Dear Neil:  Recently you wrote about in-law problems.  My in-laws are extremely difficult to be around, and they’re around us a lot.  Can you write more about this subject?

Pulling My Hair Out in Canada

Dear Pulling My Hair Out:  There’s no question that in-laws can break up a relationship .  Toxic in-laws fall into five categories, according to Susan Forward in the book Toxic In-Laws (Quill).

Critics:  They know best, they’re older, they’ve been there, they know how to do it and you don’t—and you can’t do anything right around them.  You’re not investing your money right, you’re not raising your children correctly, you’re living wrong, and so on.

Engulfers:  “Our child is obligated to spend as much time with us as we see fit.  We’ll decide on what we’ll do on birthdays and holidays.”  They peddle a lot of guilt and obligation.

Controllers:  They’re insecure people who use intimidation and other heavy-duty tactics.  They want their way and they’ll do a lot to get it.  Some of their tactics are mean or scary.  “If you don’t do what we say, you’ll never see us again, and we’ll write you out of the will.”

Masters of chaos:  They become the helpless kids and expect you to parent them.  They’re the alcoholics or the ones with financial troubles, or other major problems.

Rejecters:  You are not the one they wanted.  They have totally closed their hearts and minds to you—and these are the darkest of the toxic in-laws.

As much as you might wish it otherwise, Forward offers an in-law reality check:

  1. Your in-laws aren’t required to love you, like you or approve of you.  If they do, wonderful.  But you’re not their child, and the bonds they have with you may never be more than tentative.
  2. Your in-laws won’t change on their own.  Tables don’t become chairs, and what you see is probably what you’ll get for a long time, or at least until you and your partner take some decisive steps to change the dynamics between all of you.
  3. Your in-laws may never become the people you would like them to be, and your blended family may be close, comfortable or warm.

Forward also reminds us that you have the right to say “no;” to disagree; to not love them; to let them know when they’ve hurt, offended or mistreated you; to ask them to stay out of problems between you and your partner; to ask for what you’d like from them; to set limits on how much time you spend with them and to take an active part in the decisions about how the holidays and other special occasions are celebrated.

But you also have the responsibility, she says, to communicate your concerns and feelings truthfully without attacking the other person; to acknowledge fully what you contribute to the on-going difficulties relating to your in-laws; to be clear and specific about what you want now, rather than going through a long list of past grievances, and to treat your partner and in-laws with respect, no matter how hurt or angry you may feel.

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