November 18, 2007 in Features

Set a place, low expectations for mother-in-law

Carolyn Hax The Washington Post

Dear Carolyn: My mother-in-law has expressed interest in spending Thanksgiving with us this year, as she expresses interest in spending every holiday with us, both large and small, religious or otherwise. She lives a mere 20 minutes from our home, but we rarely see or hear from her. When she does find herself with us, she seems uncomfortable and often says the most inappropriate things. For instance, instead of commenting that my son is bright, she infers he’s autistic. We have always accommodated family get-togethers during the holidays, but as the years have gone by, I have started to dread them. How do we express this to my MIL when we don’t understand her behavior both past and present? – R.G.

I don’t mean this to sound as flippant as it’s going to, but maybe she’s the one who’s autistic.

What you describe isn’t a mean person, it’s a difficult person. Awkward, perplexing, odd. Socially disconnected. Hm.

And while having her come for Thanksgiving dinner might not make for the warm and familiar gathering you had in mind, she probably isn’t living the life she had in mind, either, having to invite herself to holidays with family who live nearby.

Or maybe she is living her life on her terms, who knows. But she did raise your spouse (who says what about all this, I wonder?). And she could come just for a day trip, and so it seems to serve the interests of decency, and the spirit of the holiday, to set an extra place at the table.

As for the dread, I know it and sympathize well. I just don’t see a way around it (except on occasions when you do in fact have other plans) that doesn’t needlessly hurt someone who apparently means you no harm. You can make it work, cruelty-free, if you adjust your expectations from the way you want her to be, to the way she’s going to be. Adjust your eyes to see the good.

Carolyn: My boyfriend of several years cheated on me. We are working through it with a great counselor and are making progress. My problem is that my best friend, who is also his friend and the only person I have told about this, is really angry with him for doing this to me. It’s making me feel like I can’t confide in her comfortably, but I need her right now. What can I do? – Chapel Hill, N.C.

Let her be angry. You have made the decision to preserve the “us.” Maybe it’s a good thing that someone is thinking solely of your preservation.

I appreciate how hard it is to feel you have to defend your boyfriend, your decision to stay with your boyfriend, your decision to defend your decision to stay with your boyfriend, and endlessly on.

So, don’t. As part of the choice to let her be angry, choose also not to trot out your defenses. Let her air her grievance. Tell her you’ll keep in mind what she advises. Thank her for looking out for you.

Not only will it spare you the drain of defending, it’ll show her you’re listening – which may in turn reassure her enough for her to stop harping on how angry she is, and concentrate more on hearing you out.

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