Howdy folks! In my years of being both a participant and leader of therapy groups, public speaking engagements, etc. I’ve learned that, if one person has a question, chances are, others in the group have the same (or similar) question. If that question never gets asked, then no one gets the benefit of learning from it! It is for this reason I’ve decided to experiment with something a little different.
Over the past few months, I’ve gotten so many great questions via “Ask The Shrink,” that I’ve decided to publish them here on the blog. The question below is one I recently received from a reader and, given the frequency with which the topic comes up in my therapy and counseling practice, I couldn’t wait to share it with the rest of you!
So, if you’ve got a question, click here to ask it and you may just see your question answered in a future blog post! Of course, all identifying information will be omitted to protect your anonymity.
Hi Dr. Gross,
I have a problem with my boyfriend's mother. My boyfriend and I have been dating about two years. We are both in our late 20's. My boyfriend's mother has a history of not liking her other children's "significant others." However, it really bothers me that his mother is so standoffish and judgmental towards me. Her tone and eyes are cold and she rarely offers positive affirmations of my life happenings. It makes me feel insecure and sad. My boyfriend is sad about it too. He talks to his dad who is also uncomfortable with his wife's behavior. I want to have a happy relationship with her. It is especially scary to imagine marrying my boyfriend and having her for a mother-in-law. Not sure what to do...
I look forward to hopefully reading guidance you may have.
First of all, thank you for broaching this topic! Learning how to relate to a partner’s family can be quite complex, particularly when members of that family seem reluctant to engage.
When I read your letter, the first thought I had was that your boyfriend’s mother feels exactly the way her actions make you feel: sad and insecure (scared).
Parenthood is a complicated stew of emotions: we want our children close yet we must also accept that they do eventually grow up. I think your partner's mother is grappling with this very issue and, rather than acknowledging the fear and sadness it often evokes, she is taking it out on the poor, unsuspecting partners of her now-adult children. In this case, that unsuspecting partner is you.
You feel sad and insecure for a good reason: no one wants to be pushed away by a member of their beloved's family!
If there is anything to be said or done about this, your boyfriend is the best candidate for the job. Assuming he hasn’t already done so, I would encourage him to talk with his mother and say something like, “Mom, I love you and my girlfriend so much. Nothing would make me happier than for all of us to be close and have fun together. How do you think this can happen?” This question states your boyfriend’s wishes clearly while enlisting his mother to be part of the solution. Win-win!
If your boyfriend’s mother denies her behavior or gets defensive, he gets to decide the best way to set appropriate boundaries with his mother while protecting his allegiance to you. Then, the two of you get to decide on your own how much time you choose to spend with someone whose actions leave you feeling sad, insecure, or both.
The fact that her son is ready to start a life and family of his own is a testament to what a good job his mother has done...she just doesn't know this yet.
Keep in mind that time and consistent kindness can thaw even the iciest conditions. Though things may be a bit frosty right now, if your boyfriend’s mother continues to witness how happy you make her son, she may eventually conclude that the best way to honor him is to accept the person he is choosing to spend his life with.
Thank you again for entrusting this community with your question. Best wishes to you as you navigate this challenging situation!
Yours in health,
Speaking of community, have any of you successfully worked through in-law issues? We would all benefit from knowing how you did it! Please share your story in the comments section below. Also, feel free to share this post with anyone who may be asking their own version of this question!
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, therapist, and counselor. She offers grief therapy, divorce support, and other counseling services in the Phinney Greenwood area of Seattle, WA. If you've got questions about your own relationship, schedule a free consultation to find out how therapy or counseling can help you!
Growing up, my sister and I fought a lot. I'm sure we drove our parents crazy, bickering about one perceived slight or another--who stole the purple Barbie Corvette, whose turn it was to sit in the front seat--really important stuff like that.
When frazzled adults attempted to intervene, we would immediately attempt to soften the blow of justice by casting ourselves in the role of victim. "She started it!" or "It was all her fault!" These battle cries did little to exonerate us. More frequently, they got us both into more trouble.
