How to let go of old resentments

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUN 8, 2010

My husband and my brother are estranged because of a business deal


Dear Cary,

Earlier this year, around the time of your cancer diagnosis, you wrote about letting go of a long-held resentment. I am particularly interested in this topic because of a family conflict that has gone on for years in an understated way. Whenever it interferes with my life in a pragmatic way, I get completely stressed out and obsess about it.

My husband was badly hurt by my brother as a friend and business partner years ago. Since then, my husband refuses to be near my brother except on obligatory family occasions. I understand this position as a means of self-protection. My brother is charming and would like to smooth things over but doesn’t want to admit any wrongdoing or participate in the work of real reconciliation, and my husband will agree to nothing less. Frankly, I think they both would prefer never to see each other again.

That leaves me to be the linchpin of a relationship they would prefer did not exist. I feel torn by my loyalty to both of them. On a day-to-day level, it’s not usually a problem. I get together with my brother on my own. I’m a one-on-one sort of person anyway, so I kind of like it that way. Every now and then, though, I fear hurting my brother and his partner’s feelings by not inviting them to be part of our shared social life. I can’t even tell my mom when I’m having a party for fear that she will tell my brother about it or feel sad about my failure to include them.

How would you suggest that I deal with the emotional and pragmatic ramifications of this state? Also, can I do anything to help them resolve their bad feelings about one another?

Thank you for your thoughts.

Stuck in the Middle

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Dear Stuck in the Middle,

Resentments, long-held and seemingly intractable, can be suddenly lifted forever. Yet there is no foolproof method that I know of to make this happen. Time and events seem to work in concert with our own efforts.

No one prescription heals the infinite variety of emotional wounds. Rather, our searing and constant attention on these things seems to work in tandem with unseen currents of mercy flowing among us day and night. Eddies of warm wisdom encounter cold upwellings of  unrepentant prejudice and grudge, and out of that comes change. We struggle for years with a sense of grinding injustice, masticating the tough, fibrous hay of our own indignation, standing chilly in our pastures waiting for someone else to make a move. And then things change. Light comes in.

Meanwhile, though it sounds a little silly, thinking good thoughts about the one we resent, wishing them good fortune, blowing positive breath toward them, praying for them — these odd and counterintuitive actions sometimes have surprising effects. Who knows why.

While we wait for things to change, we envision scenarios: What if we got together at the old house and things would be just like they used to be? What if we went waterskiing? He loves waterskiing! We try to reach inner accommodation through judgment of externals: He is really being unreasonable now! I’ve done all I can do and now the rest is up to him! This can go on for years.

And then one day the two parties meet on the street and it is a sunny day and they have met by accident and it seems like a nice time to go boating.

So what are you to do about social arrangements, you who are in the middle? I rather think the best thing to do is simply invite the people who belong and let them decide to show up or not.

This may be tricky in the case of your husband. To invite your brother may seem like a provocation. But, while showing sensitivity to his feelings, I think it would be best if you simply tell him that your brother is your brother and family is family and people have to learn to be in the same room with each other.

This involves a certain amount of letting go. It involves just letting go and doing the normal thing and letting other people work out their differences.

And let me say this: We get to a point in these long-running disputes where we think, screw it, I’ve done enough and he hasn’t responded, well fuck it, it’s his turn.

But it’s never his turn. It’s always our turn. We’re the only ones whose turn it can be. There is always more we can do. We can always try again. We can always pick up the phone one more time. If we choose not to, that’s our choice. But there is always one more try.

And we find, if we take this approach, that after the 15th or the 20th try, there is a thaw, a lifting. If your brother is not working every day in some way to repair this rift, then he’s not doing enough. Likewise with your husband. Likely as not, neither one of these men is doing all he could do. Neither has made himself vulnerable. Neither has taken a genuine risk. Neither has taken it all the way.

I’m not saying I don’t understand that. I do. We’re sensitive creatures. We don’t like being hurt. I understand how one offhand remark from a family member can put one crooked for days, and how, therefore, we naturally try to avoid such things.

But I also know that we can do it. We can survive such hurts. And good can come of making the choice to endure such hurts and keep working at reconciliation. No matter what excuses we make, we have the choice: We can keep working at relationships or we can claim we have done enough and quit. Once we give up, things just get worse.

We have never done enough. There is no such thing as enough. There is always more to do.

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What’s worse — my breast cancer, or my relatives trying to “help” me?

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUN 19, 2007

I am a secular person, I do not like the color pink, and I need to manage my disease my own way.


Dear Cary,

I am a 47-year-old happily married woman with four children who was recently diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. It’s been a shocking, overwhelming experience. I never thought I was at risk for breast cancer. I was a “granola” type, breast-feeding my kids until they were toddlers and insisting on brown rice and whole wheat bread, exercising, eating lots of fruits and vegetables, etc. I know you can’t tell me where this came from or why I have it, but maybe you can help me with a few of the “social” problems that have developed as a result.

