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1/23/09

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My question for Dr. Apter is:
I am writing in hopes that you can give me some advice or direction in regards to my relationship with my MIL.  I am a therapist myself, yet seem stuck in how to resolve the conflicts with my own MIL.  I have been married for over 10 years.  We have a wonderful marriage, and I feel my DH is a great person, father and husband.  He is the oldest child of 4, all boys.  His parents divorced when he was in college.  MIL remarried a wonderful man, who is a great FIL and a terrific grandfather to our children.  They are quite involved, even though they live 9 hours away.  Sometimes, it feels they are perhaps "overly involved".  Over the past several years, my MIL has became much more difficult to be around.  She can be quite bossy, angry, judgmental and critical of others.  She often attempts to take over at my house, getting up and cooking breakfast before I can, dictating where we eat, where we go and what we do, despite attempts to set boundaries otherwise.  When the family gathers at her house for the holidays, she will typically dictate the day's events and will not allow us to simply visit and get to know each other.  She becomes angry if we decide to shop in town or leave their farm, for any extended period of time.  She is quite critical of her DILs, except for one, whom she obviously favors.  I have tried an array of tactics to help myself cope with her visits, such as ignoring her critical comments, making a few meals ahead of time, and trying to approach her with love and understanding as to where she is coming from.  However, I find myself building strong resentment for her and dreading visits or phone calls from her.  I don't want this to interfere in my marriage.  I know that my DH feels stuck in the middle.  Recently, MIL and FIL have called and told me they would be coming for my son's birthday in January.  They have not officially been invited, and my son has planned a sleep-over with a few of his favorite buddies.  They often stay for 3 or more days, due to the distance they must travel to come here.  I, typically, do not know when they will be leaving.  I struggle in knowing how much of this I should handle on my own and how much support I should ask for from my DH.  Any advice, or a good book to read would be greatly appreciated.  Signature:  Frustrated.

Dr. Apter's reply:
You have given a very clear description of a difficult situation.  It seems that your mother-in-law's behavior has become more manipulative, and that she is able to resist your efforts to manage her intrusions and demands.  I suggest you aim to be very firm on as many points as possible, in the hope that her habitual patterns of behavior will be modified.  So, you could start with your son's birthday.  You can say firmly that this is an occasion that does not include her because your son has other plans.  You are respecting his plans, and as a result, you have organized your own time and are not able to accommodate her. (Or, if you are content for her to visit, make it very clear when she will have to leave, and remind her of this, and follow up with questions about her plans.)  The support you need from your husband may be simply to show that he respects the rules you are setting down, and you can reassure him that he is not being disloyal to his mother by supporting you, that there is a difference between setting boundaries so that continuing contact with his mother is comfortable, rather than impossible, on the one hand, and rejecting her, on the other.  Effecting change will not be easy: she will resist, and may try to coerce you with anger or sulking.  But it is worth persisting, and explaining to her that your aim is to maintain the relationship, but to modify it so that it is comfortable and positive for everyone.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
Since my oldest DD turned 2, MIL and FIL have taken her once a month for the weekend.  At first, we did not mind, since it was time with her GPs and time for us to spend with her baby sister.  But, now our youngest DD has gotten old enough to understand that her sister is leaving and she's not going.  She sat and cried all night long that first night her sister was gone.  How can I get them to understand that what they are doing is hurting their other grandchild?  Not to mention, she has other grandchildren whom she doesn't take, and it makes me feel like all she wants is my daughter.  My DH has told his mom that she needs to learn to take both, but since he said that, she hasn't asked for either of our children.  What can we do to make it clear to her?

Dr. Apter's reply:
It is possible that your in-laws are somewhat abashed to realize that they do prefer one grandchild over the others.  (Your suggestion that they take both children might have triggered that realization.)  So, you might try telling them how wonderful it is that they are so attached to their grandchild, and how much both of your children value their grandparents, and how wonderful it would be if they took them both, or took turns, sometimes taking one, sometimes the other.  (Perhaps they do not feel they can cope with two children?)  It is difficult to know what is going on here, but this might be a place to begin.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
My MIL is an overall loving person, but she has certain quirks and a smothering nature that make it harder to really appreciate the good things about her.  She has several habits that I really don't like, but we're hearing this one more lately because of social events coming up this summer.  If there's a wedding or social event for specific people, she always makes a big deal about how, "We all HAVE to go," and says, "They ALL came to your wedding, so we HAVE to."  I understand social reciprocity and well-mannered behavior, but I can't stand her social martyr attitude and telling everyone what they "must" do.  She repeats these phrases about 10 times in a row during a conversation, pointing out how "she has no CHOICE" because "She/we HAVE to do it."  My parents are also socially aware, and are well-respected in their community, yet I never heard this sort of annoying habit from them.  My parents didn't let other people's expectations dictate what they did.  They did what they felt was the right thing to do, and that is how it was explained to us when we were growing up.  I think I am a little sensitive because I remember MIL trying to insist on some things at our wedding that no one in our families did (due to moral reasons) just so some of her distant guests would like it, because SHE "HAD to".  Never mind the fact that my parents were hosting the whole thing, according to tradition.  And, no one was made to feel uncomfortable or awkward, she was just being overly worried and only thinking about what people would think of her.  I have never told my DH about this because he wouldn't agree, and probably would tell me I'm being oversensitive and reading into things, etc.  How can I stop being so annoyed with her social martyr attitude?

