Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Let's hear a story [part II] - Can empathy help me get along with my mother-in-law?

Last week we heard from our friend who has a “Mother-in-Law Problem”. You responded, and some of you asked our friend to confront her MiL (Mother-in-Law) directly.

To catch up or revisit last week's post, click here.

As a reminder, DIMT is short for "Dude I'm Married To", otherwise known as her husband.


[GE] 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 your 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 your 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.

[MiLP]    So I read this, and it all made sense, until I got to the part about fear.   And that had me scratching my head.  I'm not afraid of my MiL.  She makes me angry.  But the thought of being around her doesn't make me shrink inside, it just makes me roll my eyes.
And then I thought, "Are you sure? Maybe you're afraid of her and you just don't want to acknowledge it!" 

So I asked DIMT, and he agreed, I'm not afraid of my MiL. Fear of her isn't a factor here.

This led to a very long conversation between DIMT and I. The upshot of the conversation was this: My relationship with his parents is mediated through him. His relationship with my parents is mediated through me. Neither of us would want to be so close to the other's parents that it would disrupt our marriage, and both of us tend to let the other take the lead in terms of how we, as a couple, interact with one or the other's parents.

As first this realization felt really strange and not good, but then we talked about it some more and realized it was okay.  Neither of us has particularly much in common with the other's parents, and the relationship between DIMT and his mother is way more important than my relationship with DIMT's mother.  That's normal - for us, the opposite would be weird.  If my MiL were my best friend, that would be strange and confusing for DIMT.

This dynamic heavily influences my options, because I am reluctant to do anything that DIMT doesn't want me to do.  He is very, very reluctant to have me directly address the problem-- to "break protocol", as it were.  There is no way of doing that, he thinks, without eliciting a negative reaction from my MiL-- shouting, resistance, upset, etc.  DIMT hates these things, and his mom has a history reacting this way.  (And yes, I recognize that I'm in part agreeing with you, in that this is where the fear in the whole situation lies; it just isn't my fear.)

Don't be too disheartened that you misidentified the underlying emotion, though.  I hadn't realized what the actual underlying emotion was either, until I started doing this exchange with you!

[GE] Dear Mother in Law Problem,

Wow, I was so glad to read your letter. If just listening to me guess at what you were feeling helped you to have a long in-depth conversation with DIMT, that's fantastic. It sounds like you and DIMT reached some new understandings in how you all relate to each other as a family.

I assume that after this conversation you still want to build empathy with your MiL. If not, feel free to ignore the rest of this letter. :)

I believe that building empathy means trying to see someone else's perspective. One way to do that, as I've read, is to engage the other person with a curiosity about who they are as people and why they do the things that they do. If you cannot talk directly to MiL and ask her the questions you want to ask; can you talk to DIMT? Would he be willing to help you to understand her perspective? Perhaps talking about the things she's done in her life, the ways she's interacted with people in the past, can help you to see things through her eyes. 

Something else I've done in the past when I'm having trouble understanding someone else's perspective is to actually pretend that I am them. My friend says something to me, and I don't understand how they are feeling. So I repeat what they just said, in my head, imagining that I just said it. 

Please indulge me for a moment, and let's take what you said above as an example of this. You said, "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. " Let's say you and I were out at dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. My tofu lettuce wraps were late, and your pork lettuce wraps came out very quickly. You said to me, "Oh, the restaurant is singling you out, they are deliberately snubbing you." The key is to imagine yourself saying this and asking yourself, why would you say those things? How would you say those things, what would you be feeling? 

Would you be able to understand her perspective?

[to be completed in part III]


SL said...

Advice to daughter in law: If you and your husband have agreed that you will each take the lead in dealing with your own parents, pretend your husband is a rational adult and tell him that his mother's negative and anti Semitic (if I remember correctly) comments make you uncomfortable. Tell him If he will not take the lead and speak to his mother on this subject soon you will do so.

Janet said...

Thank you for adding to the conversation, SL! I believe that direct confrontation may be a good idea; after all, empathy building is all about increasing communication. We can learn about each other if we talk and listen to each other.

I also see the downsides of direct confrontation in some situations - specifically, in the ways we can easily hurt one another.

I see it as a delicate balance.