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Next month, my husband’s family will gather in New Hampshire for an Important Family Event.  When I heard about the event, I immediately started picturing myself and Econo Man at a cute little New England B&B, venturing out for family activities but then retreating to our feather bed and our gourmet breakfast.  But when my husband called his parents last week to share our plans, they were clearly upset.  My mother-in-law explained that she had assumed we would want to stay in the large house she had rented for her family, because everyone was really looking forward to seeing us and the aunts and uncles and cousins had only gotten to meet me briefly at the wedding.

Some people would probably be delighted to save hotel costs and would be flattered to hear that their beloved’s whole family is really looking forward to getting to know them better.  I am not one of those people.  I am an introvert (and, according to the Meyers-Briggs, a rather extreme example of the breed at that).  I had no idea there was a big giant house full of people in the mix and my mother-in-law’s news prompted an epic meltdown.  A whole weekend?  In a house with people I barely know?  And they’re going to want to TALK to me?!  screamed my brain.  How did this happen?  Why didn’t anyone WARN me?!  Red alert!  Battle stations!  DEFCON 1! 

In the end I agreed to stay in the house.  If I had insisted on the quiet little B&B, my husband’s family wouldn’t think “oh, PC needs some space to recharge every night”.  They would think I didn’t like them and that I was rejecting their family.  I don’t want to cause hurt feelings and family drama.  But the incident reminded me of a fundamental truth: as The Atlantic’s Jonathan Rauch so eloquently articulated, extroverted people just don’t understand introverts.

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Last weekend, I was quite literally fifth-wheeling it on a dinner out with two couples. (I really miss my husband on nights like that. Anyway.) One of the couples had only started dating recently; the other had been married for about 10 years. At the beginning of the evening I thought it was kind of cool to think about the relationship progression in the group — “Hey, our past is to the left, our future is to the right!”

And then the married couple started squabbling. And didn’t stop for the rest of the night.

Should we text the babysitter to see how the kids are doing? Yes! No! Maybe! Your phone is too hard to text on! That’s because your nails are too long and you don’t put effort into learning about technology! Why are you always home so late?! Why don’t you respect my job?!

… you get the idea.

The thing is I actually liked this couple a lot! Furthermore, the squabbling seemed to come from an affectionate place. But in spite of the playful tone, I was uncomfortable listening to them argue and belittle each other.

My husband and I are … well, let’s be honest. We’re schmoopy. We say nice things about each other. We want to sit together. I try to keep the pet names to a minimum in front of people we don’t know well, but sometimes a “honey” or “sweetie” slips out. Some light teasing might make an appearance (a frequent example: he tells a deliberately lame joke, I groan and say “man, I can’t take you anywhere!”) but we don’t bring squabbles over crumbs on the counter or whose turn it is to take out the garbage out into public with us. Without being too disgusting about it, I want the people we hang out with to know that I think my husband is awesome. Furthermore, if Econo Man made a habit of belittling me in public, you’d damn well better believe that I would notice and we’d have heated words about it once we got home.

Is a certain amount of squabbling inevitable in a long marriage? I hope not. I can’t help but suspect that this kind of “oh, I’m just teasing!” nastiness is often a cover for real resentment. It certainly was for my parents. And I want to have the kind of marriage where we build each other up, not tear each other down.

What do you guys think? Am I overreacting or reading too much into this kind of squabbling? How do you talk to your significant other in public?

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* The Needlers were recurring characters on SNL.

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I’m over at Mouse’s place today, talking about the secret to a happy marriage.  I’d love it if you stopped by!

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On nagging: Part II

Wow!  I had no idea my post about nagging would get such a response (or end up on Freshly Pressed)!  It sounds like nagging is a hot-button issue in a lot of relationships, and I’m relieved to know that I’m not the only one with control-freak instincts who struggles with the temptation to nag.

I wish I could respond to everyone who left thoughtful comments on yesterday’s post.  But since I can’t possibly do everyone justice, here’s what I took away from yesterday’s discussion.

