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6/26/06
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My question for Dr. Apter is:
I don't know how else to let my DH understand that he must cut the umbilical cord with his mother.  On our last vacation we asked our ILs to watch our dog.  When we came back, our laundry was done, she had made an appointment for the dog to see the vet (nails needed clipping), and she and FIL put a screen door on the front door.  These are just a continuation of the things that she continuously does.  She is constantly proving how great of a mother, wife, and person she is by controlling our marriage.  She is a "Marie Barone" incarnate.  I realize that he is stuck in the middle, but I recently got even more frustrated with him because he called his mom and asked her if she could take our patio table, since we could not find chairs.  He didn't even ask me if I wanted to get rid of it in the first place.  I was so hurt because he just did what his mother is constantly doing, making decision for us without asking first, and stepping over the boundaries.  I really think he doesn't even get it; sometimes it seems like a joke to him.  I really don't know what else to do.  Please advise.  Signature:  MIL Hater

Dr. Apter's reply:
I suggest you start with something very specific, at the time the incident occurs.  As soon as you learn that your husband has entered into some agreement with his mother, explain to him that you need some input in this agreement.  This will be more effective than looking back to something that occurred some time ago: in such cases, two people rarely agree on what actually happened, the sequence of events, and who did what.

You describe two problems, really: the mother-in-law's behavior and your husband's encouragement of it. You could try telling your mother-in-law that you value her help, on occasion, but that "less is more," but I doubt that she will hear this.  You may have to forego her help in anything: if she takes care of your dog, then she probably will feel free to do other things.  Her over-functioning may not be quite as competitive as you think (it's difficult to be sure of these things), but if it annoys you, if you find it intrusive, then you may have to decline it totally.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
Five years into my marriage my spouse wrote me a letter and put it in my briefcase for me to read at work.  In short, despite communicating about every choice we made, he said that he really did not want to be in agreement with me on those choices, and I found out later that he was telling his true feelings to his mom.  Although she has lived out of state, her visits resulted in my feeling like an outsider in their marriage!  Now my FIL has passed away, and although we have wanted to move south into the same state that she lives in for a warmer(?) climate, he admits that he wants to live in a city close enough so that he and MIL can lunch together on a regular basis!!!  WE (DH and I) do not lunch together unless I, as the alpha dog, would push it and see that it happens.  He may have fantasized about being closer to mom unconsciously, and now it can be a reality with FIL not there.  I think that in part he may fear annihilation as an adult male if he gets close, as he says that he is torn NOW about moving at all, since I want to live four hours away from MIL.  I try to point out that living 3 hours away rather than the current 9 would allow him to support MIL on holidays/long weekends, but he wants more.  He cannot seem to find middle ground and set BOUNDARIES.  He was 29 years old when we married, and he had no experience with women, outside of mom.  He is a very soft spoken, kind and gentle minister who enjoys interacting with our 9 year old DD, and he is definitely closer to her than I am.  I am in counseling individually, but my spouse does not see any need to set boundaries anywhere, and feels that I am just used to a "less close" family and cannot relate to a close one.  He sees it as just my problem, period.  Although I finally stopped being always too "nice" and had a screaming rage yesterday, he just wants to act as if nothing has happened, and said that we should continue planning our move out of state.  Is there any hope that he can awake and see the triangle/enmeshment with his mom?  If so, do you see hope for change?  He did try counseling years ago, but he chose someone whom I later learned has a fused relationship with her mom that is affecting her marriage!  He wants to go back to her for counseling (she never confronted him about the issue!).  With FIL now gone (whom I liked and admired) and my spouse being the eldest of 5 (and MIL's historical "helpmate", as FIL was consumed with work), I am wondering if this second marriage of mine (first was abusive) has any hope for a future.  I certainly want to do all that I can for my DD's happiness.  She has observed the dynamics though, and spoken aloud, in a precocious way, what she is seeing.  Hoping for a response and THANKS for your site!  I need a support group!

Dr. Apter's reply:
Groups support for family problems is indeed helpful, if only to assure you that you are no alone.  So, find like-troubled friends if you can.

