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damage control

The question

My husband and I take an annual trip to the country we're both originally from, with our two young children. We stay with his parents. Every year, planning the trip, we nearly "come to blows" over how long the visit will be. He wants to stay for a month or more, while I set my limit at three weeks. I don't get along with his mother, the kids get bored, I feel restless and isolated and we all get cabin fever and bicker from spending way too much time together. This year, he's pushing for four weeks, again, and wants to stay longer with our son, who would miss far too much school, in my opinion. I suggested he go on his own and we'd all go together during summer vacation. He got so mad he threatened divorce. I was gobsmacked. I understand these trips are really important to him. But a month, every year, is just too much. I feel I'm being reasonable. Why anyone would want to pressure someone to do something they don't enjoy, something that's supposed to be fun, is beyond me. What do you think?

The answer

Why indeed?

Let me say, first of all, one of the things I love about modern marriage – or mine, anyway – is since it's a union of equals, everything is a negotiation.

Once upon a time, if there was a dispute between husband and wife, the man could bring his fist down on the table and say, in thunderous tones: "I have spoken." And that would be the end of the discussion.

But if I were to bring my fist down on the table and say to my wife Pam, "I have spoken," that would be the beginning, not the end, of a long and, possibly, quite heated discussion, which might or might not end with me sleeping on the couch.

So: A clear evolution, right? I like being in a relationship where we're equal and have to negotiate everything, even if we're diametrically and adamantly opposed on the question.

One example from my marriage: whether to circumcise our three boys. I wanted to, she didn't, and it was one of those cases where we both squared off and looked each other in the eyeballs with gunslinger squints and said, "I'm not backing down on this one."

Somehow, to my everlasting amazement, she won that one. But the point is, we worked it out and stayed married. To me, the lamest, most passive-aggressive negotiation tactic is to stamp your foot, stick out your lower lip and say, in weaselly, weedy tones: "If we don't do it my way, I want a divorce!"

Weak. Unmanly. Unmenschlike. For starters, I'd call your husband out on that little display of hissy-fit-itude. Say something along the line of: "Really? You'd divorce me, when we have two little kids, over the difference between staying at your parents' house for three weeks or a month?"

Unless your husband has become completely unhinged, unless he's morphed into some kind of monstrous madman, I think he should be able to see you make a relatively reasonable point.

And I think "reasonable" would make a good watchword as you move forward with discussions. Say: "Listen, let's talk this over reasonably, like a couple of adults."

None of this "come to blows" nonsense. I see no need for emotions, or raised voices. This is not life or death: It's about how long a purely recreational visit should be.

I only have your side of the story, but it does seem as if you have a lot of reasonable points: Kids climbing the walls, missing school, friction in the air.

And a month? Really? That's a long visit. Has anyone stopped to think about how your in-laws feel about it all? My in-laws love me, I know, but after about a week, I imagine they'd begin to muse aloud about whether I shouldn't maybe take a look at the train schedule – specifically, the departure section.

Benjamin Franklin famously said: "Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days." Imagine the stench you, and your wall-climbing kids, will exude after a month! To me, even three weeks seems like a stretch. But that's for you and your husband to work out – reasonably.

I will say that if he simply refuses to budge, continues to drop bombs and threaten scorched-earth scenarios, maybe it's time for you to be the one flipping through the Yellow Pages, looking under "Lawyers – divorce."

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