For those of us who tend towards nagging, when tempted to bug your partner about a household chore that hasn’t been done:

  1. Pick your battles and learn to let the small things slide.  If it’s something you could quickly do yourself, or if it’s not something that really needs to be done right-this-very-second, this may be a time to keep quiet.
  2. If your partner promises to do something and habitually doesn’t do it, start a constructive conversation about why that isn’t working for you and how you can both make sure things get done (à la lifeintheboomerlane’s suggestion).  Consider establishing some reasonable consequences for missed chores, e.g., if the socks don’t go in the hamper, they don’t get washed.
  3. If constructive conversations don’t seem to change anything, consider whether the relationship is right for you.
On the flip side, if you feel like you’re being nagged:
  1. Ask yourself if your partner might have a point — *should* you have done the thing they’re mad about? — and be honest with yourself.  If you dropped the ball, apologize and make an effort to do better in the future.
  2. If you feel your partner is criticizing you unfairly or making an unreasonable request, start a constructive conversation about why the request doesn’t work for you and how you and your partner can communicate better about household chores.
  3. If constructive conversations don’t seem to change anything, consider whether the relationship is right for you.
Huzzah, internet!  We have solved nagging!  (OK, not really.  But let me just pretend for another minute here.  OK, done.)

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On nagging

I have a question for the Internet.  How would you define nagging?  And is nagging always unjustified?

Nagging is a behavior that I try really hard to avoid.  It’s also a behavior I find really hard to avoid.  My mother, though I love her dearly, is a champion nagger.  If you don’t do things the way she thinks they should be done, you *will* hear about it.  At length.  And my dad isn’t much better.  He has the ability to be annoyed by anything that’s happening within 40 feet of him, and when I was a kid I’d often be minding my own business (sometimes unaware that he was even in the room) when suddenly he’d bark out that I was wasting my time by re-reading my favorite book or that my posture was awful and I should sit up straighter.*

Because both of my parents are naggers, and because I’ve inherited more than a smidge of their control-freak tendencies, I worry that I’m going to continue their cycle of nagging.  And I really, really don’t want to do that to my husband or my future children because I know how it feels to be on the receiving end of constant “pointers” about what I’m doing wrong.

And yet … if you don’t want to nag, how do you deal with it when someone in your life hasn’t done something that needs to be done?

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Big sister

Christmas was nice — a fun rundown of our new household toys shall be forthcoming! — but not as relaxing as I’d hoped.  I can trace the stress to a couple sources.

First, at every Christmas party I was quizzed constantly about my job situation by Econo Man’s family and friends, and repeatedly faced the question “but what about jobs in Boston?  Aren’t you looking in Boston?  When will you get to be in Boston?”  Yes, I am looking, but there just isn’t much out there and I may have to take something in another city.  Econo Man’s family and friends were quietly but obviously horrified at the prospect of me abandoning my husband for yet another year.  Justifiably or not, I felt like a complete failure as I stumbled to explain why I can’t find anything in Boston, the city with the highest concentration of universities in the country.  I didn’t leave the party to cry in the bathroom, but I came close.

Second, my brother.  Like a lot of folks, he’s out of work — he was downsized from a job he loved this summer and has been on unemployment.  He’s not doing much in the way of looking for a job or acquiring new training to be more competitive, which is frustrating, but none of my business. It’s tough out there, I know that as well as anyone right now!

But I don’t like the way he’s treating the people around him, especially my parents.  Bro has decided he can get whatever he wants by acting like an angsty hormonal teenager and flying off the handle whenever something doesn’t go his way.  This life strategy has served him well in the world of retail, where his willingness to complain and argue and be extremely unpleasant has netted him significant discounts on such things as his cell phone service (reason: dropped calls) and his rental tux for my wedding (reason: shirt was too short).  But he’s starting to apply this strategy to family, and it really annoys me.

