Q: We both have enormous families (Irish Catholic, divorce, remarriage, babies everywhere), and although we both would have greatly preferred a smaller wedding, our families got involved and now we are having a huge wedding. We are excited to have even more of our friends and family around, but since we are both just starting out in our careers, the idea of a huge wedding was financially terrifying for us. Luckily, our generous parents anticipated this, and insisted on giving us a lot of financial help with the wedding. A budget was drawn up, agreed on, and divided up three ways between my parents, his mom and stepdad, and his dad and stepmom. All of this happened more than a year ago, and everyone seemed happy with the arrangement.
A few weeks ago, I get an incredibly hurtful email seemingly out of the blue from my fiancé’s stepmom. She apparently has “just found out” about the financial contributions being made from the parents, and she hit us with a lot of guilt and accusations. She questioned our character and morals, said we should be ashamed of ourselves, and asked us to explain ourselves to her. Most hurtfully, she accused me of using the family as a piggy bank to fund a glamorous “destination wedding.” We are getting married in New England, where every member of my family and most of my friends live, and it’s an hour by plane for most of her family to travel there.
Obviously this was upsetting, especially since my fiancé remembers having a conversation with her about the budget and her reacting normally. He was furious, other family members were furious, and suddenly my fiancé was insisting that we give back every penny we’ve ever received from them. However, a few days after the incident, she called us both up to say sorry. She was careful to apologize for upsetting us and for not discussing her opinions with us in person, but she never apologized for any of her remarks. She also kept insisting that she was offended because “she had been raised in a different way.” Overall, she took the tone that her outburst had been intended to do us a favor by helping us be more financially independent. When I pointed out to her that a lot of my friends were still in school or living at home, she brushed it off by saying that we needed to learn to “save for things that we wanted.” We’re currently saving for the down payment on a house, paying back my student loans, and investing for our retirement. Meanwhile, she hasn’t needed to work in fifteen years and relies on my fiancé’s dad for income. Now, in an effort to mend fences, she’s insisting that we all spend more as a family and “grow closer,” including taking a vacation together next weekend.
I’m still deeply hurt because money has always been a sore subject for me. My fiancé and I are both relatively young and we both have full-time, full-benefits jobs that we feel incredibly fortunate to have (and also worked our assess off to get). We live independently and pay all our own bills, and we would be paying for more of the wedding if it were a small affair. I was already harboring intense feelings of guilt about taking money for the wedding, but I had just started to really love the idea of a big, inclusive wedding with more money for lots of food, good music, and a well-stocked bar. The email sent me back to square one, and I started wondering if I really was being selfish for accepting more than I could afford.
Ultimately, my question doesn’t have to do with the finances of our wedding—we are able to handle the additional cost if my fiancé’s dad and stepmom do withdraw from the budget. I’m really just wondering how to move forward in my relationship with my future stepmother-in-law. My fiancé’s family has a very “forgive and forget” vibe, with an emphasis on the forgetting. My family has never been like that, and I have a very hard time pretending that everything is fine when I know that my stepmother-in-law has had such terrible thoughts about my upbringing and morals. I feel that just moving on like nothing happened would be painful for me in the long run, and might cause even more issues down the line. I also don’t know how to have a conversation with her about how she made me feel without causing another huge argument. Is learning to bury these feelings just part of the whole in-law experience, or is there something else I could be doing to fix things?
A: Dear NF,
You do your damnedest to forget.
I know, it goes against all of your instincts. I totally get it! I’m a lot like you. I want to hash things out until they’re completely resolved. I’m not good at hiding how I really feel. But it’s to your benefit to squeeze yourself into the established family culture (even if it strikes you as unhealthy). The way they handle conflict probably won’t change, and if it shifts at all, it’ll be super gradual. If you just bust in there talking about things honestly, that won’t settle the issue, it won’t change the family culture. It’ll just make you into the bad guy.
So bottle it up, baby. Do whatever you can for your sanity within those confines. That might mean you can’t make the next couple of family events while your rage is still simmering, or it might mean going, and then finding a good friend to “WTF?” over it after. Notice, I’m not telling you to lie. But I wouldn’t anticipate some wonderful processing, apologies, reconciliation, closure. That’s not going to happen no matter what you say, so why even say it?
It’s hard, I know. She said something hurtful, and ignoring it is hard! If you really, really can’t see a way around saying something, I get it. I can’t fault you for honesty. So if you do decide to bring it up, just be sure to really think long and hard about your end goal. Like I said above, it’s unlikely that you’ll get a satisfying closure, brace yourself for that. And then figure out what you would settle for (with some awareness that it might not go well at all).
I understand your concerns about the long run. But consider, is the goal a close relationship or just pleasant coexistence? Probably the latter (as lovely as the former would be). If this were any other relationship—a partner, a close friend—I would encourage you toward honesty so that you can root out any issues, resolve them, and create a healthy relationship, or conversely move on if it turns out you can’t be honest. But this is your stepmom-in-law. You can’t just move on if things don’t work out. You’re stuck with her. Just as likely, you’re also stuck with this odd way of handling conflict, too.
With that in mind, I’d advise that you keep those feelings under wraps. Your stepmom-in-law was rude and then gave a half-assed apology to smooth it over. That’s tough to swallow. But, she’s not yours by choice. She’s yours because you care about her stepson. Do what you can to keep things nice, if only on the surface, if only for his benefit.
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