How do I stand up to my father-in-law?
April 28, 2014 7:47 AM   Subscribe

My father-in-law is hard to get along with and demanding. I really don't like being around the guy, and quite honestly neither does my wife. He wears us both down. My wife does want a relationship with her mother though, and so we both endure family dinners from time to time. We usually put them off as long as possible until it is unavoidable. There is only so many times we can decline until we feel like we are being jerks. We have largely handled these dinners by ignoring and/or giving in to my father-in-law. Now we have a child, and I want to stand up for us. How?

My father-in-law engages in two specific types of activities that bug me. He likes to give advice, and he likes to tell people what to do. The advice is usually financial in nature, but can be on any topic. He tries to tell us what type of retirement accounts we need, and what we need to be investing in. Last night he tried to tell us to refinance our house even though he doesn't know anything about our loan. He likes to pick stocks, and tells us which ones we should be buying. He tells us what grocery stores we should be shopping at, because it is cheaper. The clincher is that the advice is usually bad or none of his business.

He also tries to tell us what to do. Once he sits at the table he isn't getting up. So he will demand things from everyone. He forgot his water? He will tell my wife to get his water. Instead of reaching over and getting a spatula while cooking he will tell someone to give it to him. I think I would be fine with this if he would ask politely instead of barking orders.

In the past, we have both either ignored him, or depending on the request given in. I know that we have been feeding the monster by doing this. It was easy enough to go once a month, and let it roll off our backs. The problem is now we have a baby, and now I care. Now the demands and advice involve how I should handle and raise my child. Now I dwell on the conversations that we have, and they make me burn with fire. Funny how having a child will do that to you.

So, apparently I am a passive person, and I don't stand up for myself. That is actually pretty hard for me to admit. I think I have always thought I could stand up for myself. I feel like I don't think fast enough. By the time I realize what has happened the conversation has changed. If I do realize I need to say something, the only thing that comes to mind involves me yelling expletives so I keep quiet. I want to remain polite and cordial while I tell my father-in-law to back off.

Is there a book on handling these situations? Is there some technique that I can follow? Do I need to come up with canned responses when I am having imaginary arguments in the shower? I probably need this professionally as much as I need it with my in-laws, and so resources for professional development that can be adapted are welcomed too.
posted by ohjonboy to Human Relations (37 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Model the behavior you want your child to emulate.

All in-laws are going to pontificate, so nod and smile and let that crap roll off your back. If you want, try to change the subject, "You know, we have our own financial plan, so, how 'bout them dawgs?" It's pointless to argue, and there's no need to tell him to MYOB. Just acknowledge, and change the subject.

I find that if someone orders me to do something, if I just smile and say, "What's the magic word?" That they'll realize they've been impolite and will cough up the 'please'.

People are jerks sometimes, but you don't have to react to a jerk. If he gets all shirty about it, simply say, "I think johnboyboy needs a nap." Then pick up and go home.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:51 AM on April 28, 2014 [11 favorites]

Those two things don't really sound that arduous to me. So he likes being waited on at the table...tell him that he needs to get things himself. As to the advice, just say, "Thanks very much for the advice! I'll consider it." You don't actually need to consider it.
posted by xingcat at 7:52 AM on April 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

"I'm sorry, that won't be possible." Or simply "No." That's all. Just "No." A simple declaration that you're not going to do that thing. No complaining about how he always does something, no impugning his motives for asking, just "Nope, I'm not going to do that." If he continues to poke at it, either change the subject or just walk away.
posted by Etrigan at 7:56 AM on April 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Maybe it's cultural (for him too!) but this doesn't seem to be the kind of behavior that justifies you not wanting to see him with that kind it venom? I hope not. Maybe the strength of your reaction stems from insecurities about your own confidence levels.

Have you considered asking him to sometimes get stuff for you? How does he react to that? For instance if he is next to the spatulas, ask him for one while you're cooking. Presumably he's cooking for you too? In which case, keep that in mind in the "balance" of work when you feel like he's asking you to do stuff.

If you want him to be gentler in his approach, you could find a way to let him know. Maybe say simply that you don't mind helping him but prefer if he doesn't order you around like it's the military and by the way can you help him out by making the salad?

