Dear Dr. Michelle:
I have been with my husband for 8 years (married for 1), and for the past 5 years, we have been living with his brother. They were already living together when I moved in, and his brother cannot afford to live on his own. I accepted the situation as I was the new roommate. Over the years, I’ve refrained from saying anything, but it's become increasingly difficult for me to be content with this situation for a number of reasons. First, we're married now and I want to start settling down, just the two of us. Second, my family lives in another city, and they can never stay with us because of the lack of space. Third, like so many, I work from home and with the lack of space the environment is affecting my mental health. I've tried bringing this issue up in the past, but my husband always has a huge outburst and makes me feel guilty for wanting to "kick his brother out", or, he brushes off the conversation and tells me I should focus on the bigger picture. I end up feeling like I’ve been silenced and have no say in our living situation even though I financially contribute.
I have a good relationship with his brother, and he is a good roommate, but it's time for my husband and me to live on our own and start planning our lives and family. How do I get through to my husband without everything ending up in a fight, or ugly words being exchanged? Is this issue indicative of a bigger problem in our relationship?
What you have described is certainly a very difficult situation, and as you mentioned, the difficulty is only being intensified due to the working from home situation. But the reality is, regardless of the current work situation, you are clearly ready for a different step in your marriage and living arrangement. Remember, this is not about who is right or wrong. It is healthy to know what you want and be honest about it – never feel badly about your ability to have clarity and resist feeling guilty, even if your husband tries to make you feel that way. Desires and needs can change over time. You may have started your living arrangement and married life with a roommate, but your wishes over time may change. Every partnership has to find a way to navigate change and compromise in order to have a successful relationship.
Although there could be a multitude of different solutions to address your living situation, the truth is that you will not be able to compromise and imagine those solutions if your husband is not willing to talk about it. The real problem is not your wish for a different living arrangement. The problem is the inability for you and your husband to talk about the issue and come up with a solution that meets both of your needs.
When people lash out and say mean things, criticize, or try to make others feel guilty it is usually because the person does not like the reality of the current situation. Negative communication tactics are often a person’s attempt to either avoid a situation because it is too difficult to handle, or an attempt to get the other person to change their position. Either way, in order to have a successful and healthy relationship, it’s important to find effective ways to communicate and work out our differences.
You asked if this could be the sign of a bigger problem in your relationship. That depends on whether you have the same communication problems about every issue or if the failure to effectively communicate is isolated to this one topic. Any relationship will have problems if there is an unwillingness or inability to effectively talk about problems and differences as they arise. When effective communication is consistently an issue, it won’t matter the topic of disagreement, a relationship problem will persist and will likely only get worse.
To find a way forward in talking about your living arrangement differently, I recommend you turn to John Gottman’s work related to healthy communication. Gottman explains that there are 4 communication tactics that will damage any relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling, which are nicely defined in this article.
Gottman also teaches how to replace negative communication patterns with effective tactics, which is well outlined in this additional article.
I recommend asking your husband to read these materials with you and instead of talking about your living situation, see if the two of you can agree that your communication surrounding the living arrangement is what needs to change. In addition, see if there are any tips you can personally use to better communicate your thoughts and feelings. Could it be that some of your husband’s communication tactics reflect some of your communication tactics? If you can communicate differently about the issue of your living arrangement, the topic will not be so threatening and then you might be able to find some common ground from which to start.
Start your communications with a conversation about your shared goals. Do you have the same goal of someday living married life without your husband’s brother? While this may be your goal, is it your husbands? Maybe the difficulty in him talking about this topic is because it was never his intent to live married life alone. If this is the case, your husband might have more difficulty shifting his mindset and preparing for a different living arrangement, which means he might need more time to figure out how to make this happen.
How to Find A Compromise
If in fact you and your husband do share the same goal, you might have to be patient and compromise about how to get there. Consider the following ideas to help you achieve that goal:
- Start off by agreeing to a realistic timeline in which to achieve your goal. Do you need to compromise on that timeline?
- Is part of the problem your brother-in-law’s ability to afford living on his own? If so, does he currently pay rent? If not, perhaps a good step is to charge rent so that he will begin to learn how to be independent in order to grow his ability to take this step in the future. At the same time, rent fairly compensates you for the inconvenience of having a roommate.
- If he is already paying rent, but there is still concern that he won’t be able to afford to live on his own, can you and your husband put his rent money into a savings account to be used to help him move out at a later time? Not only will this help your brother-in-law, but it will help you and your husband learn how to live successfully without the additional income.
- To get through the immediate work-at-home situation, have you considered rearranging the living space in order to give you more personal room so that some of the immediate pressure to change your living situation is eased?
- Since there is a lack of space for guests, can you develop an alternative plan to enact when guests can come to visit? For instance, can your brother-in-law go and stay at a friend’s or another family member’s place when you have others visiting? Or another alternative - can the three of you collectively put money aside to pay for a hotel suite for you and your family to stay so they can come visit?
If your husband does not share your goal to eventually live alone as a married couple, your next steps need to be different than what is outlined above. If you cannot change your position, and your husband cannot be persuaded to change his position, then your first step is to assess if there is a way to accommodate both of your needs. For example, can you work toward the goal of renting or buying a bigger living space or one that has a separate living area for your brother-in-law to live in so that having a roommate is less intrusive? Or can you afford to help pay for your brother-in-law to live somewhere else on his own?
If you do not have the resources to consider the above options, and your husband is not willing to live married life alone without his brother, then unfortunately, you have a difficult decision to make that will require some soul searching. As well, if your husband is unwilling to work on what could be consistent communication problems, you have the same difficult decision to make. What are you able and willing to live with?
If your husband is not willing to shift his position and he is not willing to work on improving the relationship, you need to decide if you are willing to stay in the relationship just the way it is. If this becomes the reality of your situation, I would encourage you to first seek counseling to think through your alternatives. More importantly, if you and your husband are at a standstill, before you make any life-changing decisions, invite your husband to go to marriage counseling to see what can be mediated. Marriage counseling could help you both uncover deeper underlying issues that are creating a standstill and can help you work through them.
Dear Dr. Michelle blog posts are informational in nature. The posts are not meant to take the place of consulting your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health providers regarding your well-being or the well-being of others. Submitting a question does not establish a client/therapist relationship.
Submit Your Question on mental health and/or family relations to Dr. Michelle K. Murray.