Three months after our wedding, a chain of unfortunate circumstances left my husband, Darren, and I packing our things. We'd been in the midst of raising financial support to join an east coast mission organization, but finances hadn't come in and the logistics weren't coming together. After a final meeting with the director, the opportunity fell through.
Darren had been working a few hours a week as a software developer to supplement our income, but it wasn't a permanent position. I didn't have a job since we'd moved to a new city. Worst of all, our basement apartment, its lease due to run out in one week, was suddenly overrun with flies.
"Pack a bag," Darren said. "Let's go to my parents."
Darren's parents lived 15 minutes away. I figured we'd need to stay only a few weeks at most. No problem.
As expected, we were welcomed with open arms and a lovely guestroom. What I didn't expect was how deeply I'd be affected by living so closely with another family.
I usually spent each day at the house, scouring the paper for apartment and job listings, and searching through our muddled boxes for possessions gone missing. Because Darren's father worked the night shift, and Darren worked on the computer from home, the three of us were in each other's way most of the day.
"Darren, what time can we go to Catherine's for dinner tonight?" I asked, walking into his makeshift workspace in the kitchen.
"I was making chicken cacciatore. Aren't you staying?" Darren's father called from the next room.
So much for privacy, I thought.
"Sorry, Dad, we have plans with another couple tonight." Darren glared at me. "Why do you always put me in the middle?" he added in a lower voice.
I steamed out of the room, feeling my independence had been stifled for the fourth time that day. We were adults; why should we ask permission to go out for the evening?
Darren's father came into the kitchen to see what the matter was.
"Well, if she didn't like chicken she could have said so," he told Darren. "Is everything all right between you two?"
I could hear Darren's response down the hall.
"Sorry, Dad. Could you save some for us to eat later?"
Frustrated at repeatedly hurting his father's feelings over similar incidents throughout the week, Darren would then commit our weekends to joining his parents in whatever they were doing. Meanwhile, I felt suffocated from the long week of togetherness and was eager to visit my own family and friends out of town.
The result: constant conflict.
"Lindsay, you're being selfish," Darren would tell me. "We've put off spending time with my parents all week, we should go to the cottage with them."
Darren didn't understand how deeply I struggled to coexist with his family. He was content with the arrangement. He'd never lived on his own before we were married, so he didn't understand how much we needed to live together on our own as a married couple.
"Why do you keep arguing over these petty things? Let's just go this weekend and have fun," he'd plead. So we'd go.
Undone by a bag of groceries
As our stay of a few weeks turned into months, Darren increased his programming hours to full-time, and I found a part-time job nearby. The low-cost housing helped as we struggled to get back on our feet, but my discontent grew.
Meanwhile, Darren fell into the patterns of his old life. He behaved more like his parents' son than my husband. He'd eagerly accompany his father on trips to the hardware or music store, never thinking to invite me along. Hurt by the exclusion, but not wanting to seem selfish, I found myself lonely and bored in a house that wasn't my own. I felt as though I was competing with my in-laws for his time, and even for his support in an argument.
One night after work I was hoping to rent a movie with Darren and unwind. But when I walked out into my workplace's parking lot, my mother-in-law, not Darren, was waiting for me.
"Darren and his father are over at the Wilbourne's putting together their new swing set. We'll pick up some dessert and join them."
"Actually, I'm not feeling well. Would you just drop me off at the house?" My head really was hurting at this point.
She accepted my excuse, reminding me to take a pain reliever and urging me to call if I felt better.
Back home I tried to sleep, hoping Darren would cut his evening short. Instead, they came home well after 10 o'clock, and Darren remained downstairs talking until midnight, never checking on me.
"I thought you were asleep," was his unsatisfactory response to my hurt feelings.
Two months into our stay, everything came to a head when a bag of groceries caused me to burst into tears. Every time I'd wanted us to make a trip to the store, Darren's parents would scoff, "That's completely unnecessary. We're happy to buy whatever groceries you need." And every time Darren had agreed with them.
Worn down after another such incident, I'd had enough. In the safety of our car, I confronted Darren.
"You're my husband," I said tearfully. "But whenever we have a disagreement, you side with your parents. I just want you to speak up for me once in a while. If I want to get our own groceries so I feel more independent, why do you take their side?"
"Because I don't see anything wrong with them buying the groceries if they want to," he said, instantly defensive. "If it bothers you, just tell yourself it's included in our rent."
"You don't get it," I said. "When you support them over me, it makes me feel insignificant."
"You think you feel insignificant?" Darren snapped. "I can't even afford a place for us to live, and with all your crying it makes me think I've failed as a husband. I wouldn't be surprised if you regretted marrying me."
I was shocked. Preoccupied with my own issues, I hadn't realized how Darren had interpreted my unhappiness, or that he was struggling with insecurities of his own.
"Lindsay, I'm sorry. Look, I know I haven't been the husband you deserve. I'm having a hard time transitioning into this marriage thing."
"I don't think you're a failure, and I'd never regret marrying you," I assured him. "But I need you to stand by me, even if that means going against your parents."
"It's tough. I mean, we're living in their house." He sighed. "I guess I've just been so caught up in keeping the peace, stressing about this new job, and figuring out where to live that I forgot how it was affecting you." He looked intently at me. "Can you stick it out a few more months if it means we could buy a house instead of renting again?"
It wouldn't be easy. But owning our own home would be worth it.
"Okay," I said cautiously. "But we need to set some boundaries."
Once we returned to the house, we shared our discussion with Darren's parents.
"Thank you for being honest with us. We sensed the tension but didn't know how to help," they admitted.
Together, we set up guidelines, such as which nights were our date nights and how much notice was necessary if we'd be gone for dinner. We even negotiated a plan for resolving future conflicts that included being open about why we were upset and talking about it right away. The results were immediate.
"Wanting to buy our own groceries is more about me feeling independent than about the food," I explained. "Maybe we could take turns grocery shopping?"
"One week out of every month can be yours entirely to pick up the groceries," Darren's mom agreed.
Of course, things weren't perfect. Darren had many opportunities to choose sides over the next few months, and he chose mine, even if he didn't agree with me all the time. He learned how important it was that we were on the same team, and I learned not to make such a big issue out of everything.
Five months living in another's home brought many challenges, but I'm thankful that the five months Darren and I spent with his parents ultimately strengthened our marriage because we learned better how to communicate our needs and brought us closer.
Lindsay Hodder lives with her husband, Darren, in their own home in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
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