Responding To A Critical In-Law
A building block for good extended-family relationships involves learning to deal with disagreements and differences of opinion. Such conflicts are bound to arise with the merging of two families. It’s amazing how often parents, in-laws and their children often end up in power struggles over small issues that become significant and last for years. No one learns to back off and discover a new approach. I’m not sure the participants would agree to labeling their response a power struggle, but the evidence is there.
The word “power” means “the possession of control, authority or influence over others.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines authority as “power or right to enforce obedience… the right to command or give an ultimate decision.” Although a power struggle in a family doesn’t mean anyone actually has this power, people often act as though they have it—and the difficulties often go unresolved.
When a problem with parents or in-laws occurs, take the time to move from an emotional response to a thinking response. When you’re able to do this, and to do it together, you’ll be able to consider options and alternatives.
Whether about vacations or many other issues, in-law relationships often involve criticism. If you’re criticized, stop what you’re doing and look directly at the other person. By giving him or her your undivided attention, the irritation may be lessened.
Listen to what the person has to say. “He who answers a matter before he hears the facts, it is folly and shame to him” (Proverbs 18:13). Try to hear what the person is really saying—what’s behind the remarks. You may discover that you’re merely the object of the other person’s pent-up frustration, and that nothing personal is intended.
Accept the criticism as the other person’s way of seeing things. From her perspective, her interpretation is accurate. And she could be right—so don’t just write off the complaint. If she exaggerates, don’t get hung up on attempting to correct her at this time.
If the person criticizing you asks why you did what you did, or why you do something a certain way, don’t always feel you must give your reasons. Giving your reasons to others puts them at an advantage. They now know where they can attack you. You could say, “I just prefer doing it this way,” or, “Well, I’m not sure my reasons are that crucial; tell me more about your concern,” or, “Do you have a positive suggestion to offer? I’d like to hear it so I can consider it and then make my choice.”
Consider the following passages from Proverbs from The Living Bible about responding to criticism:
• If you refuse to criticism you will end in poverty and disgrace; if you accept criticism you are on the road to fame (Proverbs 13:18).
• Don’t Refuse to accept criticism; get all the help you can (Proverbs 23:12).
• It is a badge of honor to accept valid criticism (Proverbs 25:12).
• A man who refuses to admit his mistakes can never be successful. But if he confesses and forsakes the, he gets another chance (Proverbs 28:13).
If you can learn to respond to the facts of what your critic says, instead of reacting emotionally, you will find yourself in control of the situation. Following are 3 typical statements an in-law might make when visiting your home. Remember, these could be just statements of fact, or they could be statements made simply for the purpose of getting a response from you.
1. “I see you have your refrigerator full of leftovers again!”
2. “You mean our granddaughter went out on a date tonight? Didn’t you tell her that we’d be dropping by?”
3. “You don’t call or write me as much as you used to.”
In each case, your in-laws would probably expect you to give an explanation or to go on the defensive. But what would happen if you agreed with their statements? If you don’t respond in the way that’s expected, your in-laws may be forced to clarify what they really meant by the statement. Agreeing in principle with what someone has said doesn’t mean that you change your own opinion or beliefs.
For example, what if Mary’s conversation with her mother-in-law went something like this: Mother-in-law: “Oh, I see you have your refrigerator full of leftovers again.” Mary: “Yes, I guess I do have some leftovers in there again.” Mother-in-law: “Well, some of them look like they’ve been in there for a long time.” Mary: “Yes, I’m sure some of them have been in there too long.”
You can see that this conversation could go on for some time without Mary’s committing herself to any change. She has little chance, also, of offending her mother-in-law.
Consider this: What needs do your in-laws have at this time in their lives? Often the reason people behave in specific ways or resort to criticism is that they’re seeking to fulfill particular needs of their own. Often their behavior doesn’t accurately reflect what their needs are, so we’re confused. Too often we react without considering why our critic is acting this way. Have you ever considered that the suggestions coming from your in-laws may reflect some of their own needs, and may not really be attempts on their part to control or interfere?
Karen, a young woman attending a seminar, shared with me what happened to her. Whenever her mother-in-law would come over to her home, she’d constantly check the house for dust and dirt. She was like a marine sergeant who wears a white glove to inspect the barracks.
One day, after Karen had worked for hours cleaning the house and scrubbing the floor, her mother-in-law came for a visit. As she sat in the kitchen, her eyes spotted a 6-inch section of woodwork next to the tile that had been missed. As she mentioned this to her daughter-in-law, Karen could feel the anger slowly creeping up through her body. He face started becoming tense and red.
For the first time, her mother-in-law noticed this reaction to her suggestions. She said to Karen, “Honey, I can’t really be of much help to you in anything else, but this is one thing that I can help you with.” As she shared, Karen realized that her mother-in-law felt inadequate and useless around her, and this was her only way of attempting to feel useful and needed. Now both women had a better understanding of one another.
Another guideline to follow is to respond as a united couple. Parents and in-laws need to understand that you and your partner are in agreement on issues. Don’t let any relatives drive you apart.
Some couples have shared statements they have learned to use, such as, “We’ve discussed this and we’ve decided…” Using the word “we” carries a strong message. If a relative makes comments to you about your partner, don’t cooperate with them by conveying this information back to your partner. Suggest that this is something they need to discuss directly with your spouse if they have this concern.
When you marry, your partner comes first. Unfortunately, far too many parents need to learn this. And they can, by your continued loyalty and support of your spouse.
The above material can be found in the book, “THE OTHER WOMAN IN YOUR MARRIAGE …Understanding a Mother’s Impact on Her Son and How it Affects His Marriage” -by H. Norman Wright, published by Regal Books. Unfortunately, this book is no longer in print. It was a resource for mothers, sons, daughters-in-law or counselors, and was written to help couples learn practical ways to establish healthy boundaries with relatives and in-laws.
— ALSO —
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