I am now a mother and witness to my children's whodunnit capers. At twelve and fourteen, when they disagree, it is imperative my children determine whose fault it is or who started it. Back and forth they lob the blame, desperate to "win," until they tire or I go all "Scary Mommy" on them, whichever comes first (hint: it's usually the latter). Thirty-five years later, my children picked up the argument right where my sister and I left it.
With underdeveloped egos, children play the blame game because they don't know any better. For them, a complex world is made simpler when viewed through lenses of right and wrong. Why then, in conflict, do adult family members, lovers, or friends (who know better) dissolve into enemies over seemingly trivial things? The answer is both simple and complex.
Conflict exposes our unmet needs for love, acceptance, or acknowledgement. The more intense the conflict, the deeper the unmet need. Acute awareness of this hunger makes us feel ashamed. We attack others so they won't notice how vulnerable we are.
Acknowledgement and understanding open our channels for love; self-righteousness closes them. Dividing arguments into factions of winners and losers is a betrayal of our hunger. Every time we point our finger away from ourselves, we are unconsciously telling love where to go.
If it is love we crave the most, when we are wounded, we must be brave enough to step off the mat, first toward ourselves, then toward each other. While there is no prescriptive formula for this, here are a few things to consider:
1. Know when you are triggered and take care of yourself. "The red zone" (increased heart rate, blood pressure, unclear thinking, etc.) is your body's way of signaling you to stop and pay attention to your own unmet needs. When you start to feel overwhelmed, tell the person with whom you are in conflict that you need to take a quick break to settle yourself. Twenty minutes is usually enough time to reduce cortisol (aka stress hormone) levels and restore clear thinking. When you are calm, ask yourself what you really want.
2. Consider both sides. Compassion inches us toward connection. Like you, the human with whom you are arguing is also lugging around a suitcase full of his or her own unmet needs. You already know your side of the story. Practice arguing his or hers: how might s/he feel? What might s/he want? Exploring another's perspective does not mean we agree with it. It simply means we are open to considering someone else's point of view. Sometimes, feeling heard is enough to convince both parties to drop the rope.
3. Depersonalize outcomes. Ask respectfully for what you want. This does not mean that you will get it. Rarely is this personal. Remember: all disappointment is an invitation to attend to our own hunger. Offer yourself the love you seek from another.
4. This too is temporary. This "thing" that seems so important right now? It will eventually pass. Every feeling we have is designed to last approximately 60-90 seconds. That's it!
5. Set an intention for change and give it time. Like a scab, anxiety can tempt us to pick at a situation that would otherwise heal nicely on its own. Not knowing what to do right now could mean that both time and nature need to work their magic. Set this down for a while. You can always come back to it later. All you need to know right now is that you are open to resolution.
6. You're in this together. All relationships are co-created. You alone are not responsible for fixing any relationship. Resolution requires participation from both parties.
There is no shame in hunger. Wrap your arms around whatever it is you yearn for. When we hold ourselves accountable for our own unmet needs, conflict does not divide us. It helps us find each other!
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, therapist, and counselor. She offers grief therapy, divorce support, and other counseling services in the Phinney Greenwood area of Seattle, WA. Is your relationship being torn apart by conflict? Schedule a free consultation to find out how therapy or counseling can help put things back together.
On a sunny Memorial Day weekend in Cincinnati, a three-year-old boy traversed a barricade and tumbled into the watery mote that divides zoo spectators from its magnificent family of silverback gorillas.
What ensured was horrifying. The boy was dragged through the mote, up its wall, and into the gorilla exhibit by Harambe, the 400-lb. alpha male of the family. Harambe, perhaps driven more by protective than aggressive instincts, was shot and killed by zookeepers to prevent further injury of the boy. Thankfully, the boy is fine.
The ordeal was heartbreaking.
Equally heartbreaking were the subsequent blame and judgment cast upon both the boy's parents, who lost track of their son for what was probably only a minute or two, and the zookeepers, who were forced to make a split-second decision to either spare the life of a 400-lb. gorilla with dubious motives, or save the tiny human whose fate resided in his leathery mitts. Zookeepers chose the latter and everyone, everywhere had something to say about it.