I guess my point is that you can find a diplomatic way to moving forward and changing his behavior. It may be awkward but probably better than creating a "will never visit you again fiasco"
posted by cacao at 7:58 AM on April 28, 2014

I would try to let these remarks roll off. My parents can be emotionally abusive and this doesn't sound like emotional abuse to me, unless you are leaving some details out. It sounds like he just likes giving advice. If that is indeed the case, try to shrug it off with "Thanks - I'll look into it!" Or, if you want to build the relationship and he really gives advice, ask him stuff like, "Oh, that sounds interesting. Is that what you've done" and "Wow, you really know this stuff. Where do you get your info?" It sounds more like he's socially awkward, in that he's trying to help you and have a conversation and doesn't realize that this is unwanted info. Maybe you can show you appreciate him and his interests and somehow move around this. If that doesn't work, try changing the subject. I am not particularly skilled at these things - I'm more likely to engage in a friendly debate - but I see people who really don't like debate or advice do these things and it seems to work. It is also friendly than telling them "No" or "That won't be possible", given that it doesn't sound like he's trying to be acrimonious. Now, if he is being toxic,, that's different.

As for the requests, I don't know what this guy is like and you haven't made him sound awful so far. I would try shrugging off the lack of please or maybe say, "You know, 'Bob', we are trying to model please and thank you to the baby. So please don't be offended if I don't respond without a please. It's just something we are doing for Baby." Seems better than refusing to visit because he didn't say please.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 8:00 AM on April 28, 2014 [12 favorites]

I appreciate that you want to feel like you're protecting your family, but if you need to have an ongoing relationship with this man, there really isn't a better solution than sucking it up and letting it roll off your back. He doesn't sound like the kind of guy who would respond well to any sort of logical argument and it's also likely whatever you say in an attempt to challenge him will only lead to alienation, not to him changing his behavior.

Most importantly, if you do decide to try and challenge him, please cover this in very serious detail with your wife beforehand. I actually think she's the one you need to be talking to about this, not metafilter. It doesn't matter what we tell you to do or say if your wife doesn't agree and have your back 100%. Even if she says as a matter of principle that she wants to start standing up to him, wanting and doing are two very different things. I would let her take the lead here.
posted by something something at 8:02 AM on April 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Model the behavior you want your child to emulate.

Brilliant. "But what do we say when we want something, Grandpa?" "I'm sorry Grandpa, but we're learning how to say please, thank you, and ask nicely." Then I might have a small talk in private with him to ask him to be less gruff because of the kid but that's just me. Tell mother-in-law that father-in-law needs to tone it down or visits will have to be limited. If she's anything like every grandma ever, that will get her on board with trying to soften his edge.

I also agree with the "Thanks but we've already gotten that taken care of and are happy with the result. How 'bout those Mets?" technique.

cacao, the whole "turn it around on 'em" hardly works, ever. Believe me, I've tried it a bunch and they just think you're a raging a-hole all the sudden (unless you're already one, then they just think it's another facet of your a-hole personality showing itself). They never, ever see it the same way you do, even if you tell them you're doing it and why.
posted by dozo at 8:04 AM on April 28, 2014 [19 favorites]

I think a continued policy of just ignoring him is your best bet. It's a choose your battles kind of situation. It's not being a pushover, it's making an adult decision to not engage.
posted by mskyle at 8:06 AM on April 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

On the advice-giving, consider that this comes from a place of love. He's doing everything he knows to help you achieve financial well-being and to raise a happy and healthy child. Even when his information is off-base, consider the intent, and go with a, "Hey, thanks, pops, we appreciate it." You still don't have to actually follow the advice.
posted by Andrhia at 8:07 AM on April 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

From what you have written he doesn't sound like he's being controlling. The money etc really needs to be subtitled in my opinion. Translate as "you are married to my daughter and about to have my grandchild and I am concerned about your future and how you spend your money because I love my daughter & just because she is and adult and married I don't stop worrying about her."

Don't tell him where you shop or what you are investing in, don't argue, listen to what he says, nod and say thank you and then do your own thing, when the "advice" gets super annoying try and remember what he is really saying. In his mind he looked after his daughter for years before you came along,i his mind his job to protect her and make sure she is OK, doesn't end just because you now think it's your job.

