Archive | January 2015

Taking Up Another’s Offense

I feel so privileged and humbled when a woman entrusts me with her MIL/DIL story. This warm, Spring afternoon was no exception. Avery traded seats with me so that I could enjoy a gorgeous view of the mountains of the Pacific Coast Range. Things were quiet at the moment in a household with two teenagers and we were taking advantage of a lull in activity to enjoy a cup of tea together on her back patio.

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Avery is the mother of one son and one daughter and has been married to Quentin for 19 years. I asked her to tell me about how she met Quentin and his family and how their relationship had changed over time, what she had been through and what advice she would give.

Here’s just a part of her story.

“In hindsight, your relationship with your MIL begins before you get married”.

Avery and Quentin met when both of their fathers were ill. They would travel most weekends from Washington, DC to New York City in her car because he didn’t have one, dropping him at Penn Station where he would take the train out to Long Island to visit his Dad. She would visit her Dad in Westchester County and then go pick up Quentin on Long Island on Sunday and they would drive back home to DC.

“And so it was this amazing kind of courtship that really involved our families and in a very tender time. I only knew Quentin’s Dad for six months before he died. So, my relationship with Quentin’s mom, with my MIL, started in the midst of this very kind of “sped-up” getting to know each other because, really, his Dad was dying.

“I was really close with his mom. His mom was a real “girly girl” and I wasn’t … and she just loved going to get her nails done and I’d never done that before. It was a very sweet, familial, loving beginning relationship. So close, even, that …….. I would often, when we visited, stay the night with her in her bed, if there were a lot of people visiting and we needed to ‘bunk up’. She and I would often be the ones ‘bunking up’. So, we were really, really close.

And then Quentin’s father passed away.

It was then that Avery heard about ” this crazy family story” about Quentin’s mom having had an affair with the same man since Quentin was five years old. Turns out that it wasn’t just a “crazy family story.” It was true and Quentin’s Mom had shared that information with her two children when they were in their early twenties before their father died.

“It was like this unspoken, spoken thing. But, the kids were grown and out of the house and I think Quentin was in law school. So, this was like something he was supposed to accept and deal with. So, along I come in the midst of all this sadness around Quentin’s Dad having cancer and dying. It didn’t come up and when it did, I was absolutely mortified. I just couldn’t believe it. It was so far out of my experience of what someone would do, let alone talk about, let alone ask the children to endure.

“And I think what happened over the next, you know, five years, ten years, is that because of my husband’s choice and reality of how he could deal with those facts … I reacted to that. So, in other words, he felt like there wasn’t much he could do but accept it. …. I wasn’t okay and so I became really angry at her for hurting him, for hurting my husband, for hurting her husband, for presuming that her behavior was … whatever. I had a lot of judgment and I got angrier and angrier.

“You know, we’d go and visit, but I just tried to endure it, and, you know. …. It was hard. It was very, very hard. When Quentin and I, as a couple, grew older and learned to do things differently in our own lives, with each other – we needed to grow and be better about taking care of ourselves, our well-being, our mental well-being – we started to change.  As a result, Quentin, probably six or seven years ago, started to finally deal with that relationship – he and his Mom – and allowed himself to at least express to me and I think also to her, tremendous sadness and misgiving about how that all happened. And what I noticed – which was a miracle – is that the minute my husband, could say what was for me the truth about what had happened, I didn’t need to do it anymore! And my ability to see her as really a part of my family – she’s my MIL, she’s family, she’s as damaged as any of the rest of us or anyone in my own family or me, … no different – no better, no worse – I could really love her again.”

Avery recognized that she had felt the need to protect her husband from someone who had hurt him deeply. When Quentin realized his pain, where it came from and how he needed to address it – and then acted on that – something changed inside Avery. Something significant.

“It allowed me to actually do something better for my husband which is love him and his family … I thought I was protecting him, being mad at her. And really, if I want to protect and love him, I need to let him take care of himself and I need to love his family. And so all of that happened and I could just feel the relationship come back together … in terms of me and my MIL. It’s okay. It’s okay.

“It’s certainly been great for me as a DIL to not be so angry with her for what I perceived that I needed to be angry with her about because of my husband and I think that’s the interesting thing about the MIL/DIL relationship is that it’s all about the spouse.”

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That’s hard-earned wisdom.

What are  your “take-aways” from this story?

Is it about honesty and love and truth and forgiveness and acceptance and brokenness and family? Is it about letting go of offenses against someone other than ourselves … or perhaps, even better, not taking them up in the first place?

Challenging when “the two become one”, don’t you think? But, what Avery figured out – does she suggest providentially? – is that loving our husbands can often be expressed by leaving them the room to maneuver through life’s obstacles and trusting that they will find a way to address the issues that face them. Didn’t we marry them because we believed they were able?

For me, another “take-away” from this is that we don’t love our MILs or DILs because they deserve our love. We love them because we love our sons and our husbands.

More from Avery in a future post

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Self-fulfilling Prophecies?

Ever heard of Bob Rosenthal? He is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside. His interests include self-fulfilling prophecies, which he explored in a well-known study of the Pygmalion Effect: the effect of teachers’ expectations on students. Much of his work has focused on nonverbal communication, particularly its influence on expectations: for example, in doctor-patient or manager-employee situations.

