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Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Man, His Mother and His Wife: Part 2

After responding to a few initial comments a long time ago with my initial post about A Man, His Mother and His Wife, I deliberately stayed out of the discussion because I wanted YOU, my readers, to give your experience and your views on mother-in-law problems without me jumping in all the time.  Some comments I agree with, some I don't.  Some of you brought up good points.

Now, I want to write more about the topic to clarify and to address some of what you have written.  My comments and yours can also apply to other in-law relationships as well.  Sometimes the offending in-law is a sibling. 

  • 1.  In this post I want to summarize and clarify some points of Part 1.
  • 2.  In Part 3, I want to give suggestions about what you can do as the unhappy spouse/partner to approach your partner and to survive even if nothing changes with the in-law.  Don't let it eat up your marriage or partnership.
  • 3.  In Part 4:  I want to give suggestions to men (or whoever has the obnoxious parent) on how to approach your family member and protect your spouse/partner.
1.  Clarifications of Part 1:
•  My original post was first about avoiding reacting and attacking your husband or mother-in-law.  The examples I used were a woman screaming at her husband about his mother and wondering why he left the house and a mother-in-law and wife getting into a screaming match.  My point was that when you 'attack', the other person will react and it is not productive.

•  A second point was to be curious about what the mother-in-law's response triggers in you and why, to be curious about how she might feel threatened in some way, and then to choose consciously how you want to respond to her or your husband/partner in way that is aligned with your own core values and the kind of person you want to be in the world.  And if there are things you can do or say to reassure what you think might be a fear or concern she might have, do.  If there are things in your own history that feel 'familiar' -- disrespect, criticism, not being important, look at your own buttons and ways you might be able to prevent the intensity of reactivity in you.  That is personal work that everyone has.  No matter how wonderful our own families were/are, we still end up as adults with one or two buttons that can easily get triggered.  I am NOT saying that an obnoxious mother-in-law is your fault.  I am saying be willing to look at your own tender spots and your level of reactivity around them.  AND, whether or not the upsets are related to both your buttons and ways she triggers it, or when she is just mean and obnoxious in general,  don't let her trigger a reaction in you that is a mirror of her!

•  Learning good conflict-resolution and communication skills to use with your partner is extremely important when it comes to something as touchy as family. He DOES need to understand the effect she has on you. HOW you express your concern, upset, hurt to your husband is key -- both to help your partner understand AND to avoid acting like your mother-in-law by attacking.
•  Another point of Part 1 was to not force your spouse or partner into an either/or situation.  What I mean by that is to not demand that he cut off his relationship with his mother in order to choose you.  I DO think he should address the situation with his mother in private, and later wherever her rude behavior happens, but more on that later.

•  And finally, in my initial responses to the first few comments, I made clear that you should not be a doormat and just take ongoing rude or abusive behavior.  My focus was on HOW to talk to your husband.

So I find it curious that several people think I am saying to just put up with abusive mother-in-laws!  I would never tell someone to do that.  Nor do I think that the mother is more important than the spouse or partner.  His primary focus should be his new family and he should put them first.  But it doesn't usually mean that he needs to cut off contact with his mother.  YOU might need to cut off your exposure to the toxic situation.

Before we go into Parts 3 and 4 about ways to approach your husband/partner and ways for the husband to approach the his mother (or any offending member), I want to mention 3 things:

1.  Crazy in-laws:
There are mentally ill mothers and fathers -- and sometimes spouses.  As some of you have described, sometimes no matter how civilly or respectfully you approach your mother-in-law or your partner's family, you have a mentally ill in-law that neither you nor your spouse can do anything about, no matter what either of you do or say.
Brief Suggestion:
If that is the case, don't continue to put yourself in those situations.  Nothing will change no matter what you or he does or says and you can expect more of the same.  He is welcome to go to his parents for a family event or to visit his parents, but you don't have to.  (In Part 3, I'll give you some ideas for to explain it to him and then you can put it into your own words.)

2.  A spouse who is afraid of his mother/father or will not try anything to change the situation or consider your hurt feelings.
While I will give suggestions to approach your spouse, you may still have a partner who is afraid of his parent and will never, ever try to set boundaries with his mother/father/sibling -- for a variety of reasons.  (He should probably do some counseling to help know how to 'grow up' in this area!  Both men and women can be very competent, loving, fairly mature adults and turn into a 10 year old or 15 year old when they visit their parents!)  You will probably need to remove yourself from the family situations if he is unwilling or unable to speak to his parent (see Part 3)
Brief suggestion:
•  For the husband, grow up and be a husband or partner to your spouse.  Protect your partner (and children)  from rude, demeaning, disrespectful and sometimes abusive parents. While your parents will always be your parents, your family that you are creating is first priority.   You also teach your parents how to treat your spouse or wife and your children by what you do or don't do.  You teach them by how you talk about them in private, or in how you fail to speak up when family members might be saying negative things when your spouse is not there.   You can't always change their behavior, but you can stand up for your spouse.  

