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When your marry the love of your life, you're expanding your family tree, and not just by one person. You're marrying that entire family! As you're planning your wedding, perhaps you're more than a little concerned about marrying into your partner's family because of a future mother-in-law who says she is "fine" or who says nothing at all, but then starts in with obvious pouts; loud, heavy sighs; and those undermining "accidental" oversights? No matter what she says or doesn't say, her actions are screaming the real truth: She is not happy with you. This is called passive aggressive behavior, and it's not your imagination--it's very real!
Dealing with this behavior (passive and unassuming on the surface, but nastily aggressive toward you underneath) can be incredibly difficult, draining, and frustrating. Fortunately, I have some specific strategies for dealing with passive-aggressive mothers-in-law and also with passive-aggressive daughters-in-law--and even with passive-aggressive husbands/sons. So read on to get the tools you need for the results you want.
Dealing with Passive-Aggressive Mothers-in-Law
Even though it doesn't feel like it, you really do have an advantage. I tell you this not so you can best your in-law, but so you can feel less helpless and start to see the situation in a different light.
The following two tips work because they allow you to both alter her behavior and feel better in spite of her actions. After all, it takes two to play, so if you change the rules on your mother-in-law, it's impossible for her to keep up her frustrating behavior.
Here's how to shake things up:
1. Shift the power from her to you with humor. When she tells you she is "fine" but then goes into drama mode, give a good-natured chuckle or laugh in that inside-joke kind of way that tells her you know exactly what she's doing, but you're going to ignore the behavior. This allows you to give her a message loud and clear without outwardly challenging her.
2. Play naïve. Take her at face value. Assume that unless she says something directly, she really is fine with whatever you said or did. After all, she can't assume you're a mind reader, right? When she can no longer count on her behavior to get her way, she will be forced to either admit how she feels or to sit back and do nothing about her contrary views.
Dealing with Passive-Aggressive Daughters-in-Law or Sons-in-Law
Here, you're probably dealing with either hurtful, stinging comments that are hard to defend against or the malicious subterfuge of the undermining "accidental" oversights. For example, your daughter-in-law may not include you on special family events or she may go into the other room whenever you come by (or never come out of the other room when you show up).
Here's how to create a more balanced sense of power:
1. Take a few emotional steps back. Realize what she's doing to you is, for the most part, not personal. She probably behaves this way with everyone she is upset with because she feels she has no power. After all, if she felt confident enough to deal with people directly, she wouldn't resort to this behavior, right?
2. Be a role model. Instead of slinking away or showing your anger, help her see that having feelings is okay. Help her learn how to express her feelings and get results that are a win-win for both of you.
3. Acknowledge her feelings even when she won't. If she doesn't feel it is okay to talk about "bad" feelings, help her see that feelings are just feelings. Stating to her in a calm, compassionate way what you think she's feeling brings those feelings out into the open.
4. Help her see you really do want to understand. When you show her that she matters enough to listen to her feelings, you start to create a neutral environment, allowing you to build a stronger relationship.
Dealing with Passive-Aggressive Husbands/Sons
Husbands/sons can certainly use passive-aggressive behavior to add fuel to the fire of a stressful mother-in-law/son-in-law relationship. They allow things to happen and can even set it up to some degree, yet when it is brought up to them, they act as though they are helpless to change anything.
A typical example is when a mother tries to talk to her son about how her son-in-law shuts her out of their family life. His passive-aggressive response is, "What do you want me to say?" or "I don't know what to say," which only makes his mother feel more helpless. When the husband tries to talk to his spouse about his frustration with what he sees as his mother-in-law's lack of respect for the family, all he says is, "I don't know what to say to my mom. You know how she can be." Because the spouse is protective of his husband and tired of the drama his mother's visits seem to create, he decides to handle the situation himself by shunning the mother-in-law--and the husband just goes along for the ride.
The passive-aggressive "helplessness" of the husband/son here is setting up an ugly situation between his husband and his mother. Instead of saying something, he allows the drama and tension to continue. The worst part of this is that both the mom and the spouse see him as the victim!
Here's how to put the responsibility where it belongs:
• Learn to work as a team. Make sure the two of you decide together the best way to handle a difficult in-law situation. Let him know that regardless of who does the talking, the two of you must be together, side-by-side, presenting a united front when addressing his mother about what you've decided. If you are the one talking, he needs reflect in his words, body language, and so on that he agrees with and supports you.
• Mothers, learn to get clarity. The next time your son expresses helplessness, ask straight out, "Do you agree with [your son/daughter-in-law]?" Also, when you discuss something you're struggling with, such as getting to see the grandkids, talk to your child and his or her partner together. If he or doesn't give direct answers, point out the discrepancy between his words and his actions.
It's vital that mothers and sons-in-law make sure that the man in the middle is always part of the equation. As helpless as he appears, believe me, he is not! Of course, talk with him from a place of love, compassion, and even confusion instead of a place of anger or frustration. This will prod him toward having more honest and real relationships.
The more you practice these tips, the easier it will get, and the faster your passive-aggressive in-law relationship will turn to one of mutual respect--and who knows, maybe even affect.
Deanna Brann, Ph.D., is a leading expert in the field of mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationships. She has over 25 years experience as a clinical psychotherapist and ran her own private practice for more than 18 years. Based in Knoxville, TN, Dr. Brann is a sought after speaker, author and seminar leader. She is the two time author of Reluctantly Related: Secrets To Getting Along With Your Mother-in-Law or Daughter-in-Law and Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in-Law Say the Darndest Things.
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