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When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People:
Surviving Your Family and Keeping Your Sanity"

Leonard Felder, Ph.D.

MORE INFO / PURCHASE

"Forgiveness:
The Greatest Healer of Them All"
Dr. Gerald Jampolsky

MORE INFO / PURCHASE

The Six Pillars of
Self Esteem

Dr. Nathaniel Branden

MORE INFO / PURCHASE

Videos Run you mouse over this symbol  for more information.

Creative Solutions for Handling Difficult RelativesSee how easy it is to fall into patterns that block intimacy and what you can do to get the loving relationship you really want.

The Roadmap to ForgivenessForgiveness is the willingness to let go of the hurtful past, our condemning judgments and grievances and instead choose inner peace. But where do we begin? Dr. Jampolsky addresses what forgiveness is, the health implications of being unforgiving and how to open the door to having more love in your life.

Just BreatheForgiveness is the willingness to let go of the hurtful past, our condemning judgments and grievances and instead choose inner peace. But where do we begin? Dr. Jampolsky addresses what forgiveness is, the health implications of being unforgiving and how to open the door to having more love in your life.

Taking Charge of Your LifeDo you have time to do all the things you want to? Learn to identify and eliminate the things in life that drain you and replace them with what fuels you.

Coping with Stress and AnxietyDo you have time to do all the things you want to? Learn to identify and eliminate the things in life that drain you and replace them with what fuels you.

Saying NO Without Feeling GuiltyDo you have time to do all the things you want to? Learn to identify and eliminate the things in life that drain you and replace them with what fuels you.

Related Articles

Ways We Push Love From Our Life

Ways to Self-Nurture

Creating A Comfort List

Finding Inner Peace

Ways To Expand Your Capacity to Love

More Q & A
Adultery: Should She Stay for her Son?

Adultery: Torn Between
2 Lovers


Divorce: Coming Apart

Divorce: Sparing the Kids

 

 
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From the Heart Media Television Shows and videos developed by media psychotherapist, interviewer and talk show host, Sheri Meyers Gantman, to facilitate personal growth and improve your health and relationships. Straight from the Heart TV
Sheri Meyers Gantman - Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
 
 

What Can I do About my Difficult in-laws?

As a relationship expert and therapist, I have been asked to answer a lot of questions about relationships over the years. Most of the questions and concerns that are being expressed by my viewers and web site visitors are on topics that I think have universal interest. That's why I've decided to share some of these questions and my answers with you. Here's a forum in which you can help each other and be heard. If you have any experiences that you would like to share or comments to add to what has been written, I will post them here. Also, if you have any questions or concerns that you would like addressed, please email me and I will answer you on site. (Disclaimer and Terms of Use)

This week's column addresses how to handle the difficult relatives who push our buttons and drive us crazy. Here are a few examples of the many letters I've received on the topic. It seems that difficult relationships with in-laws are at the top of many people's 'problem' list. I've asked my friend, psychologist, Dr. Len Felder, author of "When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People" to help me address this critical issue. He was kind enough to answer each letter directly. You'll see his responses along with mine posted below.

Questions Asked and Answered:
How do I release all the rage and anger that I feel towards my
mother-in-law?

I feel suffocated by my pushy in-laws involvement with my kids. How do I get more space from them?

My interfering parents
are ruining my marriage. What do I do?

How can I help my daughter set boundaries with her grandparents?

 

 

"KEEPING THE FEUD OUT OF FAMILY"

How do I release all the rage and anger that I feel towards my husband's family?


Dear Dr. Sheri:
My husband and I got married 3 1/2 years after we started dating. We waited that long because his family and I did not get along (reason: I am almost five years older than him). We had hoped that, by waiting, his family and I would form some sort of relationship. During that time, I was ignored, forbidden entry into their home, my husband was told that I was a bad influence on him, and his mother even went so far as to beg him to start dating his ex again because she "liked her better."

When we finally decided to tell his parents that we were getting married in four months, neither said a word at first. His mother finally broke the silence by saying to my husband, "Well, I just hope you know what you're doing." That was the last straw. I wanted to storm out of the restaurant and never have anything to do with his family again. But instead, I sat there like a proper fiancee and kept my mouth shut.