It also doesn't mean his advice is any good, but giving advice is often how men of a certain upbringing show their love, my father never said I loved you but he would nag me about checking the oil in my car or fixing a dripping tap, it took me 35 years to realise he didn't think me incompetent he just showed his love for me in practical ways.

As for the bossing thing the correct response is polite "Excuse me?", once your child old enough you have the perfect excuse to get him to use his manners.
posted by wwax at 8:07 AM on April 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

Having someone around who dominates in this way is demoralizing and exhausting. If he goes on like this, it is perhaps because pushing back has created unpleasant results in the past. I can't think of any particular titles, but books about dealing with difficult people in the workplace, where maintaining civil relationships is key, might be useful.
posted by Francolin at 8:14 AM on April 28, 2014 [10 favorites]

Keep in mind that you actually have all the power in this situation. He's sure he's right, and he wants you to agree with him and change your mortgage/stocks/grocery store. You're going to ignore him, and he knows it, and there's nothing he can do about it. He can demand glasses of water and cooking equipment endlessly, but he has NO WAY to make you give him what he wants. He can't stop your allowance, ground you, or hit you. The only thing he could do is refuse to see you -- it sounds like it would be a relief to you and your wife, and he would be sitting alone in silence.

I strongly recommend that you pick two statements and use them exclusively. (This worked like a charm when I was getting a little two "helpful" with my grown daughter.) For instance, every single time he gives you advice, smile and say "Thanks for your interest, Dad-in-Law." That's it. Don't say anything else about the subject. And when he demands something, either do it with a smile and say "Here you are, Dad-in-Law, you're welcome" or "Sorry, can't do that right now."

I think Chaussette's advice to ask for his help in modeling please and thank you for the baby is brilliant, but I would wait until the baby is starting to talk and interact before introducing that. Also dozo's suggestion of talking to Grandma if the situation is getting too fraught is a very good one.

There are so many ways this guy could be so much worse -- personally demeaning, racist, drunk, paranoid -- and so many ways he could be more difficult. It's hard for you, and probably more so for your wife, but talk about it together afterward, with the goal of detachment. It can make your relationship stronger.
posted by kestralwing at 8:15 AM on April 28, 2014 [10 favorites]

I think being demanding is far worse and harder to deal with; that's what you really have to think about.

The advice is annoying but simple to deal with: "Hmm, I'll have to consider that." "Oh, that's an interesting perspective." And only if a response is demanded and it's a subject that you don't mind taking about, "No, we thought about that, but decided to continue with what's been working for us."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:17 AM on April 28, 2014

Seconding "just ignore it" - it does sound like the advice is well-intentioned, however irritating.

If he's cooking, just go hang out in the lounge and ignore calls to pass the spatula (kitchen is no place for a young baby anyway, and I'm sure you'd both rather relax on the couch while grandma plays with baby).

The baby is good excuse to limit the visits - visits will have to be put off/cut short because
- You're both knackered and/or would just like to spend some time alone as a family
- You have to put kid down for a nap at x o'clock
- You have to go and pick up more nappies etc from the supermarket
- You're taking baby to visit [other relatives/friends] or they are visiting you
- You have a Dr's appointment for baby or wife
and as the kid grows up
- You've arranged a playdate with [other kid/s]
- You're taking kid to [farm/zoo/whatever] (maybe they'd like to come, at least there are plenty of distractions from talking about money)

Now obviously you can't stop the grandparents seeing your kid completely, but the above can be used as an excuse like "sorry can't stay for lunch/dinner, but we can pop over for a cup of tea at 2pm?"
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:18 AM on April 28, 2014

People telling me what to do used to bug me because somewhere deep inside I believed that I should do what they were telling me. I don't know why I thought this. Maybe because they had a shouty voice. Or because I didn't want to have to justify my opinion to someone who wouldn't listen.

Then one day it clicked. They can tell me "Buy the blue one" and I can go "yup uh huh" and then walk out and buy the red one with zero guilt, obligation or remorse. Like, their bossiness has absolutely Zero impact on my decision. Once this realization clicked in, ignoring them became much easier.

I also realized its their way of showing that they care, to give you the best kind of information they think they have. It's off the mark, but not ill-intentioned.

