Carolyn Hax: Husband hurt by father-in-law’s unequal wedding toasts

Dear Carolyn: My sister just got married — three months after my wedding. We love the groom and were very excited for them.

The trouble started right after my dad gave his toast. He praised his new son-in-law for being successful, a wonderful partner to my sister, and said he was adding a son to our family. It was a beautiful speech, but I hadn’t realized my dad failed to heap similar praise on my husband during our wedding. My husband noticed right away and was deeply hurt.

There were cultural differences that led to my dad’s editing choices. My sister is her husband’s biggest advocate and made it clear he and his family need special treatment and praise.

In contrast, my husband is an introvert who waves away compliments. His family is frankly a bit protective. I later found out my dad removed a line in his speech calling my husband his “new son” to avoid inflaming the fragile emotions of my in-laws. The speech was beautiful, but largely focused on his relationship with me.

After the wedding, my husband told me it was clear that my dad dramatically favored my brother-in-law and that this would put a rift between him and my dad. He said that he’d be civil and that my dad would always be welcome but that his days of having a beer or bonding with my dad were over.

The wound is clearly fresh, but I want to somehow make it better. I know my dad was excited to have my husband as a son-in-law. They were on track for a good relationship, and my dad is unaware it derailed.

Can I mediate two men’s fragile emotions, or should I just accept and let it be?

Sad Wife & Daughter: The “trouble started” when you met your husband after a lifetime of peacemaker training.

Please, please recognize how many red flags are shooting out of his response to your dad’s toast, and how vulnerable you are for your impulse to appease and mediate.

By your husband’s response, I don’t mean the hurt feelings. That’s fine, normal, understandable. And unfortunate. Two toasts nearly back-to-back, and one is (it turns out) deliberately less welcoming? Of course that’s going to sting. In that respect I feel for your husband.

But holy controlly on the way he reacted. The favoritism is clear? There will be a rift? The warm connection is over? That is toddler-speak with less flailing and better sentence structure.

There are so many mature, emotionally resilient ways to handle an emotional slap:

“Is it just me, or does your dad’s speech at our wedding seem colder in retrospect? I wonder what that was about.”

“Did you notice anything different about your dad’s two toasts?”

“Your dad’s toast was so much warmer this time. Ouch.”

Or, many variations on saying nothing:

“__” Version 1: Not saying anything, but understanding his new father-in-law feels closer to the other son-in-law, and handling it internally.

“__” Version 2: Not saying anything, but understanding your dad feels closer to the other son-in-law, and resolving to work on the bond with your dad.

“__” Version 3: Not saying anything, and recognizing it’s normal for some people to be closer than others.

“__” Version 4: Not saying anything, and recognizing he’s not your dad’s biggest fan, either [shrug].

“__” Version 5: Not saying anything, and treating this as one data point in what may (or may not!) be a larger concern.

Or any of these versions out loud only to you.

Or, duh, he could trust you and your explanation.

And so on. So many emotionally healthy responses.

Instead, your husband whipped out the earth-scorcher without even the slightest apparent interest in finding out whether he’s overreacting or there’s more to the story.

If you assume this rash, accusatory, self-preserving tendency won’t ever be turned against you in the course of your marriage — in the tradition of the “fragile emotions of my in-laws,” no? — then you have some wishful thinking to dismantle.

To be fair, you have credit due as well: You responded with openness to the possibility there was more to the story.

But I fear that was mostly running an emotional errand for your husband, to do the work for him to make him feel better. And part of the reason I think that is this: “My sister … made it clear he and his family need special treatment and praise.” Fire pilots carry less water. And your pleaser-dad complied.

This isn’t about son-in-law favoritism; it’s about two families with emotional patterns that are problematic on their own and potentially dangerous in combination.

I see a rigid, defensive lasher-out in a marriage with a self-negating appeaser — and beg you to get individual counseling.

I hope that I’m being alarmist and that your husband has already backed down and apologized, and that you have recognized on your own the wisdom of not mediating.

But even then, counseling could still help you recognize your pleaser bent and learn how not to follow it into an abusive emotional cycle. “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker can sharpen your vision, too. Take care.

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