One problem is kind of minor, and one more major. The small problem is that I live in a Midwestern, conservative city. On the one hand, lots of people have been phenomenal in stepping up to help us, bringing meals and offering rides to my kids. But there are some very conservative, very religious people approaching me. I have some people wanting to pray with me, and sending me cards with the message that “God is great” and if you put things in his hands everything will be OK.

There is even the message that God gave me this for a reason. This makes me sick. I believe in science, and biology, and random acts of illness. There was no plan to give me cancer. It is not comforting to me when people suggest otherwise. I believe God may be present in the love and kindness I see around me in my family, and in many of my friends and even strangers who show they care. But I do not believe God is controlling my cells. How do I deal with these people?

The more major problem is dealing with my in-law family. I married into a Greek family 20 years ago. It was a rocky beginning, because they wanted me to convert, marry in the church and baptize all of our kids in the church. And they used all kinds of emotional manipulation to achieve what they wanted. Well, they didn’t get what they wanted, and my husband and I moved away from the family and established our independence. We’ve been happy, and had established an equilibrium with the family. We have a visit every year or two, and I am polite and gracious, and they enjoy the fact that we are raising beautiful, well-adjusted grandchildren. (The rest of the family is pretty screwed up.)

Well, now this cancer thing has brought everything to a head. My in-laws have come to “help.” They are not very helpful, and they have a very “doom and gloom” attitude. And my MIL can’t help talking about her own health tests, and aches and pains, none of which are serious. I thought they would help by playing with my kids, but they are bringing them down, too. And aunts, uncles, cousins are calling every day, telling me what to do, questioning my doctors, telling me how to feel. I can’t stand it, and I don’t know what to do.

I hate to sever some ties here for my kids’ sake, but I really don’t want these people helping me. I don’t even want to talk to them. Every time I have a conversation with them, I feel bad. I have been able to stay fairly focused and positive, but these relatives are bringing me down.

My husband is supportive of me, and realizes he made a mistake in having them come. But bless him, he just wanted to reach out to his own family during a time of crisis and get help. And he is coming to the sobering realization that they are no help, and even somewhat harmful. I feel bad for him, but I also think it’s OK for me to assert what it is I need. I need to be around people who make me feel good. My husband had tried talking to his parents about the way the family acts so aggressively, and how things that are said aren’t helpful to me, but they just don’t get it. “Oh, but we love you. We are just showing concern …”

Any words of wisdom would be appreciated. I always enjoy reading your thoughts.

Thanks,
PinkIsNotMyColor

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Dear PinkIsNotMyColor,

I am glad that you are facing this with clear eyes.

Being a thinking, secular person, you may find it best to treat this phenomenon as a social and family-systems problem. In the way that medical professionals speak of certain disorders being “secondary to” certain other disorders, we might say that this social and family phenomenon is “secondary to” your cancer itself.

In fact, we might say that, secondary to your initial diagnosis, your Greek in-law count is abnormally high — which is to be expected where Greek in-laws are present but relatively inactive prior to diagnosis. We might also note that tests confirm the presence of opportunistic religiosity, which, while not uncommon in such cases, is of concern, as it can distort observed phenomena and thus result in faulty diagnoses.

It is suggested that the way to handle these secondary effects is to manage them in accordance with generally accepted hospital protocols.

So how is one to actually do that? How can one manage it?

Well, I think one starts with managing access. One limits who can visit and for how long, just as a hospital would. One prescribes rest and quiet. One prescribes limited activity.

In doing so, in setting limits and policing activities, one may look to some authority outside oneself to justify this. And I do not mean God — at least not God as you and I understand God. I mean The Doctor. You invoke the authority of “The Doctor.” The doctor says you can only visit for a few minutes, because she must rest. The doctor says this and the doctor says that.

People who revere authority will often turn to God, but if there is no God present, the doctor might do just fine.

In invoking such an authority, you allow the relatives to participate in a drama that they understand and believe in. Now, your mother-in-law, being an expert in medicine, may quibble with the doctor’s opinions, but I doubt that she will disobey his “orders.”

Other ways to manage access might include having your husband say things such as “She is praying alone.” Or perhaps “She is meditating alone” would suffice. In other words, give it to them in words they understand. “She is reading her Bible” might be just a bit too much to swallow, but you get the idea. Let them participate in the drama as they conceive it. And manage the situation in much the same way that a hospital manages things, by controlling access, the number of visitors at one time, and the duration and frequency of visits.

If you gain some leverage in the tangible aspects, you will feel a little better about the craziness.

Now, being a secular person and needing to manage this situation as a social and family-systems phenomenon, where would you find guidance and expertise? You need someone trained to observe and decode the response of a group to illness in its ranks. I would think perhaps a marriage and family counselor would know something about this, as might a person with a master’s in public health. Even a sociologist — one with a heart — might be of help, or an economist with a gift for visualization.

You need someone who can help you see this phenomenon for what it is, a hysterical swarm of pinkness flowing toward the victim, like blood flowing to the affected area.

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Mother-in-law blues

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 6, 2004

She’s not a bad person, but I resent how she imposes herself on our lives.


