I Set Boundaries With My Racist In-Laws — Will My Partner Resent Me?

·16-min read

Thanks for reading Can We Talk?, a sex and relationships column that aims to tackle the burning questions about sex, dating, relationships, and breakups that you’re too afraid to ask your partner — or maybe even your besties. Last time, relationship therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, helped a reader who was having trouble enjoying sex again after pressing pause on trying to get pregnant. This week, she tackles a question from a woman in an interracial marriage whose racist in-laws are causing anguish in the family.

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Dear Moraya,

Can we talk about race, relationships, and my in-laws?

I’m a Latina married to a white man, and while he recognises his white privilege and is doing the work, his conservative family is not.

We had a falling out with his parents in 2020 after asking them to read some books and watch some documentaries about systemic racism, such as White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, PhD, and 13th on Netflix. My only intention with these suggestions was to bring us closer together. But my in-laws took offence and things have been tense ever since.

Most recently, they flew off the handle and told me I was “dividing the family” when we said we would not be celebrating the 4th of July any longer because of this country’s legacy of colonisation. After that, there were many words exchanged in a FaceTime call, including references to racist things they have said in the past about Black people and immigrants from Mexico, all of which hurt me — and, by proxy, my children, who are mixed race. After a heated exchange, they said I needed to go to counselling instead of taking it out on them. It took a year before we were on talking terms again, and we never discussed what was said.

There is such a long history of microaggressions, and I worry their ideals have already impacted my kids. My young daughter has already told me she thought her brown skin was “ugly,” and that she wanted blonde hair. For these reasons and more, I want to be in a place where I can speak up and shut down hurtful or offensive sentiments. But I also don’t want to feel I’m causing drama in the family.

All this has taken a toll on my marriage, too. My husband has been so supportive of us and our children, but I know it hurts him that he’s not close to his family anymore. He says I’m not at fault, but I feel he will eventually come to resent me. My question is: How do I keep my husband from subconsciously blaming me for the divide in the family when his parents continue to play the victim and make me the bad guy? Can we heal our relationship with the family? Or is it okay for me to not want anything to do with them?

Sincerely,
One Devastated Daughter-In-Law

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Dear Devastated Daughter-In-Law,

Let me make one thing clear: Your in-laws are the problem. Not for one moment do you need to feel guilty for setting boundaries and speaking up about race with them. You are worthy of respect and should be able to show up as your whole self when you’re with family.

I also want to validate your emotions and the difficulty of your situation. Based on personal experiences and my work as a therapist who specialises in helping mixed-culture couples and those with non-dominant cultural identities, I know a bit about how deep your pain must be.

It sounds like your husband’s parents are making little to no effort and are operating from a place of fear and ignorance. Instead of seeking to understand your experience or offering support, their actions are asking you to make yourself smaller to accommodate them. Thankfully, it sounds like your partner is not asking you to do that.

Still, for years, you’ve navigated microaggressions and direct racism from people who are supposed to act like family. Throughout that time, maybe speaking up felt impossible and exhausting — or when you did try, nothing came of it. With the events of 2020 came new opportunities and even fresh language for a lot of mixed-culture couples, allowing them to have deeper discussions about race with their white family members. For many, it was the first time that the burden of starting those conversations didn’t land solely on the burned-out (and often the only non-dominant culture) person in the family.

But it seems like what is not being spoken about in your family is that a lot of the burden is still falling on you. That’s not okay. As you navigate the situation you’ve been put in, I think it may help to take a three-pronged approach. First, let’s focus on you — the energy this is taking from you, and the ways you can work through this as an individual and person of color. Secondly, let’s talk about your relationship and the potential resentment from your partner that has you worried. Lastly, we’ll address whether the gaping rift with your in-laws can be mended — and how to make peace with it if it can’t.

In every step, try to slowly shift away from making choices for the sake of others’ comfort. You cannot protect the people you love from hard emotions — that’s just life. You’re doing this work so you can build a future that’s fulfilling and a relationship that’s secure.

First, let’s talk about you:

Self-respect comes with holding boundaries, even and especially with your own racist in-laws. Full stop. It sounds like you’re doing a great job of this so far, but I know it can be difficult when your boundaries are being framed as dividers by others.

