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11/30/02
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My question for Dr. Apter is:
My DH and I have been together for six years and married for two.  In that time my MIL and I have had some ups and downs.  Mostly, I tolerate her moods because she and my FIL have done a great deal for us.  I also realize that I've taken over her most prized possession, my DH, her baby boy.  Anyway, my dilemma is this:  When my DH and I had our son, who will be two in December, there was some disagreement as to what to name the baby.  My MIL desperately wanted the baby to be a junior, and I refused.  She had the choice to name her children.  To compromise, I agreed to give our son the same middle name as my DH, resulting in them having the same initials.  I've recently discovered that my MIL is calling my son, whom she cares for while we work, by his middle name.  Neither my DH nor I want our son to be called by anything other than his first name, but DH is afraid to say anything.  Without causing major commotion, I don't know how to tell my MIL that she can't refer to my son by his middle name.  I believe it can only be confusing.  No matter how much they've helped us, as my parents have too, should she be able to cross those boundaries?  How do I nicely tell her that she must refer to my son by his first name - the name given by his father and me?  Is there a safe approach to explaining this to my MIL?

Dr. Apter's reply:
Your mother-in-law's behavior is irritating, but it is unlikely seriously to confuse your son.  His strongest attachment will be with you, and he'll be able to distinguish who he "really is" from who he is called by his grandmother.  There may be no safe approach to your mother-in-law, but I think you should nonetheless make your position clear.  You have given your son a name, and that you intend to use that name and preserve it.  Then it is up to you as to how far you want to take this.  You could make it a condition of her seeing her grandchild, or you could simply ignore this issue.  If your son comes to object to this difference, he will ignore her when she calls him by his middle name.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
Can an appalling relationship be repaired?  I have been married to my DH for 8 years, and I had a reasonably good relationship with MIL until the birth of our first son, 4 years ago.  This event triggered a period of sustained hostility directed personally at me by my MIL.  She behaved in an abusive and irrational way.  She verbally abused me on a regular basis (e.g., "your 5 month old baby is a spoilt brat who has been ruined by being given too much affection").  She fantasized that I had committed all sorts of terrible acts which she believed were the cause of all of her family's relationship difficulties, and that everything bad that had happened in her family (sisters who don't speak to each other, fathers who break their hand in the process of punching their adult son) were actually caused by me.  Some of her fantasies were completely irrational:  I had, supposedly, hung up the phone on her when she called our house, but I was actually out of town visiting friends.  Or, she said that I had publicly abused and humiliated my SIL's new boyfriend, but I had actually never met him.  All of this caused me a great deal of distress, and I sought the help of a counselor who advised me to write a carefully worded letter about how I was feeling (when you say such and such, it makes me feel badly, etc.).  She said to make sure that I expressed respect for her and stated that I wanted to improve the situation.  I followed this advice, and the result was terrible.  Following my letter, my DH was told that he was not welcome in his parent's home until he had "sorted me out", and he was criticized for not being a man who could control his wife.  To his credit, he supported me.  The result was that he was completely cut off from his family.  Perhaps his mother expected some sort of submission from him following being cut off, but when this did not come 4 months later, I received a typed, 10 page abusive letter cataloging all my imaginary sins, quoting the Bible and Shakespeare, and, in an hysterical rant, condemning me as a socially inadequate reclusive, who was a bad mother.  It went on to say that I was selfishly destroying everything around me.  I returned the letter along with a check for all the money she believed that her family had ever spent on me (this was also catalogued in the letter).  After this, we were cut off for nearly 3 years.  My DH did attempt to bridge the gap on several occasions, and he did take our son to see his grandparents, visits that always ended with screaming abuse, and which eventually became less and less frequent.  This was all extremely distressing, a situation not helped by my own mother dying from cancer during this time (the day after my mother died, my MIL felt the need to phone my DH and tell him he needed to choose between me and his family).  Now we are expecting our 2nd child, and my MIL suddenly wants to pretend that the past few years didn't happen.  My husband is keen to make things better, but I feel unable to forget what has happened.  It is not just about forgiveness, but more that I do not trust her to behave rationally, and that I don't want to ever expose either myself or my children to that sort of abuse.  My husband thinks that I don't respect his desire to have a relationship with his own family, and it is the only issue we ever fight about.  I would like the situation to be better, but I just feel so wary about what could happen.  So, can this situation be repaired when the issues from the past have not been resolved?  My MIL is now on her best behavior, but it is completely superficial, and the old issues lie just beneath the surface.  She can't acknowledge that she has done anything that might have been hurtful to us, and this lack of acknowledgment reinforces my own fear.  Really, I don't know what the right thing to do is.  Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Dr. Apter's reply:
This is a very difficult situation, and you describe it clearly.  Your mother-in-law does not have the capacity to assess her own feelings: when she is angry or jealous, she constructs reasons for her feelings, and cannot be reasoned with.  Now her feelings have changed, and so she ignores the abuses she inflicted in the past.  I would not be optimistic of a long-term relationship with someone like this, but the superficial affection might continue for some time, and it is probably worthwhile responding to it.  The real problem you have is deciding how to defend yourself and your family when her rage returns.  The best strategy would be to accept her overtures, but remains careful and keep some distance.  You can explain to your husband that you are willing to do this because you see how much it matters to him, but that you hope he in turn will support you if things begin to fall apart.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
My MIL has stolen many things from our home, such as designer towel sets, small kitchen implements, furniture (2 rollaway beds), family photos, books, clothes, food, etc., during her self-invited visits (1-3 weekends per month).  When confronted, she either denies taking it or she says, "Oh, you didn't need that," or, "You weren't using that," and doesn't return it.  Please advise.