Dear Cary,

I’ve noticed that often your advice doesn’t come in the form of a specific answer to a specific problem. The advice you give tends to come in the form of a philosophy that transforms the problem into something acceptable and less overwhelming than it was before. I need a new way to see my mother-in-law before I am consumed with exhaustion and resentment.

My mother-in-law is not a bad person. She has a good heart buried under insecurities and self-centered behavior from a dysfunctional childhood with an alcoholic mother and a father who never thought she was good enough. She has spent years in therapy and reading self-help books to become a more secure person, and in many ways she has succeeded. She raised a son whom I love very much, and she has a circle of friends she is devoted to.

While I can recognize that she is a good person, and acknowledge that she has had to overcome a great deal in her life, I resent how her struggle has imposed itself on me. She needs to control everything to feel safe. She is constantly trying to control me and my husband. She intrudes into our personal business, she makes frequent and unreasonable demands on our time, she sabotages our plans so that my husband will be available to her when he is supposed to be elsewhere, and she has questioned every decision she has ever seen us make.

Over the years, I’ve learned to deal with her to a degree. I’ve learned how to protect my privacy around her, how to avoid some of her more relentless manipulation and why she is acting the way she does. I have sympathy for what it must be like to be her. Most important, I’ve learned that I’m not going to be able to change her behavior, and I can only adjust how I react to it.

But now I resent her. I resent the amount of energy it takes to be around her. I resent that she comes into my home and that I have to be nice to her because she is my husband’s mother and my daughter’s grandmother. I resent always having to be the bigger person when we have a conflict because she can’t deal with not getting her way.

I have a hard time looking at her when she visits us. I feel resentful when she calls on the phone, when she comes up in conversation and every time I think about her. When she is around, I feel myself becoming withdrawn, sullen and angry. I can feel this resentment choked down in my chest like a hard knot or poison. I don’t think it is good for me. I think it makes me less of a person.

How do I get past this? I feel like I use enough energy dealing with her that I don’t have enough left over to keep this resentment festering inside of me, but on the other hand, I don’t seem to be able to make myself not resent her. How can I have her be part of my life and find some peace?

Resentful

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Dear Resentful,

As I read your letter I thought to myself, what a marvelous person you are! You seem to have such insight into your mother-in-law, such understanding. And then I realized that was the problem: You’re way too marvelous. You need to be way less marvelous. As long as you keep on being marvelous, your mother-in-law is going to keep walking all over you and you’re going to keep resenting it.

Paradoxically, as she walks all over you, you stand above her, judging her as she mistreats you. She walks all over you from underneath, as it were. It’s a peculiar geometric arrangement; it’s a metaphor for a relationship that has turned topsy-turvy.

This is a long answer. It’s taken me a couple of days to think this through and realize that understanding and sympathy, without active love flowing through them, can harden like dead skin and become a brittle shell. Knowledge about a person can come to substitute for knowledge of a person.

So in answer to your request for a new way of seeing your mother-in-law, I am going to suggest that you stop understanding her.

How does one stop understanding a person whom one understands so well? It may require pretending at first. Pretend that you have never seen her before. Next time you see her, take a deep breath, stand back and say as little as possible. Just try to see her clearly. See what she does and how she does it, how she exits a car, how she enters a room, how she puts down her purse, what she is wearing, what kind of skin she has, the texture of her hair, the color and condition of her shoes. Watch what she actually does and says. Try to remember the exact words she uses, and the tone.

The purpose of this is to try to superimpose your sense impressions over your knowledge, to edge out what you believe you know about her, in order to begin knowing her anew. And part of it is to give you something else to do other than fighting for control. It may have a calming effect; as you work to observe and be there in the moment, and as you fight off your habitual responses, refusing to say the regular things you say, the things you have learned to say over the years to avoid confrontation, you may find that you are not quite as upset. You will be getting some distance. The object is to try to neither control her nor be controlled by her.

So when you speak with her, be noncommittal; neither agree nor disagree with the assertions she makes. Say that you are not sure, that you will have to think about it. Do not argue with her, but do not agree, either. If she invites you somewhere, say you’re not sure, you will have to check your calendar. What you are doing here is wedging in some resistance, carving out a little space for yourself, for some autonomy. As you do this, take notice of what you feel, and how she reacts. Does she seem to grow angry if you do not agree with her? Does she grow argumentative? And do you feel fearful and awkward? That’s fine if you do; you’re in new territory. Just take careful note of what you’re feeling, and what she says and does.

The reason I suggest that you stop understanding her is not because it’s bad to understand why people do what they do. It’s because I think the view that we do what we do because of things that happened long ago has, at times, allowed us to remove ourselves from our more basic emotions and instincts about how others are treating us; if we can say I understand, I sympathize, we feel that we are acting in a correct way toward someone whom in actuality we may simply dislike, or whose behavior we disapprove of. The reason for understanding the roots of our behavior is not to relieve individuals of responsibility, but to give them the tools to change. It’s so we can see the irrationality and inappropriateness of our actions more clearly, and let go of them more easily.

