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Dr. Terri Apter Archives
4/17/00
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My question for Dr. Apter is:
Mother-in-Laws are supposed to be the Crinch, but I really like mine.  She is the giver of all kindness, the mother of my dear wife, and I love her.  Am I not normal?

Dr. Terri Apter Responds:
Your love and appreciation for your mother-in-law make perfect sense.  It is exquisitely normal to care for the people who love the people we love, and to appreciate their kindness.  Unfortunately for most people, your perfectly normal feelings are unusual.  But your relationship is the ideal, and it is good to have it before us.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
My Mother In law blames me for her not taking part in our children's lives.  She thinks we should always have to come to her house.  She never visits us, or our children, at our home.  Any advice?

Dr. Terri Apter Responds:
Your mother-in-law may be battling with negative images of an interfering, intrusive mother-in-law.  Perhaps she never visits because she wants to avoid being a typical mother-in-law.  However, this becomes a problem because she then blames you for the fact that she doesn't feel she sees her grandchildren often enough.  I suggest that you put your case to her clearly and directly.  Tell her (if this is the case) that you want her to visit your home to see the children.  If this does not make things better, then something else is going on.  Maybe you could try it and get back to me.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
I have no question in my mind that my MIL is diagnosably mentally ill, though she is superficially moderately well-functioning.  To aptly describe her, she is a present-day Blanche DuBois - full of airs and illusion to escape the mundane realities of life.  If you do not agree with her false realities and try to fulfill her illusions, she is belligerent and outright undercutting.  At times, she is charming and affectionate, very bright and witty, and good company.  When she is like this, we tend to get along so well that it feels as though we are real friends.  However, she can turn on a dime.  She is very possessive of her children, clings fiercely to the illusion that any imperfection in her children's lives are the fault of their spouses (I suppose to deflect any blame on her own sorely deficient parenting as a young, unstable divorcee when they were young).  She very cleverly, insidiously manipulates any situation in which she feels threatened so that the other party becomes defensive, then when they react or respond with a confrontation (even most respectfully undertaken), she makes it seem as though it is the other person who is making trouble, and tries to rally sympathy from other family members.  Most know her for what she is, so that is not much of a problem, but it's still upsetting.

My problem is this:  Despite myself, I always seem to allow myself to fall back into the trap of seeking her approval, which I know, intellectually, that I will never, EVER fully or sustainingly have.  Since my mom died a couple of years ago, it seems that my MIL's antics upset me even more deeply, perhaps because she's the only person left I can sometimes call "mom."  My own mother was mentally ill, which was not conspicuous until her final breakdown 15 years before her death, when I was in my early 20s and before I was married.  After that, she was never well-functioning, but one thing was always true of my mother even at her worst - she always had a degree of empathy, compassion, maturity, conscience, and was able to offer meaningful support in spite of her massive limitations.  She adored, ADORED my husband, as he did her - they were like best friends.  I am a good, decent, contributing, hard-working, talented person, as much as my hubby is, and it cuts to the quick that somehow I have not earned the love and respect from his mother that he had earned from mine.  Now, with my mom gone, I guess I crave my MIL's approval all the more.  How can I keep myself from falling into this trap, which always leaves me bruised and worse for the wear?

Dr. Terri Apter Responds:
In your question, you show that you are already well aware of the problem you face with your mother-in-law.  You associate your mother-in-law with your mother: both have had problems with mental health, and now that you have lost your mother, you want maternal approval from your mother-in-law.  These associations of in-laws with blood relatives sometimes make in-law relationships close and valuable, but they can also make them troubled.  I agree that the solution, given your mother-in-law's limitations, lies with you:  You want to resist your own desire to please your mother-in-law (and your subsequent sense of "failure" when you don't please her).  Reflect on the ways in which your mother and your mother-in-law simply are different.  While your mother generously adored her son-in-law, accept the fact that you will not get adoration (or even a fair amount of approval) from your husband's mother.  It might help you to have your husband understand how you feel.  Perhaps he could offer special support in your mother-in-law's presence.  You could explain that we all need admiration from family members, and in face of her coldness or indifference, you would like him to show particular warmth.  A show of affection in her presence might actually remind her of your value.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
Obviously, this will be a somewhat difficult question to answer without all the facts, but here it goes.  Is it right to keep a 3 year old grandchild from a grandparent due to our family history?  She has repeatedly hurt family members, most of which have no or very little contact with her because of these incidents.  Are my husband and I wrong to deny her, simply based on the fear that she will someday bring the same harm to the child that she has brought to all of us at one time or another?  Thank You ...

Dr. Terri Apter Responds:
You are indeed facing a dilemma, and you yourself will have to judge how to handle it.  To start, identify the harm your mother-in-law has done to others.  Then ask yourself whether this harm could be prevented under certain circumstances.  For example, would it be safe to have a child with her if you were also present?  Is the harm she does something you could warn your daughter about when she is older?  If the harm you are speaking of involves any kind of physical abuse, then you should prevent unsupervised contact.  If you are talking about emotional abuse, then short visits might be safe.  But really, you have to be the judge, and your daughter's well being takes priority.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
I've noticed that you suggest to some (most?) of the DIL's asking questions that THEY be the ones to talk to their MIL's, and you don't often suggest that the sons talk to their own mothers.  I always thought that it was important for the sons to set the boundaries with their parents, to avoid the in-laws scapegoating their DIL for speaking up, or viewing her as (even more of) an outsider.  In my situation, my husband is the one who sets the boundaries with his mom, and while she probably thinks I have bewitched and brainwashed him into "being mean to her", I still think it's more effective for him to talk to her than for me to.  Or do you suggest the DIL be the one to talk to her MIL ONLY if the husband obviously won't?  Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

Dr. Terri Apter Responds:
I like to avoid triangles when possible, so if the conflict is between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, it is best for the daughter-in-law to address the mother-in-law directly.  She is the one who can most clearly state her needs and her wishes.  But sometimes, the problem involves the son, or the couple together, in which case the son may well be more effective in dealing with her.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
How should I deal with my Sister-in-law?

