"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
June 26, 2014
The Case of the Disappearing Son-in-Law
by Cyndie Swindlehurst

Question:

My daughter and son-in-law are living with us temporarily. They moved in last month and will be with us for about eight months. There is plenty of room in the house (we have a main-floor master bedroom, so they have the entire second floor to themselves) and we are delighted to have them.

I am not sure they are happy here, though. My daughter seems like her normal self, but my son-in-law has changed from his friendly self into a person who comes home, eats dinner and retreats to his room for the rest of the evening. He is always pleasant and polite, but he keeps largely to himself.

We do not interfere with their business or pressure them to participate in social or family events, and we always ask what he’d like to do or watch on TV, so I don’t know why he’s avoiding us.

How can we find out what is bothering him? We want him to feel comfortable and at home.

Answer:

I suppose it is possible that your son-in-law is having a problem that causes him to avoid you after dinner. Perhaps he is having trouble at work but does not wish to confide in you. Perhaps he is ashamed to be living in your home instead of in his own dwelling. Perhaps he is vexed by the juvenile way his wife acts when she is around you. Or perhaps he cannot stand the TV shows you watch in the evening.

This is all possible. And if any of these problems are the real issue, the person who can best resolve them is your son-in-law. Although you can be generally supportive and kind, it is quite beyond you to resolve his job troubles, salve his pride, adjust your daughter’s behavior or swear off a TV show you like.

However, I think you’re making a wrong assumption. You are assuming that but for some identifiable problem, such as the above, your son-in-law would happily spend his evenings socializing with the family.

I don’t think this is the case. It seems more likely that nothing is bothering your son-in-law. He doesn’t feel uncomfortable with you or upset by anything. He simply prefers to spend his evenings in quiet solitude, free from the burdens of conversation and negotiation over what show to watch or where to go on the evening walk.

Indeed, it is perfectly normal to enjoy private time. Most people, even social people, need some time to themselves. And in this situation, where your son-in-law is adapting to life with his in-laws, he might need more alone time than he has in the past.

This is not a problem. It is a perfectly reasonable way to cope with suddenly having three housemates instead of just one, no matter how much you like those housemates.

Therefore, the most welcoming thing you can do for your son-in-law is to accept his behavior without comment. Trying to draw him out or plan special activities just for him will not make him feel welcome and at home. It will make him feel like he is under attack.

If your home is truly his home now, you will not make him waste mental and emotional energy strategizing ways to preserve his quiet evenings and devising excuses for not participating in social activities.

“But he didn’t used to be this way,” you may be thinking. “He used to sit and chat amiably.” Perhaps he did. But that was before he lived with you, and you were probably seeing his company manners.

Most people have a set of company manners they use when they are trying to fulfill the role of gracious host or easy-to-please guest. These are the manners that cause you to say, “Oh, that’s okay,” when your aunt spills ice cream on your couch, and that impel you to play Apples to Apples with your cousins even though you hate that game.

It seems likely that your son-in-law, while visiting in your home in the past, correctly put aside his preference for evening solitude in the interest of being a good guest. He knew it was polite to participate in the family discussion or activity you had planned instead of retreating to his room after dinner. And he was willing to do it — and probably enjoyed it — because he was only visiting for a short time.

Now, however, he shares your home. And although he is obligated to be polite, thoughtful and helpful, he is not obligated to behave like an accommodating guest and join in all of your activities. Further, he is not on vacation, as he was when he visited you before. This is real life, and he has to get up and go to work every day.

He has professional, marital, social and church obligations to fulfill. He probably has interests he wishes to pursue, and evenings may be his only time to pursue them.

In this light, then, it is a good sign that your son-in-law feels comfortable enough with you to turn in after dinner. If he felt like a guest in your home, instead of a resident, he would probably feel obligated to spend more time with you in the evenings. The fact that he feels free to retire early indicates that you have made him feel truly at home.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!


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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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