an elderly couple, the woman is on the phone
Estelle and Frank Costanza from "Seinfeld" — the ultimate overbearing Jewish parents

My buttinsky in-laws exhaust me with their expectations

Dear Dawn: I am Protestant and my husband is Jewish. We belong to a wonderful synagogue where our children attend Hebrew school. We enjoy services and have a nice group of friends. The problem: his relatives. They are way too involved in our day-to-day lives, always butting in when matters are none of their business, always expecting us to attend every birthday, graduation and anniversary, no matter the expense and inconvenience. We receive daily phone calls. They expect us to join them on their holiday travels. I made a mistake in not establishing boundaries years ago. My husband lacks strength in this area. How can I stop being the victim of the Buttinsky family? — Exhausted

Dear Exhausted: This appears to be not a religious problem but a cultural one. You don’t mention your own family, so I can only guess that you are not spending as much time with them, and you are OK with that. Expecting you to attend birthdays, graduations and anniversaries doesn’t sound excessive, unless they are a huge family. A Catholic friend of mine loves attending these celebrations with her 11 siblings, and her non-Catholic husband is on board.

However, I suspect that you wouldn’t be so annoyed if you were not receiving daily phone calls and expected to spend vacations with them. Basically, you never get a break.

You say that your husband “lacks strength” in this area. This could be a cultural difference, and your husband is fine with the intense familial attachment. This is where there may be a different cultural view of family relationships. I had a young couple in which the Jewish husband spoke with his parents every morning. The Ukrainian wife told me, “I talk to my mother plenty, three or four times a year.” Her husband’s calls were driving her crazy. But his viewpoint was, “I call from work; why should you care?” They had very different ideas of what a parental relationship with an adult child looks like. It didn’t come from their religions but from their cultures.

There is no Jewish law that says how often to call your parents or compels you to go on vacation with them. It’s time to determine exactly what is bothering you and make a list. It could be as simple as: daily phone calls are too frequent, I spend too much time seeing my in-laws, I don’t want to travel with them, we have a limited amount of money to spend on trips and I want to decide where it is spent.

It may also include: I’m annoyed that my husband is so attached to his parents, he doesn’t put my wants and needs before theirs, I don’t feel he cares about my feelings.

Reflect on how you were raised to perceive these issues in a family context. Were your parents close to your grandparents? Did you see them only a couple of times a year? Did you ever vacation with extended family? Your own history informs what you see as normal.

What are the actions or attitudes that annoy you about your in-laws? It’s nice to be invited, but do they issue orders rather than invitations? When they butt into your lives, are they telling you how to live? Do they think they know the best way and are simply “helping you”?

After you self-reflect, talk with your husband about these issues. Suggest something concrete he can change. No matter how well-intended his family’s suggestions are, you are not hearing them this way. When another person assumes he or she is right, you by definition must be wrong. No one wants to be told they are living wrong.

It is really your husband’s job to speak to his parents. As long as he says nothing, you are the bad guy. If he doesn’t object to anything they say or do, it’s time for couples counseling. He needs to understand how their behaviors are impacting you. Assuming he wants the best for all concerned, he should be happy to learn ways to smooth the relationship and help his parents to understand you, his beloved wife. He can also explain to you his view regarding his family. You don’t have to like it, but it is important to understand it.

I want you to find a middle road where you get the privacy you need and deserve, and your relationship with your husband’s family has boundaries and positive feelings.

Dawn Kepler

Dawn Kepler leads Building Jewish Bridges, a program of Lehrhaus Judaica that embraces Bay Area interfaith families. “Mixed & Matched” offers advice for Jews in interfaith relationships and families. Send letters to dawn@buildingjewishbridges.org.