LA LA LA LA LA! I can't hear you!!
July 7, 2015 4:29 PM   Subscribe

It's the same old story, partner loves his parents, they make me a little crazy (and I think make him unhappy). Help me better understand them, and their family dynamic, so I can better navigate the minefield, watch out for potential negative affects on my children, not let their negative patterns become our negative patterns, help my husband be his happiest self and not let it make me a neurotic mess.

The straw/event that is provoking me to ask this question is that our just walking daughter pulled a heavy glass coffee table top (I'd say weighs at minimum 50 pounds) off it's base and onto her foot. And while I'm still comforting the screaming child they (including my husband) are creating elaborate explanations as to why the sudden and dark bruise means it was actually a pinch and so nothing to worry about, instead of crushing blow which we might want to, you know, monitor or something. All of this in contradiction to the actual physics of the thing which they all saw.

It seemed like it was much more important to them that they create a comfortable story which would make them feel better, than to address the actual injury. And I realized that this is at the heart of so much of what I don't understand, drives me crazy and worries me about their family dynamic.

This level of denial about potential risk is RIFE, and they (MIL in particular) become very upset when these "happy stories" are overtly challenged. We had a 6 month relationship misery tornado (tears, recrimmination, guilt, silent treatment, etc.) when we expressed concern that their large, untrained, hyperactive, kangaroo like, out of control dog (we didn't say it that way of course!) could jump on our premature infant son and hurt him, so we wanted to not have them in the same room until the baby was bigger or the dog was under basic control. WE were the bad guys because MIL felt ambushed and attacked and they were sure that the dog is really sweet and doesn't mean any harm (we don't disagree with the last two points, but they are irrelevant to whether the dog may actually cause harm). There's a little guess culture I suspect, but this seems more extreme.

It worries me because of course it's dangerous to ignore potential dangers just because they make you uncomfortable, but also because it feels so emotionally dismissive. Anyone elses' feelings just don't matter. This is kind of subtle and insidious, and so in a way I'm more worried about it. Big physical dangers are easy to make a boundary and say "nope. sorry. not gonna happen.", but the slow subtle message of "your pain isn't yours/important", and how often we sorta just go along with the happy story because it's not worth the possible shit storm, seems really potentially damaging to the psyche. I'd love to find ways to counteract this message both with my children, and my husband.

Probably related: They are profoundly self absorbed, almost exclusively talk about themselves/their family. Much of this is in the form of reminiscing/story telling which almost feels mythos building to me. They tell the same stories repeatedly. I'm always supposed to be so damn impressed. The first time I met them they did not ask a single thing about me the entire day. Asking about our lives or my family are typically perfunctory and just jumping off points for their thoughts/ideas/stories. They are extremely critical of others. There's also multiple generations of alcoholism in the family. Internally they deal with conflict by MIL nagging/hinting and being passive aggressive, FIL continuing to do whatever thing MIL doesn't like, they both act out a bit, everyone ignores these embarrassing displays and pretends everything is hunky dory, rinse wash repeat. I believe hubby was traditionally put in the position of making the peace, making MIL feel better or giving them a "safe" outlet for their negative energy (IMO some heavy and inappropriate shit for a kid). But this is just guesswork on my part.

I on the other hand come from a split family where one half is super "talk it out" loving supportive constructive hand holdy (they rock) and the other half is more along the lines of "he who yells loudest wins" (not ideal). So my reaction to conflict is the polar opposite all this denial, repression, passive aggressive shit makes my stomach hurt and keeps me up at night. It makes me feel anxious, bad about myself, like I did something wrong, angry/defensive b/c I didn't do anything wrong, worried, sad and so tired.

For what it's worth, I think they are doing the best they can with what they have. I feel sympathetic to the origins of their challenges, and I do think their intentions are good. They are trying to be good to us, and take care of us, and all of that. They love us the best way they know how. We overall have a good relationship with them, although it takes a not insignificant amount of emotional management on our part.