My SIL is one of the meanest people I know.  She is constantly starting trouble with me and the rest of my in-laws.  And my relationship with my MIL is extremely rocky at best.  My husband does not want to say anything for the fear of starting more waves within the family.  My SIL is coming to visit us this weekend and I am already dreading it.  My husband knows how I feel, but just wants things to get better.  The fact is, I can't get over all the things she has done to me and my husband in the past.  My FIL is very sick, so I try to remain calm for fear of upsetting him (he is a great guy).  I need advice on how to deal with this situation because I can't let go of all the bitterness I feel, and my husband will not say anything to her.  Please help.

Dr. Terri Apter Responds:
It seems that your husband is just hoping the difficulties will go away.  One solution may be to tell him clearly how you feel.  You could express understanding of his wish not to make things worse, but difficulties do have be faced.  You seem careful to protect others (your father-in-law, for example), but you should also protect yourself.  Does your sister-in-law really need to visit your home?  If she does, and if it is upsetting to you, then perhaps you could leave the job of entertaining her to your husband.  You could spend at least part of the day visiting friends, or spend an evening doing something you enjoy without the family.  If your sister-in-law is offended, you can simply say that this is something you have planned, or have looked forward to doing.  In this way, you will state boundaries.  Try to avoid apologizing - because you do have every right to make life tolerable to yourself.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
I have always gone out of my way to get along with my MIL, and we haven't had any problems until recently when my husband and I went on our first trip without our 21 month old son.  We had an agreement that his mother would keep our son Friday through Saturday, and she would take him over to my mother's house on Sunday, since she had to work and my mother did not.  We called Saturday and everything was fine.  We arrived home Sunday, and my mother called crying because my MIL refused to let her have my son as arranged.  My mother has had little contact with my MIL, and relations have always been civil, so I had no reason to worry.  I was shocked to find that my MIL went to work and left my son with my husband's sister.  My mother says my MIL called Sunday morning and said that there was a change of plan, and that she wasn't dropping my son off, and hung up.  My mother tried calling back, but my MIL was hostile and insulting and hung up on my mother again.  My concern is that my husband refuses to talk about it.  I'm trying to find a reason and a solution for this occurrence.  I find it insulting that my MIL went against my wishes, not to mention the fact that she went on some sort of jealous tangent.  My husband said that she has done this very thing with another grandchild.  My first reaction is to punish her by not allowing her to see my son.  I know this is wrong, but I haven't spoken to her since this incident, and I'm still so angry.  I'm afraid that if I open my mouth I'll just make things worse.  What should I say or do before things really get out of hand?

Dr. Terri Apter Responds:
It seems that your mother-in-law wants to be the primary grandmother and finds it hard to share the role with your mother.  Your husband has divided loyalties and does not want to speak against his mother.  Instead of thinking how to punish her, I would suggest simply avoiding a recurrence.  She cannot be trusted to care for your son according to a pre-arranged plan.  So next time, she should not be left in charge of your son.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
Is there any way to improve my relationship with my sister-in-law?

My SIL and I had been friends from Jr. high school.  We always got along, until I started dating her brother (even though she set it up).  It was not even that we did not get along ... there was just a change in her ... a distance.  I tried to keep the friendship going.  But to no avail.  Once my husband and I got engaged, I asked her to be my maid of honor (again hoping to soften her up and rekindle the friendship, since we were now going to be family).  It did not get any better.  She was telling everyone that she would probably get married before me.  I thought it was a cry for attention ... but I'm no expert.  I tried to include her in so much ... but I was always being put off.  Then she did get engaged ... and pushed to get married before me.  I was getting married in October ... she got married in July.  She called me only 2 times during the engagement (once to tell me that she was engaged, and the second, 2 days before our wedding, to ask if we needed any help ... she had not offered prior) and never since.  She constantly compared our weddings and put down mine subtly.  I have tried to go out with her to talk to her (her answer was always, "No I'm busy" ... or, "We'll see") ... but she has since moved away to Florida.  I even called her one day after we were both married.  I asked her if I had offended her and if I had ... I was sorry.  She told me that I was family now, and not to worry about it.  Our relationship has only gotten worse.  It feels like she has a chip the size of a brick on her shoulder over something to do with me.  I also get a lot of abuse from her grandmother.  She is extremely critical of me ... no matter what I do.  I am getting to the point where I am angry over this, and I don't even want to see or talk to them.  I do not want to feel this way.  My husband even senses it and gives bad reasons for their behavior.  I am at my wits end ... and I have only been married for about 6 months.  I am terrified as to the response when it comes time to have a baby for us.

Dr. Terri Apter Responds:
I think your problem shows just how difficult in-law relationships are.  People who would, in ordinary circumstances, be fond of one another, become hostile as in-laws.  Perhaps as a friend she was pleased to have you admire a brother who belonged to her.  But once he became your fiancé, he belonged more to you than to her.  She expressed her jealousy by being competitive about who married first.  The problem is hers, and unless she confronts it, there is little you can do to improve the relationship.

 


The Sister Knot, Apter
The Sister Knot
Why We Fight, Why We're Jealous, and Why We'll Love Each Other No Matter What


Secret Paths: Women in the New Midlife
Secret Paths
Women in the New Midlife


Working Women Don't Have Wives, Dr. Terri Apter Working Women Don't Have Wives
Professional Success in the 1990'S


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Dr. Terri Apter
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