A few months ago a reader of this blog asked me for advice; she wanted to get along better with her mother in law. I was intrigued, could I do this? Could empathy help?
I'd like to share our correspondence with you. This will be a multi-part post, because her story is long and deserves a bit more of our attention. So here we go!
Dear Growing Empathy,
I've been reading your blog for a while now, and I really enjoy it. Your method for developing empathy is very different from mine. I tend to construct empathy by imagining a person's circumstances and experience, and how those things might have shaped their choices and the moment they're in. This method has always worked well for me, and it's gotten me through some otherwise empathy-difficult situations in my life.
But now it's failed me utterly. The problem is my mother-in-law.
I've been married for about 15 years. My in-laws and I have never been close; there is a lot of geographical distance, and we don't really have anything in common. But that didn't prevent my mother-in-law (MiL) and I from having a perfectly lovely relationship in the beginning. My MiL went out of her way to be thoughtful. For example, while the Dude I'm Married To (DIMT hereafter) and I were engaged, we happened to be visiting his parents on my birthday, and my MiL baked me a cake and gave me goofy little presents. It was very nice of her, and I was quite touched.
About 5-6 years ago, she started saying things to me that weren't, um, nice. Sometimes they were anti-Semitic (I'm Jewish; my spouse's family is very nominally Christian). I've been told I have the wrong nose, the wrong ancestry and the wrong upbringing. I always knew my MiL was a little uncomfortable with me being Jewish, but I figured it would vanish over time. That kind of discomfort is not that unusual for a woman of her age and background, and for a long time, her attitude definitively fell into the striving-to-accept track, not the you-are-inferior track.
Her comments aren't always anti-Semitic. On our most recent trip, for example, we went to a restaurant after our flight landed. For some reason, my order was very late, so that I was still waiting for my food while everyone else at the table had theirs. My MiL's response to this was to tease me, telling me that the restaurant was singling me out, that they were deliberately snubbing me, etc. She went on in this vein for a good half an hour, and by the time my meal finally arrived, all I wanted to do was leave. It doesn't sound like much, but in the circumstances, her callousness shocked me: I was exhausted and hungry, but also seriously shell-shocked; my father had died unexpectedly less than a week before.
I'd like to get her to stop, but I don't have a lot of options in that regard. I tend to be pretty direct about most things, and ideally, I would just ask her what's going on. But that approach isn't open to me in this case. DIMT thinks it unlikely that she'll admit it's even happening, and asking her would break several of the family's unspoken rules, which might make the situation worse.
So far, what I've been doing, basically, is duck and cover: I minimize my time in her company, and she and I are never alone. This worked fairly well on our most recent visit but won't help in the long term.
This situation breaks my empathy method because I have no idea why it’s happening. Have I done something to offend my MiL? That's the most obvious explanation, but I don't know what I did, and asking would break protocol.
I've tried to imagine events or circumstances in her life that might have brought about this reaction. But since I only noticed the pattern over the course of years, I can't pin down a when, much less a cause.
Here's my question:
All of this has eroded my empathy for my MiL down to zero, and, as I said, my system to rebuild it has failed. Because I have no understanding of why she's doing this, I have no empathy for my MiL. As a result, I have no desire to visit my in-laws, and so DIMT sees his parents less and less. I don't feel right about that, and I don't think it's fair to him.
I also think that if I could seize back some empathy for her-- particularly in relation to me-- I would be able to cast her comments in a different light. They wouldn't be any less toxic, but they might bother me less.
So, Growing Empathy, can you help? Can you give me a way of regaining some degree of empathy towards my MiL, so the run up to every family visit isn't suffused with dread?
- Mother in Law Problem
Dear Mother-in-Law Problem,
Thank you for sending your question. I want to help; so I'd like to start by trying to build empathy for you. :)
I can't imagine what you and DIMT are going through, it sounds like a really difficult situation. You've said that you really want to be able to have more visits with your MiL and the family in general, and you want this because of your relationship with DIMT. It also sounds like you don't want to be near your MiL, because she might hurt you again. Overall I'm hearing that you are afraid of her; you are scared that being near her will be uncomfortable and even painful. Let me know if that's right.
I saw an interview the other day that talked about how one of the greatest obstacles to empathy is fear. If we are afraid of each other; no matter how much we have in common or how much we might already trust each other - we cannot build empathy. It actually removes any previous connections we have made (reduces it to zero, as you said above). For example, if my next-door neighbor pulls a knife on me, it's really hard to look past the knife and see the person. I'm just scared they are going to kill me.
If fear is what's going on then I see two ways to look at this; you can try to build empathy (to remove fear) or you can try to remove fear (so that empathy has a chance to grow). It sounds like you've already tried the former, and it hasn't worked. I also think (and this is just my opinion here) if you confronted her directly now, I think the fear would make it really hard to listen to whatever she had to say and to ultimately build a connection.
[to be continued]