My husband’s family excludes us from events because we don’t have kids

Tell me about it: I’m worried that our much-needed family holiday is about to be ruined

PROBLEM: I have a wonderful relationship with my husband, and we are very happy together. We have longed for children but due to my health we are unable to conceive (I had two failed IVFs before a cancer diagnosis this year). This has been unimaginably painful for us both and I have a lot of guilt as I feel it’s my fault (I am in therapy).

My question is: my husband’s large family regularly exclude us from events – gatherings, family holidays – because we don’t have kids. We hear second hand these things are going ahead and it’s so horrible. My husband has had a dreadful year, supporting his wife through a life-threatening illness during a pandemic, and it’s so difficult to see him suffer when his family excludes him. It feels thoughtless rather than purposely cruel, but it makes an already deeply painful situation worse.

He hates confrontation and doesn’t want me to say anything to them, so it just keeps happening.

ADVICE: You have been through so much pain and grief that your husband’s family rejection must feel like a twisting of the knife. However, there is a possibility that his family do not know how to connect with you both in your multiple griefs and are somehow trying not to make it worse for you by facing you with happy children and families. Some conversation and education of the family would really help if not completely solve this situation.

Your husband’s fear of confrontation must be something that has affected his whole life and now is an opportunity to address this – he might find he can do this out of love and concern for you. You too are very hurt by the apparent rejection and your husband might find the strength within him to engage with his family so that you both gain from the support and encirclement of an extended family while you are in a time of recovery.

It is great that you are in therapy as the guilt you carry is an added weight to what life has thrown at you, however it is born out of love and a sadness that the future you hoped for you and your husband is now altered. As you are no doubt aware, infertility is a now something that many couples face and it continues to be something that we are silent about. This silence means that there is not enough understanding and support for the rollercoaster of hope and grief that comes with IVF treatment. It is a time when we could do with the backing of our communities (both social and work related) but this is not available as the experience is conducted with the couple carrying the entirety of the process.

There is no doubt that families would like to be involved but have neither the knowledge nor the language to enquire or help. You could talk to your therapist about how you might start tackling this as some guidance from you might give the family permission to ask the questions they surely have.

That you had cancer on top of such heartache is harrowing and yet it seems that your relationship is as strong as ever and you found the strength of character to seek therapy so now you are looking towards an altered future. This future may have extended family and nieces and nephews to its forefront, offering you an important place in their lives. The fact that you are hurt by the lack of inclusion speaks to what you miss so much – the connection and love you previously had with your husband’s family. It may take you and your husband many months or years to heal and be optimistic again but this lack of empathy from his family is something you can do something about now.

Can you (on your own or both together) start by talking with one person in the family? The best way to do this is to be honest, and open, and asking questions is a good way of managing such a difficult conversation. For example, you might ask questions such as these. “What do you think is the hardest part about this recovery period for us? What would make it more bearable? How do you think the family could help with this? How do you think we might ask for inclusion in the way the family can feel at ease with us?”

These questions allow the person to be consulted rather than made feel guilty (you already know how awful guilt can be) and they then can be a conduit for your re-entry into the larger family. This usually takes many conversations, so always finish the conversation with the suggestion that you meet again once they have reflected on the discussion. If you do not do this, you may feel disappointed that nothing has happened and this will seep into all your exchanges, thus alienating that person further by increasing their sense of helplessness and guilt.

Remember that the reason you are hurt is you are missing the love and support of a close-knit family and you can have this back if you are willing to help them reach out to you and not give up at the first roadblock.