I don’t want my husband at my high school reunion

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAY 31, 2006

I’m not ashamed of him, but I think he’ll be bored and make me nervous.


Dear Cary,

Am I a horrible person for hoping my husband doesn’t go with me to my 10-year high school reunion next month?

Since it was first mentioned, he automatically assumed he’s going, and having never been to one of those things, I’m not sure about the protocol. But last night, I was thinking about it and dreading it. I’m not the awkward little girl I was when I started high school, or the insecure young adult I was when I graduated. I was never popular, but I had lots of friends and interests. I earned my degree. I’m in great shape. I write for a newspaper. My husband is wonderfully fun and handsome and interesting. He’s successful, too; he’s a lawyer.

I guess I’m hoping for the satisfying closure you always see in the movies and books about reunions, where classmates finally accept the main character, where she reconciles with the friends she’s wronged and hasn’t spoken to in a decade, where all unrequited loves admit how blind they were never to have seen how amazing she is. I’m living in a fantasy world, I know. But I fear there’s no chance of anything happening with my husband hovering nearby.

Maybe I am still the insecure little girl that I was then, if all that affirmation is so important to me after all these years.

I’m also worried that he’ll be bored while we hang out with my friends the entire weekend in my hometown. Everything will be an inside joke. Or worse, he’ll think we’re lame, or he’ll hear about ex-boyfriends or other unpleasantness in my past that I’d rather avoid. I can’t tell him not to come. No matter what I say, he’ll think I’m ashamed of him, when it’s not that at all.

The reunion is having a strange effect on my entire group of friends. My best friend is refusing to go, and when her husband (another classmate) brings it up, she cries. She has achieved success in the career she always predicted she was going to have. She’s smart and friendly and interesting. She married her high school sweetheart, and she looks great. She had serious issues with weight for a while, but she’s conquered them.

Another friend of mine who moved overseas shortly after college graduation has been planning for two years, before the event was even annoounced, to fly in for it. It’s all she’s been talking about. She was bullied all the way through middle school and she wasn’t well accepted in high school, but she is sure that everyone will be so much more mature and friendly and accepting. I’m afraid that it will be a huge letdown to her. She just went through a divorce. I guess the root of this is: Why are we all making this reunion the end-all, be-all of everything? What can we do to get past all this insanity?

Reuniting and It Feels No Good

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Dear Reuniting,

I think you are making the reunion a big deal because high school was a big deal and there are many powerful emotions still cooking after all those years.

What you can do to get past the insanity is recognize ahead of time what it will actually be like and plan for that.

Make some rules for your husband. Tell him you will want to be just with your old friends for some of the time. But also include him in some big dinner or something. And make some plans ahead of time with the people you really want to see.

What happens when you put a society of adolescents together for a few years, bond them intensely and then suddenly loose them on the world? All those relationships go into the freezer. They don’t keep well. You take them out a decade later and they’ve decayed. It’s not that the people have decayed, but the relationships, which are fed by contact and interaction, have decayed. There are no functioning relationships between these people. So naturally at high school reunions many people feel confusion and sometimes disappointment or sharp letdown. It’s a bunch of strangers who used to know each other. You’re not going to feel the way you used to feel, nor are you going to heal the past. You’re going to be you, today’s you, encountering people that you used to know but don’t really know anymore.

So be prepared for unexpected melancholy. It may help beforehand to take stock of yourself honestly, to admit that a part of you is still only 15 but so is everyone else and admit that you are still afraid of the popular girls but so is everyone else and admit you really dread going to this but so does everyone else and admit that even though it’s going to be scary and awkward you have to go anyway just like they do — because you just have to find out. You have to find out what happened to all these people. That’s all. You just have to find out.

And then you’ll know.

Be prepared for people to be weird and nasty and strange and drunk. Be prepared for people you thought were nice to be mean and people you thought were mean to be nice.

Be prepared to find idiots prospering and geniuses failing, the best and the brightest tarnished and fallen, the mediocre shining and thriving, those you thought you loved and admired suddenly shallow and dull, those you never noticed suddenly effervescent and gleaming and irresistible.

