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Planning Retirement Online


Relationships 79    

                             November 2008

 

Maggi Stamp, LaterLife's Relationship Counsellor

Every month Maggi Stamp, a qualified and experienced relationship counsellor for Relate and in private practice, writes about some of the emotional challenges we meet in later life.

For reasons of confidentiality Maggi never writes about a particular person's problems unless you have sent one in to be answered, but all her examples are based on problems raised by clients, family and friends over the years.  

You can write to Maggi at maggi@laterlife.com for her to respond in the column.


IT COULD BE YOU

A Difficult Daughter-In-Law

Dear Maggi,

From the time our son got married 9 years ago, our daughter in law had problems with me and my 3 daughters.  These are but a few of her issues.

  • We didn't cuddle her daughter as much as we held our other granddaughter.
  •  We've never had a relationship with his step-daughter. (We weren’t given the opportunity).
  • The memory scrapbook I made for my son’s 35th birthday covered his birth up to and including their wedding.  She was upset as there was only one picture of her in it.
  • Having been introduced to one of my daughter’s babysitter she became offended if there was a clash of dates. 

She phoned to start a heated argument and when I suggest we get together to discuss the problems she said she would talk to my son first.  She didn’t call back but my son did, defending her totally, saying her feelings should be acknowledged.  He became very disrespectful. I got upset and angry but he didn’t back down.

They said they would attend family gatherings, then didn't show up or call to apologize. Yet he insisted his siblings attended a graduation party for his stepdaughter to demonstrate she is as much part of the family as his biological children. 

Recently there was final blow. Our other 4 children planned an anniversary dinner for my husband and me.  My son called me that day to say he and our daughter-in-law would not be coming.  When asked why he said they don't feel comfortable with the family and they have issues.  He said it all started 9 years ago and that he had issues with me, it got heated and we both got very upset.  My husband took the phone from me and told him he was a terrible son and never to call back again. It's been a month since that happened. 

Our daughter in law has blocked our phone calls. Only our youngest son and his wife are welcome to their house. 

Since then our son has asked us for a sizable loan to fund him and our other son as they’re in business together.  Reluctant to come over personally to ask, we insisted as there were business questions.  He came but did not apologize for our last argument, thanked us coldly for the loan and left.

 In a million years I didn't think this could happen. I feel I've lost my son and I don't know how to handle this. We are not bad people. My husband and I are in our early 60's and have a wonderful family. Our son is the 3rd of our five children. I have a great relationship with my other 4 children and their spouses and our 13 grandchildren. Our daughter in law told our daughter that she and our son "just don't have any expectations any more". This is part of the problem I feel. When she married our son she had expectations of us. Whatever they were we haven't lived up to them. Please help.

 

Maggi replies

Sons, mothers, daughters-in-law; what a complex set of relationships these can be.  Mothers want the best for their sons and generally welcome his choice of partner into the family with open heart, with pride and pleasure, knowing that he has found the person he wants to spend his adult life with.

Underneath the genuine feelings of gladness there can be feelings of rejection or redundancy. These are usually unfounded but still, a mother knows she will no longer be the cornerstone of his world or be the one he brings his worries to. All of this is natural and understandable. Up to this point mother has often been the key woman in a young man’s life, the one he turns to when things need sorting out, or when a less permanent relationship ends. Once he finds a permanent partner that position is changed and the mother will naturally hope the new arrangement will provide what he needs through life.

This is where you are it seems, hoping that he is getting all he needs – it sounds as though his relationship with his wife is close – but feeling that you are being disapproved of for a reason not stated.  Like you, your daughter-in-law is an outspoken woman, she tells you what upsets her. Your son has perhaps chosen a wife who has some of his mother’s qualities. But neither you nor your husband have been able to work out what is at the bottom of her dissatisfaction, just that she “no longer has expectations” of you. 

There are concerns for you in the situation as it now stands:

Your son remains fully supportive of his wife – as a good husband should be – but it affects his behaviour towards you, the parents, resulting in an estrangement without you knowing the cause. This is very hard for you both to bear.

Your younger son and his wife are the only family welcome in their house.  This has the potential to cause friction between the siblings and it is important you talk to all four other children to make it clear how important it is, that this is a good thing, as it could be a way of keeping the channels of communication open for the family.

Your feelings towards your daughter-in-law must not be allowed to get in the way of your readiness to welcome any contact with your son or your grandchildren.  Continue to send cards or gifts to the grandchildren – via your other son and his wife if necessary.  It is important to make it clear to them that they are loved by you and that they have done nothing, they are innocent parties in this feud and therefore should be treated with as much love and affection as they always have.

What it was that upset your daughter-in-law is a mystery to you, as are the expectations she might have had of you on her marriage.  It is an odd thing to say.  What might such expectations of one’s future parents-in-law be?  That they are welcoming and supportive without being too interfering perhaps, or that they will be good kind grandparents to any children?  Surely these are more hopes than expectations? Indeed, do we have any right to expect things from our in-laws? They aren’t the ones choosing us or marrying us after all.  Try to find out what is behind this comment.

It might be helpful to remember that your daughter-in-law hasn’t had the same upbringing as your own children.  Her way of expressing herself will be a lot to do with her earlier experiences, before she met your son; there could be hidden stresses for her in life that come to the surface inappropriately.

All you can do is remain open to any approaches.  Bear in mind that your son has made his choice of wife and he is right to support her even if he is not happy to shut you out.  He must reach his own way of balancing the two strands of his family in his own way and I hope he is strong enough to find a way of saying to her ‘Ok, I accept you don’t want to see her, but she is my mum and I’ll visit alone’.  Although this might be hard for him after what his father told him.  It is vital that they, too, make their peace with one another somehow.

In the meantime you both need to remain respectful of his wishes but always ready to talk and sort things out calmly and without blame or argument.  Do not get drawn into criticizing her, especially to your son or the grandchildren.  Draw a line under all of the conflict and anger and make it clear you are willing to start afresh and eager to hear how best you can be supportive. Forgiveness takes maturity and can lift heavy loads; liberating us to move forward.

Until the mystery ‘issues’ your son and his wife have concerning you are out in the open and dealt with this state of affairs is likely to persist.  I strongly suggest finding a family therapist to help all of you face these, if you can persuade them – and your husband - to try to put them into a healthier perspective.  A family therapist will help you all negotiate, clarify and understand, without apportioning blame.  Many Relate centres, if you are in the UK, have family therapists now and it is worth asking you nearest branch for information on the closest centre for you. The cost, not high, can be shared between you all and will be well worth the effort.

You are the one with a longer experience of life.  Use it wisely, set an example, and everyone will benefit.

 


You can write to Maggi at maggi@laterlife.com for her to respond in the column.


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