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How a Difficult Daughter-in-law Wreaks Havoc

In this second guest post by Barbara Greenleaf on The Difficult Daughter-in-Law, she explains some specific ways the DDIL creates tension and dissension throughout the extended family. Barbara Greenleaf is the creator of Parents of Grown Offspring.

She can be passive-aggressive

The DDIL may appear pleasant and even meek on the surface, but her hostile actions belie this accommodating posture. She may agree to the restaurant you’ve picked out but spend the whole dinner pouting or playing with her food. She can be hard to make plans with and then, when she finally gives you a definite date to visit the grandchildren, she “forgets” the appointment, sometimes after you’ve changed your own plans to accommodate her or traveled a good distance to get there. Psychologists refer to this behavior as passive-aggressive, and it is frustrating and draining for those on the receiving end. It’s also insidious and perversely effective: the DDIL who engages in this kind of guerrilla warfare is adept at setting up her in-laws so she doesn’t have to take responsibility for her own behavior. She is always the injured party.

If she doesn’t want to see her husband’s family over the holidays, for example, she will not say anything directly. Rather, she will put them in the humiliating position of trying to make arrangements through their son, who will have to deliver the news that it’s not going to happen. Unfortunately, speaking up against her shabby treatment doesn’t seem to work very well, because it gives the DDIL ammo to revert to her default mode, which is “put upon.”

One of the DDIL’s stealth moves is being unavailable. Some parents say they practically have to serve her with a subpoena to have her show up for a family event. Either she has a convenient scheduling conflict or, if she does put in an appearance, she quickly scurries off or stays on her tablet the whole time – even during Thanksgiving dinner! The excuse is often that she has a BIG JOB. Puhleeze . . .even the president of General Motors doesn’t work 24/7. I’ve been told of DDILs who go into their bedroom after saying hello or never even come out. I also know of a family where the son has to bring the children to his parents’ hotel when they’re visiting from out of town. But the topper is the understanding that the in-laws can only come over when the DDIL is off somewhere, competing in a marathon.

She can be a bully

Too often with the DDIL it’s her way or the highway, and everyone caves to keep peace in the family. She may roll her eyes when her in-laws offer a suggestion, so they quickly learn to nod and agree with everything she says. Or she might throw in a zinger out of nowhere, which throws them off balance and leads them to become even more guarded in their speech. But the worst is when she makes snide comments about them in front of others, even the grandchildren, which is both humiliating and destructive.

According to Dr. Deanna Brann, author of Reluctantly Related: Secrets To Getting Along With Your Mother-in-Law or Daughter-in-law  “Unlike bullying between children and adolescents, a DIL who bullies her MIL is really involving the whole family. And this is where things get complicated. As a rule, the family dynamic is set up in such a way that no one deals directly with the bullying problem. The MIL (and her side of the family) is afraid to do or say anything for fear of retribution; the DIL’s husband doesn’t see it, doesn’t want to see it, or doesn’t know what to do when he does see it; the DIL’s side of the family is either in collusion knowingly or not, or they are afraid of her as well.”

She uses weapons of mass destruction

The DDIL’s husband will often adopt a helpless, and self-protective, stance in the midst of all the drama. Either he’ll brush it off with such remarks as, “Oh, you know how she is. That’s just Sandy being Sandy.” Or he’ll play the exasperated victim, “What do you want me to do? You handle it!”

According to Dr. Brann, “If the MIL talks to her son, she puts him in the middle, and often times, he gets upset with her because he doesn’t know what to do either, and he doesn’t want to create problems at home.” Parents will rationalize their son’s acceptance of his wife’s outrageous behavior toward them by saying: “Oh, well, he’s happy; that’s all that counts.”
The worst, of course, is when the DDIL plays games with the grandparent/grandchild relationship. Whether it’s insisting that her mother-in-law can only visit if she or her husband is around—and only if they’re not busy with other, more important matters—or imposing strict (and even off-the-wall) guidelines, what should be a cozy visit can feel like a recon mission through a mine field. Although Grandma might not have fed her son strictly organic, and she let him watch TV, and made him put his napkin on his lap, somehow he grew up and the DDIL married him. But that’s neither here nor there to someone bent on asserting her power.

Do you have a difficult daughter-in-law? How do you handle the relationship with her? Please share in the comments.

4 thoughts on “How a Difficult Daughter-in-law Wreaks Havoc”

  1. No, I don’t have a difficult DDIL; I have a DD. I live less than 5 miles from my DD, who gave birth to our adorable GD just 3 weeks ago. I have been able to visit four times since then to offer help or whatever is needed. I have given them food, and money, have sat their dog on too many occasions to list. I also still work with my husband, the DD’s father at least three days a week. I have been out of town once since the GD was born. On three of the 4 visits with my GD, I was humiliated, scorned and ridiculed about a minor issue that had nothing do do with the GD. I was questioned if my hands sere sanitized., and if I had a fever. My feelings have been hurt, and I have told the DD that I will no longer let myself be. the target for her vitriolic barbs. I have not been the only target. The difficult DD has thrown the barbs at her husband, who was not changing a diaper up to her standards. I think she is quite lucky to have a loving husband who is trying to helpwith the diaper detail.

    Help – please give me some expanation and pointers.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that your DD is giving you such a hard time. I hope you can find comfort in knowing that it’s not about you — especially since you have observed that she’s using the same critical and demeaning behavior toward her husband. She sounds like she’s experiencing an extreme case of early helicopter parenting that often happens to overly controlling new moms. Try to use all of your patience and compassion when you are around her. Maybe you shouldn’t be quite so generous with her either and then you won’t feel so unappreciated. Try to focus on that precious little granddaughter of yours. Please keep me posted.

    2. Your granddaughter is three weeks old and you’ve seen her four times? That’s more than once a week – that’s about the same amount of visits I allowed my own parents and in-laws when my baby was so tiny.

      Give your daughter a break and compassion! She’s given birth less than a month ago. She’s still in the weepy, anxiety-ridden stage of post-natal hormonal changes, she’s not getting much sleep (sleep deprivation is an acknowledged torture method,) she’s still dealing with physical discomfort from the birth, and she has a newborn to look after.

      Put your own feelings to one side and have some empathy. The answer to “have you sanitized your hands?” is “yes,” not “how could you ask me that question? I feel so hurt!” Your daughter obviously is anxious her new precious baby doesn’t get sick from the germs that visitors will bring. Acknowledge the anxiety and your daughter will relax. If you exacerbate the anxiety by performing how hurt you are by being asked a sensible question, your daughter will trust you less. Do you want a relationship with your granddaughter? You have to have a good and sincere relationship with your daughter first.

      1. Joy, thank you for your wise words. You’ve captured the essence of the issue and are able to see both sides clearly. I hope Evette will put aside her ego and cut her daughter some slack for a while. You are 100% correct that if she wants to have a bond with her granddaughter, she must first build a good relationship with her daughter. That comes by showing empathy, respect and acknowledging the good things her daughter is doing as a brand new mom.

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