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Married to someone from an "enmeshed" family
May 12, 2015
11:46 am
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Forum Posts: 2
Member Since:
May 12, 2015
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My wife and I have been married for 15 years.   I am 54 and she is 47.


My parents were Polish immigrants and hers from Southern Italy.


Certain problems have been festering for years and they came nearly to divorce about two years ago.


We've seen two counselors, and, all things considered, they were at best useless.   At the moment things have improved somewhat but it's more of a truce than a genuine improvement.


One thing that one of the counselors mentioned stuck with me when she spoke to me individually:  she said that it sounds like my wife comes from an "enmeshed" family.


I had never heard the term before and so I did a little digging, and, indeed the descriptions fit my wife's family very accurately.  I've always maintained that she is far more married to her family and mother than she is to me.   She denies this even though she confirms this often.


I think that the problems with our marriage counselors was that they're used to dealing with Americans, and while I consider myself an American (whose first language was Polish), she, on the other hand, will tell people that she's "from" Italy even though she was born and raised in upstate NY.   She and her family romanticize southern Italian culture and criticize all (including northern Italian) cultures that deviate from southern Italian culture's perceived virtues.


The "other" counselor we saw said that we both fail to treat each other with respect.   What I think he failed to see was that her definition of respect seem to differ greatly from what a typical American would view as respect.    Her family's "definition" of respect seems to be the kind of dynamic that you see in mobster movies (not implying that they're criminals, just talking about family structure and authority)


Head                        --           "Godfather"                   --         Matriarch (my mother-in-law)

Core Family              --       "Made Men"/Men of Honor  --  Matriarch's children

Peripheral members  -- Non-Italian "associates"            --  Those of us married to matriarch's children

others                      --  untrusted                              -- untrusted/(possibly tolerated)


"Respect" flows uphill, and other stuff flows downhill, if you catch my drift.    (Food flows "downhill" and seems to be viewed as compensation for disrespect and condescension).    It seems that it's not what you say that matters, but who you are.


My father-in-law is not mentioned because he died before I met my wife.   However, based on stories told by "family" he too was an "associate" of sorts as well.    It is said that he never disagreed with his wife because he was never "disrespectful."   I find the choice of words telling.   Even though he was known to have a very loud voice and yelled, a fitting description of him, based on family lore would be "seen but not heard."   By that I mean no one ever mentions his thoughts or opinions on anything.   I can't tell if he never had any or whether no one cared.


So who was the "patriarch" if not my FIL?   My MIL's grandfather (also deceased before I met my wife) was in the picture when my wife was growing up and he is spoken of like Kim Il-Sung is in North Korea.   The "respect" accorded "grandpa" far exceeds that accorded to my father-in-law in spite of the fact that "grandpa" had a violent and criminal history while FIL was a teddy-bear by ALL accounts.   I always found this disturbing.   In addition, MIL made FIL work on "grandpa's" farm and "grandpa" treated FIL shabbily (by wife's own account).   I asked my wife how she could look up to "grandpa" (a man of questionable character given family's own description) even though he treated her father badly.   She said she was raised "to respect."    ???


MIL worshiped grandpa and it seems that the "blood dynamic" started with those two while FIL was simply expected to go along.


It seems that my wife expects me to play the same role her father did.   Do as I'm told and don't argue.    Instead of turning to each other for wisdom/advice she turns to her mother.   She then claims that she "agrees" with her mother and isn't just parroting her opinions.   Anything I say after that is just dismissed.   We then just "agree to disagree."


Ever watch a high school debate?   Image it going something like this:

Team 1: "we disagree with you"

Team 2: "we disagree with you"

Team 1: "we agree to disagree"

Team 2: "us too"



Sound like fun?    This is as good as many of our conversations get.


Recently we visited Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's crib.   Tickets are a little steep but understandable given the job they do and the fact that it's a private foundation maintaining the place.


MIL blurts out that "It should be free!"   Sometime later my wife says "My mom was right, it should be free!"    I respond by saying that the services they provide cost money and that the personnel involved (guides, drivers, maintenance) need/deserve to be paid.    I'm immediately cut off with the "we agree to disagree" thing.   With most other people this could turn into an enlightening and interesting conversation, and our nine-year would have seen how two opposing viewpoints can be displayed, contrasted, and even partially unified.    Not here.


Did I mention that we have a nine-year old?   The last thing I want is for him to learn is that it's a bad thing to look at someone else's viewpoint because no one from outside the family can be trusted.


My wife keeps claiming that her mother is very wise.


I disagree 🙂


But I'll give you my reasoning.   My MIL is a Monday morning quarterback of sorts.    On Sunday she bets on the losing team but on Monday she's known all along who would win.     While others will curse "I lost $50 ^&%^*% bucks yesterday" she will completely forget about the call she made.      If you hear her only on Mondays she'll sound like a football genius and you might be tempted to ask her about the upcoming Superbowl.   If you hear her on Sundays as well you'll look for your predictions elsewhere.


A for-instance:   My wife and I lived in a house owned by her mother early in our marriage.   The house was kind of "out in the boonies" but on a  very  busy street that served as an east-west thoroughfare and had cars often moving in excess of 70mph.   My MIL fantasized about "the family" living there for all eternity.    I insisted, because of the danger from cars (among many other things) that we move out before our child can walk and dart into traffic that cannot possibly stop in time.

My MIL, in a rather patronizing tone, said that there was no danger and that the solution was to just "watch your children."

After we moved out my sister-in-law lived there for a few years, but recently moved to a house in a much less traffic area citing --- wait for it -- the fact that MIL had dangerous traffic.   My MIL now acted like she's known all along that the traffic there was dangerous to kids.    Not a shred of acknowledgement that I had told her that years prior or that she had thought differently earlier.


Hindsight: 20/20

Foresight: Mr. Magoo


My question, if there is an answer, is whether there are counselors/books/help out there apart from the standard "I love John Gottman" counselors out there?    Has anyone else out there dealt with issues like this?



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