Q. I am an American businessman, recently married to a French woman who is quite close to her family. Her parents expect us to have a meal with them once a week, and as they live some distance from us, we can only go there on Saturday or Sunday. I find once a week excessive and would like to reduce it to once every three or four weeks, but that’s not acceptable to my wife. We can’t discuss the subject without getting into a huge argument. What do you think would be fair to us both?
A: You have run head-on into a major cross-cultural stumbling block. French people generally expect and enjoy closer day-to-day involvement with family members than Americans, who often leave home at a younger age and may live far from their families of origin. In addition, French parents and their children continue to operate in familiar hierarchical patterns even when the “children” are well into adulthood. Transferring one’s loyalty from a closely involved family of origin to the new family created by self and spouse can be dicey, as young people may feel guilty and ungrateful at the thought of saying no to parents they love.
Try, by gentle questioning, to find out if this is the case for your wife, and show understanding for whatever feelings emerge, rather than trying to counter with logical arguments (such as the percentage of time per year you spend with her family vs. her with your family). Brainstorm with her about other ways she could show concern for her parents without your having to be involved; and, if possible, share with your in-laws your need to have more weekend time alone with your wife to cement your relationship as a couple. If part of your reluctance has to do with what actually happens during those visits, try telling your wife what you would need to make them more enjoyable, but without criticizing her family (that would simply activate her loyalty to them and therefore her need to be around them).
Q: I’m a woman in my mid-30s who’s been in a committed relationship for five years with a man who has just turned 40. For the past two years I’ve been wanting to start a family, but my partner is opposed to the idea and says he is not ready yet. He wants me to stop putting pressure on him but I don’t think he’s being realistic about biological factors. Even my doctor is urging me to get going. How can I persuade him to change his mind?
A: Rather than concentrating on getting him to change his mind – which might exacerbate what appears already to be a certain polarization over the issue (you firmly on one side, he firmly on the other) – step back for a while and use your energy to try to explore what is behind his opposition. What do you know about his family that might make him reluctant to take this step? Is he perhaps attached to a lifestyle that a baby would mean having to give up? What fears might he have about himself as a father or you as a mother? Or what secret worries might he have about your couple that might make him skittish about getting in any deeper with you?
You need to be aware that drawing him out on these subjects might be painful for you both, but it will undoubtedly give you a better handle on what is really going on for him and what, if anything, you can do about that. Be sure to keep in mind that drawing him out means asking a lot of questions in a non-threatening way, and putting on hold your very understandable inclination to “persuade” him, since you have already discovered that that approach doesn’t work.
Jill Bourdais is a psychotherapist practicing in Paris both privately and in a hospital setting. A specialist in couple/family problems, she also teaches PAIRS, a skills-building course in intimate relationships.