My daughter in law is angry with me because I can’t just pick up and move across the country to live near her, my son, and grandchildren. She wants help with the kids and I have expressed my desire to be near them. Unfortunately, I have financial and other obligations that prevent me from moving, at least for now.
Months ago, she told me that words don’t mean anything, only actions. Since then, she has cut off her communication. No more video calls, texts, or pictures and videos of my grandchildren. She knows how much joy those babies bring me, and I am heartbroken.
I have not confronted her because through experience I’ve learned that she doesn’t do conflict resolution. She feels she is always right. Although I am being punished, I have continued to text a very brief message every week telling them I love them or I miss them or asking if they have pictures to send, asking about them, etc., with no reply. Is there anything I should do differently?
It is truly heartbreaking to hear stories like this. Even though I don’t know all the details of your situation, enforcing a total ban on seeing your grandchildren can feel excessive when it’s the adults who are struggling to relate. However, if working through the conflict isn’t an option to you at this time, let’s discuss how you can promote peace and healing instead of fueling contention.
While I hope your messages of love and support are getting through to your grandchildren, I also recognize that your attempts to offer them your love could make things worse with your daughter-in-law. It sounds like she doesn’t trust you or your motives, so it’s possible that she may view your efforts as threatening to her position as the mother. In situations like these, I recommend you do everything you can to continue building a relationship with her instead of bypassing her to get to your grandchildren.
Now, I recognize you’ve already tried to talk with her and work out your differences. I’m sure there are logical reasons you’re unable to uproot your life to support her. I also believe there are logical reasons undergirding her reaction to you. Of course, on the surface, her reaction appears immature, entitled, and selfish. I can see how her response seems excessive and unfair, especially when the children aren’t being harmed. It’s hard to understand why she would discourage connecting you to her children when you appear to be so important to her.
I love the work of Chad Ford, a professor at BYU-Hawaii and an internationally recognized expert in conflict resolution. He wrote a book called, “Dangerous Love”, which is an invitation for us to learn how to transform fear and conflict into love and connection. I interviewed him on my podcast a few years ago and discovered how his invitation is incredibly challenging to our natural self-protective instincts. He invites us to be the one that turns first. He’s not advocating that we lose our voice or allow ourselves to be abused. Instead, he’s describing the condition of our hearts and how we feel towards the person with whom we’re in conflict.
Even though his book is written for a secular audience, you’ll recognize that his message is based on the Savior’s teachings of eliminating contention from our lives.[i] Contention is deeper than conflict. Contention is about how we feel about the other person instead of how we feel about the issue. The sin isn’t in having differing views, but in viewing the other person as less than human.
It would be easy to become resentful and contemptuous toward her for keeping your grandchildren from you. You could easily fixate on how selfish and immature she is for keeping distance between you and your family. You could even build a large army to back you up, as most people would agree that what she’s doing is unfair and entitled. Instead of only keeping the focus on access to your grandchildren, I invite you to expand your focus to include her experience.
Instead of seeing a conversation with her as a confrontation where you attempt to build a case and figure out how to get what you want, see if you can turn it into an opportunity to build a relationship with her. If your efforts toward her are seen only to get more access to your grandchildren, it’s likely to go poorly. If, on the other hand, you can use this boundary she’s set as an invitation to learn more about her pain, you might find a way forward with her.
Again, the goal can’t be to use her to get to your grandchildren. The goal is to see and understand her regardless of the outcome. The condition of your heart matters more than getting what you believe is rightfully yours. She’s clearly in great pain and it doesn’t appear to make any sense to you.
Now, I recognize some people refuse to engage at all and will cut off all contact without warning. I’ve been close to enough situations like this both personally and professionally to know how difficult it is to make any movement. However, I do know that the condition of our hearts matters most when we’re cut off from others. It’s easy to armor up and build stories around our own pain. Instead, if you desire connection with her and your grandchildren, I recommend you work to stay open, non-critical, and compassionate toward her experience.
You don’t have to dance around the boundary and pretend this isn’t impacting you. You can let her know it’s clear to you that she’s hurt and you want to better understand her experience. Instead of avoiding her by only talking to your son or trying to bypass her through the grandchildren, see if you can find ways to invite her to share more of her world with you. This may require one-sided attempts on your part, going to visit her in person, or other attempts that will feel risky to you. I’d encourage you to see yourself as important to her and not just a convenient babysitter.
Hopefully you’ll be blessed with insights that will help you find a way to improve your relationship with her. I know this isn’t easy and that it takes more time than any of us would like. It’s understandable that you’d feel anxious watching the days tick by as you miss opportunities to connect to your grandchildren. Stay committed to the ministry of reconciliation so she always knows that she’s important to you, even if she can’t see it right now.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]
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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] 3 Nephi 11:29-30
MaryannMarch 20, 2023
It is difficult to see how this advice will help, when the Grandmother is already repeatedly reaching out and communicating love with no response from her daughter-in-law. The daughter-in-law is using the power play of silence to try and control her mother-in-law. It is time to put the ball back in the daughter-in-law's court: "I love you all very much, and I am saddened by your choice not to communicate with me. I don't wish to cause you any pain, so I will honor your wishes and wait until you let me know you are ready to have a loving relationship." Then, wait.
a sister in zionMarch 12, 2023
I think the advice to try to grow closer to the mother is wise. She may simply need listening ear and voice of empathy to make it through her own experience as a mother. She also may need more help than others sense. For reasons still unclear to me, i have had multiple people nearby but at times no support for very rhavy burdens. One of my ministering teachers told me no when I finally reached out for help. Some women carry silent heavy burdens and wounds unseen. I personally have four autoimmune disease and struggle daily with my calling supporting my husband and caring for my family. Perhaps as you get to know her you will be inspired if you simply need to emotionally support her or advocate with you son and others if her needs are being unmet. You could also perhaps potentially provide physical assistance even thkgih you live far away. Arrange to read to the childrne when she need help or to do something they would interrupt, send s gift card with money for dinner, mail her paper plates cups napkins and disposable silverware with a note for dish duty after dinner. There are lots of ways to support young mothers and I am sure you will be inspired to find a way to reconnect.