in- laws & boundaries

Dear Sugars,

My husband and I are in our early 30s and have been together for 10 years. His parents live 45 minutes away; mine live on the other side of the country. Here’s the deal: My in-laws are too nice. My husband and I run a business together, and for the last five years my in-laws have worked for us, unpaid, one to two days per week. They shower us with gifts at every opportunity. They mail us cards for special occasions and give us treats on Valentine’s Day and Halloween. We celebrate all holidays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and birthdays with them every year. They house-sit for us when we’re away and are currently looking to a buy a house so they can live closer. My mother-in-law cooks and brings us five meals a week. My father-in-law yells “good morning” across the parking lot every time I see him at work and waves with an enthusiasm that baffles me.

All of these things are so nice, but I feel suffocated and resentful, Sugars. I need space, and I don’t know how to get it without hurting feelings. My husband is on board with all of the ways his parents are in our lives (he’s an only child, by the way). He says they want to do these things because they love us. He feels hurt when I can’t come up with a list of gifts that I want his parents to buy me or when I suggest that he could meet his dad for a Father’s Day lunch without me.

Are my in-laws excessively attentive or am I just a Scrooge? Do I need to set boundaries or accept these kind people in my life as they are? 

Over-Loved Daughter-in-Law

Cheryl Strayed: Even good-problems-to-have are problems, Over-Loved, and, while I’ll admit to being wildly jealous that you get dinner delivered to your house five nights a week at no charge, you have my sympathy. The most important part of your letter is not the section in which you list all the nice things your in-laws do for you, but rather the way you feel about being the recipient of all that thoughtfulness. Your husband is content with the dynamic. You are not. They are crossing boundaries that you do not want them to cross. Which means you need to set those boundaries.

Steve Almond: The only way you’ll be able to accept these people in your life, Over-Loved, is if you set boundaries. Otherwise, you’re stuck pretending to be grateful for their kindness. It’s this pretending — the muzzling of your true feelings — that leaves you feeling “suffocated and resentful.” You need to have a candid conversation with your husband, and then your in-laws, in which you acknowledge your gratitude but also express your need for more space. Hot meals delivered to your doorstep are great. But only if you want them. What if you want to prepare dinner yourself?

CS: I don’t think you need to have a discussion with your in-laws about how you feel when they do X, Y or Z. Such a conversation has a high potential to lead to hurt feelings and the likelihood that in your desire to soothe them, you’ll be persuaded to allow things to remain as they are. The most powerful aspect of setting boundaries is that in doing so you aren’t asking others to change their behavior; you’re opting to change your own. You feel suffocated by your in-laws’ generosity, so stop accepting the “gifts” you have control over. Start paying them for the work they do at your business as employees and stop using them as house sitters. Thank your mother-in-law for all the good dinners she’s cooked for you so far and tell her you and your husband will be cooking your own from now on. Tell your husband you want to celebrate some holidays with your own family of origin (or others) and do it. Once you establish these boundaries, the things you have less control over — the onslaught of cards, the way your father-in-law greets you — will very likely feel far less suffocating. You might even come to appreciate them.

– from The New York Times’ ‘My In-Laws Are Suffocating Me. Help!’

Art by Charles Barsotti

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Dear Carolyn:

Here’s a problem you might not get too much: in-laws who are too nice. My husband’s mother calls him once a day, sometimes more. Every time he and my daughter visit them (about weekly), they insist on sending things back with them that we don’t want, usually foods we’re trying to avoid. 

Each of these gifts requires a special phone call of thanks from me personally, usually after a long day of work, which then turns into a lengthy chat. 

My in-laws want phone calls anytime we travel long distances or in bad weather, just to be sure we’re safe, and they get annoyed when we forget.

They keep track of our kids’ doctors’ appointments so they can ask how everything went. 

Is there a polite way to get them to back off, just a little? We love them and appreciate that they are always there for us, but it’s just too much of an emotional burden to handle their anxieties about our everyday life. When we try to speak up, my mother-in-law is very hurt and feels we don’t want her around.

Smother-In-Law

This is a problem I do get, too much, but calling it “nice” is new.

You describe a mother-in-law who is manipulative, controlling, insecure and boundary-challenged.

Is your husband as uncomfortable with this as you are? Is he ready to set some limits, or has he too bought into the “nice” canard?

I suspect you’d both benefit from reading on boundaries and emotional manipulation. Don’t tune me out: The best read on this topic is “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker. It will seem like a loopy recommendation for “just” a fussy mom, but it’s actually square on point. And if that doesn’t stick, then ask if he’ll join you at one, just one, session with a family therapist for some outside perspective. You can talk follow-ups afterward.

It won’t be pretty, even if your husband’s fully aboard. He’ll need to be kind and sunny and absolutely immovable on these, phased in gently:

– Screening her calls. He picks a frequency he’s comfortable with, and sticks to it.

– Saving your “We made it home okay!” calls for when there’s some doubt. (Severe weather, for example.)Supporting you when you say “Thank you” by note or e-mail.

– Realizing her distress does not obligate him to appease her. “I love you, Mom. This is just the way I’d like to do things from now on,” until it sticks.

These are optional:

– Not sharing appointment times. “When there’s something to report, we’ll let you know,” cheery as a cupcake. If the appointments are a bone you want to throw, then keep sharing, knowing it’s one concession, vs. the top of a slippery slope.

– Tackling the gifts. “Our home runneth over, and we hate to see you spend money on things we can’t keep” is one approach, as is channeling: “If you’re looking for something for the kids, they need new socks,” or, “The kids loved those X you baked — would you be willing to make them again?

– Neither will work, of course, if their goal is to undermine (“usually foods we’re trying to avoid”?), but it’s worth trying before you start the [smile] Thanks! [donate] cycle. 

Your lives, your terms, with love.

from The Washington Post’s ‘Carolyn Hax: Firmly but gently set boundaries with in- laws who smother’

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