In the meantime, I suggest you have a clear and forceful discussion with your husband.  First decide what points you want to make, and what outcome you want.  Be as clear about this as possible.  Try to address the big things (such as where you are going to live, rather than whom your husband has lunch with), and be as specific as possible about the behavior you want to change.  In this discussion, I suggest you avoid hypothetical arguments (about what might happen or about your husband's unconscious hopes).  In the first instance, you want to set out your basic demands

My question for Dr. Apter is:
Both my DF and I have been struggling with her parents.  She is the oldest child, and she has endured the hardship and struggle of her parent's nasty divorce (the divorce happened about 10 years ago).  There is a huge rift between her mother and father, and it seems that they are constantly struggling for control / approval / or whatever it may be of their children.  They are still constantly complaining to my DF, "Your mother this," or, "Your father that."  When she talks to them on the phone, they don't ask her about herself, it is always about their problems.  The only time they seem to talk about her (to her) is when she is having problems.  When DF's parents got divorced, her father moved her and her sister out of state from her mother.  He then went through bankruptcy.  To help the family survive during the years that followed, he used credit cards in my DF's name.  He has started to pay some of the cards off, and the balance is not high.  However, he still uses the cards, not out of need, but out of convenience.  After a lot of discussion DF and I have come to an agreement that she should close these cards to prevent future use by her father.  DF, being the amazing person that she is, has put herself through college despite her hardships.  Her parents never supported her attempt to go to school, and even discouraged her from doing so, saying that she was wasting her time, etc.  This is not much different than her experience as a child, where the other sisters were encouraged to develop talents and abilities, while she was discouraged and even hindered from doing so.  DF has had some trouble with health issues and with bad jobs lately.  I have supported her 100% (financially, emotionally, physically, etc.) in getting healthy and helping her through these hard times.  When she was critically ill, no one would recognize her struggle, and no one else was there to support her.  It was still about them only.  I have done everything that I can to help her parents.  For example:  I paid for her father to go through a second bankruptcy and helped him with bills.  But I have made up my mind to not help any further.  DF's father has become very religious.  He has sent us about 15 Bibles and tons of religious material.  He talked about becoming an ordained minister and even marrying us.  But recently he told DF that we shouldn't get married and that we need to straighten out our lives and find the lord.  When my parents gave DF some kitchen items that she wanted for Christmas, her mother took it that my family and I were trying to make her cook and clean for me.  DF's mother and her sister have now been saying that DF needs to not rely on me, that people sometimes aren't around forever, and have offered ideas that she should move away.  Her mother has offered her a job with her friend out of state.  For some reason her mother and sister seem to have developed in their mind that I am controlling her and making her do things that she doesn't want to do.  Her father has dreamed up the idea that we are bad people.  I promise you, this is not the case,  I have supported her in her decisions and have been helping her achieve her goals.  And, we are actually very good people.  All this is very hurtful to us, and we don't understand why they are acting this way.  I feel that the experience has made our relationship stronger, but it is still a slippery slope for us.  I have told DF that she should stand up for herself when they act this way, ask them why they think the things they do, and tell them that the things they say are hurtful.  I have been a very good to her and her family.  I know that I should believe in myself and not let their opinions affect me.  I am looking for ways that I can help DF and myself when stuff like this arises.  I also want to understand why they are acting this way.  I would love some advice on ways that we can handle these situations.  This stuff is hurtful to us and it scares me that it might end up damaging our relationship.