So though you have been very kind, you haven’t been doing her any favors by being understanding and sympathetic. In fact, since she has been in therapy, she probably knows what she is doing but needs some help in changing it, in noticing the exact moments when it’s occurring. So I suggest that you do that. I don’t mean attack her. I just mean: Take note of specific things she does that you do not approve of. These should be things that directly affect you, not your husband or anyone else. These should be things she does to you directly that you want her to stop doing.

Then it’s time for a long drive and a chat, like they do on “The Sopranos.” But take note: If this scene ends with her bullet-riddled body in the trunk of your car, you misunderstood my advice. Just take a long, relaxing drive, just you and her, out in the country somewhere. Driving makes it easier to talk sometimes. Pull over somewhere and have a picnic, or park where there are things to look at. Tell her first of all that you love her but that you haven’t been satisfied with the relationship you’ve had up till now and you want to put it on a new footing.

Now, if you’ve done your homework, if you’ve identified exactly the things you’re feeling when she comes over to your house, you can tell her these things: that you’re feeling out of control when she walks in the door, that last time she came over you felt your schedule was disrupted, that you’ve wanted to say no or place limits on when you are available but haven’t done it for fear that she would be offended, that you’ve made certain decisions that were then overruled and you felt overlooked or ignored or stepped on, that you’ve been angry with her at times but haven’t expressed it and now you feel it’s been all stored up inside and it’s eating away at you. Keep the focus on your feelings and not her behavior. Because what you want is an agreement that it’s OK for you to tell her how you’re feeling. You don’t want to start accusing her of things right away. You just want to tell her how you feel about them.

Be very careful to tell her only things that are true and concrete, not vague and generalized.

Since she’s been in therapy, she’s probably acquainted with the basic outline of her personality, and the things you tell her may ring true. She probably knows she has a pattern of stepping over boundaries until somebody stops her. She may feel relieved. You may find that she’s been waiting for this moment, that she’s known things are uncomfortable but didn’t know how to broach the subject with you. So she will probably be able to talk about these things. And if the going is rough, if you think it would be helpful, it probably wouldn’t be hard to arrange a session with her therapist as intermediary.

But first, give it a try on your own.

And if after a year things haven’t changed, do what a friend of mine suggests: move.

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My mother-in-law is a difficult person

She puts me down, she pops in, she meddles, she scorns, she does the backhanded compliment … need some help here!

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAR 19, 2007


Dear Cary,

I am not one for hate or grudges. I dislike how they make me feel. Despite my flaws, I have always had a great capacity for empathy. This is perhaps why it is so distressing to me that I have finally found someone I have nothing but hatred for, and it is someone that I cannot be without unless I extricate myself from my living arrangement.

I hate my mother-in-law. I know. I am a cliché. I know these relationships are often fraught and loaded and laced with all the bittersweetness of letting go of your son. I know how hard it must be for her that we live on a different coast. I know that I am an imperfect match for him in that I am not traditional. I work freelance and travel frequently as part of my job. I am not an excellent cook. I hardly ever notice a dusty window sill. I laugh loudly and often. I hate shopping.

She is quite traditional. She likely dreams of a perfect match for her son that stays home every day cooking divine organic meals, cleaning the house from top to bottom, shopping for clothes for her son and getting the best possible deals.

I love her son unconditionally. It’s interesting that I have been referring to him as “her son.” In a way, that may be why I hate her. Nothing about my life with my husband seems truly to be mine or even ours. She wants to live every moment of it for us.

She shows up on a whim and stays for weeks at a time, no matter what else we may have planned. She stays with us and makes passive-aggressive, critical comments about every morsel I eat, how I clean, how the furniture is configured, what I need to buy, how often I am away, how I exercise, how I should exercise more, or less. She does everything she can to make me feel powerless and like a failure in my home. She is brash and opinionated with a veneer of “Oh, bless your heart! I love how laid-back you are that the floors are so dusty! That would drive me insane, but you just go on about your life as though nothing is wrong!” “I can’t imagine ever eating anything so rich! You are so blessed to have such a strong stomach and to care so little about your figure!” Every time I try to establish some boundaries about her involvement, she breaks through them.  Every time I try to simply appease her by, say, taking her advice, she is dissatisfied with the result. Every time she gives me those “compliments,” I choke out a “thank you” all the while feeling that there is simply no appropriate response.

She does whatever she can to register her disapproval of everything I am, and I am so, so resentful of her no matter how I try to tell myself that I should view putting up with her as an act of love for my husband. I am having a harder and harder time being civil to her when she makes disrespectful comments. My husband is a fiercely loyal son and bristles at any mention that she may be treating me inappropriately. I feel trapped. I cannot escape her. I am terrified that this anger, this hatred will cost me someone I love when I inevitably say something rude as a retort to one of her jabs. I know that is coming and I dread it. I know that in that case I will be very much in the wrong and will likely confirm what she has expected all along.

Please, you are such a lovely writer. I would love your insight.

