Lifestyle

Ask Damon: My in-laws are pressuring me to eat more

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Hi Damon: I recently married my wonderful Eastern European husband and have been spending the past few summers in his home country. I’m a frequent guest at family gatherings, where I’m greeted with boundless warmth and hospitality.

I struggle, though, when it comes to one important, defining aspect of their hospitality: food. In my husband’s country, I often find myself overwhelmed and stressed out by the gigantic quantities of food pressed on me at family meals. Often hosts expect me to eat quantities or types of food that make me palpably stressed and uncomfortable. I try as much as I can to try a bit of everything, but whenever I assert a limit, I find I have to repeat “no” three to four times before my host gives up in disappointment and moves on to the next item on the table. I know that this is their love language. I feel conflicted, though, when these cultural traditions fly in the face of my own cultural values around boundaries (respecting “no” for an answer) and sensitivity to individual needs and preferences. On top of this, I have some of my own food issues, which can make encounters where how much I eat the center of everyone’s attention very distressing. My husband, by the way, does his absolute best to help me navigate these meals but struggles just as much as I do to resist the pressure to eat.

Do I need to get over myself as a self-involved, unappreciative American? Accept this as part of my international marriage? Or do I have any recourse to assert my own needs in these situations?

Overwhelmed: Navigating the etiquette ecosystem of a family you’ve married into can be tricky. Especially when that family has distinct cultural mores than what you’ve experienced, so I understand your hesitation to be clear and absolute about your dietary considerations. But I think — and, honestly, this feels like the answer to half of the questions advice columnists receive — your best option here is to tell them exactly what you just told me.

“I greatly appreciate the warmth, hospitality and love you’ve given me, and I’m honored that you’ve accepted me as your own. But the quantities of food you ask me to eat are having a negative impact on my physical and mental health, and I ask that you please respect my wishes when I’ve had enough.”

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We have so much access now to different methods of person-to-person communication that I don’t know if our brains have evolved enough to handle it. Unfortunately, this access has created a paradoxical dynamic where its easy to connect but feels harder to actually communicate. I think you already knew the answer to this question, and you already had the words to articulate your extremely valid feelings. (We forget sometimes how intimate the decisions we make about food are, and how much of a violation food pressure can be.) And I think what’s getting in the way of expressing your feelings to your in-laws, and staying firm, is a lack of practice. Which is something many of us are guilty of, myself included. If I had a dollar for every time I let something anxiety-inducing slide because sharing my true feelings induced … more anxiety, I’d be writing this column for free because I wouldn’t need the money!

Anyway, before addressing your in-laws, start this “practice” with your husband. He needs to either be the buffer communicating your feelings to the family, or he should have your back if you’re the one speaking up, and you need to tell him that. How long are you both willing to let this continue? Five years? Ten? Thirty? What’s the point in even being married if you can’t be a united front against something that bothers you both?

You risk offending some of his family, and that won’t be fun. But, while I (obviously) have no idea how they’d react, I think sometimes we construct a behemoth in our heads, overestimating how “offensive” an uncomfortable conversation actually will be. I strongly doubt they’re going to poison your meatloaf, toss you out of the house by your belt loops, and write the embassy to revoke your passport. You might even earn their respect, eventually, for standing up for yourself. Maybe an aunt might call you an unkind nickname behind your back, but I think you’d rather have that than a panic attack.

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