Dr. Apter's reply:
Yes, you should believe in yourself and not be bothered by your in-laws' assessment of you.  I also know, however, that that is easier said than done.  But it seems that you and your fiancé work well together.  Since you have both agreed that it would be best to stop the cards that her parents are using, do so.  Yes, they will complain: they may also be tearful or abusive.  I suggest that you and your fiancé prepare for this by agreement to a form of words, such as "These were my/her cards; we stand by this decision," and repeat it whenever the subject comes up, repeat it calmly, boringly, like a broken record.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
I will make this as brief as possible in the hopes that you can give me some advice on dealing with this problem a little better than I have been.  I have been married to my DH for six years.  Over the course of these six years I have realized that my MIL's favoritism towards my SIL's children encompasses her whole life.  The rumor is that my MIL's other GC were ignored the same way that my child is.  DH did confront the issue with his mom, but it was totally ignored.  We live close to my ILs, and I believe that they have visited a total of less than ten times.  My MIL situation got worse when a family fight escalated and we no longer attended holidays.  But, I am always asked to help.  I do at times offer, just so that I won't be totally thought of as an unkind woman.  This year was the last straw.  We weren't invited to Easter dinner at MIL's until the night before.  When I say "we", I mean my child and me, not my DH, as the family fight has been from something that he initially sort of egged on.  My MIL said that she had an Easter basket for my child.  I didn't want to go over on Easter because there always is some family drama that ruins the holiday.  I had a small Easter celebration my house with my DH's kids from a former marriage, who have also lacked my MIL's presence in their life.  My ILs never brought over my child's Easter basket, but you can bet that my SIL's children got their Easter baskets.  I have broached the subject with my DH, and he says, "That's why I try to stay away."  I come from a very tight knit family, and find my DH's family hard to relate to.  Any advice as to what I can do to try to alleviate the problem?  I also believe that my son hasn't noticed that his GPs hardly have a presence in his life.  But when he does, how do I explain this to him?  With hopes that you can help, Signature:  Very Frustrated in the USA

Dr. Apter's reply:
This is one of the most difficult in-law problems to deal with because you fear your child is being hurt by their behavior as well as you.  Your husband's strategy is to stay away, and that may be the best one.  Given the closeness you experienced within your own family, your expectations of family are high, but these may need to be revised.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
Is it healthy for my MIL to call us several times a day?  We both work during the week.  My DH has told her not to call him at work, due to his schedule.  She takes it upon herself to have FIL drive her to DH's work to deliver a lunch to my DH.  Then, in the evening she calls us when we are trying to fix dinner, trying to get ready for the next day, or just plain having time for each other.  When she calls, it isn't anything important.  The context of the phone call is:  What are doing?  Did you eat?  What did you eat?  What time did you get home?  When we try to get off the phone with her, she continues to talk.

Dr. Apter's reply:
I suggest you be firm with your mother-in-law: perhaps you could say that you would welcome calls between certain, very specific hours; but that you need your private time.  If she phones outside those hours, ask whether this is an emergency; if not tell her you will phone her back during the permitted hours, or suggest that she does.  Try not to be swayed by complaints, if you really want this to work.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
I moved to a small town when I got married 10 years ago.  MIL lives a mile away, and during the entirety of our marriage we have battled.  She has done things that blow me away.  For example, she canceled our limo from our wedding because we were not staying at the motel that she wanted us to stay at on our wedding night.  We did not discover that we had no ride to our hotel until we walked out of the reception.  It was not money.  She did not give us a dime for our wedding.  She is now telling my children that I am mean.  I have confronted her about it and she broke down in tears.  She said that she loves me and would never do anything like that.  My oldest DD is 6.  A six-year-old child would not lie.  We have distanced ourselves a lot, but she still stops by unannounced, goes through LONG spells of calling me 3 times a day, and puts a lot of effort into messing with me.  It seems that right when I let my guard down, she strikes.  I am tired of putting up my guard all the time.  She is the "queen bee" in this little southern town, and people tell me that I am "surely misinterpreting her".  They say, "She loves you," when I mention something weird about her.  When no one is looking, though, she says and does some horrible things.  Everyone looks at me like I am the horrible person.  She tells people that I do not let her see her grandchildren, but I would if she would not tell them that I am mean.  It has been 10 years.  What do I do?

