It may have happened gradually or it may have been sudden. Regardless of how it happened, you haven't seen your son, grandchildren or your daughter-in-law in weeks, months, maybe even years. You've called, emailed, and texted. You've tried everything you can think of to turn things around, but nothing changes -- except that their anger towards you seems to be growing. So you are now in a state of panic, fear, and anguish.
If this sounds familiar, you'll appreciate what happened to Mary:
Mary feels like she is walking on eggshells with her daughter-in-law Janet. She thinks she's a good mother-in-law, but it appears Janet doesn't share that opinion. Things between them have been getting progressively worse, to the point that everyone feels the tension between Mary and Janet. Mary wracks her brain trying to figure out what she may have done to cause Janet to treat her this way. All she can think about is that she has been helpful and supportive and goes out of her way for Janet. But Janet, and now even her own son, say Mary is selfish and controlling and that she makes every situation about her. Mary wants more than anything to change her relationship with Janet (as well as her son).
Although this kind of behavior can seem as though it happened out of the blue, the truth is that it really doesn't happen for no reason. You may not agree with the reason, and you may not even know the reason. But believe me, there is a reason. And the only way to change your situation and have your son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren back in your life is to learn the reason and work from there. You need to get to the bottom of this to begin the healing process.
But before you go there, let me ask you an important question: Is it more important for you to be right, or for you to have a relationship with your son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren? This seems like an easy question, but when you feel wronged and hurt, you can lose sight of that bigger picture and focus too much on wanting her to understand your pain or on correcting what you believe to be her misperception.
Remember that regardless of who your daughter-in-law is -- whether she's Confident Connie, Doubting Donna, Weird Wendy, or Transitioned Tracy -- from her point of view, you have wronged her in some way, or maybe you've wronged them as a family. It does not matter if you believe she's wrong (or even if you are dead certain that she is wrong), trying to convince her that you didn't do or say whatever it is she says you did or said simply will not work. (If you think about it, this rarely, if ever, works with anyone, not just your daughter-in-law!)
Instead, the focus needs to be on exploring her perception -- listening to how she sees the situation, and then helping her see that you understand her pain. We all want to feel heard. We all want to feel that the other person gets our emotional pain. Your daughter-in-law (as well as your son) is no different.
I know doing this feels one-sided, and to be honest, it is. But again, it is important to look at the bigger picture. You will have your turn to share your pain later. For now, the goal is to be included in their world again. And to get there, you have to start by going on a fact-finding mission -- nothing else.
Here are some suggestions for the process:
• Take a step back: Before you say anything to your daughter-in-law, try to put yourself in her shoes. What would make you feel that your mother-in-law was controlling or nosy or pushy, for example? (It helps to remember how you viewed your own mother-in-law's actions when you were first married.) What incidents seemed to spark the tension? How else could they have been interpreted by someone who is in a different stage of her life and who thinks entirely differently than you do?
• Ask questions to get clarification : When you're ready to talk about the tension, be as neutral as possible and ask clarifying questions so that you can be clear about what it is she is trying to say. These questions will not only help you to understand her pain, but they will also help your daughter-in-law feel as though you have really heard her and that you get her pain.
• Don't take what she says personally : She is angry and upset. Her focus at this moment is on you, because right or wrong, she sees you as the cause of her pain. It's important that you be able to hear what she is saying, and if you take her words personally, you won't be able to do that. So stay open and curious.
• Don't focus on whether what she says is right or wrong : She may say some truths, half-truths, and some things that aren't even close to the truth. Keep in mind this is about her perception and only her perception. So don't defend yourself or try to justify your actions. Just listen.
Here's how things worked out for Mary:
As Mary took a step back, she started to see how she and Janet were viewing her actions very differently. What really surprised her was that when she put herself in Janet's shoes, she could start to see things from Janet's perceptive. Initially, Mary was hurt by this revelation, but because she wanted so much to make things right again with Janet and her son, she was able to step out of the pain and create the changes she needed to make to help Janet perceive her in a better light. When Mary approached Janet to talk, she was already in a different place herself. This made it possible for Mary to really hear Janet, which in turn helped Janet feel that Mary finally understood her pain. This became a turning point in their relationship.
You'll notice that when Mary took a step back and tried to see the situation the way Janet saw it, everything changed. She didn't have to admit that she was wrong, she just had to see that there was more than one side to what was going on. And that's what started everything rolling in the right direction. If it worked for Mary, it can work for you, too.