If you need more help than my suggestions in Part 4, get some help on how to approach the offending parent. But don't let it just 'slide' and stay silent.  Would you be OK with them treating a guest at a family dinner that way?  Would you let them do that to your children?  Husbands need to stand up and let their parents know that they want their wife treated respectfully because she is a human being and his wife or partner.  You don't have to attack your parent, but you do need to bring it to their attention and sometimes to draw the line.  Best to do it in private first.

One reader who commented on the original post said it so well:
"A man should morally, ethically and lovingly put his wife on a pedestal. He should talk to his mother for his wife's sake in a loving, but firm manner. "  
It's called setting boundaries and more importantly, it is about cherishing, honoring and protecting each other. (See Part 4 for a few initial suggestions on how to talk to a parent/family member.)

3.  Parents' do not have to like or value their son-in-law or daughter-in-law (although I think they should at least make every effort possible for the sake of their child who they say they 'love' and who has chosen this person.)  However, I firmly believe that they DO need to treat their son's wife civilly and respectfully as a human being and as the person their child loves. It is not about like or dislike. You cannot make someone like someone else. It's about being a decent, respectful and civil human being. 

I will add links here when these next 2 parts are ready:
Part 3:  Approaching your partner about the situation (not yet published) and what to do if nothing changes

Part 4:  For Men (or the person with the rude or demeaning parent): How to speak to your mother/family member about the way they are treating your spouse or children (not yet published)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Tragedy Reminds Us to 'Treasure'

The tornado in Moore devastated individuals, couples, families, and communities.  People whose homes were obliterated were in shock and sad, but relieved and glad that their family had survived.  I can't even imagine what that was like for those people and their children.  I continue to hold them all in my thoughts and prayers.

Tragedies like this have a way of putting things in a different perspective.  People left home that day assuming at night their day would be like other days.  But it wasn't.  So many lost their homes.  They lost precious mementos and photographs.  Some lost family family members.  All in less than one hour.

I remember a story someone told me about his family rushing out after breakfast, each going off to school or work. That day his mother died.  20 years later he was telling me that to this day he still wished he had told her "I love you" one more time before he rushed out for school.
  • If you left for work tomorrow and came home only to discover that your home was just a pile of rubble, what, if any, regret would you have? 
  • If one of your family members or friends did not make it home tomorrow because of some tragedy, what, if anything, would you regret?   
  • What are those little things you don't say to your partner because you rush, or multi-task, or are mad because he or she left her dirty clothes on the bedroom floor?
Tragedies like this remind me to take time to say "I love you" or "I'm so happy we are together" or "I'll be thinking of you today" in the morning, or when I leave home to go to the grocery store.    I've thought of it when I've heard of someone diagnosed with a potentially fatally disease, or how someone's child or spouse was killed in a car accident.

Even when you are stressed or annoyed, don't miss opportunities to remind those people you love that you DO love them, that you treasure their presence in your life.  Take time to be together, to make sacred some of those moments of just being together and in verbal and non-verbal ways "I love you, I value you, I treasure you."  Never miss an opportunity.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Ups and Downs in Marriage & Relationships

I did not write this post, but I think it expresses wisdom about the normal ebbs and flows of marriage and relationships and our thoughts and feelings in them.

Embrace the Paradox

A relationship is the master teacher of paradox. The person you love the most, we often hurt the most (even if by accident). In a very brief period of time we can experience intense joy and intense pain. There are times we can't live with out this person and times when we can't live with them.  There are times when the relationship offers us the most profound sense of stability and around the next corner, utter chaos and insecurity.  

These kinds of paradoxes pervade the reality of a relationship.  If we are to be in a relationship, we need to accept and embrace them.  The stronger the relationship's commitment to growth and love, the easier it can bend when the wind blows.

Author Unknown

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Contempt: Being Less than You Are AND 3 Tips to Overcome It

John Gottman, one of the leading marriage and relationship researchers of our day, has studied extensively why marriages and relationships succeed or fail.  He describes 4 primary patterns that are especially damaging to relationships:  criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt.  The most serious, and the most damaging is contempt.  It nearly always predicts eventual divorce unless people work to change the pattern.  It is a bad habit and a lazy way of expressing concerns or frustrations with behaviors. It is also a self-righteous and arrogant belief that the other person is the whole problem and you are pure and blameless and more mature or just 'better' somehow. Instead of addressing the behavior and its effect, you globally characterize the person as incompetent, worthless, disappointing.

