The Social Introvert: Stand Up to Pushy In-Laws

Dear Sophia,

My husband’s large family has difficulty accepting me for who I am. I’m quieter and more selective about what I say than they are. I’m more indoors, and they’re outdoors. While I like to research things and find quality items at a good deal, they just want the cheapest option. If we go to a restaurant and there’s a buffet, they want the buffet, and I’m the weirdo who wants to order off the menu. I come from a small family that isn’t very involved with extended family. They have a large extended family that gets together regularly. I am a more independent person, and they seem to want us to be dependent on them.

They’re nice people but opinionated and set in their views on some things. For example, I don’t drink beer, and they act like it’s an inconvenience to have a different beverage, or they keep trying to get me to taste different beers until “you find one you like that you can drink with us.” When they are all together, they mostly talk about football, beer, or people they know that I don’t. I don’t say much when they are talking.

And I go to church with them on the big holidays, but they are unhappy that I don’t go every Sunday and force my husband to go. They also want me to convert to their religion. I’m willing to explore that and convert if it’s right for me, but not just because they want me to. Committing to a religion is a big deal to me not to be taken lightly. But they want me to convert ASAP. Now that my husband and I are married (less than a year), they think we should be planning on having kids—but not before I have converted. We’ve already agreed that if we have children, they will be raised in his religion. Maybe I’m a little stubborn, but the more they push me to go at their pace, the more I pull back.

My husband runs interference in what ways he can, working with how they are. He isn’t direct about it, which would be nice sometimes, but he does make passive-aggressive remarks (the family way of doing things). They’re the kind of family that if they have a conflict, they act like it never happened, so nothing gets resolved.

They are nice, good people, just with a little bit of tunnel vision; they forget there is a big world out there with different people and different ways of doing and being. How do I  deal with meeting their expectations without compromising what’s right for me?

Under Pressure

Dear Under Pressure,

Well, I’ll have to take your word on this family’s niceness because some of what they are doing is not so nice—it’s way out of line. Little is more personal than decisions about religion and having children (and, for that matter, what you eat and drink). So while other people are free to voice their opinions about your choices, as obnoxious as that may be, putting pressure on you to hew to their desires and timetables is inappropriate to say the least. You’re right to be bothered by this.

But okay—I’ll give your in-laws the benefit of the doubt and say they’re just thick-headed about this kind of thing. In that case, the only way they might learn about boundaries is if someone lays those boundaries out, in kind but firm terms. If the only way this family communicates is via passive aggression, it’s no wonder they can sweep problems under the rug. It’s pretty easy to pretend meaningful looks and muttered asides never happened.

So if you want things to actually change, you’ll have to be the first domino to fall, discussing your boundaries with your husband and explicitly asking him to help you by explicitly asking his family to back off. If he just can’t bring himself to do it (and he really should at least give it a shot) and you decide to take it on yourself, then make him pinky-swear to back you up as necessary.

In that case, get a gentle speech together first so you’re fully prepared the next time they start on you: “I love how important your church is to you, but I’m sure you know how personal religion is. I have to make this decision in my own time, and it might take me a while. But I promise you that I’m thinking about it and will let you know what I ultimately decide.”

“I know you’re anxious for us to start a family, but right now your wonderful son and I are enjoying being newlyweds. Children are definitely in our plan, but not yet. When we’re ready, you’ll be the first to know.”

In each case, you validate their feelings and desires while also indicating that you don’t want them to bring it up again. If they don’t take that not-quite-hint and keep at you, come up with some stock phrases to deflect them. “That’s an interesting way to look at it.” “That’s what makes horse races.” “I’m still thinking about it.” Then give them a sweet but blank expression. Don’t engage.

So, those are the big issues. The rest are just pesky. The beer—no need to tiptoe: “I don’t like beer. Never have, never will.” Maybe start bringing your own beverage so they don’t even have the inconvenience ruse as an excuse for pushing brewskis on you. The conversation? You can sit quietly and let it roll over you; you can try inserting your own life into their discussions whenever an opportunity arises; or you can go in another room and read a book.

You know you’re not weird. (And if you don’t, I’m telling you.) You’re just different from them. I know a lot of people who wouldn’t dream of eating from the buffet. Really, anything requiring a sneeze guard is suspect. If they tease you, that might just be how they express affection. Not my favorite way, but it works for some people. Don’t let it make you feel bad.

A lot of this family’s behavior might be their way of trying to be inclusive, to make you part of the family. More than wanting you to be different from who you are, they might be trying to make you one of them. Can you find ways to show that you consider yourself part of the family without compromising who you are? Cooking a special dish for family occasions? Doing a fun project with the kids? Helping out with an elderly family member? Some people fear that introverts’ quietness means they are sitting in judgment. This family might just need to see that you accept them as they are despite your differences.

Oh, and by the way: we introverts sometimes assume that everyone is as tender and sensitive as we are and behaves accordingly. But that’s not the case—a lot of extroverts are like bumper cars, careening around, smacking into each other, spinning around, and happily going in another direction without bruises or wounded feelings. Is it possible they don’t so much sweep things under the rug as just shrug and get on with their football and beer without agonizing over problems?

You can’t stop this family from being pushy, but setting and maintaining boundaries is a prerequisite for a healthy life. So if you decide not to confront the matter directly, gird yourself to not let their pressure get under your skin. Your beliefs, opinions, and timelines are as valid as theirs—much more so when it comes to your life—and you are in no way required to meet their expectations. If you can plant yourself on solid ground in your head and heart, other people won’t be able to throw you off balance. No need to debate or justify your stance. Explain yourself if you want, but you needn’t defend yourself. It sounds simple, but it’s not easy—I know. But it should get easier with practice.