When my spouse and I meet with his family, he completely ignores me. I mean it’s like I’m not even at the dinner table. He isn’t mean or degrading, it’s just that all of his attention is on his family, not me. On the drive home from his parent’s house the last time this happened, I brought it to his attention and he didn’t even know what I was talking about. What can I do to improve this situation?
We’ve struggled with this same problem ourselves. It used to be that whenever we went to Les’s home, he shifted into pre-marriage mode and forgot I was his wife. Rarely checking in with me, he’d go visit his buddies, take off with his dad, and so on — leaving me to fend for myself. He didn’t mean to do it, but it felt like I was invisible, a mere tag along at best. And it felt terribly lonely. Thank goodness, things changed. Let me tell you how we resolved this problem.
First of all, after I noticed how predictable this pattern was becoming, I spoke up. In private, I asked Les if he realized what was happening and, like your husband, he didn’t. He was having a good time at home and just assumed I was too. I can understand that and I was careful not to blame him or lash out because I felt wounded. However, I told him how I was feeling and he began to see the situation from my perspective. This would have never happened if I had accused him of deliberately ignoring me (that is guaranteed to lead to a defensive position and solve nothing). But by focusing on what was going on inside me when he took off without my input or didn’t include me in discussions, I helped him put himself in my shoes. And it worked.
Next, I asked him for his perspective on what it was like for him to be at his family’s home. He hadn’t really given it much thought before my question, but soon confessed that being home caused him to regress a bit to a more care free time. He simply enjoyed the fun of being a “kid” and not having to worry about much of anything. This discussion helped me not to take his behavior personally, as I was tempted to do. Anyway, the lights went on for him when he realized how this kind of mode made me feel left out.
As we talked more about it, we devised a very simple action-plan together. This included, at Les’s suggestion, a commitment on his part to include me in discussions and keep me informed of what he was up to. I suggested that I would bring a book for times when he wanted to go off with his dad or somebody else. But one of the most important parts of our action-plan was to have a few secret signals only the two of us would know about. Quietly touching our partner’s elbow or even making simple eye contact, for example, became our way of staying in touch (we’ll keep the messages to ourselves, thank you). It became our own marriage “morris code” and after years of being together we still use it in a variety of settings. We have a signal that means “rescue me.” I’ve used this more than once at his home when I was on my third round of Monopoly with his nephews.
One more component of our action-plan which helped me tremendously, was a conscious effort on Les’s part of touch me more often. A gentle squeeze on the shoulder as he was walking by or holding my hand every so often was key to letting me know I mattered and that I was not being ignored.
We are not the definitive answer on this problem, but we identify with your situation and this little plan has worked well for us and a few couples we have shared it with. Try it yourselves. Have a frank but gentle discussion about how you are feeling, invite him to discuss his experience, and then devise your own plan of action to correct the problem.