It's also helpful not to give any cues of listening or taking this opinion seriously. If you're being polite and nodding, they will go on and on. Heck I would go on and on if people looked like they were listening to me. How would I know! So when he starts lecturing, look just a liiiiitle bit bored. Not rudely so, but just slightly unimpressed. I've found this takes the wind out of their sails a little bit.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:28 AM on April 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

With the advice about raising your kid, it's worthwhile to have a conversation, ONCE, where you say, privately, "Hey, you did a great job raising Wife and we know that, but we'd appreciate it if you could back off a little bit on the parenting advice ... we're still learning how to be parents in our own way, and it really undermines our confidence when you tell us how we ought to be doing things."

Then make sure you sometimes ask his advice. "Johnny just WON'T sleep at night! Was Wife a night-waker? What did you do to help with that?" I've had very good luck with, "The advice now is to do X, Y, and Z, but it seems like when Husband was little, you did it differently? Do you think that was better?" It got my mother-in-law off on a 20-minute discourse about baby food in the 1970s vs. today and she felt like her advice was useful and interesting and she quit telling me how I was Being A Parent Wrong for like a whole day. But most of my older relatives have really liked that sort of question -- they like talking about how they raised their kids and it was different back then, and usually they say, "But I guess car seats are a lot safer" or "Watching babies sleep on their back makes me crazy, but I've read how much safer it is," and they generally conclude by being supportive.

Advice-giving people often just want to feel useful and needed and relevant to your life. It's often a form of love and/or insecurity. I think you're doing the right thing to mostly let it roll off your back, but you can speak up from time to time too. With my advice-y MIL, I often say things like, "Ugh, that's so stressful, I just don't want to talk about it." Or, "I'm still thinking about that and not ready for advice." Or, "Thanks, but we've discussed this as a couple and we know how we want to handle it." Or, "We've talked about this with our pediatrician and we're following her advice."

As your child gets older and you get more confident as a parent, you won't burn with fire so often when people give unsolicited advice, BTW. As your child gains weight and motor skills and words and whatnot, and you realize that you've screwed up a bunch of times as a parent but your child is still miraculously thriving, you won't feel as judged when people give unsolicited advice.

The one thing I still cannot tolerate is when people undermine my parenting IN FRONT OF MY CHILD who is now old enough to understand it, but I simply say, "Thank you, but we do it differently in our family" or "The rule in our house is that Joey isn't allowed to do X, so he'll have to try that another time." Then I simmer with rage about it for two days, but there's not really anything to be gained by losing your temper about it in front of your child, and most people either back off when you say the above, or else they're incorrigible and losing your shit at them won't help anyway and might make them delighted they got to you. Plus when you tell the story to your disbelieving friends later, it's a better story when you say, "And I was just like, so nice about it, I just said we handle it differently in our family, and HE was like, Well, you're doing it wrong -- right in front of Joey! And I was like, Thanks again, but we're fine." and everyone will be like, "YOU ARE A MODEL OF POLITENESS AND RESTRAINT AND YOU ARE DEALING WITH A CRAZY PERSON" which is emotionally satisfying.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:29 AM on April 28, 2014 [18 favorites]

Where are these dinners taking place? Now that you have a child, it is the perfect time to start shifting from a family dinner to picnic at the park, or lunch at the zoo. Get him out of his castle where he is king.
posted by haplesschild at 8:29 AM on April 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

I think this is really your wife's responsibility. She needs to intervene in those behaviors if she has a problem with them. Your doing it is not a good idea for a variety of reasons.

Alternately, you could ignore things and store them up for a good ranting and raving session on the ride home.

In our house we split the difference, child-of-offender intervenes sometimes, sometimes we drive home and just spew the whole way going, 'Oh my God did you hear him say X??I thought my head was going to explode.'

Not suggesting it's healthy, but I think it's better in the long term, though it would be more satisfying to say, 'You know, I didn't actually ask for your opinion' in the short term.

People don't change. It just gets more awkward.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:29 AM on April 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

So, apparently I am a passive person, and I don't stand up for myself.

Also, this doesn't seem like a particularly empowering way to look at it. It could be that you don't like to make waves unless there's a meaningful pay off, or it could mean that don't want to put your wife in the middle, or it could mean that you don't deep down feel like you really want to fight the battle.

