The holidays are over, I know. And, yes, for the first time since I started the blog, I missed my holiday post. But when I got my friend’s Christmas letter mid January, I thought, Is it ever really too late to talk about the holidays…and…the in-laws? I mean, I know we just had Valentine’s Day, and some of you are recovering from THAT, but some of us are still recovering from December. Ahem… And then there are those who are already setting up for next year.
And of course, these issues don’t go away magically after the Christmas tree is down, the menorah packed away, and the solstice sacrificial chicken blood all cleaned up. No, just like cellulite, these problems are here to stay.
On a more serious note, the pain we feel about our in-laws can be completely overwhelming. Rejection on both sides is plentiful, like when you know your mother-in-law has never really approved of you or when your daughter-in-law isn’t terribly excited about you taking care of the grandkids. To borrow a phrase from my 14-year-old daughter… it pretty much sucks. Perhaps a deeper understanding and a broader view would be helpful.
A Conventional View: Feelings then Boundaries
A conventional view of the problem encourages people to first and foremost feel their feelings about the situation. The feelings formula goes something like: when you do/say __________, I feel _________. This can be a very important first step (to do on your own or with a friend or therapist) especially if you’re unaware of your feelings or if they’re so strong that your perspective is entirely colored by them.
But I find that for folks who’ve been “identifying and feeling their feelings” for a long time, it can be helpful to add another piece to the process: putting feelings in perspective, which doesn’t mean not feeling them. On the contrary, it’s often essential to know what your feelings are and to create space in your life to feel them, but it’s also best to eventually work toward developing some knowledge, some perspective on them.
One useful tool to put feelings into perspective is to think of our emotions as having the size and force of an elephant. Massive, beautiful, exciting, interesting, and something you might not want to get in front of if it were on the run. Our intellectual system might be like a rider on top of the elephant. If the elephant gets spooked, then the man or woman on top is along for the ride…meaning there’s not much thinking or reasoning they can do to slow the beast down once it gets going. And if they try to slow the great beast down, it is likely to end in a sense of fatigue or futility or even injury.
Suffice it to say that when we feel hurt by our in-laws (or anyone for that matter), the elephant tends to be in charge. In calmer times we can grow in awareness of our elephant-al nature and the ways it takes over, but when feelings like hurt or fear or rejection are up, best to feel them, value them, embrace them, journal about them, share them with a trusted friend, and cry them out without putting too much effort into “thinking them through” or analyzing them. Chances are if you try, your intellectual system is going to be wrangled into submission by the great, beautiful, terrible beast. In your pain, you’ll start diagnosing your in-laws as “narcissists” or “evil,” and you’ll start to believe that there is no other way to see them.
In the conventional approach, once a person has identified and felt his feelings, the next step is often called “setting boundaries.” It’s an approach that encourages people to get clear about what they are responsible for and what someone else is responsible for. Sounds reasonable, right? Tell it to the elephant.
I get it. Therapists know that people will do better when they are taking responsibility for their own part in relationship problems, so they try to get folks to see their own part in things. But can we force a sense of responsibility on a scared, sad, or hurt elephant?
I mean what if your pain is still on the raw side, and in your desire for relief you jump ahead to “take responsibility” for your part with your in-laws? You’ve been encouraged by your therapist or a book you read, and so you work to wrangle your elephant into submission, get it to take responsibility for freaking out, tell it to calm the heck down. I mean if you’re not part of the problem, you’re not part of the solution. That sounds so darn reasonable, what reasonable person would argue with that?!
So, maybe if your rider on your elephant could get a rope and somehow get it around your elephant’s neck and pull back. Or maybe the rider could squeeze its thighs together to let the elephant know it should slow down. Maybe the rider could just start screaming at the elephant to wake it up and set it straight. Or maybe, just maybe after we’ve bumped along and struggled and gotten good and sore or seriously injured, we decide screw this! I’ve done my part! They haven’t done THEIRS! It’s time to set the ultimate boundary; it’s time we simply part ways. Problem solved!
Rather than realizing we can’t wrangle elephants. And that all the wrangling has led us to the very place we started: focused on someone else, in pain, and not terribly aware of self or the systems in which we live.
Developing a Self vs. Building a Wall
No matter how good you may be at wrangling your emotions into submission, eventually they will take you down and possibly those around you as well. The more we resist them, the more power they seem to have in the long run. Giving our emotions either too little or too much credit will lead to dysfunctional elephants and riders, which is where developing a self comes in.
Developing a self doesn’t happen in our heads or in earnest attempts to “be better” (elephant wrangling). Nor does it happen when you think that trusting your gut implicitly is the ultimate reality. It happens when we put ourselves into relationship. Not loosey goosey, like stepping in front of a train. But with knowledge of self (having the elephant in perspective for what it is, what it can add, and what it can get in the way of) and strategy (having gained broad knowledge and perspective on how relationship systems work).
Take Kevin, for example, a 38-year-old man, with a history of depression. He would describe himself as a very hard worker, harder than most. He is an older brother and someone who took a lot of “shrapnel” from both his parents to protect his younger brother. Both of his parents have passed away, but his wife’s mother reminds him eerily of his own mother, someone who he spent his life avoiding if he could because of her negativity and neediness. Kevin is an elephant wrangler extraordinaire. Less feeling his feelings, more making himself good and busy and acting like they’re not there.
Through his therapy, he learned that for the sake of his marriage and his own depressed state, it was important to become more aware of his emotions and how they were sending subtle and not so subtle messages of expectations to his wife. He worked to identify them, and he worked to connect them to his own family history. Kevin even went back a few generations in his journey to discover where his people had come from and what struggles they may have had. It all went to a greater understanding and ownership of his emotions and life dilemmas.
While things improved in the marriage, he began to realize that his reactivity toward and avoidance of his mother-in-law was putting a lot of pressure on his wife. She was caught in the middle, frustrated with her mother but feeling defensive of her at the same time. Instead of “setting a boundary,” Kevin decided that while his feelings were important, he could set them aside for an hour or two for the family’s Sunday dinner together. He had skipped it any chance he’d gotten for the past few years.
When he showed up at her front door one particular Sunday, pecan pie in hand, he could tell his mother-in-law was surprised. She came out with one of her snarky comments, covered in goo so as not to be recognized as an insult. But Kevin was ready for it. Instead of his normal withdrawn silence, he stepped forward and hugged her hello and made himself useful in the kitchen.
One of the things Kevin didn’t like about his mother-in-law and one of the reasons he avoided her so much was because she would talk negatively about her daughter to him. But Kevin was ready this time. He knew it was coming. Instead of defending his wife and then stomping away, Kevin stated sincerely that he thought she and his wife would find a way to work through their difficulties. With this strategy, Kevin was able to remove himself from what belonged between his wife and mother-in-law while still being in relationship with both of them. He wasn’t taking any shrapnel, and he wasn’t dishing any out either. Kevin felt relieved and he felt a growing sense of confidence in himself.
Of course, this wasn’t a once and done kind of strategy. Kevin had to do it another couple times before his mother-in-law stopped talking to him about his wife.
There are no easy solutions or quick fixes here. Lots of hard work, but not too hard. When working to build a self starts to feel like it’s too hard, you might be wrangling the elephant instead. See if you can take a step back, take some deep breaths, and give yourself a break.