Archive for April 23rd, 2009

April 23, 2009

Who dictates how mother will be treated?

by Rod Smith

This is a longer post than usual. This is a good example of TRIANGLES. Please read the WHOLE post.

“Three years ago my mother and my husband got into a horrendous fight at a family get together. I was not in the room at the time. If I could have only known that my mother was planning on attacking him over something petty I would have stopped her in her tracks knowing that my husband is the sort that is unforgiving and once you cross him, you are on his list forever. With this being said, from that day forward my husband has refused to let my mother step foot in our house. He wants nothing to do with her. He will allow for my son and me to visit her any time we would like. But since then my mother has tried to apologize and make mends because it breaks her heart and mine as well that she cannot stop in and see me whenever she would like. I tried once to put my foot down and say that I would not allow him to dictate such a decision, but it almost resulted in the end of our marriage. I had never thought it would go that far, so I of course backed down because I would prefer to keep my marriage intact. I try to visit her at least once a week, but it is not enough in her eyes and I am right in the middle of horrible predicament. I want my mom to visit me whenever she wants but I also cannot force my husband to let her come over. How do I handle this situation please? I am torn and it hurts terribly. I hope to hear from you soon.”

Send your thoughts. Be a support to someone you will probably never meet.

Send your thoughts. Be a support to someone you will probably never meet.

Here are some thoughts. I hope you will find them helpful:

You are in a two-choice dilemma (both options seem bad, this is a David Schnarch term), a double bind (both choices involve undesired cost), between a rock and a hard-place (angering your husband, losing your marriage, missing your mother), the classic triangle (being monkey in the middle). I am fully aware that my naming the issue doesn’t help you one little bit. But, YOU are carrying the anxiety for an issue NOT your own, and thus you endure the stressful feelings of being “torn.” You feel torn because you are. You were not in “the room” at the time of the “horrendous fight” but you have been living in that self-same room ever since. He’s left the room three years ago taking all the power with him and left you and your mother staring powerlessly at each other too scared to do anything in case he decides to put you out in the same manner he put your mother out.

So, I’d suggest you begin (slowly) to take back the power both persons (yes, your mother took it too) have stolen from you. While this may temporarily escalate your anxiety and the conflict, it will ultimately (perhaps only in a few years since these matters take time – remember it has taken you three years to write to me!) reduce your stress and give all of you a chance to grow. Let me also say that if the marriage ends it will not be because of this issue regarding your mother. No mother is that powerful. If the marriage ends it will be because your husband and you refuse to grow up. I do not mean that as an insult. Every single one of us faces the daily task of allowing life to grow us up. Your husband has assumed ALL the power in the sense that he has decided, and continues to decide, the shape of your relationship with your mother. If this is acceptable to you, go on walking on the eggshells he has randomly laid out for you to walk on. Your husband only has the legitimate power to decide about his relationship with your mother. He is empowered to make decisions about the shape of the relationship you have with your mother IF you give it to him or if he takes it and you do not speak up and resist it. On the note of power and your husband: I will make the assumption that you are powerless (by his choice) in other areas of your life and marriage. It is unusual for controlling men and women to want to control only one area of their lives.

I’d suggest you:

1. Steel yourself. This means gather your internal resources, count the costs, make a decision, create a private plan. Find the endurance necessary for the growth and challenge inherent in this situation. Remember this has been going on for years and so your husband is used to your compliance no matter how much fuss you made over this in the past.

2. Invite your mother to dinner at your home. Let your husband know that he is invited to attend or to choose to eat elsewhere when his mother-in-law visits. I’d suggest you do this at least once every two weeks. This will help you get out of “the room.” Don’t surprise him with her visits. Just tell him you are not willing for him to decide the shape of your relationship with your mother, but that you will not attempt to interfere with the shape of the relationship he has (or doesn’t have) with his mother-in-law. This is why the choice is his to be at the meal, to be at home and in another part of the house, or to leave the premises completely. He gets to decide for himself how much power his mother-in-law’s visits possess – by how far or near or engaged or disengaged he chooses to be during her periodic visits.

3. Suggest that your mother agree to announce when she’d like to visit at least a week ahead so that you and your husband may decide if her suggested time is convenient – this is “normal” procedure for guests in western cultures, even, sometimes, for family. If he is uncooperative (which means he always says no) then invite your mother anyway. Then let him know when she will be there and then he can get to decide if he will share space with her, create a scene, decide to evict you, or decide to make other plans. Again, he gets to decide how powerful his mother-in-law will continue to be in his life by the manner in which he chooses to allow her presence or absence or even the threat of her presence to dictate his behavior. Presenting him with these choices will challenge him to allow life to grow him up and it will help you get your power back over your own home and over the shape of the relationship you have with your mother. Always refusing is not making a choice. This is what the immature do. Sometimes refusing, sometimes agreeing, is making a choice. This is what grownups do. Again, this is not meant as an insult. I am regularly tempted to be a child in my thoughts and attitudes and actions rather than a grown man.

4. When talking to your husband and mother always use the “YOUR mother-in-law” or “YOUR son-in-law.” This will help you get out of the middle and out of the room. That said, do not be the messenger between them. Pass no information back and forth between them – not even good news. You are not a carrier pigeon and nor should you assume the role. Do not let the other in on the state of affairs with the absent one. This will assist you to NOT gang up with your mother to get your husband “right.” Neither your husband nor your mother is the enemy here, the enemy is the confiscation of power by some (both your mother and your husband) while you stood by and watched. Granted, you did try to make a stand but it is understandable that his understandable tactic of intimidation worked. You get to decide if it has had its day.

You will know your husband and mother (and you) have all grown when not one of you is a “red rag to a bull” for anyone else and when no one of you is emotionally bullying anyone. Write again. Let me know what happens. Do not be surprised if you fail or do not carry it through. The threat of a loss of a marriage is a big one. I understand. I really do. By the way, please read any book you can find by Harriet Lerner.


Rod Smith

A reader (not Rod) responds (while I have posted this, it does not mean I endorse its contents):……

“Your husband’s over-reaction to something your mom said speaks volumes. It is possible that the confrontation was the ‘last straw’. If you love and respect your husband, and if he is considered to be a fair and honest man, I would suggest you take serious note of his current attitude towards your mother. Encourage him to express his opinion of your mother, as well as his opinion of your relationship with her. Listen carefully. Try to hear what is on his heart, without arguing or being defensive. Perhaps he is not as unforgiving a person as you think, but is frustrated feeling his wife’s loyalties lie more with her mom than with him? It is very hard to truly forgive someone who is in denial and has poor boundaries. Take you eyes off your husband’s attitude and examine the relationship you have with your mother. Setting healthy boundaries for yourself is not an act of disloyalty to you mother. You obviously love and honor her, but don’t let this be at the expense of your relationship with your husband. Remember, he chose to marry you, not you-and-your-mom!”