I mean, maybe it's good to work on assertiveness in general, but this particular arena is actually very complicated from an interpersonal standpoint so it seems rough to kind of throw this sort of critical label on yourself.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:34 AM on April 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

My father was a huge unsolicited advice giver and it drove me bonkers. Mostly because it seemed incredibly demeaning that he didn't think me capable of making carefully researched and thoughtful major decisions.

He's changed considerably and that's due to two things.

First, a direct conversation about the behavior that bothered me. When you have that conversation you have to focus on the behavior and assume best intentions. "I'm sure you don't mean it, but when you say/do X it makes me feel Y." "I know you care about me and I appreciate it so much; but I find it difficult and upsetting when you say/do X."

We also made it a bit of joke. So now if he's drifting off into advice mode I tell him to keep his "special suggestions" for later. Or he asks first if he can make a "special suggestion." It allows us both to acknowledge some behavior that is sometimes annoying but that he can't entirely keep himself from refraining from. It's like he's apologizing in advance for his annoying habit and because we both love each other can let it go more easily.

If he asks for something without using manners. Simply respond, "please ask me nicely and I'd be happy to." The baby's a nice excuse, but I think it's better to simply be direct and respectful when saying what you want.
posted by brookeb at 8:36 AM on April 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Sometimes when people really irritate or offend me (unsolicited parenting advice from my parents and in-laws is a great example), I make prolonged eye contact with them, maintaining an almost emotionless face without saying anything. Sometimes the face ever so slightly communicates disgust. Sometimes mild amusement. Hold the gaze just long enough for everyone (yourself included) to feel uncomfortable. Then I either start an entirely new topic or conversation, or move away from them. I think it usually works. It's nice because you haven't had to say anything (I'm not especially good at thinking on my feet either) and you have asserted yourself in a way. Give it a shot--it might throw your father-in-law off his game. Then again, there's also a good chance he won't even notice it.

I agree with A Terrible Llama--if you want to directly address the unsolicited advice by having a talk with him, it's better if your wife did it. You don't really have anything to prove, or gain, by clashing with your father-in-law unless it's absolutely necessary.
posted by bennett being thrown at 8:55 AM on April 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

What wwax said above. My mother definitely gives me all kinds of random suggestions because she like to feel she's still helpful. A few "Oh, right", "Oh I haven't heard much about that", "Where did you read about that?" type comments might be all he wants. Or you could give him a minor task to do that you can then be grateful for (do you need a recommendation for an oil change, or can he explain how to make whatever he's cooked for dinner, or check the specific rules on tax refunds, something like that? My mum has done all of those things for me recently, it's actually pretty useful when it's something I've actually requested.

It's also not being walked all over or a bad thing to model to your son if you are able to demonstrate that people don't need to react angrily to other people being rude, and can redirect annoying conversations without getting in an argument. That is actually a really useful thing to teach a child.
posted by tinkletown at 8:58 AM on April 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

As for books you might check out Crucial Conversations.
posted by brookeb at 9:42 AM on April 28, 2014

It's your wife's father, why doesn't she take the lead in standing up to him firmly? That would seem more appropriate to me, and he can't write off his daughter in the same way he might move toward writing off his son-in-law.
posted by Dansaman at 10:24 AM on April 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

My mother says a lot of things to me that start with, "You should...." It used to drive me nuts but I spent a long time in therapy and grew up a lot and now I'm mostly able to just say, "uh huh" and move on. I used to take it as her being judgmental and now I'm more able to just accept it as a suggestion and not feel obligated to comply.

My father-in-law is a complete boor and can be very bossy and controlling. My husband's manner of dealing with him is to nod and smile, and then do his own thing. I find that somewhat difficult, but usually keep my mouth shut. Sometimes I just speak up, though. He took us out to dinner and then was really badgering my husband about giving money to a school he (father-in-law) is associated with. My husband was trying to deflect but it wasn't working this time, so I finally said, "No, we're not giving our money to a private Catholic school. It's not happening." He sputtered a little but I was firm that it wasn't happening so he finally dropped it.

