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Relationships - July 2015

My daughter-in-law makes me nervous


Maggi Stamp is a highly qualified relationship counsellor and trainer who writes each month about emotional and practical concerns and challenges that many of us meet in later life. For 20 years, as well as running a private practise, Maggi worked with the organisation Relate to help married and single people, cohabiting couples, same sex couples, families, young and old people and the bereaved to develop, foster and enjoy healthy and fulfilling relationships. No less important, as she is herself a wife, mother and grandmother, she brings a lifetime of varied and eventful experience to enhance her empathy and understanding.  

Many of her examples are based on concerns that clients, family and friends have presented over the years. In the monthly articles where she responds to issues raised by readers, she strictly respects confidentiality and never identifies those who write to her. But the individual worries they raise are invariably felt by others, so her responses can help many.

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


My daughter-in-law makes me nervous

Our son the second of three has been married for 20 years to a lovely well - educated young lady. They have three beautiful daughters. We love them all so much.

My relationship with her has become strained and more uncomfortable the last few years. I think that she's always been a competitive person, which was never a problem in the past. At least , it was not expressed as much as recently. I cook, she doesn't care to use her time cooking. And I know, because she's told me, that she'd rather spend time with the girls. I get that. But in the last few years she seems upset when I cook. We also have different views on spending, and on pets. The granddaughters are over-indulged but sweet, polite and well behaved. The pets rule the roost and are also over-indulged.

Of course, I feel like I'm doing a great job of keeping my opinions to myself. I've never given advice on raising children, saving money or training pets. She's become very short with me and doesn't seem to hesitate to show her frustration by snapping at me. She also seems to resent it if she thinks we're spending more time with our other sons, who live closer to us.

So here's my biggest concern. I'm starting to realise that I'm actually becoming afraid of her. I avoid conversation and any situation that could set her off. I'm also feeling a real lack of respect. None of our sons would ever snap at me the way she has started to do and it could set a bad example for our granddaughters.

Any advice you would be willing to share would be so appreciated. I'm feeling that this is a situation that should be addressed in the proper way very soon.

Thanks for listening,
Mother-in-law

How sad that you should feel a little afraid of your daughter-in-law after all this time. You have obviously thought about your differences a great deal and have accepted, even understood, her reasons for doing things her way when she explained them to you. We all have set ways of managing our households.

You love cooking for your family and entertaining them in the way many older parents and grandparents do, but you also see that modern parenting appears more pressured and that mums often have little time, inclination or energy to show their love in this way. Theirs is a pragmatic approach which places the children – and pets in your middle son's family – at the top of their time allocation table. Spending time in the kitchen preparing meals is lower down on the scale for them. As long as everyone gets plenty of attention comma all else will tend to follow.

As you say, you get that. Many don't, and that can be a source of tension. It might be that your daughter-in-law is more sensitive now to these differences. Her children are a little older, and probably more likely to voice their likes and dislikes. If she has had pressure to 'make dinner/pudding/cake like Granny does it' then she will quite rightly be a little touchy, although she needs to understand it is not your disapproval showing through but her children asking for things they enjoy. However, are you sure you have concealed any disapproval effectively? Might she have picked up on how you are with the over-indulged pets? I know that sounds a bit far fetched, but sometimes people who dote on their pets feel great offence when others find it hard to share their enthusiasm.

But you are right, changes in her attitude towards you must soon be addressed more directly. Open appreciation of all the good things she achieves in her home and work life is a good place to start. Focus on how polite and happy the children are, noting that her good parenting is on show there, and tell her they are a credit to her. If you aren't keen on the pets, don't fake it, just don't mention them. When you visit her home, show open appreciation for any food offered you, and be generous with your praise for anything like new décor and so on – while not overdoing it all in one visit, obviously!

Your daughter-in-law might, after 20 years, have reached a time in her life when not only might her hormones be changing balance, which will be affecting her equilibrium, but her career might be reaching a point where things have shifted . Her children are growing into teenagers – always a stressful time, and she might be questioning some aspects of how she does things. None of this is to do with you, but her stress could be showing in her dealings with other members of the family. That is why it might be politic to give her the benefit of the doubt and be appreciative of what she does.

Whether or not you ask your son if he has noticed any change depends on your relationship with them. The last thing you want is to have your son going straight to his wife and ask what she has done to upset his Mum! What you might ask is a general question about how everything is in terms of home and work life for both of them. You might say you are doing a 'happiness audit' of all your family members. That will allow you to be more specific following any reply by observing that his wife was a little tense last time you saw her – or this visit, or whatever seems appropriate. Show your appreciation of how hard she works, the children, their home and so on to him too. Your son might be someone you can ask directly if he knows why his wife seems so annoyed with you all the time, or if there is something you have said which unintentionally upset her, but do take care not to sow seeds of tension between man and wife. Again, clear appreciation is the key.

If it is not an easy situation to create - perhaps there is another member of the family whom you trust not to misunderstand or gossip. But tread carefully - all of this is a mother-in-law's minefield. When in doubt, 'say nowt', is the wisest approach in these situations.

If after all this gentle approach and open appreciation she is still snapping at you, it does need to be addressed directly, even though you are wary of doing so. You have every reason to feel strong and not allow fear to enter your relationship with her. You have both spoken about your different ways of running your homes in the past, so there is no hidden disapproval there. You are good enough to understand and accept her ways and have no expectation of your method being adopted by any of your sons' wives. But you do have a right to be treated kindly by all of them.

You have done well all this time to have kept all your opinions to yourself, but you do need to screw up your courage to check with her if something is troubling her. She is a loved member of your family and you are concerned – as well as rather hurt by her attitude, which feels personal. Next time she snaps at you, comment on how troubled she sounds. Ask her if she is unwell or stressed at work or if there is anything you can do to help. (Avoid any judgmental words like 'angry' or 'irritated' to keep your concern general.) Assume the problem is personal to her, not of your making. Following that, especially if there is any denial, you can ask if there is anything you have done or said to upset her. She might need your reassurance that you are in no way disapproving of her way of raising her girls. Praise them – and her. Say how you wish they lived closer so you could see more of them and be of more use to them as busy working parents, thus dismissing her assumed resentment at the amount you see your other sons and their families.

Remember, the most effective way to soften someone's attitude is often with kindness, which can sometimes release quite surprising explanations for changes. If you know you have done nothing wrong or different to what you always do, that is where you will find strength to face this rather uncomfortable task. If there is something which is connected to you, then you will be in a better position to discuss how to put it right together.



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


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