NPD FIL's birthday dinner - shutting down pessimism
January 13, 2017 1:38 PM   Subscribe

My FIL's birthday is this weekend. He and my MIL are fiercely codependent and they have really isolated themselves. I was really surprised to hear that MIL is hosting a birthday dinner and inviting other people! FIL is a grump and he puts people on edge, but if there is a chance of them opening up their social circle (and consequently putting less pressure on my husband and me), I will move mountains to help them be successful. I'd like to use my powers for good. Help me help them.

Right off the bat, I know this is a lot of emotional labor and that I don't have to go. I want to go, I'm curious to see how this dinner plays out. My husband and I are in our early 30s. His parents live in town. Generally, my husband manages their relationship, with an understanding that I'll make an appearance for holidays/birthdays, unless there is Dad drama and then I'll nope right out of there. My husband is in therapy and learning to manage their relationship in a more healthy way, but he is extremely conflict averse when it comes to them. This is why I'm not bouncing these ideas off him and turning to the internet. The very idea that I might do something new would probably stress him out, but when he sees it in action and sees that it's going alright, it doesn't faze him.

The way FIL acts is "I try so hard! Why doesn't anyone respect all the good I do?" If people are having a nice conversation, he will derail with a story loosely related about how someone wronged him and he put them in their place. Or how he did something nice for someone and they didn't thank him enough. Or he'll just complain about how terrible the world is. He desperately needs all of the attention. We hosted Thanksgiving this year, and we had my husband's Aunt and Uncle (MIL's family) over. Dad was pulling his usual stunts, and in a particularly stiff moment, Aunt said "Geez, FIL, I know the world is ending but can you pass the gravy?" The whole table lightened and we all laughed. It worked out because he didn't really lose face, but it labeled what he was doing. It broke the tension and it emboldened others to build off it and redirect him. "Yeah, FIL, that's tough. So what's good in your life?" That kind of thing. In other dinners I've seen, he will really hold everyone hostage with a litany of increasingly angry treatises about anything and everything. I would like to be able to derail him like Aunt in Law did!

Does anybody have any good de-escalation techniques or redirects that work for them? They'll only work if he doesn't feel judged, otherwise he'll double down and defend himself. I'd also appreciate anecdotes about times these attempts worked well or poorly for you.

posted by Bistyfrass to Human Relations (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
As your Aunt-In-Law so ably demonstrated, humor is probably the best de-escalation technique there is. I'd use it the same way she did, but just enough so that it puts everyone at ease and doesn't make it seem like you're laughing at him.

There's also the possibility that if you're able to make light of his doomsday attitudes, your husband will feel more confident in his management of his relationship with them, as he won't need to be concerned that you're somehow going to be upset or hurt by FIL.
posted by Everydayville at 2:00 PM on January 13, 2017

Yeah, I think it's the humor, plus the fact that his sister-in-law didn't try to contradict him or minimize - she acknowledged his worldview, albeit in a humorous way ("I know the world is ending") but then redirected.
posted by lunasol at 2:51 PM on January 13, 2017

When my dad had Alzheimer's and would repeat stories over and over, my dad got dismissed a lot and belittled by people who thought he wouldn't remember who just found him aggravating. Then I moved home with my sons during my divorce.

My dad would start telling a story to my oldest son and ask "Have you heard this one before?" and my son would answer the question in a way that made my dad feel like someone was actually genuinely listening for once. And my dad stopped retelling the same stories over and over and over. He would tell new details to my oldest son sometimes, but he wouldn't keep just repeating the same stuff.

If there is anything you can do to make FIL feel heard and validated and not dismissed, even if you do not agree with him, maybe that will help?
posted by Michele in California at 2:59 PM on January 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Michele in California - On a more one on one basis, I do validate him. If I'm honest, he's doing the best with what he's got. His family didn't exactly set him up for success and now he's doing what makes sense to him. I try to empathise with him and he LOVES it. But then he thinks we're commiserating and piles on, because someone finally "gets" it and he thinks we're in it together. For this question, I'm more interested in helping everyone at the table feel less weighed down by what he's saying so we can have a good time. Unfortunately, any attention is good attention to him, so it's hard to deal with more directly.

I know humor is what made Aunt's redirect work, I just don't think well on my feet. I was looking to have some kind/funny things locked and loaded.
posted by Bistyfrass at 3:44 PM on January 13, 2017

I'm not an expert or professional or anything, but I've had some success preempting complaining and giving positive attention by asking older relatives to tell stories about their childhoods and early adulthoods. Usually I know the story and know it is happy/funny. I prompt with, "Hey, what was that story about the time you...?" If FIL had a bad childhood, that's harder, but other choices could be -dating/wedding/first years of marriage w/ MIL. -Your husband's childhood. -Maybe past birthdays?

Lately, I've been telling a real fighter I know, "You would make a great consumer advocate. Companies would be scared to see you coming." That way I don't have to litigate whatever thing they're outraged about, but I'm also telling them I think their outrage/intensity can be a positive thing.

I don't know how well either of these will work with your FIL- I'm not a snappy one-liner type and all my experience is with people who are subclinical. Hope you guys are able to have a peaceful dinner.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 4:07 PM on January 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

See if any tricks from this past AskMe on dealing with "a Debbie downer" help.
posted by salvia at 4:31 PM on January 13, 2017

I think acknowledge with levity + pivot might be a formula to try. You can get levity with hyperbole, but it might be kinder, and would avoid any risk of seeming to mock him, to go with things people would agree with.

"Although the world IS full of idiots, Lisa has done a fantastic job of cooking this meal for us."
posted by salvia at 5:05 PM on January 13, 2017

If you can be genuinely affectionate, and communicate through subtext that you like him and think he's a good and smart person, that will take a lot of sting out of whatever else you say.

Genuine, though.

This is something you can do to prepare: think about what you respect about him and how to put that into brief words, so you can easily work it into other comments.

Most "negative" personality qualities can be re-termed to show how they can be positives in other contexts. So (and this may be weak, but you can see what I'm trying to achieve here), perhaps his tendency to be hyper-vigilant about other people showing respect could, in another context, be interpreted as an acute ability to avoid being naieve (which would be bad, if taken to another extreme). He's arguably over-correcting, but the initial germ of whatever this is may have been a legitimate protective impulse. If you can find respect for _that_, it could help you. Plus, it gives you an opening to figure out how to allay whatever impulse is behind this.
posted by amtho at 5:21 PM on January 13, 2017

Thanks, everyone. What I'm taking away from this is to listen and be open to his stories. If he gets to be too much, I'll playfully redirect him. It is his birthday after all. If he wants to rant, what better day to let him do it? I can come up with a few positive stories, and I'm sure my husband will have more. At the very least, we can help choose what stories we hear.
posted by Bistyfrass at 8:11 PM on January 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

My experience is that when needy people get their needs met, they change, usually very much for the better. His birthday is absolutely the best day to try meet some of his seemingly bottomless hunger for attention without it setting a precedent that this will be the new norm -- because it is a special occasion.

posted by Michele in California at 10:09 AM on January 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

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