How can I stop hating my mother-in-law?

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Dear Mother-in-Law Hater,

Wow.

You are dealing with someone who has a rare black belt in the art of putdown-fu. She is a trained master of tai-shit-on-you.

She’s a badass. That comment about you not caring about your figure is deep black magic.

This is a woman who, when she meditates, the Buddha looks nervous.

It’s not that you are holding a grudge, or that she’s your mother-in-law. It’s that she’s a difficult person.

You need counter-moves.

The good news: There’s help. The bad news: There’s help.

I mean, if there’s that much help, there must be that many difficult people.

Scary.

I wish I could say I’m an expert but I’m not. My one counter-move involves taking a deep breath, counting to three and running out the door.

But you can’t run. You have to stand and take it.

So get some help.

Google “difficult people” and see what I mean.

Here are some of the less-annoying and almost-helpful sites:

Think Simple Now has a few good ideas.

So does www.dealingwithdifficultpeople.com.

There is a ton of other advice out there on how to deal with this and much of it is useful and good … if you can put it into practice.

That’s the key. If you have a friend who is great at handling difficult people, spend some time with her. Do you know anyone like that? Think hard. Difficult people thrive in certain businesses and lifestyles. Fashion, the arts and entertainment businesses, as well as fast-paced, high-risk businesses such as high finance  … wherever difficult people thrive, you will find also the people who are good at handling difficult people.

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So seeking informal help among your set of friends is one good solution. Talking it out and learning from people who deal with this a lot may help.

Here is another thought. It’s hard to put into words. But I have seen people do it. To me, it seems like they have hit on a tone, a magical tone that they use on the difficult person. Or a way of positioning themselves psychologically. Perhaps it is partly physical posture, too. I know this is vague. It’s like … a center of strength. Find yours.

And the other thing, which I know I suggest a lot — because it’s so often needed! — is to find a therapist with whom you can work on ways, strategies to cope with her. There are so many problem-solving techniques, ways to limit your contact with her, setting boundaries, stuff like that, but they are hard to implement without somebody to talk them over with. If a therapist is not available, then use this friend of yours you’ve identified as your local difficult-person expert.

You just need some help dealing with a difficult person, and the Secret Service is unfortunately not in your employ.

Wow, wouldn’t that be something — sleek guys in suits with earpieces.

But no. No such luck.

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In-law anxiety

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I’m engaged, but I think my future mother-in-law may ruin my life. What should I do?

(Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, NOV 7, 2003)


Dear Cary,

A recently married friend of mine told me that getting a mother-in-law is like pulling a rabbit out of a hat — either it is fluffy and sweet or rabid and foaming at the mouth. I’ve now put my hand in the hat and I think I may need a rabies shot.

I am engaged to a great guy I’ve been with for nearly seven years. I’ve always known his mother was a bit manipulative, from stories about how she and her adult sisters feuded over various social missteps over the years. There is always at least one person not talking to another. She has often snubbed me around the holidays, and she has photos of everyone else in the family on the wall but me. I am a kind person if a little reserved. I’ve never done anything against her, but I have been the first loving, successful relationship her son has had, which I think causes insecurity in her. She will often tell me that he tells her everything or that her house is “home” to him, etc. I blow these comments off.

We’re planning our wedding and I am no longer a peripheral character to be minimized, but a real threat to her power. I am not handing over the reins to her on choices to be made about the affair, as my future sister-in-law did. I’m a designer and really having a ball with it. My fiancé, says that she is just jealous and that I should feel sorry for her rather than resent her. I think she is childish and malicious. My fiancé says he is disappointed in her and wanted to call her and let her have it. I asked him not to. I don’t want a feud. I don’t want to be pulled into the messy family politics. I just want things to be copacetic, friendly.

My way has always been to be kind and to be distant, but these things still occur. I know I am going to be interacting with her for the long haul, and I need to figure out how to do it without causing myself further stress and without feeling walked on. I’ve been waking up thinking about this. What to do?

Stressed-out Bride

TuscanAd_2015Dear Stressed-out Bride,

Let us start with the facts. You are engaged to be married. Congratulations! You have been with your boyfriend for seven years and you have decided to try to stay together for the remainder of your lives. You have decided to join his family. Congratulations!

But here is a dark note: It sounds to me like you do not like his mother. And you seem to think that his mother does not like you. In fact, you seem to be battling with her, at least in your own mind, over who is most important in the son’s life. If you were not battling with her, it would not matter to you in the least that she says he tells her everything, or that she says her house is home to him. You would shrug off those comments as the loving and prideful, if slightly possessive, remarks of a mother. Yet you seem to take them as some kind of affront.

In the planning of the wedding, you talk of being a threat to her power, and this seems to please you. You are “having a ball.” While actively trying to thwart her, you say you just want things to be copacetic, friendly. You want to triumph, you want your own way, you want to be recognized as more important to the boy than his mother, yet you want to achieve these things while remaining kind and distant, not feeling stressed out or walked over.