Dr. Apter's reply:
There is little you can do to control what your mother-in-law says when you are not present.  However, you could tell her that you believe she speaks unfairly of you, and that you would very much appreciate her desisting from such remarks, that you think they are unfair and disloyal.  She may break down in tears, as she has done in the past, but try to be calm and straightforward, rather than hostile, when you make this request, explain that you are simply making a genuine appeal to her.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
DH and I have been married for one year.  We have a three month old DD, who is being cared for during the day by my MIL while we work.  MIL offered to watch her before she was born, citing illness and neglect as dangers of day care, as well as the obvious cost factor.  We are paying her, because I would not feel comfortable not doing so.  Since the birth of our DD, the relationship between MIL and I has changed dramatically and is getting progressively worse.  This is her only GC, and as expected she is very fond of her,  However, she is becoming increasingly difficult to deal with.  I returned home from work one day and she had unpacked all of the boxes that I had packed for a summer garage sale, and done our laundry and dishes.  The next morning I asked her nicely not to clean or do laundry at our house, stating that I appreciated the gesture very much, but as a private person I preferred to do my own laundry, etc.  She said that she was bored.  I suggested that she take the baby for walks, bring her sewing, etc.  She is constantly fussing about the baby's eating habits, trying to get DH and I to give her solid food (she's still too young, according to the doctor), and exaggerating facts when telling other family members - turning every thing that happens into a drama.  She told my SIL that the baby's doctor yelled at me for giving her cereal, which is a complete fabrication.  He merely said that solid foods shouldn't be started until the 5th month.  Today, she brought her three small dogs to our new house and put them in the yard for the day.  I have a cat who is allowed to come and go through a pet door at will, because she has spraying issues which are fixed by being able to go outdoors.  With MIL's dogs there, she will not go outside and will begin urinating in the house again.  I tried kindly to tell MIL this, but she said that she was tired of leaving them at home.  I have offered to bring the baby to her house instead of ours, but she doesn't seem willing to stick to a schedule.  Some days she comes to our house, some days she has us bring the baby there, and some days I drop her off at her great grandma's.  In addition, she calls my DH at least 5 times a day during the week, and 15 or more times a day on the weekends, which, in my opinion, is way to often.  Admittedly, I have issues with communication.  I was raised in New England, and am a fiercely private person, not prone to gossip, speculation, or the like.  Additionally, my relationship with my own mother is distant, both physically and emotionally.  I am a very easy going person, but can feel that I am beginning to harbor feelings of dislike towards her, which is affecting my marriage and will affect our DD someday.  I feel that if I don't find daycare or other childcare for our DD, this situation will only get worse.  However, I am sure that such a decision will devastate my MIL and I also don't want to do that.  DH, while supportive of me in general, is little help, as he was raised this way and has become accustomed to her behavior and her need to control things.  Please offer any advice you can.

Dr. Apter's reply:
It seems that you could take one of two approaches.  You could speak directly to your mother-in-law, and explain that you are delighted she is so attached to her grandchild, but that you have decided to put your child in day care.  I think it will be very difficult to curtail your mother-in-law's presumptive behavior in your home and with your child if she does remain the official carer.  Or, you may try to enlist your husband's help.  This will involve working hard to get his attention, to explain that even though he accepts his mother's behavior, you are made extremely uncomfortable by it, and on that basis you hope he is willing to help you confront her.  But even if you succeed in getting his help, it will be better to draw a clear boundary: your mother-in-law is not the person in control of your home and your child.  Of course such a change in arrangements may upset her, but to make the changes you want, you will have to withstand that.  This will be much easier if your husband stands alongside you.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
I am really struggling with how to deal with my SIL.  Let me first state that, growing up, my parents, brother, sister, and I were very close.  The relationship was not perfect, but we all got along quite well.  The problem is that since my brother got married, my SIL has frequently said horrible things about my parents.  She feels that they never do anything for her or her children (their grandchildren), that they are inconsiderate and selfish, that they never call, etc.  The thing is, they DO call, spend time, go to games, recitals, etc.  This has been going on for over fifteen years, and while I am not sure how my brother really feels, because he won't discuss it with any of the rest of us, he seems quite powerless or oblivious to how utterly hateful she can behave.  She is very skilled at turning the tide of a conversation to put you on the defensive, and can twist things around to make things seem like they are your fault.  It is very difficult to talk to her sometimes and remain cordial, and I usually feel sick to my stomach after talking to her, especially if she is berating my parents over some perceived infraction.  She will sometimes do this behind their backs, like when talking to me, then tell me that I better not say anything to anyone about how she feels.  Then she will act nice around my parents after talking to me.  While my parents are not perfect, they are good, decent, caring and down-to-earth people.  They would never intentionally do something to hurt anyone.  I have known them much longer than she has, and there is no way that I can believe some of the horrible things she says they have done.  Also, she has been known to cancel plans at the last minute with us, no reason given.  If we express disappointment, we are then labeled selfish and insensitive.  However, if we were to back out on something, even with a good reason, heaven help us!  The same goes with remembering birthdays, holidays, etc.  We might rarely get a call, but if we forget to call, we get raked across the coals.  The double standard is astounding.  My family is not particularly eager to engage in this ongoing conflict, but it has caused a huge amount of anger, sadness and resentment to well up in each of us.  While I can't speak for the rest of my family, my fear is that if someone really stands up to her, says what they really think, she will not only withdraw from ever associating with the rest of the family, but she will also not allow my parents to have contact with their grandchildren.  My brother would alienate things further.  I truly can see this happening.  I love my brother, but again, he refrains from really talking about it.  He and I used to be very close, but now our relationship is superficial at best.  I am sad about that.  Also, while I know that my parents are grown-ups, I know that we are trying to protect them, as well, from being hurt anymore than they already have been.  I don't know if you have any suggestions, but I feel a deep sadness anticipating us having to deal with this for the rest of our lives.  I have given up trying to do or say things to change my SIL.  Being ugly back wouldn't make me feel any better, either, and it certainly would not help toward a resolution.  Thank you for your time.