And truthfully, if someone yelled at me to fetch their water, they'd get, "Get it yourself," or "Oh, are your legs broken?" from me. I hate that shit.
posted by Squeak Attack at 10:48 AM on April 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sometimes, you can effect change by changing how you do or don't respond to a person, but you don't and probably won't spend enough time with him for that to happen. Your mother-in-law probably enables all his behaviors. Distinguish between annoying/impolite behaviors like demanding the spatula and unkind/abusive behaviors, which I suspect exist. Be extra polite to him, using your best manners, as an example to your child. Show your disapproval of his lack of civility as nicely as you can. If he is abusive, meaning he crosses a line, and you and your wife will have to figure out where that line is, then you say Hey, that's just too far, cut it out. and you leave.

He may really want time with your baby, and you make it clear that bad behavior means no time with his daughter or his grandchild.

Redirection helps a lot. Come prepared with conversational gambits that are more likely to be successful, like What was your school/ neighborhood/ car like when you were young? or How did you build that thing/ start yodeling/ ? Even mean old grumpuses may have something to teach.

Start learning to joke with him, and teaching him to accept jokes. (Very gentle) teasing can be a way to communicate and ease communications.

Your baby will learn from you that Grandpa has low credibility in many area, but can also learn that we love and respect old people, even when they are cranky old windbags.
posted by theora55 at 11:32 AM on April 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Mod note: This is a comment from an anonymous answerer.
Please consider that the people who are telling you that all of this is no big deal, probably have not dealt with people like this before. I have in-laws who have never actually said an unkind word to me -- why do that, when it means they’ll never see their son or grandchild again? Instead, they employ various other techniques to spread their misery and/or wield influence. If your father-in-law bothers you and your wife this much, make no mistake: He’s a problem.

My family’s a few years down the line from yours in this situation. Some of the advice you’ve already gotten that’s worked for us: Arranging get-togethers that remove Grandpa from his kingdom somehow. Don’t hear Grandpa’s Random Demands -- a busy child is a perfect excuse not to. As the child of Grandpa, your wife should stand her ground -- your job is to be largely silent and supportive, without appearing apologetic or sheepish. Practice the Long Stare that bennett being thrown describes. It works for changing the conversation and showing your kid that it’s possible to be polite without tolerating nonsense.

I’ll add: ALWAYS be aware that your child’s in a profoundly different position from everyone else involved. And your child is looking to you for cues, not Grandpa. When talking about Grandpa, avoid malice at all costs, but don’t lie. What happens as an end result, I promise: your child will draw his or her own conclusions about his behavior, and learn valuable lessons about dealing with difficult people.

Last but not least: Realize you are the ones with the power. Much of Grandpa’s behavior comes from the fact that on probably subconscious levels, he knows it. As a result of all of the above, don’t expect miracles. But don’t discourage them, either.
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:37 AM on April 28, 2014 [9 favorites]

I'd split the difference. I would let his "advice" roll off me. Patronize him and listen and then completely ignore his advice.

I'd refuse offers of fetching things for him. I don't expect to be waited on and I sure as hell am not waiting on someone else who expects it. His legs aren't broken. He can damn sure get his own water, spatula, etc. You're not his servants.
posted by cnc at 12:29 PM on April 28, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for the responses so far. There is definitely more to this than what I have posted, but I am not sure I could write everything. I tried to focus on the things that are the biggest problem for me. I think I also down played some of the details. There of course are always two sides to a story, and I'll admit he probably has good intentions as far as advice. The problem is I feel he constantly crosses boundaries of what is polite conversation for adults.

Also my wife and I have talked extensively about this. She feels the same way I do. She doesn't know what to do, and feels even more powerless than I do. She is also use to it to some extent, because this is how she grew up. After 8 years of marriage, she knows this is dysfunctional. He does has a temper, and we have both seen his temper. I do not want to push her so far that something would turn physical. Up until this point I have kind of had the attitude that I deal with my family, and she deals with hers. I just don't feel like that is working any longer.

As far as him demanding things, he rarely demands things of me, and so my guess is that he believes women should serve him. Which is not OK, and I don't want my son thinking that is OK. My mother-in-law sees most of it, and he will snatch things from her if they are not presented to him quickly enough. This is usually followed by a sigh, and him telling her to get out of the way. So far he has not done that to my wife, but I have stepped in to complete tasks when I could hear that he was annoyed by his tone. It is hard for me to describe this behavior, because I have never witnessed anything like it. There is nothing about it that is friendly or polite.