Well, these sound like troubling, hostile and contradictory wishes, and you simply cannot have it all these different ways. If you aspire to appear kind and distant at the same time you are battling for what you want, you will be forced to take secret actions to undermine others; this is what is known as covert hostility, and it has a corrosive effect on families. It requires battling parties to be labeled as right and wrong; it pits contradictory narratives against each other; it forces loving members to choose sides against each other. In doing so, it tears families apart.

So I think, in your approach to entering this family, and in planning the wedding, you are in the wrong. I think you should abandon your own agenda and replace it with an agenda whose goal is harmony in the family. The purpose of the wedding is to bring to families together in harmony. The way you achieve harmony is by gracefully accepting the wishes of others. Where necessary, you can negotiate and compromise. But harmony, not victory, is the goal.
If there are elements of her plan for the wedding that you disagree with strongly, it’s your duty to tell her directly, to her face. Tell her your opinion. You have the right to be heard. Then try to arrive at a compromise.

It sounds as if it has not yet clearly been spelled out who has the final word on various aspects of the wedding plans. This really should have been spelled out already, but I understand that weddings are not controlled by statutory authority; they are always to some extent collaborations. In this case, you need to concentrate on figuring out who has the authority for what, because you are starting from a bad place already, in which there is ample mistrust and personal ambition.

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After you are married, you must realize that it is not necessary for you to like everyone in his family, or for everyone in his family to like you. It is easier for families to gather amiably on the holidays if everyone has at least a passing appreciation of each other, but it is not necessary. All that is necessary is for you to behave with a modicum of decency. This is required of you no matter how others treat you. It doesn’t matter if you think his mother doesn’t treat you well. You must still treat her well.

So while I understand what you say about your feelings, and I empathize with the pain you are in, I cannot fix your feelings. All I can tell you is that if you give in to your feelings of resentment, if you take secret pleasure in thwarting the efforts of others, you are going to make it that much harder to get along with them in the future. So I would advise you to be as saintly as you possibly can be throughout the planning of the wedding. Where possible, give in. Concentrate more on joining the family amiably than on having a perfect wedding.

If none of this is to your liking, perhaps you should reconsider getting married. It is going to be the same way after you are married, only worse. You are not always going to be pleased; at times, you will feel as though others view you as a servant, or an object. You are going to become your husband’s wife. You will not always be the center of attention. Not everyone will think you are as clever as you believe yourself to be.

As to your future mother-in-law, you have to stop struggling to control her behavior. That doesn’t mean you’re going to be comfortable around her. She may genuinely dislike you. She may see through your kind but distant mien, behind which lies an air of superiority; she may see through your belief that you’re the best thing that ever happened to her son, that you are taking him away to an environment so much more refined, and better designed, than the one she raised him in. Just because people are manipulative doesn’t mean they’re not perceptive. Even if his mother doesn’t consciously know why she doesn’t like you, she probably senses that you don’t respect her and it galls her.

So try to find some things about her you genuinely like and respect. Don’t be afraid to disagree with her, but choose your disagreements wisely, and be willing to give in. Otherwise, if you do become her daughter-in-law, you’ll be in torment the rest of your days.

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Can we flee my husband’s family?

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, SEP 3, 2009

They’ll drive us crazy if we stay. We want to move to Colorado!


Dear Cary,

This is hardly a new topic, but here goes.

My husband and I have been married about a year and a half. We met, instantly fell in love and got married a short time later. We are in our mid-30s and know ourselves well, so there was no reason to wait. And we are crazy happy with each other. Unfortunately, this whirlwind courtship and wedding situation didn’t give me as much time in retrospect as I could have used with his family. Not that I would have ditched my honey, but I probably wouldn’t be living where we are now, which is the crux of the problem. Here’s the cast:

His mother: where fun goes to die. Literally. My husband’s father, whom he dearly loved, killed himself about 15 years ago rather than continue being married to her, although only my husband knows this and she wouldn’t believe it anyway. She is the typical old Catholic, martyr, misery-loves-company type. Refuses to say anything positive to my husband. Couldn’t congratulate him on our wedding day, much less contribute a dime toward it and she is very, very comfortable financially. I am polite to her, but I don’t see us getting particularly chummy when every time I see her, she unloads about something my husband did 20 years ago. She’s 70 years old and no, she’s not mentally ill — she’s just a bitch. When I lost my job about a year ago and our fridge died in the summer, we asked for help. Her answer? “Well, you’ll just have to wait for a sale and get it yourself!”

His brother: AKA Golden Boy. Which I find ironic since he has done nothing of note in his entire life except get married in the Catholic Church and pop out a couple of kids, so he gets the lifetime free pass for whatever bullshit he wants to pull. He’s lazy, uneducated, a freeloader, thief, cheats on his wife, and everything out of his mouth is a lie. His best skill is probably getting his mother to pay for whatever he wants by pointing at the kids and saying, “I really need ____, but it’s so expensive with the kids …” Total con man and he plays his mother like a fiddle. He just stole my husband’s golf clubs out of our garage and I can’t wait for how his mother justifies it so it’s my husband’s fault.