Dr. Apter's reply:
I think you feel such a pitch of annoyance because you have no control over your mother-in-law's gauge of what is right or necessary (socially).  Instead of trying to reduce your annoyance, I suggest you try to increase your own power.  So, you could let your mother-in-law say, 10 times if she wants, "we have to do this," and then you could say, clearly but firmly and calmly, "This is what I've decided to do."  You can repeat this even when she repeats her view of what everyone has to do.  To succeed, you will need some support from your husband.  Perhaps you can assure him that you are not being disloyal to his mother, but that you must be able to exercise your own judgment in these matters.  I hope he does not find that legitimate difference between you and his mother threatening.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
My MIL is a very passive-aggressive individual who has no respect for boundaries.  Her family, including my DH, see all relationships as forms of manipulation, and so they feel that they are justified in their pursuits, because at least they are "honest" about it.  We visit MIL once every 3 weeks.  We take the time, energy and money to drive the two hours, though she has never (thankfully) visited us.  Recently, my MIL started trying to manipulate our (only) child, now three, into sleeping with her in her bed.  "Do you want to sleep with this puppy?  Then you have to sleep with me."  My child has been naturally smart and gotten herself out of this.  After one of our last visits, I talked with my daughter and instructed her that she could tell people that she only sleeps with her parents, if indeed she was in a situation where someone else wanted to sleep with her.  I considered my words carefully, and wasn't sure about my own "manipulation" in this respect, but I wanted to give her a good excuse if she felt she needed it.  My MIL and family are generally fairly rude to me, and they are bullies.  This past visit, my MIL tried again to get my DD to sleep with her, and my DD said, "No, but I really don't want to sleep with you."  I was proud of her handling things, but haven't been able to sleep since.  I feel like I should step in and handle things for her.  She is my child, after all, and I apparently am a coward.  I know that this isn't going away and that EVERY visit will be the same, because we always stay the night at MIL's, since we visit, according to MIL, "so rarely" and "not often enough".  I do not feel that I want to allow this, though DH, who only blindly accepts his family and thinks I am the problem, says he'd be happy if they slept together.  I think their sleeping together would set some precedent and that would be the expectation at EVERY visit.  I am concerned for my daughter.  I also think that if they want to nap together during the day, that might be more acceptable.  But, she should not sleep during the night with my child.  If she is lonely, she has 12 other grandchildren and five ex-husbands who could help her, I'm sure.  The problem, I guess, is:  How does someone not accustomed to standing up for herself learn to stand up for herself and her daughter, despite the unease and hurt feelings it may cause others?  Thank you

Dr. Apter's reply:
You are well justified in the pride you have in your daughter's ability to make a stand.  I suggest you tell her how proud you are, and that it is always important for her to speak up when she does not want close contact with someone.  You could also explain to your husband that he should support his daughter, that he will want his daughter to be able to say "no" to unwelcome intimacy all her life.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
BF and I have dated for 2 years.  About a year ago, he told me that he wanted to marry me.  A year came and went, and I brought up the topic of whether he still wanted to marry me.  He then told me that his financial picture is a lot worse than I knew.  Out of shame, he didn't want me to know about his parents' financial situation, which he has been contributing to (he knows my parents' situation is, thankfully, financially comfortable).  His father had a heart attack over 3 1/2 years ago, and he hasn't been able to keep up with the bills.  But, in the meantime, the mother is traveling with her girlfriends (to Vegas twice a year ) and his parents are regularly going out for dinners.  He told me he would tell his parents that he needs to stop contributing, as he needs to plan for us.  He is 35 and lives at home.  Based on the mistrust of the past, he agreed that whenever I needed, I could request his account statements to make sure we were back on the right track.  To my shock, close to 2/3 of his pay was still going to his parents.  He then told me that his parents told him that he may want to be on his own, as he has financial obligations to his family and I could wait. He feels guilty, because he is scared that his parents will disown him if he tells them he can't do it.  I feel they are being selfish and greedy.  His pay doubled, and with that came the doubling of monthly support.  Isn't it time for them to let him go and give their son a chance at starting his own life?  I am so upset, I just don't know what I should do.