So help me (better) cope, subvert, counteract, heal, not internalize, etc.

Professional literature or self help references, strategies, anecdotes, random advice, are all welcome!
posted by pennypiper to Human Relations (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A lot of this comes down to how your husband deals with this. You've said that in the past he's grown up being the peacemaker when they lay all of this passive aggressive negativity on him and he has to pretend everything is ok. If that was the case, it explains why you have six months of in law misery following altercations - because they've learnt this treatment works. Basically as a couple you need to start laying down very firm boundaries around what you will and won't accept from them.

To do that, you need to sit down with your husband and have a discussion about what bothers you about their behaviour and what you will and won't put up with. Obviously, anything that puts your kids at risk is a clear no no. This might take couples counselling given that he doesn't come from a talk it out background. Does he even see it as an issue? But once you're both on the same page, you can move together on a strategy with how to deal with his parents' disfunctional behaviour.

This might involve laying down ground rules with them such as telling them their grandchild can't stay at their home until it's babyproofed to avoid future accidents, or simply politely ending a phone conversation when they start nagging or being passive aggressive, telling them that when they're ready to discuss (topic) calmly, to call you back. Basically boundaries, strongly enforced. If the repercussions are that grandchild doesn't visit until they make the place safe etc, chances are they'll get the message and fall into line. Prepare for an extinction burst (google it) of acting out first though!
posted by Jubey at 4:57 PM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

When you describe injury and possible injury to your children + their alcoholism, you sound like you are minimizing.

Talk to your husband, preferably with a counselor. You need an entirely new playbook for dealing with these people, and dad needs to be on board 10000%.
posted by jbenben at 5:10 PM on July 7, 2015 [8 favorites]

Just wanted to say that we do not leave them alone with anyone if there is drinking. One, or both of us, is always there. MIL also doesn't drink. Husband is at least 1000% on board.

But you still may be right that I am minimizing. Part of what I want to avoid is being acculturated!
posted by pennypiper at 5:14 PM on July 7, 2015

Was debating writing a follow-up telling you that the reason your stomach hurts and it keeps you up nights is that you know their behavior is crazy sauce and not reality.

Upon your update..."And while I'm still comforting the screaming child they (including my husband) are creating elaborate explanations as to why the sudden and dark bruise means it was actually a pinch and so nothing to worry about..."

Your husband is still pretty unaware of the patterns he's engaging in. You guys should think about getting short term counseling so you can get on the same page + learn some strategies you both can use.

It doesn't work if only one of you is aware and functioning appropriately.
posted by jbenben at 5:52 PM on July 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

And while I'm still comforting the screaming child they (including my husband) are creating elaborate explanations as to why the sudden and dark bruise means it was actually a pinch and so nothing to worry about, instead of crushing blow which we might want to, you know, monitor or something.

This isn't an in-law problem so much as a husband problem. I am the more worrier parent in our family and sometimes I have been wrong and spent 4 hours in emerg for a bump, and sometimes I have been right, like when our child's appendix burst and made a septic belly.

My husband and I have a code phrase that means "you have to take this seriously now and if it all turns out to have been ludicrous you can tease me forever." Your husband needs to back you on issues pertaining to your child's health even if he thinks in the presence of his narcissistic-leaning parents that you are overreacting. I really sympathize with him, but this is one of those issues where it really does not matter what all the root causes are...he just needs to support you, the other parent, in taking your child's health and safety seriously even when he does not believe it is a problem in that exact moment.

As for your in-laws...yeah, you and your husband just have to unite in protecting your child in their space. Nothing is likely to change that. My parents have similar traits, including the trying to love me as best they know how. There is, at the time of the narcissistic storytelling, no relation to reality or history and you are right to feel like your experience, judgment and intuition is being wiped out some of the time. It is crazy-making. Counselling might help. Some books that I refer to for myself are:

Why is it always about you? -- book on narcissism /and/ most helpfully, about the narcissistic coping mechanisms children of narcissists develop without actually becoming one.

