All Things In-Law...

Dr. Deanna Brann's Blog

Husbands/sons can play an integral part in adding fuel to the fire of a stressful MIL/DIL relationship. Typically in these situations the husband/son allows things to happen, can even set it up to some degree, yet when it is brought up to him, he acts as though he is helpless to make things different. Here’s a situation that makes this point:

Tom’s wife Deirdre and his mother Sylvia have had a tense relationship for quite some time. Both Deirdre and Sylvia shared with me their perspective of the latest concerns between them. I spoke with them separately.

Sylvia is devastated. She hasn’t been allowed to see her son or her grandchildren in almost a year. She missed both Thanksgiving and Christmas, and now her grandson’s birthday is coming up and she has tried to make contact, but Deirdre is ignoring her attempts. She spoke with her son Tom and all he said was, “I don’t know what to say.” This left Sylvia feeling even more helpless and really furious with her daughter-in-law for putting everyone in this situation.

Deirdre is frustrated with her mother-in-law’s lack of respect for her and her family. She has tried talking to her husband but all he says to her is, “I don’t know what to say to my mom. You know how she can be.” Deirdre is protective of her husband and hates to see him feeling this way. She’s also tired of the drama his mother’s visits seem to create. So she decided a while back to “handle” the situation with his mother. Although it may not be ideal, her husband seems OK with how she has chosen to handle the situation.

As you can see this situation is bigger than the two perspectives described by the MIL and DIL. The key component is the husband. The husband/son’s passive aggressive behavior set up an ugly situation between his wife and his mother. And the worse part of this is they both see him as “poor Tom.”

Poor Tom, indeed! My question would be, “Why isn’t he saying something? Why is he allowing this to go on?” He is the one who set this particular piece between his mother and his wife into motion. His “helplessness” creates the atmosphere for just this type of scenario; worse yet, his wife is the one who ends up being blamed. And he is allowing this to happen! This is passive aggressive behavior.

So what can a mother or a wife do so that his behavior does not contribute to an already stressful relationship? Here are a few things you can do to put the responsibility where it belongs.

Both his mother and his wife need to make sure that he is always part of the equation. As helpless as he appears, believe me, he is not. All discussions or talks that include the MIL and the DIL also need to include your husband/son.

Wife –

  • Work as a team – If your husband indicates that he is not sure how to handle his mother or is not comfortable saying something to her, don’t do it for him. Talk with him so the two of you can decide the best way to handle the situation. Once you’ve decided, let him know that regardless of who “talks” the two of you must be together, side-by-side, as a united front when addressing his mother. If you are the one talking, he needs reflect in his words, body language, etc. that he agrees with you and supports you.

Mother –

  • Get clarity – If you have a concern and your son expresses helplessness, then that is a clue for you to ask him, “Do you agree with ______?” But also when you talk about something that you’re struggling with, e.g., getting to see the grandkids and your son, talk to the two of them together. Ask your son with her present. If he doesn’t give direct answers, point out the discrepancy between his words and his actions.

In both cases, whether you’re his wife or his mother make sure you talk with him from a place of love, compassion, and even confusion, but not from a place of anger or frustration. The goal is to shift his passive aggressive way of relating so that you can have a more honest and real relationship with him – and with your in-law.

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