Dr. Apter's reply:
This a very difficult situation.  Your fiancé clearly feels great loyalty to his parents, but that does not mean he has to sacrifice his independence and well-being for them.  Perhaps you could suggest that you set out a plan stating how much he will support them, and also ask him to review how much he has already given them.  Would you be able to explain to him that if his parents were to disown him in the event that he stop offering financial support, then they are being unreasonable, cruel and manipulative?  He is clearly dealing with a deep fear of their rejecting him, which makes it easy for them to manipulate him.  I hope you will be able to shift this balance of power, but it will not be easy.  A lot depends on how willing your fiancé is to move forward.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
My MIL says things to me that I find to be criticism.  For example, when my son threw a tantrum (he is 2), MIL asked if I acted like that as a child, because her children never did.  My son once colored on my MIL's walls, and my MIL said that he did so because I allow him to color on our walls, and that he's unable to distinguish between her walls and our own.  Most of my MIL's comments are not as direct, yet I'm on the defensive and feel that she is being critical indirectly.  For example, my son developed a rash on a Saturday and we took him to the doctor Monday.  My MIL asked me numerous times if we had switched laundry detergent, lotion, etc.  I felt insulted that she kept asking.  When I told her that we took him to the Dr. and had a follow-up the next week, she commented that when something like that happened to her children, she'd take them right away, and that we're obviously different.  Why does my MIL do this?  Why does she say what she says?  Am I being overly sensitive?  When asked, my MIL says she doesn't mean any animosity and that her comments are misunderstood.

Dr. Apter's reply:
First, you are not being oversensitive.  Small but continuous and indirect criticism are demoralizing.  I suggest that you tell her again that what she says makes you uncomfortable.  Explain that you accept she does not mean to be hostile, but that her comments hurt you, and you hope that on those grounds, she will refrain.  In that way you explain how you feel, without accusing her of animosity.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
How do I plan/setup to have a good relationship with my MIL?  DH and I got married almost a year ago, but dated for about 5 years before that.  During that time, I noticed that she was showing signs of memory loss (with a family history of Alzheimer's).  Then, 2 years ago her youngest son died in a car accident (the 2nd child she has lost that way) and her memory got worse with depression.  She was diagnosed with early Alzheimer's and started medication.  DH (who lived with Mama until he was 30) and I decided that we should try to get her to come up and live with us.  We let her take her time, and now it looks like she will finally be moving in with us in a new house this summer.  We have been fortunate to find a 4/3 split plan so that she will have a private "wing" of the house.  As an LPN who used to work in an Alzheimer's unit, I am aware of the difficulties that will arise from the disease, but I am looking for any additional info that will help ease our transition as a "merged" family unit.  We have no kids yet, but we do want some.  Mama and I have gotten along well during visits to her house, as well as when she visits ours.  However, she does have a habit of nit-picking (complaining) about things and people.  She has avoided making me a target after I let her know that I appreciated her concern, but, "I am who I am," during our 1st year meetings.  Thanks for your preventative tips so that I can build a healthy home!

Dr. Apter's reply:
Excellent.  This is a wonderful example of how standing up for yourself does not sever the relationship, but allows it to thrive.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
My MIL invites us over for dinner.  As soon as we get there she starts complaining about how tired she is.  She wrongly allows her own husband to think that we initiated the visit, when, in fact, she is the one who called us.  What can we do?

Dr. Apter's reply:
Perhaps you could phone her before coming, and speak to her husband, and say, "We've been invited for dinner this evening.  We just want to check that it's still okay for us to come."

My question for Dr. Apter is:
My MIL says hurtful, hateful things about my family and me.  For example, "I don't know why a smart man like your father would marry a woman like your mother."  That's just one example out of many.  But, if I ever bring this up, she firsts responds by saying, "If I ever said anything like that, I deserve to die!  I deserve to have my throat cut!  I don't deserve to be doing the work I'm doing (she's a therapist)."  Then, she goes on to say that I "misinterpreted" her, despite the fact that others, including her son, have validated what I say.  Then, she simply rewrites history by saying, the next time we see or talk to each other, "I'm so glad you're working on your temper, and I'll try not to interrupt you."  In other words, the one minor thing I've mentioned once (that she interrupts me) is the only thing she's ever done wrong, and everything else is "my temper" leading me to intentionally "mishear" her so I can have a grudge.  This has gone on and on.  To this day, she does not admit that she's ever said anything that could hurt my feelings, and yet she always tells me that I'm rude and constantly hurting her feelings by "disregarding" her.  What should I do?  DH is very squarely on my side.  She's been saying mean things (that she doesn't admit to) to him his whole life, but he's learned to ignore it.  I don't know if I can.  Thanks.

Dr. Apter's reply:
Your mother-in-law follows the common (but frustrating and unfair) pattern of blaming someone else instead of facing her faults.  I suggest that you tell her at the time she makes the hurtful comment (not an hour or a day or a week later, but at the time) that she has hurt you.  You can say that you understand she did not intend to hurt you, but that you want her to know that she has, and hope that she will therefore refrain from making such comments in the future.  If she describes your resistance as "temper", then simply repeat, you are not angry, but you hope she cares how you feel.

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