Friday 28 October 2016

Dear David: 'My mother-in-law undermines me and my husband ignores it'

Published 26/05/2015 | 02:30

Illustration by Moona Al Qahtani
Illustration by Moona Al Qahtani

Clinical psychologist David Coleman gives advice on dealing with your mother-in-law and choosing the right time to introduce your new partner to your children.

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Question: I have two children aged two and three but feel like I am being constantly criticised by my mother-in-law for how I am rearing them. For example, the other day she was complaining that I still let my older girl have a soother. She will also undermine me, even in my own house, and tell the children that it is OK to do something I might have forbidden them to do. She is really lovely to the children and they adore her. My husband refuses to get involved and I feel really unsupported by him. It's like his silence says he agrees with her!

David replies: Reading about your situation I am struck by the fact that you have two potential problems, not just one.

Given that you experience your mother-in-law to be critical and undermining, it is crucial that you feel like your husband is supportive of you. It is important that he stands up for you, or at least stands up beside you.

This is worth tackling with him. You need to have a proper conversation with him about the way you feel about his mother's treatment of you. You need to explain what it is like to be criticised and undermined.

Given that he grew up with his mother, he may have grown to ignore or accept her criticism. He may be able to let it flow off, while continuing to do his own thing. He may not realise just how upsetting you are finding her comments.

You can also explicitly ask him for his support. Tell him that you need him to be specifically on your side. You don't need him to be critical of his mother, but you do need him to support you in how you try to deal with her words and actions.

It would be good for his mother to know that you and he are united in your decision-making about your children.

I can only imagine that his mother is a strong character. It seems like she is very confident in giving her opinion, and perhaps not very concerned about the impact of that opinion on others.

On the bright side, she must also be warm and loving in her own way, since both your children feel very positively towards her. Not even the most indulgent granny can sustain the adoration of their grandchildren without backing up that kindness with love and attention.

Just like your husband may not recognise the hurt that his mother causes you, it is fully possible that she also doesn't realise the effect of her words or her actions.

While you do mention that her son won't challenge her, you don't say if you have ever tried to explain to her about the impact of her comments and her behaviour.

I think it would be good to be direct and assertive. Try to be clear, for yourself, what you want to achieve by speaking with her. For example, your goal might be that she simply thinks before she speaks, such that she becomes more sensitive to the impact her comments may have.

Another goal may be that she leaves the parenting decisions to you and her son when you are present.

It is absolutely appropriate to, assertively, ask for these. Focusing on your own needs and explaining them to your mother-in-law allows her the freedom to agree or disagree.

You can start by explaining to her how you feel in both situations of being criticised and being undermined. Explain about the upset or the frustration you feel. Explain about feeling like your authority with your own children is diminished when she overturns a decision you have already made.

Talking about how you feel doesn't blame her, or attack her. It simply allows her to hear about your perspective. Once she knows what happens to you, you can ask her for what you want, in terms of greater respect, consideration or sensitivity.

Whether she can deliver this is up to her. Whether she is hurt by what you say, or becomes defensive about what you say is also up to her.

If your husband grew up with a strong-minded woman (in his mother), then he has probably married one too. This is as good a time as any to act assertively and establish the boundaries of your job as a mother and hers as a granny.

I want my daughter to meet my new girlfriend but I'm just not sure if the timing is right

Question: I have a six-year-old daughter with my ex-wife. The dust has really settled since the separation and my daughter comes over to me every Saturday and stays over once a month. That is all working fine. I have a new girlfriend for the last three months and it is going great. My question, though, is when is the right time for my daughter to meet her? My girlfriend wants to meet my daughter and I think they'd get on great. This is the first serious relationship that I have had since my separation and I'd like to integrate my girlfriend fully into my life.

David replies: There isn't any definitive 'right' time for a parent to introduce their child to a new partner. However, there are several factors that you should consider before you do so.

The first and most important thing is that you put your daughter's needs before your needs or your partner's needs. That means that, in considering the timing of telling her about your girlfriend, you need to be aware if there is anything else going on in your daughter's life.

So, are things stable in her relationship with her mum, with her home, with her school and with her friends? The more settled things are with the other areas of her life the easier she may find it to absorb the news about you having a new girlfriend.

Is there any particular reason why your daughter needs to know about your new relationship now, as opposed to in a month, or three or six? Is something significant going to happen to your living arrangements, for example? To be honest, unless there is a big imperative to tell her because you are going to move in together, I'd be tempted to just wait until your relationship with your girlfriend is fully established and it looks like you will be living together permanently.

When children hear about new people coming into their parents' lives, after separation, it can be quite a shocking and upsetting thing. It can be unsettling and lead them to feel quite insecure amidst the changes it might entail.

From the child's perspective, they may fear that their parent's new partner will displace them. Your daughter could fear, for example, that you will love your girlfriend more than you love her.

She may be anxious that she will lose you to this new woman. She could fear that you have now chosen your girlfriend over her.

Depending on her mum's reaction to your news about a new partner, it could also make things awkward in her relationship with her mum. If, for example, her mum is very critical of you for having a girlfriend, or critical of your girlfriend, it could leave your daughter very stuck in the middle.

So, while you may be focused on the excitement of "integrating" your family, you also need to be conscious of the potential distress it might cause your daughter.

Even if she really likes your girlfriend, she will inevitably have to get used to the change it might bring to her relationship with you. At the very least she will have to share her time with you. This might be upsetting for her too.

Without wanting to jinx your new relationship, you also have to consider what it would be like if, after your daughter has invested in getting to know your girlfriend, that you split up. This would be another potential loss for your daughter to accommodate to.

So, deciding to tell her about your girlfriend and then subsequently introducing them is a big step and one that is best taken when you know for sure that your relationship with your girlfriend is for the long haul.

Your girlfriend's enthusiasm, and your excitement about moving on, seem like the prompts to arrange this meeting.

It sounds like, as your relationship with your new partner progresses, your daughter will be warmly received.

But don't forget that it is actually your daughter who must welcome your girlfriend into the family. This might be the right time for her to do this, but neither you nor I can know for definite.

So you must make a judgement. All I would urge is that you make a judgment with your daughter's best interests more at heart than your own, or your girlfriend's, interests.

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