“Families are forever.”
“You know, that’s the very reason I would never be a Mormon and the reason I hope it isn’t true!”
As I discussed the Church with a buddy of mine, I was surprised when he forcefully expressed this objection to Church doctrine. He described some hurtful family members and reasons why he felt living together forever with them would be the opposite of Heaven.
Now, you and I could think of many reasons his fear would not play out in practice, including the Atonement and repentance and even the removal of our mortal conditions in the next life. But what if we currently have family members who hold us at arm’s length and consider having to be with us as the reason they would not want to go to Heaven?
How do you draw closer to those who push you away? How do you gain their acceptance?
Consider this case. Sheila’s mother-in-law refuses to accept her as part of the family. Her mother-in-law talks badly about her behind her back and even refuses to speak with her at family gatherings. For the four years she and her husband have been together, Sheila feels her Mother-in-law has never really accepted her. The one time her husband tried to talk to his mom about the situation, she got angry and said she would not talk about it, and hung up the phone. Sheila is now expecting a baby and wants her mother-in-law to accept her and the baby as part of the family. What should she do? What could she do?
Though this is already a difficult and painful situation for Sheila, I feel it’s only fair I should begin with the bad news. If she approaches the situation with excellent dialogue skills and her mother-in-law does not want to dialogue, she won’t dialogue. Don’t you just hate that? Crucial conversations skills are not a way to compel or control others-they don’t work to manipulate or deceive. The other person still has a choice as to how they will respond to you and you cannot control them.
That said, often, if we initiate a conversation using effective principles and skills and are consistent in our use of them over time, the other person will come around. Though the effective use of these principles and skills do not guarantee the outcome you desire, they increase the probability of mutually beneficial results.
There are a lot of things Sheila can do to improve her relationship with her mother-in-law. Sheila first needs to create clear expectations with her husband to make sure they are both on the same page and desire the same things. Next, Sheila will need to begin the crucial conversation with her mother-in-law in a way that engages her in dialogue so she has the best chance of working things out.
Rather than hash through the wounds of the past, I would recommend she focus on the relationship she wants going forward. The principles she should use are Start with Heart, Build Mutual Purpose, and Build Mutual Respect.
Start with Heart. Sheila should get clear about what she really wants. She should literally get a sheet of paper and write the answers to these questions:
What do I really want? For me? For my mother-in-law? For my baby? For my husband?
Let’s assume Sheila wants a respectful, caring relationship with her mother-in-law, and she wants her mother-in-law to be involved in the life of her new child. Getting clear about her motives for having this crucial conversation helps her act on her most noble intentions. These good motives and intentions will guide what she says and does in a helpful way.
Build Mutual Respect. Next, I would suggest Sheila build Mutual Respect by asking her mother-in-law’s permission to talk with her. This is best done in person. If that would be too difficult, she could have the conversation over the phone, but her mother-in-law will not be able to see her non-verbals or facial expressions in order to gauge her sincerity. If she talks over the phone, she will have to emphasize her real intent and check her mother-in-law’s intent frequently.
Sheila might say something like this, “As you know, we will be having a baby soon and I want to talk to you about our family. Would that be alright?” If her mother-in-law says “no” to her invitation, Sheila should leave it open for her next conversation by saying something like, “Okay. When you are ready to discuss this please let me know,” and disengage. She should then give her mother-in-law some time before she tries again.
Build Mutual Purpose. If her mother-in-law is open to the discussion or gives a vague reply, Sheila is ready to continue the conversation. Sheila can build Mutual Purpose by sharing her good intentions. She would simply recall what she “really wants” and share it with her mother-in-law. Perhaps she could say, “I really want you to be a part of my family and a part of my baby’s life. Also, I would like a respectful relationship between us. Is this something we can talk about?”
By proposing the Mutual Purpose of “being part of my family and part of my baby’s life,” Sheila gives her mother-in-law an opportunity to consider whether that is what she really wants. Her demonstration of respect (inviting her mother-in-law into her family, disclosing that she wants a relationship with her, and asking if she’s willing to talk about it) should soften her heart and lower her defenses.
This approach increases the likelihood of being able to talk about these difficult issues. If her mother-in-law rebukes her efforts, Sheila should realize this is just her first effort to have this crucial conversation. She should look for openings in the future and create opportunities to revisit the conversation with Mutual Purpose and Mutual Respect.
If her mother-in-law responds positively to her efforts and shows a willingness to discuss her role in Sheila’s family, Sheila has begun this crucial conversation on a firm, safe footing. She will now have an opportunity to create a new relationship and open up a new, better chapter in her family’s story.
I don’t know about you, but when I consider a relationship that I’m tempted to give up on, I get defensive and think of the uniqueness of my situation and the unusual thick-headedness of the person I’m dealing with. When receiving another’s advice, we often find ourselves thinking, “Yeah but, that won’t work with my problem person.” I invite you to consider this case hoping that you’ll see some useful ideas and possibilities that will help strengthen your relationships. Families really are forever.