Example:  Yesterday morning, as Econo Man and I prepared to go to the airport, Bro calls my mom and asks her if someone’s going to be home between noon and 5pm, because he’s shipping yet another car part to her house and someone needs to sign for it.*  Mom says sorry, she’s taking us to the airport and the Southern Gentleman** is going to the gym.  Bro throws a fit — why can’t they do him this simple favor?  Why can’t Econo Man and I take a cab so Mom can stay home?  Can’t the Southern Gentleman postpone the gym until after the box comes?  Mom says sorry, but she’s signed for dozens of boxes in the past six weeks, and she can’t always be home to act as his personal concierge.  Bro hangs up on her in a huff.

But the end result of Bro’s crummy behavior is exactly what he wants: the Southern Gentleman tells Mom he will wait until she returns from the airport to visit the gym, so someone can always be home to sign for my brother’s stupid car part.

He’s got everyone walking on eggshells trying to avoid upsetting him, and it’s obnoxious.  My mother and the Southern Gentlemen are both offended by his newly-acquired foul mouth (he’s decided the “f” word is appropriate before every single noun and adjective) but don’t want to say anything for fear of making him mad.  And I do it too!  I spent 2 days rearranging the entire family’s Christmas Eve plans because Bro had a tantrum about how he HAD to have his whole family together that night.***

So now I’m back in Boston and facing a conundrum.  Should I say something to my brother about the way I saw him act this week?  On the one hand, his relationship with my parents is not really my business or something I should be meddling with.  On the other hand, he wasn’t very considerate of me either, and it kind of spoiled large parts of my Christmas (and Econo Man’s too, since he had to listen to me bitch).  Plus, since I’m safely ensconced on the East Coast, the downside of him being mad at me and not speaking to me is fairly minimal.  Maybe I need to take one for the team and piss him off in order to give him a wake-up call.

Any other sibling issues out there?  Am I being an overly meddlesome big sister, or should I speak up and tell him that 25 is too old to throw tantrums and act like a whiny little brat?

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*  Bro has been ordering tons of car parts lately.  My mom estimates that this is box #20 in the past month and a half.

** My mom’s partner, who lives with her in Denver.

*** Which we haven’t done in about ten years, even before my parents’ divorce, largely because my brother was always ditching us to hang out with his buddies on the evening of the 24th.  But hey, who’s keeping track?

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My post on Thanksgiving, and your comments, got me thinking about other discoveries of adulthood.  I think one of the grown-up lessons I’ve learned (albeit very, very slowly) over the years is the power of simply saying “no.”

I am a consensus-builder.  If I feel strongly about something, I want with all my heart to convince people that I am right, that my idea or plan is a good one.  I think I developed this instinct as a kid.  When you’re 12 and you desperately want to attend a concert or buy a pair of wicked cool jeans you are positive you can’t live without, you live or die by whether your parents say “OK.”  If they won’t drive you to the concert or give you the money for the jeans, you’re out of luck.

But here’s a secret of adulthood: most of the time, you can do what you want *even when other people don’t agree.*  I made this shocking discovery at the age of 22, as I was preparing for a January trip to London to do research for my senior thesis, one that I had received departmental funding to pay for.  This was the winter of 2003-2004.  Great Britain was on high alert, and the news media was filled with stories about heightened security at London airports and in train stations.  My parents, especially my mother, did not want me to go.  My mom begged me to skip the trip, even promised to pay back my department for the money I’d be wasting by forfeiting my plane ticket, and offered to buy me a trip for spring break to go to London (assuming, of course, that she felt it was safe enough).

At first, I fought for my trip.  I explained that I couldn’t possibly finish my thesis work if I put off my research until March.  I pointed out that we’d also have to purchase a very expensive last-minute one-way ticket back to college (the ticket to London left from Denver but returned to North Carolina).  I tried to argue that the high alert was a good thing, that the British government was being extra-cautious and an attack might be less likely as a result.  But I didn’t get the answer I wanted; I never got them to say “you are right, canceling the trip would be expensive, inconvenient, and extremely damaging to your thesis project.  We are overreacting and we agree you should go.”

So, finally, I said “no.”  The issue was not up for debate.  I was going to London, end of story.

And to my shock, it worked.  They saw I was serious, they stopped arguing with me, and I went to London without incident.

When did you first say “no” to your parents, and have them take you seriously?

Coming in Part II:  The power of “no” during wedding planning.

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