Be prepared for some really bad hair. Be prepared for premature sweater vests and unimaginable slacks.

Be prepared for the spectacle of incompleteness, of a swarm halfway there, no longer brimming with potential yet not accomplished either, beginning again only beginning bigger this time, and a bit clumsy as all beginners are.

Be prepared for the deep-voiced pomposity of the formerly shy in full boorish bloom, the new engineering sales manager heading his division, exceeding his targets. Be prepared for the nervous too-wide smile and the wallet full of pictures: wives standing on beaches and wives pushing baby carriages and wives in uniform. Be prepared for bad breath and insensitive questions.

Be prepared to feel an overwhelming desire to run away.

When necessary, detach. Think of work and what needs doing at home, and how much better you like your new life than your old life.

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Mother-in-law blues

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 6, 2004

She’s not a bad person, but I resent how she imposes herself on our lives.


Dear Cary,

I’ve noticed that often your advice doesn’t come in the form of a specific answer to a specific problem. The advice you give tends to come in the form of a philosophy that transforms the problem into something acceptable and less overwhelming than it was before. I need a new way to see my mother-in-law before I am consumed with exhaustion and resentment.

My mother-in-law is not a bad person. She has a good heart buried under insecurities and self-centered behavior from a dysfunctional childhood with an alcoholic mother and a father who never thought she was good enough. She has spent years in therapy and reading self-help books to become a more secure person, and in many ways she has succeeded. She raised a son whom I love very much, and she has a circle of friends she is devoted to.

While I can recognize that she is a good person, and acknowledge that she has had to overcome a great deal in her life, I resent how her struggle has imposed itself on me. She needs to control everything to feel safe. She is constantly trying to control me and my husband. She intrudes into our personal business, she makes frequent and unreasonable demands on our time, she sabotages our plans so that my husband will be available to her when he is supposed to be elsewhere, and she has questioned every decision she has ever seen us make.

Over the years, I’ve learned to deal with her to a degree. I’ve learned how to protect my privacy around her, how to avoid some of her more relentless manipulation and why she is acting the way she does. I have sympathy for what it must be like to be her. Most important, I’ve learned that I’m not going to be able to change her behavior, and I can only adjust how I react to it.

But now I resent her. I resent the amount of energy it takes to be around her. I resent that she comes into my home and that I have to be nice to her because she is my husband’s mother and my daughter’s grandmother. I resent always having to be the bigger person when we have a conflict because she can’t deal with not getting her way.

I have a hard time looking at her when she visits us. I feel resentful when she calls on the phone, when she comes up in conversation and every time I think about her. When she is around, I feel myself becoming withdrawn, sullen and angry. I can feel this resentment choked down in my chest like a hard knot or poison. I don’t think it is good for me. I think it makes me less of a person.

How do I get past this? I feel like I use enough energy dealing with her that I don’t have enough left over to keep this resentment festering inside of me, but on the other hand, I don’t seem to be able to make myself not resent her. How can I have her be part of my life and find some peace?

Resentful

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Dear Resentful,

As I read your letter I thought to myself, what a marvelous person you are! You seem to have such insight into your mother-in-law, such understanding. And then I realized that was the problem: You’re way too marvelous. You need to be way less marvelous. As long as you keep on being marvelous, your mother-in-law is going to keep walking all over you and you’re going to keep resenting it.

Paradoxically, as she walks all over you, you stand above her, judging her as she mistreats you. She walks all over you from underneath, as it were. It’s a peculiar geometric arrangement; it’s a metaphor for a relationship that has turned topsy-turvy.

This is a long answer. It’s taken me a couple of days to think this through and realize that understanding and sympathy, without active love flowing through them, can harden like dead skin and become a brittle shell. Knowledge about a person can come to substitute for knowledge of a person.

So in answer to your request for a new way of seeing your mother-in-law, I am going to suggest that you stop understanding her.