As far as the financial advice goes, I do believe he has good intentions. In my mind, I feel like our relationship is one of adult acquaintances, but I feel like when he offers advice he some how thinks he has a larger place in my life. I feel like I am being treated like a child. I think this also extends into why this eats me up. Some people have mentioned my insecurities, and there is probably some truth to that. I can feel on top of the world, and I go see my in-laws which ruins my whole day. When in reality I think I have a lot of good things going for me, and most of the advice he gives we follow in some way just not his way. No one else affects me this way, and I can't figure out why I even care.

I see a lot of good replies, and there are a lot of good suggestions. I use a few of them. We frequently change the topic. I never volunteer information. He gets short yes and no answers from me. We use excuses to leave early. I give the stare and silence. We know the type of topics that will set off his advice, and avoid them. We focus on things he enjoys, and trips he has taken. Once he starts with the advice, he doesn't stop until he has said what he wants to say. It doesn't matter if we are listening or not. I really would like for this not to bother me, but it is getting harder and harder.
posted by ohjonboy at 12:57 PM on April 28, 2014

I agree with the anon comment, anyone saying this is nothing to get bothered by probably hadn't really dealt with such personalities on an ongoing basis. I feel the same way you do about unsolicited "advice," and the demands to fetch things are just beyond the pale. I have a family member who does this to me, and it's really galling. I'd either try outright ignoring such demands, or saying stuff like, "sorry, I wasn't planning to go into the kitchen right now," or "can't do it, I'm headed this way" or whatever seems appropriate. Pretty much never acquiesce or the demands will never stop (they might never anyway).

The unsolicited advice is probably best dealt with by a noncommittal "interesting" followed by change of subject, or "yeah, don't worry about that, we've got it covered" followed by refusal to answer questions about your personal habits or finances or whatever.

Best of luck, I know how having a kid changes these dynamics and raises the stakes.
posted by JenMarie at 1:02 PM on April 28, 2014

Best answer: Just saw your follow up, it sounds like you are already implementing a lot of the advice here. It also sounds like your father in law is using his temper and the threat of escalating anger to intimidate his family members into doing his bidding. Ugh, I'm sorry I don't think there's a behavior modification for that if he doesn't want to change. Limiting contact and moving to neutral locations for meeting up is probably the only way to go.
posted by JenMarie at 1:07 PM on April 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here's the thing about the spatula stuff. This is the dynamic that's evolved, with his wife's compliance, over the decades of their marriage. He doesn't even notice it; neither does she, most likely. I doubt that trying to train him out of it is going to work. I would just pretend you didn't hear him. If he has to repeat himself, or yells, you could always act surprised like "wait, were you asking me to help you with something?" like make it more trouble for him than it's worth to be rude to you.

The advice -- yeah, it IS maddening, I'm with you, but this is just basic old-person trope; a parent trying desperately to feel relevant. "Interesting, we'll think about it" is the only thing you can do. If he's like my mom, he'll keep harping on it until you change the subject or say "I don't think that's the right answer for us, but maybe we'll look into it."
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:19 PM on April 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're doing all the right things, but this guy is unpleasant, and you have to decide whether the good stuff you get out of visiting your wife's mother is worth the bad stuff you endure when you spend time with her father.

The only thing you're doing that I would change if I were perfectly brave would be this: "I have stepped in to complete tasks when I could hear that he was annoyed by his tone," which, you probably realize, is rewarding him for his bad behavior. If you dare (I'm not sure I would), go ahead, let him be unpleasant, let him bark at your mother-in-law or your wife, and then use that as your reason for leaving. You don't need to make up an excuse for leaving. If he's behaving horribly, that can be your reason for leaving. This is more dangerous (emotionally, hopefully not physically) for your wife, so talk to her about it, about how far she is willing to go with this and whether she's going to be able to hold fast.

I can't speak for other commenters but I, at least, am not saying that you're wrong to be bothered by this, just that if you can teach yourself to not be bothered by it that's by far the simplest solution, because changing his behavior is probably impossible.
posted by mskyle at 2:18 PM on April 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oof, what tough dynamics. One family member determined to be unpleasant can really make an otherwise nice visit into an ordeal, can't they? And then if you're me, you feel guilty because you start mentally calculating how many more years they will be around to make things horrible, and wondering why the most horrible relatives live the longest.

