Family secrets

I’ve been giving more thought to the idea of writing a memoir about my relationship with my husband and I realized that doing so would require telling some family secrets, namely about the abuse my husband suffered at the hands of his stepfather.

On the one hand, his stepfather has apologized and he is not the same man anymore. He’s often kinder and more approachable than my mother-in-law (who is herself in that category of things I probably shouldn’t write about if I think there’s any chance that she might read it.)

But on the other hand, the way my husband grew up unquestionably impacted him. Some of the things he did while growing up (like doing A LOT of seriously age-inappropriate manual labor starting at a very young age) gave him the work ethic that has ensured that we have never starved. He has always taken his responsibility to care for us very, very seriously.

Even more than that, I can’t tell our story and leave out the abuse he suffered at the hands of his family. His stepfather may have been the one who doled out the violent physical abuse, but his mom allowed it. And his mom was also fully complicit in the harsh physical labor, especially since so much of it was in service of her own goals, like a years-long project of adding on to their home.

In truth, I’ve never said anything to my mother-in-law about what I think it was like for him to grow up like that or the impact it had on him. I’ve never told her about how hurtful it is that my husband still can’t have a conversation with her without her monopolizing it and making it all about herself. (Although the term gets thrown around a lot by people who really just mean “selfish,” I believe my mother-in-law is a true textbook narcissist.)

The way my husband grew up is such a big part of our story in part because it took me far too many years to realize how vulnerable and damaged he really was because of his childhood.

In a weird way, I assumed for far too long that he was just extraordinarily strong, as evidenced by how hard he worked for all of us. I didn’t understand early enough into our marriage that he was actually really fragile and needed to be treated very gently and with great care. I’m not sure I was capable of being the kind of person he needed when we first got married.

I hold a lot of anger toward my mother-in-law, much more so than I do towards his abusive stepfather. It’s not that I’m giving his stepfather a pass, but he seems to truly regret what he did and to have changed. Not so with my mother-in-law.

So how can I possibly write about our story if I can’t include one of its most powerful influences?

I have no idea how my mother-in-law will react after my husband dies or what will be the extent of my relationship with her. We don’t have much of a relationship anymore because of differing political views. I strongly suspect that when my husband dies, she will still make it all about her and how it affects her. I would love to be wrong but I don’t expect much emotional support from her. I’m honestly not sure that she knows how to provide it.

And in that regard, there’s also the issue of my own parents to consider. My relationship with them is better now only because I try hard not to have any expectations of emotional support. I know they would be hurt if I wrote about how hard it was on me to grow up without that emotional support.

But the fact remains that to tell the true story about my relationship with my husband, I can’t omit the pain that we both grew up with. It was a large part of what brought us together and why we have clung so hard to one another for all these years.

I’ve read before things like, “if people wanted me to write nice things about them, they should have behaved better.” And that’s true to an extent, I guess. But I also don’t know if I think our story is important enough to tell to be worth alienating our families, no matter how they have made us suffer. They may be able extremely imperfect and their support less than half-assed, but they’re also all that I’ll have left.

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