We are coming up on our one-year anniversary, and the situation between his mother and me has not improved much. She has made small attempts to repair the damage (letting me do laundry at their house, giving me trinkets), but I have no desire to make amends. I have had four years of rage and anger pent up inside of me from all the cutting remarks, glares, and cold shoulders I received while we were dating; just the thought of being friends with the woman that caused so much heartache for such a long time makes my stomach turn.

I am civil and polite to his mother, but no more than that. I have hurt my husband tremendously by keeping her at a distance, and I hate myself for hurting him. I want to make him happy, and I know that means I must make amends with his mother. I used to think that if I received an apology from his parents for their past behavior, I would feel better about everything. But an apology is out of the question- they told my husband that they didn't do anything wrong. How do I release all the rage and anger that I feel towards his family, particularly his mother?

enraged

 

 

Dear Enraged,   

I agree that you have the right to be upset by the horrible treatment you’ve received from you in-laws and I applaud you for being civil to them so that there isn’t a complete cut off. You also seem to be a caring and good person who feels remorse for how much your anger is hurting your husband.


In regards to your struggle with the issue of forgiveness and making amends, I want to suggest that the true meaning of forgiveness is not to blindly forgive or whitewash the situation, or to forget and then let your in-laws walk all over you. According to the dictionary and to many spiritual teachers, true forgiveness is when you “let go of the need for revenge” or when you let go of the need to be this
person’s prison guard or probation officer.

Your in-laws are judgmental and inflexible. They might continue to be that way forever, so let’s let them be who they are. Your marriage, your inner life, and your integrity don’t need to be compromised because life has given you judgmental in-laws. Instead let’s look at your in-laws as the abrasive sand that is going to help you and your husband build a pearl of a relationship. If your in-laws are
judgmental, then you and your husband can work on being open-minded and compassionate. If your in-laws are rude, then you and your husband can explore being considerate and fair. If your in-laws are rejecting and cold, then you and your husband can continue to develop the qualities of being warm and inclusive hosts.

I don’t know why life or God or Spirit sends us these people to help us become better human beings, but my research and counseling experience has convinced me that some of the best people get tested in this way in order to further refine their souls. Congratulations, because your in-laws are forcing you to dig deeper and become an even more caring and wise human being. When you look at the situation from this kind of spiritual perspective, it will help the rage and sense of victimization fall from your shoulders and from your heart. I’m not recommending that you spend more time with your in-laws than necessary, but I am recommending that you appreciate how much their nastiness is causing you to go on a personal quest for healing and renewal that is quite valuable.

Be well,
Leonard Felder, Ph.D.
Author, WHEN DIFFICULT RELATIVES HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE

Dear Enraged:

In addition to what Dr. Felder so articulately said, I would like to add a my two cents about forgiveness, making amends and releasing your rage and anger.

You certainly have a right to all the feelings you are feeling, but I'm wondering who your anger is hurting the most? I think the answer is YOU. You're the one living 24/7 with your resentment towards your in-laws. While our anger often helps us to set boundaries and basically say, "I won't let you hurt me again. I'm taking care of myself this time." Being consumed by anger unfortunately keeps you a victim in a cycle of trying to right the wrongs of their ill-treatment of you in the past. By withholding forgiveness until your in-laws recognize their 'abuse' and apologize, you risk condemning yourself to a life sentence of unresolved bitterness. Do you really want your life or your happiness to be shaped by someone else's actions? I don't think so.

Would you like to put yourself back in control? The answer is easy but the action is often very hard for many of us to do. Be the one who chooses to forgive and move on from the past. You have the power to choose between growing bitter or getting better. Holding a grudge will not change your in-laws for the better, it will only change you for the worse. It's time to thaw your heart and make your peace of mind and peace of heart your main goal. I promise you that a better life can be built atop the past's debris. Forgiveness is not something you do for anyone else; it is something you do for yourself. I'd like to challenge you to release yourself from the past by making time to add a little more peace of mind and TLC to your life on a daily basis in the present.

