Question

My daughter in law is very controlling in every aspect of her and my son’s marriage. She controls the money, what they do with their time as a family, etc. and has even told my son he cannot talk to me, his mother, without her presence. If I text, call or email my son she knows about it. I got a message back once saying to contact the family chat, that there were no secrets and whatever I needed to say should be said there. I fully believe that message was from her. During video chats he sometimes is allowed to participate briefly before she gives him a chore to do while we continue talking.

I love my daughter-in-law. We’ve had some long, enjoyable conversations. I didn’t realize what was happening but now I see that she has distanced my relationship with my son over the years.
How can I get in contact with my son?

Answer

I see the suffering you’re experiencing as you try to figure out what’s happened to your relationship with your son. Even though I’m sure you expected the relationship to evolve and adjust as he builds his marriage with his wife, I can see how troubling it is to have it virtually disappear. Even though he’s not part of this conversation, let’s talk about how you can respond.

The short answer to all of this is that you must ultimately allow your son to decide what kind of relationship he wants to have with you. He has work to do that only he can do. He’s got to decide how he’ll respond to his wife’s responses to him, to you, and even to herself. This is crucial developmental work that is part of him “[leaving] his father and his mother, and…[cleaving] unto his wife.”[i]

He may choose to spend the rest of his marriage in the one-down position of unequal partnership. Or he may realize that he doesn’t like the imbalance and decides to advocate for himself and his other relationships. I’m sure it’s terribly painful to see him dance around her strong preferences. Please recognize it’s unlikely anything will change until his pain of being in this position is greater than the pain of doing something different.

It can also be helpful to recognize that his wife is likely experiencing a certain level of pain and fear herself. Even though controlling behaviors are damaging to intimate relationships, those who control are often full of fear. Again, it’s not your job to fix any of this, but it can be helpful to look beyond the annoying patterns in their marriage and see that she’s likely trapped by her own fears.

She’s having a direct impact on your relationship with your son, but it’s really your son who is in charge of his relationship with you. She’s already choosing the kind of relationship she wants with you. She wants to keep you at arm’s length and appears to be untrusting. It’s easy to vilify her and see your son as a powerless victim in his marriage. This framework isn’t going to help your relationship with your son or your daughter-in-law.

Naturally, you want to know what you can do in this situation. I recommend you stay accessible and responsive to any gestures of openness either of them extends to you. As strange as it might seem, you don’t need to solve anything here. Continue to reach out to him in a respectful way that doesn’t make it about you or your frustrations. You don’t want to set up a battle between choosing you or his wife. You have nothing to defend or protect. His priority is to figure things out with his wife, not to protect his mom’s feelings.

It sounds like you’ve had some lovely moments with your daughter-in-law. I encourage you to continue building more of these moments with her. Show her that you support her and her family. When dealing with someone else’s marriage and family culture, we must show deference and respect. They are doing things in a way that makes sense to them.

Even though your alarms might be going off about the unhealthy dynamic in their marriage, it’s their marriage and they have to figure it out. Your contact with him may always be mediated by her. You may get less time with him than you’re accustomed to. You might even feel resentful that you’re being treated with suspicion. If you feel you need to speak with him about this, I encourage you to focus on what works best for him and not make it about how to work around his wife’s control.

In situations where we instinctively want to intervene, interrupt, and take control of a situation we can’t stand to watch any longer, it’s wise to first consider the Lord’s directives about how we are to handle our relationships with others. The Lord taught us that our relationships can only be handled with “long-suffering..gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul.”[ii] A situation like this requires an expansive soul instead of shrinking and narrowness.

Of course, if there are serious concerns about someone’s emotional or physical safety, direct action may be warranted. When dealing with other adults who can protect themselves, it’s important to first focus on influence and support so they can self-determine and act for themselves. Individuals who are pressured by others to get out of difficult circumstances are more likely to return, as they haven’t developed the necessary personal strength to exit a harmful relationship.

It’s impossible to know how long it will take for your son to figure out his relationship with you. You’re motivated to be closer to him than he is right now. Recognize there are likely dynamics and issues they’re contending with that aren’t any of your business. Continue to build connection where you can and focus on nurturing the relationships in your life that are meaningful and reciprocal. Your son and his wife are more likely to respond favorably when they can feel your love and respect for them and their process.


Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at
[email protected]  

  

Download Geoff’s FREE guide to help you quickly end arguments with your spouse: https://www.geoffsteurer.com/3-steps-to-end-your-marriage-argument

You can connect with him at:
Website: www.geoffsteurer.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT
Instagram: @geoffsteurer
Twitter: @geoffsteurer

 

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

The advice offered through Geoff Steurer’s column is educational and informational in nature and is provided only as general information. It is not meant to establish a therapist-patient relationship or offer therapeutic advice, opinion, diagnosis treatment or to establish a standard of care. Although Geoff Steurer is a trained psychotherapist, he is not functioning in the role of a licensed therapist by writing this column, but rather using his training to inform these responses. Thus, the content is not intended to replace independent professional judgment. The content is not intended to solicit clients and should not be relied upon as medical or psychological advice of any kind or nature whatsoever. The information provided through this content should not be used for diagnosing or treating a mental health problem or disease. The information contained in these communications is not comprehensive and does not include all the potential information regarding the subject matter, but is merely intended to serve as one resource for general and educational purposes.

[i] Moses 3:25

[ii] D&C 121:41-42