If they let more people in they would get more buy in from the family.

  • js

    It took being around friends, and them pointing out things that seemed off, for me to realize that my relationship was abusive. That was many, many moons ago and I know now that keeping me isolated was one of the cycles of abuse, but it helped me in a way going through that to learn how to fight clean. It was a very hard lesson to learn but very important to my current, healthy relationship. I like this post and where it’s coming from because I think it’s good for it geez to know that couples can bicker and do it in a way that doesn’t leave invisible scars. It helps the rest of us feel “normal”.

  • Gina

    Yup yup yup. My husband and I are nearing our first anniversary (2 years living together), and also nearing 6 months of having a roommate. It’s funny how different we fight with him around. We will literally hit “pause” on a fight when he gets home and then continue it whenever he leaves the room– poor guy, he can probably tell when something’s up. But it has also been a good reminder to be kinder to each other and consider what we sound like to others.

    • Hayley

      HA! We did this when living with my mom. But she could always tell :) I bet you’ve had your share of whisper-fights, too!

  • Jules

    I know this wasn’t really the point of the essay, but it did start me thinking: often I wish that my friends who are coupled could be a little more vulnerable about what they DO struggle with inside relationships. Coming to APW and reading about things sometimes makes me realize, hey, it’s perfectly normal to disagree on things, and it’s also normal to just be plain grumpy sometimes. The anonymity of the internet means that I don’t care that people know about these “flaws” in my relationship because no one’s competing with me. (And yes, I do think people consciously or subconsciously compete. Judgy statements I’ve heard: “They fight ALL the time.” “They’re SO cute together!!! Eek.” “Well, we’ve been together for 3 years, which is 14 months longer than them, so they don’t really know anything.” “They had sex before they got married and I just don’t believe in that.”)

    The constant comparison, the constant flow of “there is only one right way to relationship”, makes me wish that we could all just be straight with each other sometimes. Not to say you should put your friends in the middle of your uncomfortable fights, but it would be nice to hear “we struggle with X” every now and then. It helps us learn.

    • scw

      I couldn’t agree more that it is important to share those things. I have a few friends in new relationships with guys I really, really like for them, and I’ve made it a point to kind of ‘swap stories’ when I know one just had or is having a fight with her boyfriend. I don’t mean I get into the gory details of our relationship, but I’m always eager to pop in and assure them that sometimes fights are just fights and it’s definitely not necessarily a deal breaker if you have a weird fight or if your partner has a habit that makes you batty. I think sometimes just saying “omg x never closes the kitchen cabinets either” or “we had a very similar fight about feminism” can be reassuring and put things into perspective.

      • Jules

        That’s exactly it! Just reassurance that you’re not alone, and maybe hearing how they chose to deal with it. I think it’s really important that we let down some walls (with our closest friends especially) versus masquerading like we always have perfect finances and awesome sex and straight A kids and doting families. This helps exactly nobody.

        • ElisabethJoanne

          I think it’s important for couples to get feedback on what a healthy relationship is like from people they actually know, not just books and movies. Lots of people may get that from watching their parents or other mentors. In that case, as other people are bringing up, they have to learn to separate what’s essential to a healthy marriage, and what was a quirk of that relationship.

          Other couples may get this from peers. Others may need a professional counselor.

          • Hayley

            Yes to all of this. Knowing that other couples are going through the same or similar issues is a big help.