All the best,

Sheri

The 'Ask Sheri' advice column, is made available for the sole purposes of providing general information and education and is not meant to serve as a substitute or replacement for therapy.

 

 
 

More
'Ask Sheri'
Q & A
on the topic
of Difficult Relatives

"My husband and I have been married for 4 years and we have two children together. His mother and stepfather are extremely involved in our lives...I understand that grandparents love their grandchildren, but I would like a little privacy and space from them sometimes..." See Overinvolved In-Laws

"My parents have never really liked my husband, because to them he is not a good provider...when I got pregnant with our son, they complained even more and said I should leave him...." See
Meddling Parents

"My daughter and I are Christians, while her father and his parents are not. Though I know they all love her dearly, their unrealistic expectations and critical communication create a lot of frustration and anger in her...She yearns to gain their unconditional acceptance and approval. Their love is usually expressed as performance-based and conditional.
"
See Setting Boundaries

 

 

 

 

 



OVER-INVOLVED IN-LAWS
I feel suffocated by my pushy in-laws involvement with my kids. How do I get more space from them?

Dear Dr. Sheri

I am writing to you to ask your advice on a matter that has been troubling me for several years now. My husband and I have been married for over 4 years and we have two children together. His mother and stepfather are extremely involved in our lives as they watch our two children on Saturdays while my husband works and I attend school. I appreciate all of their help, as I know how expensive it would be to hire a sitter, but I also feel that this gives them the opportunity to spend time with the children and get their fill. Therefore killing two birds with one stone. On weeks that they do not have to watch the children, they feel that I owe it to them to make sure they spend another day during the week with them, which is not always convenient for me. I have a large family which I do not see as often as my in-laws, but everytime I do, my mother-in-law gets extremely territorial and feels that we need to see her 3 times more than we see my family. I constantly have to explain my actions to her regarding our decisions about my daughter and I constantly have to justify myself for spending time with people other than her.


My husband and I signed my children up for activities so that they can socialize with other children and so that I can spend some one-on-one time with them in a setting outside of our home. My in-laws show up at the activities almost every other week and take over. My mother in-law embarrasses me in front of the other parents because she looks like a psycho papparazzi member with her camera flashing, and she makes comments in front of the other parents how my daughter and son are ahead of all the other children. I am trying hard to teach my children to treat everyone the same and to help those who are less fortunate. I am afraid that by my mother-in-law bragging in front of the other parents that she will create animosity towards my children.


When they baby-sit my children they do not follow the schedules that we have during the week as far as eating and napping. I have tried reasoning with them, but they seem to ignore what I say. For example, I explained to them that the last time I took my daughter to the doctor's, I told the MD that she is a picky eater. The doctor suggested that I present the food in a different way by not offering my daughter an alternative menu. I told my in-laws what the doctor suggested and they refuse to listen. Every time I come home from school they are cooking her 2 or 3 different things until they find something she will eat. They tell me she didn't want to take a nap, so they didn't make her. My daughter acts very fresh to me when they are around and when I try to correct her, I feel like I am always the bad guy. Then she starts this big drama act in front of my in-laws because she knows she can get away with it, and my father-in-law offers her money to stop her from the big act.


My husband tells me not to answer the phone if they call and not to answer the door if they come over unannounced. That doesn't work either. The morning after Christmas, I was relaxing in my pajamas with my children after a very long and hectic week, when someone knocked on my side door. Since I hadn't received a phone call first I assumed it was one of my neighbors. Then I hear the person go to my front door and knock. Then back to the side door and front door 2 more times each before I saw the side door handle opening with a key. It was my father-in-law. I can't even relax in my own home for one day without them barging in on me. We just saw them the day before for 8 hours, then a couple days before that when he showed up at my daughter's dance class, then a couple days before when they babysat and stayed for 3 hours after I got home from school.


I do not know what to do, but the situation is way out of hand. I feel as if I am the babysitter and my husband and my in-laws are the parents of my children. I do not want to cause friction between my husband and myself, but sometimes I feel like throwing in the towel. I have tried to give them hints, I have come right out and told them in a gentle way, and I have come right out and been a bitch which is the exact opposite of my personality. My husband never addresses the problem so I I have to handle it. I feel that I should not have to keep addressing this problem, I feel that they should just know better and stop being so pushy.

