Dear LetterBalm: My mother-in-law calls my husband at least twice a day and sulks if he and our children don’t visit every week. She packs up items – useless clothing or foods that are nearly spoiled or dried out – and sends them back with him. I’m expected to call her immediately to thank her, which turns into a one-sided half-hour conversation about her day. If I wait until the next morning, she’s annoyed with me. She and my father-in-law insist on knowing our comings and goings, especially all the things our children are doing, including doctor visits and school schedules. I’m concerned that they are inserting themselves too much into our lives, and we’re worn out from explaining and reassuring and dealing with hurt feelings. What to do?
–Exhausted in El Paso
You’ve said nothing about your husband in all this. Is he happy with the status quo, as dysfunctional as it is? His parents are using guilt and manipulation to keep your family in line, and it will take a double-team effort to change things. It’s a cinch his folks won’t or don’t change; they have it too good. So, it’s on you – maybe, at first, without your husband. First, learn how to handle difficult parents and in-laws. Believe Ms. L.B. when she says there are volumes of information out there on the web. Based on your research, draw up clear rules governing telephone call and visit frequency, receiving unwanted items, invading family time and privacy and erecting boundaries. These should be simple guidelines gradually incorporated that, over time, become second nature. You need to be gracefully and graciously unmovable. Some couples therapy will help, too. When you have things straight in your mind, have a gentle, private talk with your husband. He’ll be more inclined to work with you if you remind him of what he doesn’t like about his parents’ behavior:
Gordon, I need your complete attention because this is important. Your parents certainly are solicitous of our family, but it’s become too much. This isn’t judging them, dear, just reality. We can’t go on with the level of involvement that Harold and Maude have in our lives. You and the kids have found the weekly Saturday visits burdensome, and you yourself told me the multiple daily phone calls and their insistence on giving us unwanted things are driving you crazy. Darling, your parents won’t change, they’re too set in their ways and attached to everything we do. So, I think we have to reeducate them by changing the way we deal with them. May I make two suggestions? First, I think you and I need to have a few sessions with a couples therapist to get to the bottom of why your folks act the way they do and how we might respond. Second, I’ve done some thinking and come up with a few guidelines on how we can handle things. They’ve very basic, really, but you and I need to be on the same page, if this is going to work. It will take time, but I think they’ll help. Do you want to hear what they are?
Dear LetterBalm: Almost a year ago, my ex-boyfriend’s mother died. I went to the funeral because my ex and I had dated for a long time, and I was a friend of the family. After the services, the mourners went back to the family home. My ex and I talked and hung out and eventually we got back together. I realized I still loved him, and his dad and sister were happy we were a couple again. Well, it didn’t take long before my boyfriend fell into old selfish patterns – ignoring me for his buddies, playing endless rounds of golf on Sundays, grudging holidays and my birthday, showing up for me to cook dinner for him every night. I asked him if he still loved me. He said he wasn’t in love with me, but he wasn’t interested in dating anyone else, either. So, I broke up with him again, this time for good. His father has called me twice, begging me to get back together with his son. I’m adamant I don’t want to get roped in again. How can I let this man down easy? He’s a lovely person and I feel bad about hurting him.
–Won’t Get Fooled Again
Ms. L.B. feels for the dad in this case. He’s still mourning the loss of his wife, and his lazy, selfish son has screwed things up again. You finally got the truth out of your boyfriend; now you know he’ll never be partner material. Presumably, you’ve moved on, older and wiser. Why don’t you write your ex’s dad a handwritten note? Don’t dissect your relationship with his son, but do make it clear that it’s over for good. Acknowledge your affection and respect for him and his family. (Depending on how you feel in the future, you might be in occasional touch with them, but don’t give them false hope.) Say something like this:
It was good to hear your voice on the phone. I’m sorry it was under such unfortunate circumstances. The truth is, Ryan and I have broken up for good, and there’s no chance we’ll ever be reunited in the future.
This doesn’t take away my affection and respect for you and Sarah – and Esther, even though she’s no longer with you. Please know that your family has always meant a lot to me, and I’ll continue to keep all of you close to my heart.
I wish you well always.
Today marks the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. As part of our collective national memory, we all know that he was shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865 at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. and died the next morning. As soon as Lincoln took his last breath, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton uttered the prescient epitaph: “Now he belongs to the ages.” Our sixteenth president certainly has been mythologized, arguably more than any other American figure. But his forthright outlook on life – and his way with words – aren’t in dispute. Ms. L.B. has assembled a dozen of her favorite Lincoln aphorisms. A century and a half hasn’t dimmed their eloquence as powerful words to live by:
- The better part of one’s life consists of his friendships.
- Every man is proud of what he does well; and no man is proud of what he does not do well.
- I know of nothing so pleasant to the mind, as the discovery of anything which is at once new and valuable.
- It was not best to swap horses when crossing streams.
- Truth is generally the best vindication against slander.
- The severest justice may not always be the best policy.
- Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?
- If I saw a venomous snake crawling in the road, any man would say I might seize the nearest stick and kill it; but if I found that snake in bed with my children, that would be another question.
- Human action can be modified to some extent, but human nature cannot be changed.
- The Lord prefers common-looking people. That is why he made so many of them.
- It’s my experience that folks who have no vices have generally very few virtues.
- Perhaps a man’s character was like a tree, and his reputation like its shadow; the shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.