The Free Online Dictionary defines contempt as the feeling or attitude of regarding someone or something as inferior, base, or worthless; scorn   Also: despised, dishonored, disgraced.  Others have added derision, extreme disdain, open dislike and disrespect.  It can be expressed in sarcasm cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, mocking, put-downs to the person or about him/her in front of others, etc.  It may involve comparing the person to someone else who you see as 'better'.  Here are some examples:

The way I often hear it with couples include some of the following (with many variations!)
"You have never been a good husband/wife/parent/lover"
"You are not a real man/woman"
"My whole marriage is one big disappointment because you failed to  . . . ."
"You call yourself a Christian/Jew/Muslim, but you are not even close . . ."
"I regret marrying you.  If I had known you  . . .. .  I would never have married you."
"You have no clue how to please me (sexually, in general)
" Our whole marriage/relationship has been empty.  You've never made me happy."
"You men/women are all . . . ."
"You are such a wimp / control freak, etc."
"You disgust me"
"Now Joe is a 'real' husband -- if you would just be more like him . . . ."
"You are so socially inept that you could not carry on a conversation with a 5 year old."
"You are pathetic."
"I have wasted most of my life being with you."
"I already know how she is going to act . . . she always does."
"You are just like your mother/father'"

Comment to someone else about your partner:  "Mary has so much trouble cooking a decent meal that I wonder if she can even boil water without burning it."

What do you do if this is your pattern?
•  Learn better ways to express frustration with specific behaviors or words.  We all have frustrations with others, but they are usually about a triggering behavior and either an unmet need on our part, a fear, or a tender place in us.
Contemptuous Approach:  You are such a disappointment as a partner -- in fact you are not one.  We don't even have a real partnership.  It's all fake.

So a more mature approach would be to tell your partner that something had a negative effect on you, even if they did not mean for it and you want to find a way to work through it.  "Last night when I was trying to get the kids ready for bed, and mentioned something about needing to put the laundry in the washer, you continued watching TV and never tried to help.  I still had to do it when I came back down.  When I saw that, the message it gave me is that unless I do something, it won't get done.  I'm on my own.  It comes across like you don't care about me or about us or our family, even though part of me thinks you do.  But in those kind of moments it doesn't feel like it--I feel like I'm alone nd I feel overwhelmed. . . . .   and then you both continue in dialogue instead of going to the contempt place.
So you focus on the TRIGGERING BEHAVIOR or WORDS (or the lack of them) and how it effects you.   That is very different than expressing to your partner that essentially he or she is worthless piece of crap.

•  Get curious about what you tell yourself about your partner's behavior, what it communicates to you -- and what feels familiar or opposite about that feeling or message growing up in your family.  When we have repetitive or intense hurts, angers, frustrations, our partner might do or say something that triggers the upset, but the upset is more about us, our history, and what we make up about our partner and their behavior.  It's about the story we tell ourselves about our partner's behavior.  That doesn't mean the partner doesn't need to look at his or her part and be willing to find a win-win approach to things.  But when you hold contempt, be VERY curious about what gets stirred up in you and where you felt that even before you met your partner.

•  Look for the positive in your partner, in your family, in yourself and in your life.  
While it is important to address frustrations, hurts, concerns, it is just as important to look for ositive things in your partner and his or her behavior and words. Catch them doing something right, or making more of an effort.  Acknowledge effort, progress, accomplishment.  Look for something at least twice a week (or more!) to appreciate about your partner.   "I appreciate how hard you work to give us a comfortable life."   "I appreciate that you are so patient with little Sammy's constant questions.  I really admire how you respond to him."   "One of the things I appreciate about you is how you call your mother every single week to say hello, even when you don't feel like it."  "I appreciate that you brought home Chinese tonight so I didn't have to cook"  "I appreciate that you bought my favorite snack in the whole world --Oreo cookies.  It comes across as thoughtful and always makes me smile when I see them -- not just because I love eating the cookies -- but because you think to bring them now and then just because you know I like them."  "I appreciated your eternal optimism -- about anything and everything in life."

When you fall into the trap of contempt, you stop seeing the positive.  You focus on the negative, on watching for one more time that your partner is going to disappoint you.  You find what you look for -- no matter what it is.  I often tell couples to hold in one hand the junk of their relationship -- those things that need some work or repair.  AND to hold in the other thing that IS good about your partner and your marriage or relationship.   One does not cancel out the other.  Both are present.  You need to notice the positive and address the negative like a grownup.