I left a good job to stay home with my children after the birth of my son because I wanted to enjoy my children. My in-laws are making it difficult for me to do when they want to spend every day with my kids. I understand that grandparents love their grandchildren, but I would like a little privacy and space sometimes. Please help me. I think I am going crazy.

Sincerely, TOV

 



Dear TOV,

I was moved by your letter for two reasons. First of all, it shows what an amazing and devoted parent you are. Your kids are fortunate to have a mom who goes the extra mile to deal with socialization activities, food issues, and teaching your kids the value of respect for the less fortunate. The second thing that moved me was how frustrating it must be to have such invasive and non-empathic in-laws.

Based on the research I did for my book WHEN DIFFICULT RELATIVES HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE, I want you to know that you’re not alone. Over 65% of us have difficult in-laws or other invasive, out-to-lunch relatives. So it’s important that you find a way to take good care of yourself and your kids even if your in-laws don’t change very much and even if your husband continues to be unable to stand up to them. I applaud you for setting some limits with your in-laws and I’m so sorry that they seem unable to get the message that you and your husband have the right to some privacy and independence.

Since your in-laws probably aren’t going to change very much, what can change dramatically is your internal reactions to them. Some ways to take good care of yourself might include using your sense of humor when you’re around your in-laws. You can say to yourself, “Thank God I don’t live with these people 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” Or “Thank you Spirit for showing me such a clear example of how I don’t want to treat other people.” Or when they do something embarrassing or insensitive, you can say to yourself, “Wow! This is amazing! I have so much compassion right now for how hard it must have been for my husband to grow up with two parents who are so out of touch.”

You can also reassure yourself that research shows most young children at a very early age can tell the difference between the solid values and limits their parents teach them versus the spoiling values and inconsistent limits some grandparents teach them. Unless a grandparent is physically or sexually abusive, our kids aren’t really going to be ruined by the differing things the grandparent says or does. In fact, on some level your kids probably prefer the clearer limits and humane values you are teaching them, even if they act up toward you when they’re around your in-laws. It’s just a test to see if the solid limits and good values of mom and dad are still real and dependable.

I would love for you and your husband to seek counseling to find a way to be a united front toward your in-laws and also to make sure your in-laws don’t put a wedge into your marriage. I don’t blame or judge your husband because it’s extremely hard for most people to stand up to invasive parents. Yet I do think that some counseling would help strengthen the bond and the understanding between the two of you so that the clumsy invasiveness of your in-laws doesn’t cause additional damage. In addition, your husband could benefit from reading the section of my book that describes which comeback lines can set firm limits with invasive relatives without causing World War III and which comeback lines are to be avoided because they only make matters worse.

Good luck,
Leonard Felder, PhD
Author, WHEN DIFFICULT RELATIVES HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE

Dear TOV,

I think that this is a good time to plug a great show that Len and I did on the topic of handling difficult relative situations and crisis. It's called "Creative Solutions for Handling Difficult Relatives." On the show we address ways to improve family get-togethers and holiday visits; setting boundaries using humor, detachment and love; the most common mistakes we make that actually increase family tension, as well as, when and how to change a family pattern you don't like.

A long with what Len has already said above, I believe that it's time to kindly but firmly take care of your needs and set new house rules. I'd like to suggest using the caring sandwich technique we demonstrated on our show. It's great to utilize when asking another for a change in behavior. It has 3 components that go like this:

1. (The bread) Start with a positive and true statement that you can genuinely and sincerely say that focuses on something you admire or enjoy about your in-laws. (Such as how much your in-laws obviously love their grandchildren and how lucky the kids are to be so loved by them).

2. (The filling) Then gently* make a clear request explaining the behaviors you'd like to change, such as their dropping by unannounced or showing up to activities uninvited and talk about the specific ways you would like for it to be different. *Do this without blaming, lecturing, attacking or accusing.

3. (The bread) Follow with another supportive comment that recognizes their positive behaviors and invites them to become cooperative allies. "Since we all love the kids and understand that we each want our special time with them I know that we can work together and work this out."