Dr. Apter's reply:
You have presented one of the great interpersonal dilemmas: you want to speak out and defend yourself, yet if you do, you feel that the person who hears you will reject you -- and, in this case, you fear your own parents will suffer by being denied access to their grandchildren.  In fact, I doubt that this will happen.  One step you could take is to refuse to make plans with her: if she pulls out and is punitive if you suggest changes, then perhaps you should accept that making plans with her is not worthwhile.  It is important to think precisely what you would like to change in your sister-in-law's behavior.  I agree it is unlikely you could change her, but you could indicate clearly that there are some things you will not tolerate.  But it may be that the best route would be to talk to your brother, or to your parents, and to stand by them, when they tell her, "This is not acceptable."

My question for Dr. Apter is:
My MIL has a very aggressive personality, to the point of being overbearing.  She has two sons, and both work with her in the family business.  She, being the "pants wearer" in her marriage, is accustomed to being the boss and the leader.  When I first came into the picture, my relationship with her was friendly, but not healthy.  During our first engagement, one of two engagements, she slowly attempted to control the wedding plans until DH and I pulled her reins backs.  She reacted with anger and belittled our relationship until it subsequently ended.  DH and I reconciled a year later.  She lightened up and he asked me to marry him, again.  This time he and I kept wedding plans to ourselves.  He also strengthened his backbone to her comments; sticking up for me and whatnot.  But our home-building plans became her interest as we were building on land gifted to us by her.  She was soon telling us, not advising us, what to do on everything from furniture to financing, even calling her banker to attempt to establish a mortgage line of credit.  When we confronted her and asked her to let us make these decisions, she screamed a threat at me.  DH confronted her.  Months of tension followed.  Now, married and living in the new home, we are pregnant.  Things are again tense following rude comments that she made concerning our baby shower.  She is not speaking to me, which is ultimately fine.  My biggest concern is this new life.  I do not want to be disregarded as a mother.  I don't want her creating tension in our marriage.  Where do I begin to establish boundaries with her and my baby?  Do I limit visiting?  She has offered to baby-sit a few days a week.  Do I accept, or pay for a stranger?

Dr. Apter's reply:
In such an uncomfortable relationship, boundaries have to be set day by day, without putting an end to the relationship.  You have to decide what you can tolerate, and what you can't.  You already know that if she attacks you, and you confront her, then she will counterattack (but perhaps by withdrawing from you).  She cannot baby-sit, yet refuse to speak to you.  But the challenge will be to allow her to baby-sit - if that is what you want - while setting boundaries, because in taking up her offer to baby-sit you are bringing her into your life, granting her responsibility and power.  I suggest that you think about the implications of this, before you agree to it.

 


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