This one is weird, the end of the book is super weird and frankly not worth reading, and I always feel a bit like it makes me look crazy to recommend it but the case studies are powerful, powerful edge cases: People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck.

Kids Are Worth It - about older kids but could be very helpful in giving you and your husband a book to actually examine and set a parenting philosophy that recognizes that family of origin dynamics will play into that.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:59 PM on July 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

If MIL has been living with alcoholic FIL for all of this time, she knows how to minimize and smooth things over. She's an expert at it. If FIL is alcoholic, he has very fragile ego and together they have grown to become defensive and self-absorbed. Alcoholism and self-absorption are not without the other. Denial is a given with alcoholism.

My parents are minimizers (father alcoholic, mother co-dependent). Another person's illness, injury, or emotional problem was never a big deal. Emotional problems or concerns were never addressed. I think they would even get angry if someone else was ill because they didn't know how to deal with it emotionally. They didn't know how to offer empathy or care to someone else because they didn't know how to offer it to themselves. If you're an alcoholic, you're constantly beating yourself up mentally and have little room to show any prolonged care or concern for others or deal with situations in an adult way. If you're an alcoholic you pretty much hate yourself and when you hate yourself you find others to complain and talk about in an effort to prove that you're living right. Hey look at all of these people who are doing it wrong.

Their family legend stories are a way to inflate themselves. See how important we are? We're somebody! Like you said, they probably have no idea they are behaving inconsiderately or unconsciously. They are consumed with their self-absorption and act out because they are so unsure of themselves. They are acting out their pain.

My advice would to approach them very gently. If you have a concern you need to be very gentle with these fragile people. Minimize contact if you can but also know deep down that they need and want your love but don't know how to show it.

As far as being up at night worrying about it: When you're home, safe in your bed, you're not with them. At that moment all is well with you. They are not a problem because they are not there. If you're creating a story in your mind that they will somehow endanger your kids, or how dare they ignore my concerns, or look what they do to me and my kids! That kind of thinking is making you miserable and anxious. Acknowledge these thoughts as just a story you are creating. Sure, you have grounds to be concerned and you have evidence that this is a dysfunctional family, but try not to create a story in your mind.

It's hard, but do not take anything personally because they're not doing anything to you the person, pennypiper. If your husband had a different wife, they would be behaving the same way.

About your kids: I used to feel very sensitive about my kids being "damaged" by their incredibly self-absorbed grandparents. I learned that I cannot control and self-absorbed grandparents don't really matter that much to the kid's psyche. If the parents are aware and present and adult, the kids are going to be fine.

When you're with them you have the autonomy and power to respond if boundaries are being crossed. The best way to influence clueless people is to model clued-in behavior. With the foot injury, do whatever you feel comfortable with. Don't be afraid to speak up in a matter-of-fact way. Try to remain present and calm.

You'll be less irritated if you do not allow yourself to think about them and how they've wronged you in the past or they may wrong you in the future. When a problematic thought enters your mind, acknowledge that thought (Oh, I'm thinking about inlaws now) and let that thought go. Do not grab ahold of it and build it into a giant anxiety-creating story. Instead feel some compassion for them (they are insane and use alcohol to numb their pain) and stay with the moment you're in, wherever you are. It could be at home, safe, with your kids and husband. It could be with them, safe, sitting around a table, listening to their stories.
posted by Fairchild at 6:47 PM on July 7, 2015 [11 favorites]

You and your partner can talk about this frankly and openly. You'll never change his family's patterns of living, and that shouldn't be your goal. People do families differently, and your rules aren't my rules--especially when you're at my house. Everything's relative. That sort of thing.

My partner's family is... hard to deal with. His siblings are cool, but all a little warped (by their own admission) by parents who had/have some very real pathologies. The kids have all reacted differently as they started their own families, and those reactions run the gamut from moving far, far away (limited in-person visits), to only having parents over and not going to parents' house, to outright being no-contact for many years. These decisions were all reached through open, honest talk between adults figuring out the best approach to a complicated situation. Since everyone has their own level of acceptable risk, each of the kids' families came out with their own approach.