Essentially you are buffering your criticism and/or request for change by surrounding it with two caring comments. I have found that whenever I use this approach the person I'm addressing usually softens and wants to work with me. At least they hear me out. It's a great tool for your communication toolbox.

Please let me know how it all turns out.

Sheri


 

MEDDLING PARENTS
My interfering parents
are ruining my marriage. What do I do?

 

Dear Dr. Sheri

My husband and I have been married for almost 7 years. My parents have never really liked my husband, because to them he is not a good supporter. When we were first married, my husband had a good job working in a carpenters union.
My parents did not like the kind of work he was doing, because they said it was not stable enough work in their opinion. But we always did pretty good. When I got pregnant with our son, they complained even more and said that I should leave him, because he was not making enough, to support all three of us. So to satisfy them, he quit the union which was the worst thing that he ever did, because he has not found stable work since. We had to file bankruptcy.

After that we moved to a town near where they live. I also work for the same employer as my mother. Two years ago we found out that our son is Autistic and also has speech difficulties. So my husband stays home with our son while I go to work. It is a lot of pressure for me to support all three of us, and to have to listen to my parents put my husband down, even though my son needs the one on one that he would not get at a daycare or babysitter. My husband would like to go to school and get a degree so he could find a good job, but every time he tries to accomplish something, they run him down and it is just not good enough.

We have thought about getting divorced, but we believe we are better together, not only for each other but for our son. If you have any advice, it would be appreciated.


confused

 

 


 



Dear Confused,
I was very moved by your letter because I am also the parent of a special needs child. I applaud you and your husband for doing your very best to take good care of your son, to build a healthy and respectful marriage, and to dodge the verbal bullets from your parents. We can't change the fact that your parents are very focused on income, but we can make sure that you and your husband continue to treat one another with love, patience, and great teamwork. I hope your husband does gradually find a way to finish his degree and provide a second income even as the two of you provide great care for your son. Your story is heroic and I hope one day your parents will realize that you and your husband are both good people and worthy of respect and support. In the meantime, please know that I and every other parent of a special needs child is rooting for your family to stay strong and united.

Be well,
Leonard Felder, PhD
Author, WHEN DIFFICULT RELATIVES HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE

Dear Confused,

It's time to end the painful power struggle and split loyalties between you, your parents and your husband. If YOU are angry that your husband isn't working or gets to stay home with your son while you have to work, then you must look at this and deal with the feelings this arrangement evokes. Sometimes we unconsciously use people on the outside to mirror what we don't want to admit on the inside. Are your parents voicing your inner feelings? If you are truly ok with the arrangement you described, then it's time to stand by your husband and commit to creating a cohesive, "united front," an "us" to the outside world that nobody can shatter. That is a primary task in marriage, to shift from being united with our 'family of origin' to being united as a husband and wife team.

What works for other people, including your parents, isn't always what is best for your marriage. You and your husband must take charge of your own lives and do what is best for you as a couple and as parents to your son. It's time to tell your parents that you love them and appreciate their concern but that you will no longer listen to any negative criticism or suggestions they make that are damaging to your marriage. In other words, you must take them out of the decision-making loop and become the captains of your own' love boat'.

Wishing you all of the best,

Sheri


 

SETTING BOUNDARIES

How can I help my daughter set boundaries and
with her grandparents?

 

Dear Dr. Sheri

I've been divorced for 13 years, my daughter's dad has been remarried 3 times and doesn't spend much time with our daughter. When he does, his approach is resentful and critical if she makes decisions on her own. My daughter and I are Christians, while her father and his parents are not. Though I know they all love her dearly, their unrealistic expectations and critical communication create a lot of frustration and anger in her. She responds by becoming anxious and depressed and has difficulty functioning at school, and at home. She yearns to gain their unconditional acceptance and approval. Their love is usually expressed as performance-based and conditional.

Our daughter is now 18 and I am encouraging her to set some boundaries and protect her heart. Since she has such a forgiving and merciful heart, she doesn't want to communicate in a way that might hurt the feelings of her loved ones. How can I best support my daughter so that she can finally begin the healing process and gain a healthier self image? I want desperately to protect her from further damage to her spirit, but I know I must teach her coping skills in interacting with her relatives. Any insight you can provide would be a huge blessing.