His maiden aunt: She owns the house we rent. She’s pretty nice although she believes family comes before all else, meaning we should dismiss every stupid thing the brother does because “That’s just the way he is!” She’s 75.

So we all live about two blocks apart. We moved into this house because it was sort of a wedding present from the aunt, the rent was affordable, and we were planning on having kids. Not a good idea in the 450-square-foot apartment we were already sharing with two cats in the city. Now, after a year and a half, we are ready to bolt. Except that we can’t just yet — any apartment we can find is even more per month. So we are saving our money and plan to move to Colorado in a couple of years. Great, right?

Except that MIL and aunt are expecting us to hang around and take care of them in their old age like they did with their mother. MIL can kiss my ass and we have no problem leaving her to Golden Boy — he more than owes it to her. But the aunt … she’s kinda nice and we don’t know how to handle that. She HAS given us a place to live and all. Should we be preparing her for this ahead of time (which will undoubtedly lead to endlessly complaining about how we don’t appreciate family and more of the MIL’s bitching) or just keep it all quiet and tell them after we’ve bought the house and the moving truck is packed? The grandmother died at 95 and there’s no way in hell I’m staying here 20 years in this situation. And I know this sounds really petty, but let’s be honest — the aunt and MIL make it very clear that my husband and I just don’t “count” as much as Golden Boy because he has kids, so you know where the inheritance is going.

So do we prep them or gleefully skip out?

Desert Gal

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Dear Desert Gal,

I hear something in your voice. I hear a self-assured quality that seems at odds with what you are actually asking, or saying. You are saying that you have married into a family that you find intolerable. It is not something you can gleefully skip out on, even if you go to the moon. Nor can these characters be neatly labeled and placed in boxes. You can divorce your husband if you want out of the situation. But otherwise, you’re in. This is the family you married into.

So here is what I first suggest. Take the long view. And try the high road.

Your mother-in-law may be a truly impossible individual. But try the high road. Go to her and say that you love her son very much, that you recognize that you may not live up to her ideal of a daughter-in-law, that you would like to be accepted as a part of the family, but that your dreams for such a life are taking you to Colorado. Tell her that you recognize that she and the aunt (her sister?) will need some help in the years to come, and ask her if there is a plan in place, and what her hopes and expectations are for your role in that plan. Tell her that if she hasn’t thought it through yet, that you hope she will. Offer to help her come up with a plan if she does not have one.

Give it a shot. Like many people, she and her sister might prefer not to think about the future and plan for it but just wait until it happens and then hope their families take care of them, and make life holy hell for everyone just on general principle. But you have a chance, now, to put everything on the table and see what happens. You have a chance, now, to start the conversation. You can offer to help by creating a plan. And you can make it nonnegotiable that you and your husband are moving to Colorado.

I also hear something else that I think is significant: Your husband’s father killed himself when your husband was a teenager or young man. It is understandable that because of the enormity of this event one might wish to reduce it to ironic dimensions: that he killed himself, literally, to get away from his wife. But suicide reverberates through a family in many ways no matter what explanation we give it. Each person in this family was without a doubt affected by his suicide in ways that they may not understand and probably cannot or will not communicate. It is there, that suicide, in your husband’s psyche and in the dynamics of the family.

You say you and he know yourselves well, so there was no reason to wait to get married. But if you truly knew yourselves well, you would have known that, perhaps because of the pain and chaos of your early lives, you tend to make impulsive decisions. Knowing that you tend to make impulsive decisions, you might have waited. But you plunged yourselves into a situation from which you now wish to escape. So you want to escape to Colorado. That may be yet another impulsive move. So if you truly want to know yourselves well, you should know this: that you tend to make big decisions on impulse.

It sounds like I am scolding you, doesn’t it? I apologize. I have no place to scold. I have no right. Let me try to get at what truly bothers me. My guess is that your husband was deeply affected by his father’s suicide, and that it is present in your relationship today in ways you are not aware of. And I sense that this unresolved pain is pushing you to vacate the premises. But it will go with you. Unless you and he examine how his father’s suicide has affected him, and how his current family relationships are affecting both of you, my guess is that no matter what you do, eventually you will experience emotional upheavals that seem to come out of the blue, and you will not know how to deal with them.

I feel this in your tone: You want a quick solution. And yet your actual situation calls for exactly the opposite.

I’m not saying don’t move to Colorado. By all means move to Colorado. Get out of there. But no matter where you go, you will be blindsided by events in the evolving family drama unless you begin working now to understand how that dynamic operates.

How about this: You have the conversation with your mother-in-law, the two of you move to Colorado as planned, but then you promise me to embark on a course of self-exploration so you can bring to consciousness the ways that his father’s suicide is operating today in your relationship.

Here is a very quick gloss on that. You say that your husband shared a secret with you, which is that his father killed himself to get away from his wife. If your husband is relying on such a story to cover over the enormous feelings he must even to this day be experiencing as a result of that suicide, then he has some work to do. It will be painful but liberating work. It will involve facing the loss of his father. It will involve facing his own guilt about the ways he might have prevented that suicide if only he were a better son, if only he had loved his father more, etc.