From our experience, I'll say that a lot of this is simply understanding where your risk aversion gauge measures relative to others'. In this scenario, the in-laws have a (much?) higher tolerance for risk than you do, and that's stressing you out. A really, really common way some families deal with this (including ours) is to make those initial judgments of relative risk aversion and then sort out the circumstances under which you'll interact with other households. This can be totally private if you wish, just between you and your spouse. And in this case, maybe it does sum to something like, we're happy for the in-laws to visit our house, not the other way around unless in a controlled setting and for a set amount of time, and one of us always has to be on watch when we are at their place.

On that last note, this is kinda the conversation I've gotten used to having with other parents of kids who our boys want to bring over for a sleepover, or take with us on vacation, or what have you. We have a fairly high tolerance for risk, and we've found value in letting our own take risks and make mistakes. Parents are always meeting and vetting each other before releasing their kids to others' care, so we try to wear that risk tolerance on our sleeves. In some cases, I'll even point it out. Our youngest is a big skateboarder, and he's very good, but he's also gotten a couple big injuries in his pursuits. When a friend of his wants to come along to a skatepark, I always tell this to the mom or dad I'm talking to: hey, youngun of ours routinely gets black eyes and bloody knees at this park, are you ok with that? I don't fret about it, and it's easy to be honest about this sort of thing now that we've had enough practice to not worry too much about other parents who think we're not strict or secure enough. You can do the same: set your boundaries/rules, arrange where and with whom you spend your time accordingly, and (if you care to) be open about those boundaries/rules when you're not sure they'll otherwise be met.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 6:59 PM on July 7, 2015

I'm on your side. I come from a warped family and my husband has a warped (less so, but still) family, and there were some issues when I was pregnant and then again when my son was an infant. All of the stuff you've said is doubtless true and I know firsthand how effing crazy-making it can be.

None of that matters, however. You are this kid's mother and what you say, goes. That's the deal. If you get pushback, that's too bad for them. This is your kid. Don't waste any time attempting to convince them of your rightness or talk them or your husband into acknowledging their pathological, crazy family bullshit.

Here's how you do this:

- Coffee table situation: Pick up your daughter and take her in the other room. Comfort her. Put ice on her foot and give her a tiny, baby appropriate dose of children's tylenol (your ped can give you the proper dosage.) To whomever minimizes or offers an opinion - you can just say, "I'm concerned about this and I'm going to [whatever - take her to the urgent care, wait and call the pediatrician in the morning, sleep in her room tonight, whatever you, as the child's mother, decide to do.] Then, end the conversation. That's it. Leave the room. Don't brook any further conversation. Do what you say you're going to do and don't placate, air out your feelings, respond to passive aggressive baiting, etc. Make a choice and stick with it.

- Dog situation: "I don't want Baby in the room with the dog until Baby is stronger. Either dog leaves the room or I'm going to take Baby into the other room until dog is [crated, sent downstairs, whatever]." Stop talking. If dog isn't removed from the room, leave the room with the baby. Don't engage in a big discussion. Even if your husband is taking your in-laws' part, stick to your guns. You have to take control in this situation, and doing so is more nerve-wracking than actually hard when you are dealing with these sorts of people. These people are internally out of control most of the time. They will respond to someone who is resolute and in control even if it is unpleasant and difficult. Trust me.