A part of establishing and — more importantly, in your case — maintaining good boundaries is understanding your own stories and trauma history, including generational trauma that is passed down in your family tree and that’s stored in your body. This is key because it can help us understand why we respond to people and events in certain ways, and help us figure out what we need. In your letter, it seems you’re coming from a place of worry that you are doing something wrong. This is worth unpacking and guides me to know that some healing is needed for you to feel confident in your decision to hold boundaries with your partner’s parents. This is work that you can start by journaling, therapy (if that’s available to you), or meditating to give yourself the space to slow down, listen to your intuition, and be still. You could also try reading Set Boundaries, Find Peace by author and therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab, a book that gives folks permission to walk away from relationships that are hurting them.

Feeling clear on your boundaries will not only help you have more peace in your home, but it will also model for your children what healthy relationships feel like. I know I would do anything I could to support my kids in feeling confident in their identity and heritage, which can amount to feeling beautiful in their own skin. This is especially important because I know your daughter has already expressed she feels the opposite at times. I can understand the sadness you must have felt hearing that from your child. I’m biracial (Black and Japanese), and have two biracial, Black children. I, too, noticed them actively talking about race and beauty from a very young age. As parents in this world, we really do have our work cut out for us; but we can use modelling and language to help our kids understand that although their brown skin and hair might not always be reflected back around them, it does not make them any less beautiful or worthy of love.

But having grandparents that reinforce the idea that a Eurocentric standard of beauty is better will plant seeds of insecurity. It’s a powerful thing that you’ve taken steps to nip this in the bud already.

Knowing that you’re helping your children by holding these boundaries may make you feel stronger in your convictions. But that doesn’t mean you should forget that it’s crucial to protect you, too. As parents, we often put others’ needs before our own. But how your in-laws’ actions and words make you feel matters, and I recommend digging into these feelings.

Ask yourself: What was your dream when you thought about getting married and building a family? Most of us imagine a great relationship with in-laws, filled with opportunities for more love, wisdom, and, hopefully, incredibly delicious holiday meals. But this doesn’t seem to be the case for you. I want to acknowledge your grief if you did not receive a warm welcome into your new family. That must have been painful, the rejection of who you are based on your race — a social construct but equally entirely unchanging. As we know, when it comes to genetic makeup, we humans are 99% identical, with some of us blessed with a little more melanin than others. I want you to take some time to sit with your own emotions regarding the extended family you imagined versus the family you have.

Doing this may ultimately allow this situation to take less energy from you. Any time our mental energy is going towards focusing on feelings like grief, shame, or discontent, it can create barriers to connecting with others around us. The more work we do to understand ourselves and how we feel, the better. It can also help us stop trying to save or fix others when we see them in pain.

Next, let’s talk about the relationship with your partner:

I want to emphasize again that you’re not in the wrong here, but I hear your worry and generally believe that anything that could stand as a block to connection in partnership is worth examining.

Resentment in a marriage can move in slowly like a glacier. At first, it doesn’t seem to be moving at all — and yet, once you see it, you can’t unsee it. The landscape is forever changed by a glacier, as it pushes ice, dirt, and debris. Repairing this carnage takes time. But glaciers can melt (in this case, that’s a good thing), just like resentment can be repaired with attention and work. But you can’t do this work alone — and in this case, it should be on the person from the dominant culture (your husband) to lead these discussions.

What will keep resentment from building in any relationship is good, clear, vulnerable communication. You both must be aware you are navigating this tension, yet the temptation to avoid talking about such a stressor is natural. We don’t want to keep revisiting something that is hurting us. But that avoidance can cause even more disconnection. I encourage you both to check in on this topic as a couple regularly. You could set a time each week to sit down and discuss the hard things, so you don’t find yourself in the middle of a busy day when you’re asked about heavy emotions that are difficult to access. This would also take the burden off of you when it comes to bringing these conversations up.

As you get into it, don’t assume your partner is feeling any particular emotion. Maybe he feels resentment, or maybe he feels free after standing up for what’s right. Perhaps he is grieving his relationship with his parents, while also condemning their ideas about race. Or maybe what he really feels is deep shame that his family is acting this way, and you’re misreading that shame for resentment. You can’t know until you both talk about it. But at the end of the day, these are emotions he needs to unpack, not you.

Still, discussing this together will be the first step. Ask: Does your partner feel more aligned and at peace now that they’ve taken a stand against their parents’ views? They must have heard their parents saying offensive things over the years — I could imagine, for a time, they chose silence. What did they do with the shame that can accompany that avoidance?

If you find you’re both having trouble having deep conversations on these topics, I would encourage couples therapy. Make sure when interviewing a therapist, that they have experience with mixed-race couples and with navigating racism within the family system. A great question to ask a potential therapist: “What ways outside of the therapy space are you actively practicing anti-racism?” For your needs to be met, you want that answer to be deeper than participating in a book club in 2020.

