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I have heard about children cutting off communication with their parents, but I never imagined it would happen to us. Then, poof, it did.
Our daughter-in-law, after 16 years of marriage to our son, decided that we haven’t loved and respected her enough and that we should thus not be allowed to communicate with their five wonderful children. “We are a package deal” she states. Our son has chosen to fully support his wife’s “re-framing” of our 16-year relationship with them.
It all exploded at one visit over a year ago, when she announced out-of-the-blue that she felt “loathed” by us. We love this daughter-in-law and have “bitten our lip” many times over the years, “walking on egg shells,” carefully putting-up with her idiosyncrasies. We were shocked. We had thought we had been “bending over backwards for her.”
She is a fine mother, but since cutting us off she has revealed her depression and anxiety issues to the world on social media. This has given us a clue to the source of her actions, yet she doesn’t stop to think that perhaps her issues might be coloring her view of the truth, as she twists reality and re-interprets everything we have ever done, concluding “aha, they never loved me.”
We have apologized many times and have asked often for us to all go to joint counseling and/or mediation, but they have always quickly rejected this option.
Going forward, we don’t see how we could ever be nicer to her, without being totally fake and dishonest. We think, “If she didn’t believe we loved her in the past, how can we ever overcome this huge impasse and convince her in the future that we do love her?”
Why do otherwise decent people, punish both their parents and their children by cutting us off?
I can see how much this is affecting you and your wife. I hear your confusion, shock, sadness, and disbelief with these boundaries around communication. I do commend you for your willingness to apologize, ask for feedback, and offer to attending counseling to repair the divide. I can see you’re looking to get answers and seek understanding. It’s hard to wait when you don’t have answers. I obviously can’t guess why she’s pulling away from you and your family, so let’s talk about what you can do with the given situation.
It’s tempting when we don’t understand someone’s behavior to describe their response as “reframing the past”. A possible reality is that she may have always felt uncomfortable in your family. Just because it’s coming to the surface now doesn’t mean she hasn’t felt this way the entire time she’s been a part of your family. It’s news to you, but perhaps she’s now finding the words or courage to speak up about things that aren’t working for her. It may have taken her a long time to make sense of how she feels in this family system.
It’s common for in-laws to inadvertently assume everyone will just to go along with their system without asking questions or checking to see how newcomers are handling the transition. Every family system has covert rules and expectations that outsiders will need to navigate. When we welcome someone new into our space, we have to recognize that it will be new and different for them. Our job is to stay open to what it’s like for them in our familiar system.
The most important thing you can do is keep your heart completely open and non-judgmental. This means not judging her, your son, or even yourself. It’s natural to become defensive when someone quits talking to us. We feel blamed, misunderstood, and even resentful that we don’t get a chance to clarify. You don’t have information, so this is a time to slow down and be patient.
It’s true that tolerance is part of loving others, but I know that when I mostly feel like I’m being tolerated, I don’t feel loved. There might be a need to tolerate behaviors or beliefs we don’t agree with, but the real challenge is to let love lead instead of just tolerance. To expect someone else to feel loved, appreciated, and adored when you’re mostly tolerating them won’t end well.
She’s clearly not ready to do any relationship repair right now. It appears that things have happened that have caused her to feel unsafe. At the same time, you also feel tension in the relationship, as you’ve been walking on eggshells as well. It sounds like these things have never been successfully addressed. It’s easy to blame each other for the tension, but blame isn’t going to bring you back together. It’s also not helpful to diagnose her and write off her response as delusional. Even if she’s overreacting, it’s likely she has points that will be important to embrace and accept.
It’s my experience that one of the hardest things to give someone is space. Giving someone space is hard because it cuts us out of the equation of actively making something better in the way we understand. We want to have peace, security, and contentment in our relationships and if someone isn’t open to our influence at the time, it’s difficult, but important to support the distance they request.
You can show respect and support by giving her space while managing your fear that you’ll never have a relationship with her or your grandchildren again. Mismanaging these fears will keep you resentful that your efforts don’t matter. She has asked for what she needs and you have to decide if you’ll honor what’s she requesting.
I recommend you verbalize your support of giving her space and let her know you are available anytime she’s ready and willing to participate in a conversation. However, please note that this isn’t a shoulder-shrugging-toe-tapping type of waiting. It’s waiting with an open and compassionate heart. It’s waiting with the recognition that she’s clearly hurting and needing something different.
It’s easy to pretend to know what another person needs to do. However, these assumptions come with a pushiness that can be felt and isn’t going to lead to a good outcome. It also keeps you from seeing and understanding what she needs. When you have the chance, ask questions with a soft heart without jumping to conclusions. Have compassion for the hurt and confusion she’s experiencing. Affirm that you want to create an open place for her that is welcoming and continue to communicate that you’re open. We love people when we allow them to do what makes sense to them, try to understand them, listen to them, and stay open to a relationship with them.
In my experience, most people who need time won’t actually need as much time when they know they can have all the time they need. You can stand in support and let her know that you trust her to know what’s best for her, even if it’s hurtful and confusing to you.
I believe when you genuinely love and support the parents of your grandkids instead of just brushing past them to get what you really want (the grandkids), it truly supports the entire family. It’s true that the grandkids will miss out on time with cousins and grandparents. I believe they will fare better if their parents feel supported and included in the larger family.
It’s difficult to support and respect the agency of the parents, even though it’s not a choice you would personally make. We don’t have permission to deny someone else their experience or tell someone what their experience should be. If this is truly her experience, you cannot deny that this is what it’s like for her. You have to start here – this is real for her.
We all need room to work through things as individuals and parents. Please extend grace to her process as a daughter-in-law and a mother. There is room and time to work through these things and find connection.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at email@example.com
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.