- Husband situation: "When you don't back me up when I set limits with your parents, it makes me not trust you. It scares me, because it sends a message that you're not on Team Us. And I need you on Team Us." And then listen to what husband has to say. It took several of these discussions until my husband started hearing me on this. The key was to stay focused on specifics - dog situation and coffee table situation are plenty evidence of what you're talking about - and not falling into the traps of either fighting unfairly - like, say, bringing in past grievances - or getting emotional. This kind of thing is really hard for people who are trapped in thinking that they're being disloyal to their parents if they set limits and act as adults in a peer relationship with their parents, rather than as ever-deferential subordinates to their parents. This won't clear up overnight but it can improve. The key is making up your mind that you are going to protect yourself and your kids from this kind of warped interplay. It's hard but you have to stick to your guns. And be prepared to have some sessions with a couple's counselor if it isn't enough for your husband to hear that he is compromising your trust by deferring to his parents in these situations.

Once you make up your mind that you're not going to brook this kind of discussion endlessly and act accordingly, they will hear you loud and clear. And, so what if they have the occasional snit? Families are imperfect and not everybody has to be in love with everybody else all the time. They'll get over it and so will you. And if they don't? Well, these are your kids and your marriage. You don't have to live with these people and neither does your husband; you just have to get along enough. This is really most people's situation with their extended family, isn't it?

Good luck.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 7:34 PM on July 7, 2015 [10 favorites]

Really appreciating all the answers so far.

I'm actually very firm about setting boundaries to protect the kids, I did almost exactly what TryTheTilapia described for the coffee table and dog incidents. With the exception that on the dog thing we initially approached it as a "joint problem solving" conversation rather than "oh, btw". After that initial conversation we laid out very explicitly what we needed to feel the baby was safe and stuck by our guns. That's partly why the whole thing lasted so damn long.

For the coffee table thing I also explained to my husband why it bothered me and that I needed him to not decide that everything was ok, and to keep a critical eye on how she was doing. He apologized and said he was just really worried. Incidentally I don't think there was any negligence on their part in the actual event, we were sitting right there with her, it just never occurred to any of us that she'd be able to budge that table. Like I said, I feel confident in setting boundaries around keeping my kids physically safe. But the conflict does eat me up (and I know it shouldn't) and the more subtle devaluing of others worrying. So I'm hoping to understand the dynamic better so I can navigate it better and with less stress for myself, my husband and my kids.

Fairchild and warrior queens answers are more the kind of things I was looking for. The blurb description on the "whys it always about you" was right on - I had never thought about narcissism stuff in relation to them, but I think that glove fits MIL, and I appreciate that the book seems to approach it with compassion. Cause yeah they are totally crazy sauce, but for now were choosing to keep trying.
posted by pennypiper at 9:16 PM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Have you and your husband discussed his gut reaction to criticism, comments that could be interpreted as criticism, or events he feels he might be blamed for? Because it sounds like he's not at his parents' level of denial, but he's had a lifetime of training to think that bad things must be minimized and criticism is the worst possible thing. So, even if intellectually he knows how to respond appropriately to something, in a crisis moment (like with the table) his instinctive response is to minimize. He might need to do some work on his own (in therapy or otherwise) to learn to recognize and change that instant gut reaction. It is hard to retrain that kind of response. I'm not at all surprised he joined in the minimizing when the tabletop fell. But at the same time, I think that difficult task of retraining is a key step in maintaining a connection with the in-laws without being part of the denial dynamic.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:50 AM on July 8, 2015

Help me better understand them, and their family dynamic, so I can better navigate the minefield, watch out for potential negative affects on my children, not let their negative patterns become our negative patterns, help my husband be his happiest self and not let it make me a neurotic mess.

You might find it helpful to read about family dynamics in families with alcohol abuse. I doubt they'll explain everything that's going on, but especially if there are generations of alcohol issues, it might give you some framework to start from (especially if you remember that his parents, depending on their histories, may have played different roles as children themselves than as the adults they are now).
posted by jaguar at 8:37 AM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I just meant that there are special folks trained to explain these family dynamics and parenting techniques to you and your husband.

Sometimes when you are busy parents, it's easier to take a class or attend a few sessions rather than try to read a book together. Having a trained facilitator often shortens the process and clarifies the way forward.
posted by jbenben at 9:08 AM on July 8, 2015

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