Thanks so much.

Concerned Mom

 

 

 


 


Dear Concerned Mom,


I'm glad you want to teach your daughter how to protect her spirit and learn coping skills for interacting with her relatives. I wish every parent and every high school and college were willing to teach these important skills to teens and young adults who need them desperately. I must say I agree with your daughter when she says she doesn't want to communicate in a way that hurts others. So please tell her to utilize the "Caring Sandwich" method for setting limits and standing up to critical individuals that we love but who sometimes crush our spirits.

The "Caring Sandwich" (which is described in detail in my book When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People) starts with a top layer where you remind your critical loved one that you do care about him or her. Then you deliver the assertive center of the sandwich, but in a loving and calm way, as you suggest the specific behavior that you would like them to change so that your relationship with each other will stay strong and positive. Then there's the bottom part of the sandwich where you remind this person that you do love him or her, and that you want to work together to keep improving your closeness and mutual respect. It's a powerful and usually effective way to set limits without trashing or hurting anyone.

All the best to you and your daughter,
Leonard Felder, PhD


Author, WHEN DIFFICULT RELATIVES HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE

Dear Concerned Mom,

I second Leonard's suggestion of applying the "Caring Sandwich" when wanting to set boundaries and discuss issues that are difficult. You can also read more about it in my response to TOV's letter about her Over-Involved In-Laws). I'd like to address your concern about how to support your daughter in developing a healthier sense of self esteem. After all, it is our own self-evaluation (esteem) that is the basic foundation from which we act and react, choose our values, set our goals and meet the challenges in life that confront us. Being a mom myself, I understand your concern and desire to help your daughter develop a healthy sense of self.

First, a little lecture on the role of parenting on self-esteem. To quote a good friend and guest Dr. Nathaniel Branden, "no one was ever made "good" by being informed he or she was "bad." Love is not felt to be real when it is always tied to performance and living UP to someone else's expectations, nor when it is withdrawn as a way of manipulating obedience and conformity. Often the child receives from an adult's expectation filled messages that "You are not enough. You have potential, but you need to do X or Y or Z to be truly acceptable." Unfortunately, too many of us have received the subtle message, "one day you may be enough, but not now." As caring adults, we know that is our job to help children prepare for independent survival. Effective parenting consists first of giving a child roots (to grow) and then wings (to fly). Children clearly need to know what is expected of them, yet, sadly, we can unknowingly subvert their self-esteem at the core if our expectations quietly communicate "you are not good enough."

Your daughter, from the way you described her, sounds like a sensitive, deep, caring, and compassionate young woman. What beautiful qualities she's already developed. At 18, she is at a developmental time in her life where she may want to begin to spread her own wings and fly. Healthy self-esteem comes from knowing who you are and accepting the person you see in the mirror. You can help by honoring and respecting the beautiful person she is now (which it sounds like you already do )and the adult she is becoming. By conveying your love, appreciation, empathy, acceptance and respect, your daughter will feel more visible, seen and known for who she is. Listening and acknowledging your daughter's thoughts and feelings, even if different from yours is also helpful. Nourishing messages such as "I trust you." "I love you" "You are loveable" "It's ok to go at your own pace" "You are terrific, just as you are" are messages we all need to hear and tell ourselves.

In supporting and nurturing your daughter self-esteem, it is important to support and nurture your own. You are your daughter's best example of what it looks like to be a woman of high self-esteem, living with purpose, integrity and self-acceptance in the world. It has become such a harsh, critical, competitive world, that everyone of us needs to be a little more gentle, kind and patient with ourselves and each other. Praising ourselves as much as we can, taking care of our bodies by cherishing the temple we live in, and stopping our self-criticism. Look into your eyes in the mirror and say, "I love you. I really love you" and do your best to mean it. We all are works in progress always growing, changing and hopefully learning to love more and more, including ourselves.

Sending you and your beautiful, merciful daughter lots of love,

Sheri


 

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