Dr. Apter's reply:
I think the best thing would be to tell your mother-in-law how much you value her visits, but that they will have to stop unless she returns various things she borrowed thinking you no longer wanted them.  You could offer to help her bring them back to you.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
I am not even sure if this is a MIL problem or a GF problem.  Here is the situation:  My GF and I have been dating for two years, and we hope to be married.  I am worried about the influence her mom has over her.  She is 22 years old, and still lives with her mom.  She has to call her mom several times a day to "see what she is doing", and has to constantly seek her mom's permission for things.  These things range from what she should wear, to how to keep her room.  Her dad ran off when she was 8.  Her mom dates, but she is single.  Her mom doesn't allow us to go off for the weekend (because I am a boy).  Her daughter has to be home by 11pm, and she gives my GF a chore list daily.  My GF thinks that this is a normal relationship, and thinks that they are just close.  Her mom goes on at least half of our "dates".  Usually, the three of us go out to eat.  I get along well with her mom.  She likes me, and she tells her friends that she hopes that her daughter and I get married one day.  I just want to get away from her sometimes.  I am just scared that she will try to be just as controlling, and be a horrible MIL after we are wed.  My GF also won't tell me that she loves me in front of her mom because "she will fuss about me saying that".  My GF thinks that it is unreasonable for me to want the girl I am to marry to tell me that in front of her mom.  We are ring shopping, and I do love the girl, but I guess my main question is to ask whether or not this is a normal relationship that my GF has with her mom.  I love this girl, but she thinks her mom can do no wrong.  And, whenever I try to question something (to my GF) that her mom does, we end up in a fight about it.  I understand that girls are close, but shouldn't some freedom be allowed somewhere in there?  Thanks for your time.  Signed:  Frustrated and Not Even Married Yet.

Dr. Apter's reply:
Your girlfriend's behavior does not seem worrying.  These days, it is very common for 22-year-olds to be living with a parent.  The relationship she has with her mother seems strong and close, but she still feels a little shy about bringing her feelings for you into focus for her mother.  I suggest you put your very general worry to rest, but speak out if there is some specific issue that concerns you.  If, for example, you and your girlfriend make a decision, and then she changes it after consulting with her mother, you could highlight that for discussion.  When you speak to her, you could begin by saying you do not want to criticize her mother, but you want to feel that you and your girlfriend form a close and protected unit.  You could explain that you know she loves her mother, but you need to feel that your opinions have equal weight.  The real problem is that in marrying an individual, one is gaining a set of other family relationships.  This will be true of anyone!

My question for Dr. Apter is:
Is there a simple check list for "how you know your in-laws are intruding"?  When you can't seem to get it through to your husband, and he has been controlled every day of his life, sometimes seeing what others see as reality helps tremendously.  Thank you.

Dr. Apter's reply:
The trouble with a check list is that it seems to give you an objective measure, but then you have to ask: Does this situation I'm experiencing now count as this description on the check list?  In any case, if your husband cannot view your in-laws with any objectivity, he would say, "Yes, they are doing this, but it does not count as an intrusion."  In any case, what is important is your experience of your in-laws' behavior, whether you are comfortable with it, irritated or offended by it, whether you find it comforting or disturbing.  Perhaps you could approach your husband with an explanation of your feelings and responses, and seek his help in resolving a situation that disturbs you.  If you frame this problem in this way, he may feel freer to help you because the emphasis is not so clearly on criticism of his parents.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
I have been married for 7 years.  I have a 2 1/2 year old son, and another child on the way.  My MIL is moving across the country to be near us.  In some ways, she is wonderful and treats me like a daughter, but I think she has unrealistic expectations of what her role is to be when she gets here.  She wants unlimited access to our house (to clean it for me, which I don't want) and my son.  I want my son to continue to have a loving relationship with his grandmother, but I don't want her taking over.  How do I set boundaries, in a nice way, from the beginning?  I don't want to upset her, because it is going to be a difficult move for her.  We have pretty much gotten along, but there is a tension since the birth of my son, because I do some things differently than she did.  She also tries SO HARD not to upset my husband (who wouldn't be upset anyway), but doesn't think twice about criticizing me.  I can't help but feel that I'm losing control of my life and family.

Dr. Apter's reply:
Soon after she arrives, you could tell her that you are delighted to have her nearby and that you anticipate a good long-term bond.  Explain that you realize some people find this situation difficult, so you have set down some conditions to avoid misunderstanding and conflict.  Perhaps these conditions could be written down - though that might seem heavy-handed.  You will have to decide yourself how clear or specific you want to be, but ground rules such as calling before visiting, privacy time and control over child-rearing decisions are pretty basic.

 


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