My son got married a few years ago to a lovely girl– at least we thought she was. The longer they are married and the more children they have, the less she seems to want any relationship with my husband and me. She wants our financial help (they are both in graduate school), in fact she expects it but rarely speaks to us. The funny thing is that our son is happy, but his wife’s attitude makes it difficult for us to spend time with them and our grandchildren. All of her interactions with us seem to imply that she really can’t stand us but since we’re her husband’s parents she’ll (barely) tolerate our presence. I feel like our financial assistance is what forces her to be civil at all – and now we need to cut back. We’re afraid this may end the relationship altogether, yet what kind of relationship is it really? This whole situation is very painful for us. Do you have any wise counsel?
-- Parents in Pain
I have counsel though I can’t guarantee it’s wise. Once our children get married, their lives and their choices are really out of our control. If they ask for our advice (rare), we can give it, but otherwise they are usually not interested in our opinion and certainly not in suggestions of change for them or their spouse.
Making peace with this is very difficult. If, in addition to accepting a more limited role in your child’s life, you are also providing financial assistance, the situation becomes more complex. Yet this is the reality for most parents of married children.
Where your situation differs is in the attitude of your daughter-in-law. You don’t want to be vindictive but I understand you may feel resentful about giving so much and getting so little. This, too, is part of the reality of life since the more you give, the more you care which makes it inevitable that parents will be more invested in the relationship than children.
We live in world where there is a heightened sense of entitlement.
We also live in world where there is a heightened sense of entitlement. Children frequently expect that the world (read: parents – and perhaps the federal government!) owes them everything they want. When they are compelled to accept less than they consider their due, the results may be unpleasant.
It may also be one additional character-building lesson you still have the power to give them – a sense of responsibility and consequences – although they may not hear the message.
I understand the pain is very great and ongoing – and that it may yet deepen. But remember that, please God, life is long. Relationships have their ups and downs and the final story has not yet been written. And most of all, don’t forget that the Almighty is just a prayer away.
I have a sister-in-law who hurts and angers me regularly. She has lots of time to spend with her parents, her siblings and their spouses and children. Single and childless, I am only invited to a small number of their gatherings, and when I go, I feel invisible to most of them. I've tried to tell my brother and sister-in-law I am hurting, and each month my brother spends some quality time with me, but my sister-in-law is "too busy." Should I just stop going to these gatherings with her family? I always leave feeling sad, shamed and angry. I don't know my sister-in-law well, but I believe she has a heart and a soul and possibly wants to be a good person. So I'd like to keep on communicating with her, but I'm having trouble rising up out of my shame, frustration, and bewilderment as to why she treats me (and treated my mother, now deceased, as well). I've asked if I've done anything to hurt or offend her, and she says no. Do you have anything understanding or supportive, to tell me?
-- Sad Sister-in-Law
Dear Sad Sister,
Oy – these in-law relationships! They are all so complicated. It sounds like your sister-in-law is not cruel but perhaps just oblivious – and lacking in sensitivity. It’s probably not that “she has lots of time to spend with her parents etc.” but that’s who she prefers to spend her time with. She is much more comfortable with her family of origin and her siblings than with the members of her husband’s family. This is normal, especially if she is young and hasn’t been married long. We can hope (and pray) that with maturity will come greater inclusiveness and sensitivity.
When you say that you’ve tried to tell my brother and sister-in-law that you are hurting, it is difficult for me to know exactly what you mean. Have you told them and they didn’t listen? Have you hinted at it and expected them to figure it out themselves? Without explicit instructions, we can’t expect others (even our own spouses and especially those who don’t know us very well) to understand exactly what we mean.
Additionally, it is just possible that your sister-in-law is actually trying, in what can only be described as an awkward and ineffectual way, to be understanding and sensitive. Maybe she doesn’t invite you as often as you would like because she thinks your discomfort results from your being single and childless. Maybe she is trying to be solicitous of your needs.
Finally, you don’t really explain what happens at these family gatherings that leaves you feeling humiliated and angry. Are people actually cruel to you? Do they ignore you? Or do you feel out of place? Are you involved in the conversations or are you waiting for them to pay attention to you? Without this information, it’s hard to give advice. However, I am going to suggest one thing that I believe could make a big difference: Be interested in them and their lives. Call your sister-in-law to ask about her children (if they have), her siblings, her nieces and nephews. At family get-togethers, make a real effort to get to know her family, to engage with them, to ask them questions about their lives and to play with their children. If you reach out to them, you will 1) enjoy yourself more, 2) care about them more and 3) endear yourself to them more; you will make yourself someone they want to spend time with. Focusing on others instead of ourselves is the solution to many uncomfortable or unpleasant social situations. Try it; I’m pretty sure it will work. Keep me posted.
I’m reaching out to as many people as possible for advice. My mother lost her job two years ago and has been "down hill" since. She started out having stomach issues; then she started really losing her memory and eventually becoming more aggressive towards my father and myself. My brother took her to a neuro-specialist as we were concerned about early onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s. At the doctor’s, she admitted she drank too much. This drinking problem has been ongoing for the past two years. She is now in denial and hiding alcohol. I know she has been facing loneliness, depression, and everything that goes with the empty nest syndrome. My father is not an emotional guy and they live together but in my observations are not happy together. She holds a lot of resentment and now has become an alcoholic. She's in denial and is fine sober but the second she switches to drunk she's abusive and angry. I am now six months pregnant with our first child and I'm having a hard time coping with the situation. Any suggestions?
-- Co-Dependent Daughter
Dear Daughter of Drunk,
While I understand the desire to get the best possible advice, I would caution against reaching out to as many people as possible. Inevitably you won’t know who to listen to and either all the suggestions get jumbled up in your mind or you end up adopting the last one you heard – and then changing course when you hear another! People and their advice are not something to be collected. Pick a few people you trust (that’s why we are taught in Ethics of Our Fathers to choose a rabbi for ourselves) and stick with them.
That said, I understand your concern about your parents’ marriage. That, however, is for them to fix, not you. And what I don’t understand is what the situation has to do with the fact that you are expecting your first child. Or what you are having a hard time coping with.
Although you shared few personal facts, I assume that you are happily married and excited about this child. Your relationship with your husband and children should not be affected by your mother’s unfortunate situation. I understand that it is a source of pain but you have little ability to make real change. Please consult an experienced professional before attempting any type of family intervention. While this may, in fact, be necessary, it is a very drastic step that can only be taken under supervision and with appropriate guidelines. In general in most therapeutic situations, the patient has to choose therapy. It rarely (though not never) works when imposed by others. Frequently with situations of substance abuse, the individual needs to hit rock bottom in order to appreciate their need to do the hard work required to live a better life. That’s why I am suggesting that ultimately your role here is limited. Your mother has to decide that she can no longer live like this and wants to change. You can’t make them happen. And, as I alluded to earlier, neither can you help your parent’s marriage. It is not your job and what you deem lack of domestic unhappiness, may in fact be a stable situation that they are accustomed to and unsolicited intervention on your part could even be destructive.
Your job at the moment is to focus on your marriage and your family. If there is a concrete role that a competent professional suggests you play with respect to your mother, then go ahead. And of course you should be compassionate and caring, but this is not about you. For the sake of your family – future and present - you need to create some separation between your mother’s emotions and your own. And you need to do it now.