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The other in-law problem: When your spouse gets mistreated by family

  • Chicago Tribune
  • Published Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, at 11:27 p.m.

Does your husband’s family time include listening to his father tell him all the ways he doesn’t quite measure up?

Did your wife spend the holidays entertaining siblings who seem to have forgotten how to clear a plate, bring a salad or operate a dishwasher?

The hostile in-law gets most of the attention in pop culture, with films such as “Monster-in-Law” and “Meet the Fockers” highlighting the tensions that can arise when the relative-by-marriage fails to meet the expectations of a doting mom or dad.

Many of us may have been less concerned with how our in-laws treated us, and more worried about how we did or did not respond when they criticized or misused our long-suffering spouses or partners.

“That is a little challenging – to say the least,” says clinical psychotherapist Deanna Brann, author of “Reluctantly Related: Secrets to Getting Along With Your Mother-in-Law or Daughter-in-Law” (Vision Run).

The good news is that there are approaches to handling the situation and you, the spouse of the family punching bag, can often make a difference, experts and observers say.

“Having a supportive spouse or partner helps a lot,” says Fred Telegdy, founder of the blog “I Hate My In-Laws!” (ihatemyinlaws.com). “You can say: ‘You know, we don’t have to go to your family’s house. We can go on vacation. We can go to Hawaii. We can have a lot of fun and do our own thing.’ ”

If you want to help your spouse deal with the problem, start by asking questions, Brann says. Does the situation even bother your mate? If so, what could you do to help him deal with it?

“The beauty of talking to your partner is your partner now feels like they have an ally – all those years they might have felt they were alone,” Brann says. “So just feeling that someone really hears you and gets it and understands your pain can sometimes give you enough confidence to take a step.”

If your spouse doesn’t see a solution to, say, a parent’s constant criticism and wants your help, you can suggest setting some firm boundaries. A sample script for your spouse might read, “You know, Dad, I don’t want to hear it anymore, so the next time you put me down, I’m going to leave the room.”

The idea, Brann says, is to say this in a clear, loving and noncombative way, and to follow through. Don’t discuss the issue, she says. Don’t argue.

“Don’t try to get them to understand; they never will. So change your behavior,” she says.

With family freeloaders, Brann suggests a similar no-nonsense approach. If your spouse wants to act, agree that he, or both of you, will make specific, time-sensitive requests for help from unhelpful houseguests: “Mom, I need you to watch the kids while I’m in the shower.”

Be nice and nonchalant, Brann says, but don’t offer wiggle room.

If your spouse doesn’t want to act, you probably shouldn’t go it alone, Brann says. Odds are, you’ll make the situation worse.

“The family has no vested interest in you, per se,” she says. “It’s harder for families to stay angry at family members – and it’s easier for them to hold grudges against nonfamily members. That’s typically what will happen.”

Susan Forward, therapist and author of the best-seller “Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life” (Bantam), says that if the situation is unacceptable and your partner isn’t willing to take action, you do have an option — albeit one that isn’t likely to be particularly good for your marriage: You can tell your partner he’s on his own.

“You can say, ‘You deal with them whatever way you want to, but don’t involve me,’ ” Forward says. “ ‘If you need to see them, I’m not going with you and I’m not going to have them here because they make me miserable.’ ”

Brann suggests debriefing a spouse who doesn’t want to take action: “Help me understand how you are able to not let this get to you?”

Brann also recommends deploying a sense of humor where appropriate and seeing the offender in a broader context: Odds are he’s not just singling out his blood relative. He’s critical of everyone, or he treats everyone like a servant.

“It’s not personal,” Brann says – that’s just the type of person the offender is. “It really speaks about them – not your spouse.”

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