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On my way home from meeting with my writing partner over a cup of coffee at Me and Ollie’s, I heard a broadcast of This American Life and they were talking about how expectations influence behavior. Yeah, we’ve mentioned that in this blog before.

Bob Rosenthal conducted experiments with rats. He brought a bunch of experimenters into his lab and told them that some of them were going to work with incredibly smart rats and some would work with incredibly dumb rats and that they were to see how well the rats from each set would run through a maze.

Now, the rats were all your ordinary run-of-the-mill lab rats, but he had labeled their cages “smart” or “dumb” and had told the experimenters what to expect. Guess what? The experiments ratshowed what they expected. The “smart” rats went through the maze almost twice as fast as the “dumb” rats.

Turns out that what the experimenters were thinking and feeling greatly affected how they handled the rats. The “smart” rats were handled more gently which affected how they performed.

Carol Dweck, who’s a psychologist and researcher at Stanford says that this same phenomenon holds true for people as well. Teachers expectations of students has been shown to raise or lower their IQ scores. A mother’s expectations can greatly influence the drinking behavior of her middle school son. A military trainer’s expectations of a soldier can actually influence how fast or slowly he/she runs.

And so on.

Somehow we communicate our expectations to people around us – sometimes by how far we stand from them; sometimes by our eye contact or lack thereof; how we touch or don’t touch them. Our assumptions and beliefs about people – what we exWoman Thinkingpect from them – is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, there it is. Wouldn’t you guess that it applies to our MIL/DIL relationships, too? We’re not talking “control”, but influence that can tip the scales in one direction or another.

What do we expect from our DILs? Our MILs? Are we even aware that we have expectations?

What are some of mine? Yours? How might these be affecting our relationships with our MILs/DILs?
Might we want to change our thinking??

To listen to or read the entire broadcast, click here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/play_full.php?play=544

Fascinating!

Is Your MIL an Only Child?

Here’s a “look-see” into another factor that influences “Why people are the way they are” and “Why people do the things they do”.
Kiera and I had just sat down to a fabulous “I just threw a few things together” lunch on the back deck of her home on the river. We had recently become “paddle boarding buddies” – She had the equipment and I had the availability and desire. (Woot! Woot!) Today, however, we were considering a kayak excursion because of the cool, cloudy weather. Our conversation was peppered with comments about the spiciness of the salsa and who else from our group might join us that day. When we realized that it would be just the two of us, I jumped at the opportunity to talk with her about her relationship with her MIL.

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Interesting discovery #1 – Kiera had expected her MIL to be the same as her own mother since her husband did the “scouting” thing and the “work with your hands” thing as her own mother had promoted.
Funny thing – she wasn’t! It took several years of visits to discover that it was her husband’s father – not mother – who had passed on these traits to Dan.
Here’s more of the “backstory”. When he became an adult, Dan had moved a couple of hours away from the family homestead as he wasn’t keen on the idea of every weekend being taken up with birthday parties and family gatherings of one kind or another. It turns out that Kiera’s MIL preferred that family gather around her, that she be surrounded by loved ones. She wasn’t one to venture out to be around others. Years went by before Kiera realized – and her MIL confirmed this in a conversation – that Millie only liked her own family, not people in general. She wasn’t interested in participating in community activities. She was perfectly happy to have her family dote on her.
Surprisingly, or perhaps not so, Dan is enthusiastic about – even craves – doing things for his community. Kiera had expected that to be a family trait. Not so. Dan’s experience growing up had been so insular that he now actively seeks out social involvement with people not related to him.
“What would cause someone to adopt that attitude? The attitude of “I only want my family around ….” I pondered aloud.

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“I have a theory” Kiera announced.
(Intriguing. Another analytical like myself.)

Okay, let’s hear it.
“The people that I know who are ‘only’ children want things to be about them. They need this. They demand it. And they’re not happy – ever – no matter how many times someone visits because it’s never enough.”
Kiera’s conjecture was that if one had lots of siblings, one learned that you have to share, you have to take turns – with toys, in playing games. They don’t expect much attention later on because they experience the reality that there’s only so much to go around.
But, if you don’t get much attention and affection when you’re young, do you want it even more as you get older, I asked myself?

Hmmm.
Kiera’s MIL was an only child. “She doesn’t understand that we have other things that we actually like … other than coming to visit her. … It became apparent to me that she wasn’t used to sharing and she didn’t have to share. She did not view herself as “selfish”. It’s just the way things were”
“It’s almost like a muscle that wasn’t developed on-time” I posited. That’s interesting. I mean, it fits!”
Kiera’s face widened into a big grin. “That’s my theory!”
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How much do we assume about our MILs because of what we see in our spouses? Sometimes, those speculations are “right on”. Other times, they miss the mark completely.
Who knows why people act the way they do. It may be a reaction to what they didn’t get or got too much of in earlier years. Some people turn out “just like Mom”. Others choose to go in the exact opposite direction.
What are my “take-aways” from this story?
1. Be mindful of my expectations and assumptions about people, especially my MIL/DILs.
2. People are much more complex than I expect them to be. I need to be reminded of this regularly.

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3. A lot of who we are now is because of who we were earlier in life. And we weren’t necessarily the ones who made those choices or set up those situations. We simply found ourselves smack dab in the middle of them.
Perhaps the most important thing for me to remember is that no judgement is needed here. Understanding and acceptance go a looong way toward a great MIL/DIL relationship.
And that’s what this Blog is all about!