If he clings to this story that his mother is to blame for his father’s suicide, then in the years to come when his mother truly needs his help, it will be hard for him to play the role of loving caregiver and son, of protector and provider. Unless he takes some action to reconcile, he may also feel constant guilt for having, in a sense, abandoned his mother after his father’s suicide.

This sounds fine on paper. It is easy to say but hard to get. You have to get it.

For instance, a few months back I was driving the truck along Lincoln Boulevard by Golden Gate Park in the fog, bellyaching to myself as usual, when something “became real” for me. I felt in my chest something that I had perhaps known intellectually for some time: That my frail, demented 85-year-old father was never going to get up out of his bed and give me the warm, encouraging pat on the shoulder or the wise, clear, practical advice that I for so many years resented him for not giving me. Holy shit. What have I been thinking? There was no more father out there to blame. The only father I had was within me. The only father I needed, also, was within me. Whatever fatherly support or strength or advice I felt I needed, I would have to create for myself, or find somewhere within me. I had to embody that strength.

It was a visceral thing. With agonizing slowness, the heart learns.

That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. You can know the facts of this suicide, but certain things must be felt. So I suggest you find someone to help you and your husband work through his father’s suicide now, so it doesn’t creep up on you two for the next few years until you feel like you are losing your mind because lately you’ve been breaking down in tears at unexpected moments and some depression has overtaken your husband and he’s angry and resentful and drinking too much and getting violent and suicidal and you cannot find him in the gloom and you are wondering, where the hell did this come from?

Don’t wait for that. Confront this now. Go ahead and move to Colorado and find somebody to work with about this. You can have a good life and make all this work out. But you cannot ignore it. It will not work itself out on its own.

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Should I marry into a family of bigots?

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, FEB 28, 2006

His relatives talk about “fags” and say girls in miniskirts deserve to be raped.


Dear Cary,

I have met a lovely guy at last after years of being single or dating disastrous men. I am now happy and secure and this man wants to marry me and we talk about our future children. It’s wonderful! He is very caring and treats me so well I am amazed.

The problem is this: When I attend family functions with his family they say things I find really offensive. For example gays are called “fags” and the men joke about having to “run away or get hit on by the faggots,” then everyone laughs. I don’t find this funny. Then there is the younger brother who, at 16, says that girls who wear short skirts deserve to be raped … and his father backed him up, saying that most magistrates would agree! I have been raped and know the devastation it can cause. Hearing this opinion from a young and ignorant person is hard enough but then hearing the possible future grandfather of my children agree is almost unbearable. I spoke to my boyfriend about it and he said he can’t stand it when they talk like that and doesn’t agree at all. I believe that talk like this is a form of violence and if I had the choice I would choose never to hear it. I want to get along with my boyfriend’s family and I don’t want to offend them but at the same time I don’t want to be exposed to this ignorant and (I feel) dangerous talk. Any suggestions as to how to get them to stop talking like that when I am around, or how to handle it better so that I don’t get so upset at opinions that are different from mine?

Really Offended

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Dear Really Offended,

I don’t blame you for being offended. I too am offended by such speech.

But I must admit that I was not always offended by such speech. I grew up around it. It was not used in my family, but it was common in my childhood neighborhood and in the places where I later lived and went to school and worked. I did not always know that such speech was offensive. I had to be taught that it was offensive and why it was offensive. I had to be taught by people who knew better than I did. Sometimes the ways in which I was taught were unpleasant.

And so if possible I would like to make a point that is somewhat controversial but well meant. It is likely to stir some passions, and that is good. It is a point that cannot possibly be made without being misunderstood to some degree, so I am ready to be misunderstood as well. But I will try to be clear.

My point is that our sensitivity to such speech is the result of hard-won victories by activists, and that this fact has implications for how we should respond to such speech today. We should not respond with arrogance, as if we were superior. Our insights into the nature of rape and homosexuality didn’t happen by magic. We are not born that good. We are not born that fair-minded. We are not born allergic to categorical putdowns. We have learned to be better than we were. We have been taught to be better by people who took risks and made sacrifices so they could teach us to be better. And these people are not necessarily the famous heroes of feminism and civil rights that we hear about in speeches. These are people we knew, perhaps people in our own families, or people who married into our families, who stood up and countered the errant bit of racist nonsense, who caused some uncomfortable moments, who made us think.

My hope is that you would be one of those people, strong, levelheaded, clear-minded, not superior in your views and not dismissive of others but sure that what you have to say deserves to be heard and thought about. For that is how I myself was disabused of some of the notions I picked up along the way. I feel grateful to those people who had the courage to tell me that some of the things I used to say were hurtful nonsense, unworthy of a thinking person. I pay attention to people I know. I think this is how societies change.

We aren’t better than those who spout such trash. We are just lucky. We do not have to become lifetime reformers. But we do have to say what we think. It is our turn.

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