Anyway, you and your wife have to come up with a plan of what to say to her parents and agree on it. I would include "We are very unhappy with Dad-in-Law yelling at and being unpleasant to us and we will cut our visits short if it keeps happening." It's not about the reason for the yelling, it's about the behavior itself.

And yes you can use your child as a reason to suddenly stand up; "When it was just us, well, we could shrug it off, but we do not want to raise our child thinking it's ok for family to talk to each other that way. If it happens and doesn't stop, we will have to leave so that he/she learns that we really mean it." Even though your wife technically gets the brunt of it up to now, make it about both of you; you are a unit, you are in agreement, there is no splitting your vote.

It's going to be hellaciously uncomfortable, there will be snideness, you may have to leave early at least a few times to prove your point, but it might work.

I do not want to push her so far that something would turn physical.

If it actually gets physical, well then you are just done with visits to Grandpa, right? You are not going to be ok with exposing your child or your wife to physical threats from anyone for any reason. But anyway, it should not be your wife all alone; that's putting too much on her. It should be both of you. If you hear something escalating in the kitchen, don't just take over for your wife, ask "Is everything ok here?" in a meaningful way. Meaningful in the "Stop this shit now, Dad-in-Law, or we're out and not coming back," way. He may interpret it as a physical threat and alpha dog behavior, but that's on him.
posted by emjaybee at 2:54 PM on April 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Reading your update-- take her mom out to dinner/lunch or encourage "mother/daughter days" -- basically if you're living under threat of violence or verbal abuse, it is time to realize that's not how you two deserve to be treated and disengage.

Stop going over there. Fear of his temper or things getting physical? This is where you protect your family by removing yourselves from the equation.

If your wife really wants a relationship with them, I think it's time to compromise: She can go over there by herself. They can come to you. In public. I'd keep your child as far away from their house as possible.
posted by haplesschild at 3:08 PM on April 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

My father used to be very difficult. He was snappish and grumpy, he liked to pick fights with sarcasm, and he liked to give advice, which always took the tone of "you are definitely screwing this up at the moment."

Now a decade later he's kind and supportive. Honestly, my (and my husband's) biggest cheerleader. Obviously a lot of things changed in his life to make that possible, but I also helped it along by making a decision not to put up with his crap and working really hard at it.

So, there were two things I worked on. One was countering, politely but directly, every single instance of his rudeness. Sometimes in the beginning that happened ten times in a night and it drove him crazy, but I tried very hard to stay calm and polite and it worked. The truth is I was right, and I think when he had to stop and really look at how much rude crap he was saying to me he was embarrassed.

I had to give myself a pep talk on the drive up, and be very conscious of my behavior while I was there. It wasn't very relaxing, but it didn't last forever.

The second thing I worked on was debriefing in my head after talking to him. I'd go over the critical things he'd said, and I'd say to myself, "this man doesn't work in your field. He knows less than you do about which job you should be taking. There is no reason to be affected by his disapproval." I'm sure this was harder for me because he's my dad, but it sounds like you're being affected by your father-in-law's negative opinions too. It helped me to tell myself the specific reasons why his criticisms either were wrong or didn't matter.

Sorry, this is long. Let me say too that by suggesting things for you to do I don't want to imply at all that you're at fault here, or that it's your responsibility to change his behavior -- but if you want to spend time there, and you want to make it clear to your son that this is not how people treat people, I think these might be helpful things to try. Good luck.
posted by gerstle at 4:09 PM on April 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for the responses and support. I really was thinking I needed to make a big stand, and start a big fight. Honestly, that isn't me, and I don't think that is the behavior I want to teach my son. I shouldn't have to beat my chest and yell to stand my ground.

I can continue to use the techniques I have been using, but try to be a little more direct. I also think I am going to talk to my wife about avoiding their house. We have tried meeting at restaurants, but his behavior to the wait staff is embarrassing at best. We may have to try parks or a kid friendly location.

Thanks everyone. This really helped me think through this. I am going to mark this as resolved even though we all know the actual issue is far from resolved. An actual resolution might take a while if ever.
posted by ohjonboy at 7:13 PM on April 28, 2014

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