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Adoptive Parenting Columnist Heidi Hess Saxton
Love in Marriage: Inlaws, Outlaws, and Other Family Issues
My birthday present to myself this year was a membership to Curves. I love their approach – 30 minutes (twice around a preset circuit), three times a week, in an environment where there are no oglers or “Barbie” types, decent music, and very little spandex. Last week for the first time since high school I rode a bike 10 miles around Mackinac Island with my family, and didn’t have to stop for breath!
Today at my workout, the women were discussing daughters-in-law. One in particular was unhappy with her son’s wife; she claimed that she had “done everything” to mend fences between the two of them. “I have a Masters in Social Work,” she lamented. “And yet, I can’t get this girl to like me.” This was a terrific disappointment to her, since she had been eagerly looking forward to having a girl in the family after raising four sons.
Hoping to add another perspective, I shared how difficult it had been for me to build relationships with various family members related by marriage. Part of it was my own fault: in my own mind I had high expectations for those new relationships: easy familiarity, casual dinners, decorating tips, and periodic sleepover invitations for the grandkids. The reality was much. For example, at 83, Craig’s parents still work full-time, and spend winters in Florida – with very little energy left for my high-energy tykes. I explained the Curves girls, “I finally had to accept the situation as it was, and find things to appreciate about his family as they were.”
After I finished my circuit, I took the unhappy woman aside and asked her if she had any idea how the relationship between her DIL (and the girl’s parents) had gone off-track. A long rationalization followed – how she was always direct and her son’s wife only said what she wanted to hear, how her other daughters-in-law all sided with her, how unhappy her son was, yadda-yadda-yadda. Finally, the real issue came out: The girl and her parents had asked the groom’s family to contribute toward the wedding, and when refused interpreted this as a sign they were against the wedding.
Mrs. MIL admitted that the two families had been very close before all this happened. So I suggested an olive branch. “Have you considered apologizing for the inadvertent offense, and offering a token amount to mend fences with her parents?”
“Of course not! I’m not going to buy them off!”
“Some might see a token good-will gesture as an indication that you cared more about the relationship than about the money.” She said nothing to this, and I tried a different approach. “Your son’s wife sounds a bit insecure. Have you thought about inviting her to spend time with you alone, perhaps asking her to help you with something? She may be intimidated by your plain-speaking approach, and letting yourself be vulnerable in this way might have long-term benefits.”
The woman had a dozen reasons why this wouldn’t work, and repeated over and over how she had tried “everything” without success. (Although she admitted she only invited the daughter over when the son was already coming to the house.)
It was abundantly clear that she didn’t really want the relationship to get better … she just wanted to be “right” – or, more specifically, portraying herself as the “wronged” party.
When relationships are strained – whether between family or friends, co-workers or neighbors – the temptation can be to bolster our own sense of “rightness” by getting those on the sidelines to take our side against our opponent’s. The thing is, this approach doesn’t resolve the issue; it merely widens the breach. Only when we are willing to “own” with humility our own part in the conflict, however small, can the healing begin.
When we reach an impasse, how much better it can be if we follow three simple steps:
These three steps can go a long way to reach and maintain “spiritual fitness” in our relationships with others. If you have a particularly challenging family relationship, I highly recommend Greg and Lisa Popcak’s God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts!
Copyright 2008 Heidi Hess Saxton
2037 W. Bullard #247
Fresno, CA 93711
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