Author and activist bell hooks taught us how love is active — it’s a choice. “Love is an action, never simply a feeling,” hooks wrote. It sounds like a major action your partner has taken was to decidedly not tolerate his parents’ xenophobia, and, as you put it, “do the work.” This is not just showing his love for you, but for himself as well, by setting boundaries with people who are going against his values. Honestly, this is work he likely would have needed to do whether you were in the picture or not — another reason you don’t need to feel guilty or like the “bad guy” in this situation. Because you and your husband have taken a stand by saying you won’t tolerate racism, he gets to use his privilege to be a disruptor to the stories he grew up with about why other people and cultures are scary. Have you asked him how he feels about that?

With all that said, you deserve a home you can show up completely in, a home in which you can share that soft underbelly of vulnerability. When you step out your front door into the world, I am sure you often have to be hypervigilant and arm up by code-switching. When you come home, you need to feel free to take off that cape and feel safe to fully connect with your partner, without tip-toeing around perceived resentment. Keep in mind, the goal of a healthy relationship is not to keep everyone happy all the time, it’s co-creating a relationship that meets both of your needs.

Finally, let’s talk about the family as a whole:

I deeply believe that people can evolve. Additionally, I believe that healing is not linear. Ultimately, people have to want to change, learn, and grow. But no one can be forced into doing that work. To answer your question, “How do I heal the relationship with the family?” — let’s flip that around. The question I want you to ask is: How do they heal the relationship with you, their son, and grandchildren?

If you think of the question that way, I bet you have many ideas on where to start. Imagine what it would feel like for them to start a conversation by asking you that. How much safety it would offer. It would show they value the relationship with you.

To repair any relationship, you have to have eager, active participants. If they’re not bringing that openness, you will just be exhausting yourself. This is why I want to support you in being intuitive and listening to your needs first. After all, you’ve tried — if your in-laws want to do this work, it needs to be motivated by them.

And to answer your other question, yes — it’s okay to end relationships with anyone. It’s also okay to find ways to be in a relationship with people you don’t agree with, if you’re honest with yourself about the limits of such relationships. A big question you’ll want to ask yourself right now is: “Will having this relationship cause harm, to myself or to others?”

Although you mentioned that you are on speaking terms with your in-laws now, that doesn’t mean you are actually communicating. Especially if no one has acknowledged the hate that has already been spewed. If you decide you want to take a step towards repairing the relationship, I would encourage your husband (because it’s his parents and he’s of the dominant culture, not because he identifies as male) to have a conversation with his parents, or even just the parent who seems most open to listening. It could start out something like, “We have a lot of disconnection, it makes me sad. I am wondering how you are feeling about it now?” or “I want us to feel more connected and safe to talk about anything, would you be open to hearing what would help me feel closer to you?” Start here to see if they are open to healing.

If your in-laws say something like, “Let’s not let what’s happened stand in the way of us loving each other,” stop and back up. A lot of the time, people view this statement as loving — but it’s not. It is not okay to ask someone to minimize or dismiss parts of themselves for the comfort of others. “Let’s not let ‘X, Y, Z’ stand in the way” is similar to saying, “I don’t see colour.” It’s a way of dismissing racism, thus dismissing the circumstances of someone’s life, which are impacted by the systems around them. What we are not going to do is invalidate people’s existence. To repair this relationship, we need to feel welcome to show up as our whole selves.

If starting this conversation is met with hostility, listen to that. Sit with it. Discuss it with your partner — you are on the same team.

Again, I am not going to sit here and tell you that you need to repair the relationship. I will tell you that I hope you find your voice for all the moments you felt silenced. If I was going to hold my ground on something, I would hope it would be for my deep values, for being a disruptor of generational trauma.

As aforementioned author Nedra Glover Tawwab says, “You cannot change people. You can ask that they honour your requests. And if they do not, you have choices.” And no matter what choice you make, remember: It is not that you are causing a break in a family. Those who are a part of the dominant culture are not creating an environment that is safe for everyone in their family.

I sincerely hope some of this helps you feel strong in building a life that allows you the safety to show up fully every single day. We all deserve that.

Yours,
Moraya

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DeGeare is a licensed marriage and family therapist, who specializes in intimacy, LGBTQIA+ relationships, mixed-culture couples, and racial identity development. The advice in this column is to point you in a direction that encourages healing and creates safety for you in this world. It is not to replace the relationship with a licensed mental health professional who knows your personal history.

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