It seems like every time we see my parents, one of them (usually my mom) ends up saying something that bums my wife out. It’s never intentional, and I don’t ever even think they’re all that hurtful, they just have different communication styles than my wife does. It got a lot worse since we had a baby, and at this point, I’m getting nervous to go see my parents with her, or even FaceTime so they can see the baby when she’s around. The things they say are always minor, so bringing them up with my parents would count as “making a big deal,” and my wife always asks me not to, because “I’m not mad at them, I’m just telling you how I feel,” but man, it’s stressing me out. What can I say to one or the other of them without screwing up their relationship any more than necessary?
—STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU, via Facebook
I can see where your wife's coming from. Honestly, dealing with family can be one of the hardest things to handle. Your own is bad enough; someone else's can be well nigh impossible.
This may also be a communication style issue—you want to help, and she just wants to express her frustration. And she tells you she's not mad because she doesn't want you to come up with ways to help. She may be afraid of driving a wedge between you and your parents, and she's afraid that you trying to help would do that, but at the same time, she's got to express her frustration to someone and you're there.
You don't give specifics, so I don't know what your mother is saying, but I do know the sort of things my mother says, so I can imagine. And if it's getting worse now that you've had a baby, I'm quite certain that it includes parenting advice. Because wow, unsolicited parenting advice, huh? There's nothing like it. And that can make your wife question herself even if she thinks that your mother's advice is terrible. It happened to me. Because obviously, if you get unsolicited advice, it's because it's obvious to everyone that you're screwing up, right?
So maybe the best thing you can do is reassure your wife. Don't try to run interference between her and your parents; I think you can tell that it won't work. If your parents are anything like mine or my boyfriend's, or Heather's family, you won't be able to stop them from saying what they're saying no matter how you try. But I know that, when there's conflict with family, a little sympathy goes a long way.
I notice that you're on your wife's side. I don't know if that's because your wife doesn't say things that bother your parents or because your mom doesn't complain to you, but it's also of course possible that it's just automatic to you. That helps, too. It also says positive things about your relationship. As does the fact that your wife vents to you even knowing it's your family she's venting about. As does the fact that you want to make it better for her. I'm not sure you can, but I'm sure she's glad you want to.