Dear Crucial Skills,
My husband’s parents are divorced. His dad didn’t talk to him or my sister-in-law for years and only began showing interest in them after my sister-in-law had kids. Even though my husband has tried to build a relationship with his dad, he often feels he is treated poorly or ignored.
For example, his dad and stepmom planned their family summer vacation the same week as my family’s annual visit—even after they agreed not to schedule conflicting vacations. His dad gave a few seemingly meaningless reasons for scheduling their vacation the same week as my family’s, but my sister-in-law told us the real reason was her dad wanted my husband to pick his family over mine. How do I approach this situation, knowing that if we don’t discuss it, it will continue to happen? Do I talk to my husband’s family about how hurt we are, or let my husband fight his own family battles?
Some of my happiest, most joyous moments are the result of loving family relationships. Ironically, the greatest pain of my life, without exception, is the result of a ruptured family relationship.
Family relationships, including extended family and in-laws, are complex; they carry historical baggage and have especially tender sensitivities. I believe of all the crucial conversations we face, those involving family are the most important and frequently the most difficult.
The approach I suggest begins with a tried and true question: “What do you really want?” You and your husband should each answer this question for yourselves, and then agree on one answer. The answer is not as obvious as “Well, he’s family so I guess we have to. . .” Some family relationships are emotionally toxic, and the best answer to what you really want could be to have no relationship at all. Other possible answers are conditional. For example, “I do not want any relationship with my father-in-law until he sobers up.”
Understanding what you really want is the first step in deciding how to proceed and what should follow.
In your question, you state that your husband has tried to build a relationship and that you are both hurt by your father-in-law’s actions, so I will assume you both want a better relationship with your father-in-law.
The next step is to master your stories. You mention that your father-in-law didn’t talk to your husband or his sister for several years; that your husband feels poorly treated or ignored; and you wonder if you should “let him fight his own family battles,” or if you should do it on his behalf.
With this information, most of us would be inclined to tell a marvelous villain story about your father-in-law. How horrible that he ignored his son and daughter for years, and now intentionally schedules his family vacation at a time that will force his son to choose which family he loves most. This iteration of the story definitely depicts the deeds of a villain and certainly would require fighting a battle to deal with them.
However, if what you really want is to build a closer, better relationship you ought to look for a way to build a bridge.
Is there any good news in your story of events that could hint at your father-in-law’s intentions? He stopped ignoring his children after his grandchildren were born. Could this indicate his desire to have a relationship? Apparently, he invited you and your husband to his family vacation. That seems to show some initiative toward building a relationship. All in all, there is some evidence he wants a relationship with the two of you. Maybe his motives are not entirely evil and selfish. Maybe he has some good intentions but is using a lousy strategy to achieve them. Testing his son’s love or loyalty by forcing him to choose between family vacations is a very poor strategy. It almost seems like he is insecure in the relationship and would like reassurance that the interest is mutual (good intention, lousy strategy).
Now, by exploring some alternative interpretations of the facts in your story we can escape the certainty of our villain story and replace it with a question story. In so doing, the story changes from “my father-in-law is a villain and we must do battle” to “I’m not sure why he’s doing what he’s doing; maybe we should talk with him.” As your story changes, so will your emotions. Righteous indignation and upset becomes curiosity and concern. These are the feelings you should carry into a crucial conversation.
Note that it would also be a lousy strategy to simply assume others have “a good heart” and excuse their hurtful behavior. All that does is empower and encourage their weaknesses and assure the bad behavior continues. Rather, we want to improve relationships by clarifying good intentions and improving the way we treat each other.
Since both you and your husband want a good relationship with your father-in-law and you want him to have a good relationship with both of you, make sure you are both involved in this crucial conversation.
Start by sitting down together. Share your good intentions by saying something like, “We were so excited to get your invitation to the family vacation. We want to spend more time with you. We want a close relationship with you and vacation time together would be a good way to do it.”
Next, describe the gap between what you want and what you’ll do. “Unfortunately, my family’s vacation is scheduled the same week and we will have to miss yours because we had previously committed to attend theirs.”
This beginning helps your father-in-law see that your desire is to attend his get together, you want a better relationship, and you will attend your family’s gathering—not because you love him less, but because you made a previous commitment. Having established your good intention and respectfully suggested a mutual purpose (a closer relationship), you have gone a long way toward making it safe for him to engage in a problem-solving conversation.
Check to see if your story is correct by saying, “When you scheduled the family vacation for the same week as my family’s vacation, especially after we had talked about it, we were puzzled. It almost seems as if you were intentionally causing us to choose you over them, or that you didn’t want us to come to yours. Is that what happened, or are we missing something?”
Now listen and seek to understand his view. Compare perceptions and assumptions and work together to create a new set of expectations and understandings.
By being open and honest when discussing problems, deceit and manipulations are exposed and don’t work. Essentially, by naming the game, you don’t have to play it. In addition, by tentatively and respectfully sharing what you think might be happening, you give the other person a chance to respond and clarify. They are also put on notice that any “games” or manipulations they might be tempted to use in the future will be exposed and discussed.
The mutual purpose of wanting a good relationship brings you together. The honest, open, respectful communication reveals your good intention, solves problems, and adds discipline to the relationship going forward.
I hope you find these ideas helpful in building bridges rather than going to battle.