How does one stop understanding a person whom one understands so well? It may require pretending at first. Pretend that you have never seen her before. Next time you see her, take a deep breath, stand back and say as little as possible. Just try to see her clearly. See what she does and how she does it, how she exits a car, how she enters a room, how she puts down her purse, what she is wearing, what kind of skin she has, the texture of her hair, the color and condition of her shoes. Watch what she actually does and says. Try to remember the exact words she uses, and the tone.

The purpose of this is to try to superimpose your sense impressions over your knowledge, to edge out what you believe you know about her, in order to begin knowing her anew. And part of it is to give you something else to do other than fighting for control. It may have a calming effect; as you work to observe and be there in the moment, and as you fight off your habitual responses, refusing to say the regular things you say, the things you have learned to say over the years to avoid confrontation, you may find that you are not quite as upset. You will be getting some distance. The object is to try to neither control her nor be controlled by her.

So when you speak with her, be noncommittal; neither agree nor disagree with the assertions she makes. Say that you are not sure, that you will have to think about it. Do not argue with her, but do not agree, either. If she invites you somewhere, say you’re not sure, you will have to check your calendar. What you are doing here is wedging in some resistance, carving out a little space for yourself, for some autonomy. As you do this, take notice of what you feel, and how she reacts. Does she seem to grow angry if you do not agree with her? Does she grow argumentative? And do you feel fearful and awkward? That’s fine if you do; you’re in new territory. Just take careful note of what you’re feeling, and what she says and does.

The reason I suggest that you stop understanding her is not because it’s bad to understand why people do what they do. It’s because I think the view that we do what we do because of things that happened long ago has, at times, allowed us to remove ourselves from our more basic emotions and instincts about how others are treating us; if we can say I understand, I sympathize, we feel that we are acting in a correct way toward someone whom in actuality we may simply dislike, or whose behavior we disapprove of. The reason for understanding the roots of our behavior is not to relieve individuals of responsibility, but to give them the tools to change. It’s so we can see the irrationality and inappropriateness of our actions more clearly, and let go of them more easily.

So though you have been very kind, you haven’t been doing her any favors by being understanding and sympathetic. In fact, since she has been in therapy, she probably knows what she is doing but needs some help in changing it, in noticing the exact moments when it’s occurring. So I suggest that you do that. I don’t mean attack her. I just mean: Take note of specific things she does that you do not approve of. These should be things that directly affect you, not your husband or anyone else. These should be things she does to you directly that you want her to stop doing.

Then it’s time for a long drive and a chat, like they do on “The Sopranos.” But take note: If this scene ends with her bullet-riddled body in the trunk of your car, you misunderstood my advice. Just take a long, relaxing drive, just you and her, out in the country somewhere. Driving makes it easier to talk sometimes. Pull over somewhere and have a picnic, or park where there are things to look at. Tell her first of all that you love her but that you haven’t been satisfied with the relationship you’ve had up till now and you want to put it on a new footing.

Now, if you’ve done your homework, if you’ve identified exactly the things you’re feeling when she comes over to your house, you can tell her these things: that you’re feeling out of control when she walks in the door, that last time she came over you felt your schedule was disrupted, that you’ve wanted to say no or place limits on when you are available but haven’t done it for fear that she would be offended, that you’ve made certain decisions that were then overruled and you felt overlooked or ignored or stepped on, that you’ve been angry with her at times but haven’t expressed it and now you feel it’s been all stored up inside and it’s eating away at you. Keep the focus on your feelings and not her behavior. Because what you want is an agreement that it’s OK for you to tell her how you’re feeling. You don’t want to start accusing her of things right away. You just want to tell her how you feel about them.

Be very careful to tell her only things that are true and concrete, not vague and generalized.

Since she’s been in therapy, she’s probably acquainted with the basic outline of her personality, and the things you tell her may ring true. She probably knows she has a pattern of stepping over boundaries until somebody stops her. She may feel relieved. You may find that she’s been waiting for this moment, that she’s known things are uncomfortable but didn’t know how to broach the subject with you. So she will probably be able to talk about these things. And if the going is rough, if you think it would be helpful, it probably wouldn’t be hard to arrange a session with her therapist as intermediary.

But first, give it a try on your own.

And if after a year things haven’t changed, do what a friend of mine suggests: move.

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