Criticism, blame, shame, attacking, contempt are like adult whining, pity parties, or tantrums.  You are better than that.  Contempt poisons you and the climate of your marriage.  It harms you and your partner.  It causes you to be and express in the world a puny and projected version of your armored fears and hurts instead of who you really are as a human being.

"The Wolves Within" A Cherokee Story

An old Grandfather said to his grandson, who came to him with anger at a friend who had done him an injustice, "Let me tell you a story.
I too, at times, have felt a great hate for those that have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do.
But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. It is like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these feelings many times." He continued, "It is as if there are two wolves inside me. One is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him, and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way.
But the other wolf, ah! He is full of anger. The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, everything is an injustice done to him. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing.
Sometimes, it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit."
The boy looked intently into his Grandfather's eyes and asked, "Which one wins, Grandfather?"
The Grandfather smiled and quietly said, "The one that I feed."

Monday, December 26, 2011

Who's the Boss -- You or Your Cell Phone?

I love technology. I am a geek of sorts. But I am increasingly bothered by what I believe is excessive cell phone dependence. We've all heard about the accidents caused by distracted drivers, train or machine operators. However, I see increasing problems in the ability to be present to people, to events, to feelings, to live real life, and to simply pay good attention. People are giving up their power, energy and presence to cell phones.

Cell phone behaviors that prompt an article like this!

  • One day I was at a small wedding of just family and very close friends of the bride and groom. At one point before the service started, I counted 10 people on their cellphones, talking, texting, reading email.
  • Another time, I was at a funeral and someone was on their cellphone at the graveside.
  • Yesterday at Christmas services, an announcement was made before the service to silence cell phones and almost everyone in my row did not just check their phone, but almost all had to silence their phone at that time.
  • I was with a group of friends catching up over the holidays at a dinner at someone's home. A person, whose husband and child, were there with us, was on her cell phone for over 30 minutes in the middle of everyone socializing. It was not a work emergency. She was simply checking text messages.
  • I had a person in my office for counseling who would always put her phone out on the small coffee table when she arrived. I thought that the purpose was to be more comfortable, until I saw her glancing at the cell phone to see any text message had arrived. (That was the first and last time that happened with me!)
  • I was talking with someone not along ago who was complaining about his spouse and her cell phone. It rang at night and if it wasn't ringing, it was beeping and buzzing any time she had a text or an email. Usually she would be so distracted, she just had to see who it was and respond. He was so frustrated because they didn''t have a lot of time together and then the cell phone was a like a third party that was always with them.
  • And then there is the person in the movie theater, who in spite of announcements of no cell phones on texting, decides he or she just can't wait one more minute in the middle of the movie, or sometimes in the last 15 minutes to check texts or emails. With stadium seating, the phone light shines right in your eyes if you are 1-3 rows up from them. Although I haven't done it yet, I have wanted to walk down, snatch the phone out of their hand and stomp on it!
One of the issues I often see in my office with couples -- even before the days of cell phones -- is one complaining that the other person doesn't make him/her a priority, or that even when they are in the house, they are not 'present'. It feels like their spouse/partner is 'never there.' What do you think it communicates to the people you are with, when you turn to your phone to check messages, email, to take a call, or to text in their presence? I once heard "where your time, your energy, and your thoughts take flight to, there is what you most value in your life."

People are missing the people in their lives who love them, and whom they love, in favor of hoped for connection with their social or work networks -- or their favorite app -- or their sports scores.

We are making ourselves a society with Attention Deficit Disorder and a society with poor boundaries. Both of those things can lead to bigger problems down the road. Cell phone dependence splits our attention and focus. We never are really where we are!

So why are people constantly on their phones? Is it that virtual reality is more important than the people or event in front of you? Does it make you feel needed, wanted, important because you get texts or calls? Does it give other people the impression that you are so important because you have to have your cell phone or blue tooth attached and ready constantly? Will the world end if you turn it off? Tell me what you think!

Here are some signs I think indicate that someone needs to change some of their cell phone habits.
  1. You cannot be with friends/family/or social events without having it on and checking to see if you have the next text or email.
  2. You're disappointed if you check it and no one has contacted you.
  3. You look at it when you are talking with other people in real life.
  4. You feel uncomfortable and even a little anxious if you turn it off for the evening or during the day on a weekend.
  5. People in your life have complained or made comments about how much you are on the phone.
  6. You get upset of you forget your cell phone.
  7. When listening to family or friends, you are wanting to check your mail or messages.
  8. You think you have to be available to everyone 24/7.
  9. You expect other people to be available to take your call or message 24/7.
  10. Afraid you will miss something if you are not online.
  11. You have not yet set up ' cell phone free' times in your life.
  12. "I have to always have it on for work."

In Part 2, I'll list some of my suggestions. In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

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