In the course of a marriage, any number of challenges can arise. Some issues are internal, while others come from external sources.
The three main external challenges in marriage are:
Challenge #1 - In-Laws
Challenge #2 - Money
Challenge #3 - Children
Since writing about all three in one article would be the equivalent of writing a mini e-book, we're going to divide them into a three part series.
Today we're going to tackle the in-laws. I'm going to turn the microphone over to my wife, who got a phone call from a friend of hers on just this topic:
The other day, my phone rang at home. It was my good friend, Holly. After the usual "hi, how are you" Holly got to the subject with her typical frankness.
"You know, I feel like I'm about to explode!"
"What happened now?" I asked, even though I was sure I knew.
"I'm just so frustrated. No matter what I do, it's not enough, or it's not good enough. Whenever we go there for the weekend, it seems like she's intent on showing Kevin that I'm not a good wife to him, or a responsible mother to Abigail."
In case you didn't figure it out yet, Holly was talking about her mother-in-law.
I felt bad for Holly. Things with her mother-in-law just got off on the wrong foot from day one. Since I had the chance to view things close-up from the very beginning, I knew that Holly didn't start the cycle. Even at the engagement party, it was pretty obvious that her future MIL was not going to accept her with open arms.
"What am I going to do, Robin?" Holly was talking again, in a low, almost hopeless voice. "I want Abigail to have a warm relationship with her grandmother. But being around her is just so hard. And it's taking a toll on Kevin, too."
It occurred to me that if Holly was this desperate, then she might be willing to do whatever was possible in order to alleviate the situation - no matter how hard it might be.
"Holly," I said softly, "Can I ask you something?"
"Holly, how much do you really want things to get better? How hard are you willing to work for it?"
"Are you sure? Even if it means saying and doing things that might be difficult?"
"I'm sure. No matter how difficult it'll be, it can't be worse than what's going on now. I used to think that the situation would resolve itself, but things have gotten so complicated that I don't think it'll happen on its own."
"I agree. Are you ready?"
"Definitely," Holly answered.
"OK. The first thing you need to try to understand is where your mother-in-law is coming from. Don't forget, Kevin is her only son. She gave birth to him, she raised him, and now he's all grown up and you come along to take him away from her."
Holly protested. "But I never meant to - "
I interrupted her. "Of course you didn't marry him in order to take him away. I'm just trying to show you how she feels, not necessarily what reality is. You know, up until the time that a man gets married, his mother is really the only woman in his life. She's the emotional provider for him. But once he gets married, it's almost like he switches loyalty from his mother to his wife. Now his wife takes first priority. And for a mother who's put her all into her son for twenty, twenty-five years, that's a hard pill to swallow. Can you understand that?"
"Yeah," Holly said pensively. "I can. I never thought about it like that before."
"So now you realize that you're not the issue. It has nothing to do with you personally. Once you internalize that, you won't take it personally, either, and we'll be able to move to the next stage."
"Listen closely now, because this is the key to your success. A starving person will do anything to get some food. But once that same person is satiated, he has no reason to be desperate anymore. Do you understand?"
"I'm not sure what you're getting at."
"Let's say there's someone who's starving. And I mean really, clinically starving. Someone like that will do anything for food. He'll rob, steal, grab, beg - whatever it takes. And it's not because he's a thief or a criminal. It's because he's so desperate for food that nothing else can enter his consciousness. Once he eats, however, and he's no longer starving, his behavior changes completely. He's polite, considerate, well-manneredÃ¢â‚¬¦why? Because starvation was the only reason he behaved like he did. Once the problem was solved, there was no reason for him to stoop so low.
"The same thing goes for someone who feels emotionally starved. They'll do anything to get what they need. You see this a lot with children. Kids who don't get enough positive feedback and attention will act out in order to get the negative feedback and negative attention - as long as they get noticed, as long as they get some kind of attention. But if someone realizes what's going on, and starts to react to them positively, then it usually doesn't take too long before all the negative behavior disappears."
"So you're saying that my mother-in-law is emotionally starved? That seems a bit exaggerated," Holly said.
"Well, not entirely. But when it comes to Kevin, it could be that she perceives herself that way."
"But why should she feel like that?" Holly was getting upset again.
"Because of the reality that we spoke about before, how when a son gets married there's a certain transfer of loyalty from his mother to his wife, and that can be hard to deal with. Am I making sense?"
"Yeah, lots," Holly answered. "But you still haven't told me what I can do."
"I'm getting to that. Holly, back when you and Kevin got engaged, how did your mother-in-law react?"
"Robin, you know how she reacted. She was distant and suspicious from the very beginning.''
"Right. Now, can I ask you a difficult question?"
"What was your reaction? How did you respond to her?"
Holly thought for a moment. "I guess that when I saw how she felt about me, I pulled back emotionally."
"Uh-huh. Now that you can somewhat understand where she's coming from, how do you think your reaction made her feel?"
"Well," Holly said slowly, "I guess it sort of validated all of her fears and suspicions."
One of the things that always amazes me about Holly is her honesty.
"So I guess it's also sort of my fault, huh?" Holly continued.
"It's not a matter of faults. You went on the defensive, which was only natural. No one can blame you for that. But now that you recognize where her attitude is coming from, you can ease off the defensive and work to improve the relationship."
"Well, the key word is inclusion. The more inclusion you do, the less desperate your mother-in-law will be. 'Inclusion' means just that - make her feel that you're including her in your lives. Invite your in-laws for dinner one night, when there's no special occasion. When you're in the area, call up and say that you'd like to drop by for a half-hour, or see if you can meet her for lunch somewhere. It might feel funny at first, I know. Use a milestone in Abigail's life - a new tooth, a new word, whatever - as an excuse to call her up, just to share it with her. Call her up for advice. Do you get the idea?"
"Yeah, I do," Holly was sounding much more relaxed now. "But I think that if I do that all at once it'll seem fake."
"Take it as slowly as you want, but make sure that progress is steady or it'll never happen," I answered.
"And are you sure that this is going to turn things around?" Holly asked hopefully.
I couldn't give her false hope. "I can't guarantee anything. Like I said before, things might get better, but that doesn't mean they'll be perfect. And some people are so needy that no matter what you do, it won't be enough. In that case, you have to be very careful not to let it become your husband's problem. You need to get a third party involved - a wise friend or relative, for example. Just do yourself one favor: DO NOT get your own parents involved in this. They love you too much to be able to see things objectively."
"Robin, thank you so much. I know that it's going to be difficult, but I think I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I feel much better, like I have more control over the situation. Thanks a million."
"No problem, Holly. Good luck!"
Reframing Your Marriage | The 5 Word Formula to Make Your Marriage Work - Part 2 | The 5 Word Formula to Make Your Marriage Work | The 3 Main Challenges to Marriage - Part III | The 3 Main Challenges in Marriage - Part II | The 3 Main Challenges to Marriage - Part I | See More »