Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Let's hear a story [part III]; Can empathy help me get along with my Mother-in-Law?

Welcome back - and now I bring you the riveting conclusion! This has been a three-part discussion between us (Growing Empathy, or GE) and our friend MiLP (Mother-in-Law Problem). As always, please share your reactions in the comments section below, or on twitter or facebook.

You can catch up on the first part here, and the second here.

As a reminder, MiL is short for her Mother-in-Law, and DIMT is short for "Dude I'm Married To", otherwise known as her husband.

[GE] 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. :)

[MiLP] It's not so much that I want to build empathy with her, it's more that I want to get myself out of the way, so that I'm not preventing my spouse from having a relationship with her that isn't about me and this problem.  And I figure empathy is a way to do it.

[GE] 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. 

[MiLP] I can't talk directly to my MiL right now.  She's hundreds of miles away, we never talk on the phone, and she's in the middle of a huge move-- it isn't the time.  But DIMT and I talked about it, enacting a conversation in which I'm his new girlfriend and he's telling her what his parents are like.

That was an interesting, and eye-opening, bit of role-playing. DIMT's initial description of his mother made me say, "She sounds kind of awful." All his initial descriptors emphasized the negative: she's bossy, insecure, difficult to deal with, intolerant, she never really listens, etc. (Yes, apart from me, DIMT does have his own issues with his mother.)

Still in character, I replied, "So what you're telling me is that she's horrible and I'll hate her."

DIMT: She's not horrible.

Me: Okay, but that's not what you're telling me.

After that, DIMT started talking about some of the things he actually likes about his mother, her sense of humor, her interest in science, etc.  It made both of us realize that my problem with the whole antisemitism thing really did influence how he feels about her. Not entirely-- she is a difficult woman, very much in the mold of Lady Catherine de Bourgh-- and it makes DIMT not want to connect with her.  But I certainly have poured a fair amount of poison into the well, alas.

That's okay.  Now that we know it happened, we can fix it.
[GE] 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 to myself, 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. 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?

[MiLP] No, not via this method.  DIMT and I tried this today, with two examples-- the restaurant one, and one of her actually anti-semitic comments.  And it just didn't work.  I mean, with the restaurant one, I get that she was trying to make a joke because she was uncomfortable because my food was late.  She said as much at the time.  And I would probably have empathy for that with somebody else-- the whole family was clearly really uncomfortable about death, about the fact that my dad had just died, and I get that.  But the whole anti-semitism thing made it impossible for me to give her that kind of break in this regard.

Trying this with one of her actual anti-semitic comments was actually hilarious.  DIMT and I couldn't stop laughing, which was not necessarily a good thing, since we were in a fast-moving car.

It went like this:
DIMT: So give me an example of what my mom actually said.  Play her.
Me:  Okay, so we were sitting on the porch, I was reading or on my computer or something, and she was doing a crossword or something, and she made a passing comment about her nose.  (Some background.  My mother-in-law is obsessed with her nose. It's a genetically dominant trait, DIMT has it, his siblings have it, his uncles have it, his cousins.  When my niece was visiting, she was mistaken for our daughter, because she and DIMT look so similar-- they have the same nose. It's a perfectly nice nose, a bit broad, maybe, but not something you'd notice if my MiL wasn't totally obsessed about it, seriously.  She talks about it a lot as an unfortunate trait, and tends to invent histories whose fault it is.  As you are soon to read.)

Me:  So the thing she says about her nose is this: That the only explanation she has for it is that it must be a holdover from some Russian genetics that got mixed into the purely Swedish genetic stock.  That's where she thinks the nose came from.
DIMT (repeating my original response): MiL, I know a lot of people of Russian descent; I'm of Russian descent; none of our noses look like yours.
Me: Okay, so much for that theory!  (Then we spent a few minutes cracking jokes.)
DIMT: No, you have to say exactly what she said.  That's the point of this exercise.
Me (trying again): Well, maybe you have the wrong kind nose, the wrong kind of ancestry.
DIMT: Okay, so how did you feel when you said that?
Me: I didn't feel much of anything.  A little affronted, I guess.
DIMT: That was probably it.  She hates being argued with (she really does), and just wanted to shut you down as quickly as possible.
Me: By saying something anti-semitic?  That's sandblasting a soup cracker, a bit!

The only thing we got out of it was that my MiL has no filter.  Now, there are people in this world whom I love and adore who have no filter, and it doesn't matter-- I still love and adore them.  My MiL is not among them, and I don't think she ever will be.  She's not an interesting or engaging enough person to make the lack of filter loveable.  

That said, I think I'm done with this exchange.  What I really wanted to get out of it, I've gotten-- I have a clear perception of how I've created distance between DIMT and his mom, which will hopefully give me enough foresight to avoid doing it more in the future.  I don't think that means that DIMT and his mother will be skipping off into the sunset together-- she is a really difficult person and I don't know that they will ever be close.  He just can't really talk to her about the really important stuff in his life, because she can't listen.  That's sad.  The least I can do for DIMT is not add to the distance.  And I think that's where I am.

Thank you for your help!  Couldn't have gotten here without you!

- Mother-in-Law Problem

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