Miles away from the epicenter of such events, safe behind the motes of liquid crystal displays and anonymous user names, so many of us become experts at fault-finding and finger-pointing. The boy's parents or the zookeepers should have done this or shouldn't have done that. It's funny how those least qualified to render an opinion are often the first to do so.
As any parent can attest, what happened last weekend at the Cincinnati Zoo could have happened anywhere, to anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, or creed. Parents get distracted, overwhelmed, and, sometimes, we simply lose sight of our children.
I know. It happened to me.
While walking at a local park a few years ago, I let my (then) nine-year-old son ride his bike on the trail alongside me and my eleven-year-old daughter. As we entered the home stretch of our stroll, I scanned the horizon for the boy who, just moments ago, in flash of blue and green, whizzed past his sister and me.
There was no kid. No bike. Only a sea of unrecognizable faces.
I called for him, lest he be climbing a nearby tree, but heard nothing. I asked several other walkers if they had seen a kid matching his description. They had not.
It was as if my son had simply vanished from the trail.
On a busy park Sunday, I was alone, with a child who was not old enough to be left by herself, in search of a missing child who, I assumed, was not capable of finding the car, which we had parked in an unusually faraway location. What's more, because the park path is miles long and circular, it was impossible for me to tell if, by continuing forward on the path to look for him, I would be walking toward or away from my son.
Having watched a few too many episodes of "Unsolved Mysteries," my mind immediately started caving in on itself. With dry mouth and a racing heart, I forced my sweaty fingers to dial 9-1-1.
It was at precisely this time that some neighbors happened by me on the path and asked if I needed help. Yes. Please. Thank you. The couple quickly set off toward the car to see if, by chance, my son had found his way back to it.
In what felt like hours (but was probably only minutes--I was too disoriented to verify this), my phone rang. On the line was a Seattle police officer, kindly requesting that I return to my vehicle immediately.
Out of breath, I approached the car, where my son stood up and asked, indignantly, "What took you so long to get here?!?" Balanced on a thin line between wanting to both strike and hug this child, I simply kissed his head and told him I was glad he was safe.
Though my brief nightmare ended on a high note, driving away from the park that day, I realized that, just as easily, things could have turned out differently. In fact, we are all a split second away from a complete change in life course.
So why do humans assign blame when we could be doling out compassion and grace to those directly impacted by luckless twists of fate? The simple answer: ego protection.
We blame when the reality of our own vulnerability threatens to overwhelm us. Despite our best efforts, sometimes, bad things happen to good people and we are helpless to stop it. In the subterranean layers of our consciousness, we know this, yet blame helps us slough off the existential pain associated with how little in life we can actually control.
Blame allows us to delude ourselves that we are superior to the leading actors in any unfortunate drama--that we are somehow less susceptible than other people to misfortune.
Finally, blame simply lets us be a little more "right." And, boy, does that feel good.
Though blame may momentarily protect our fragile egos, it is an hapless barricade to love. Blame doesn't solve anything. It just makes those directly involved feel worse than they already do. By focusing on who *caused* the problem, we are unavailable to the people who need us to be part of the solution.
Blame stymies the grace and compassion we all deserve when bad things happen.
The event at the Cincinnati Zoo did not happen to bad parents or evil zookeepers. It happened to good, imperfect human beings who did the best they could with the resources available to them at the time.
In blame, we are divided. In compassion, we are one. The child who fell into the primate exhibit in Cincinnati is my child. He is yours. He is ours.
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, dating coach, and writer. She offers dating consultation and counseling services in Seattle, WA.
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Conflict. The other 'c' word.
We've all been there: twisted guts, sweaty palms, a sense of impending doom. Though, on the surface, it may seem we are afraid of another's anger, more often than not, we fear our own.
Threatened by the power of our own anger, in conflict, we typically do one or more of the following:
2. Erupt in a fit of regrettable behavior
3. Quietly smolder with resentment
We respond this way, not so others will pay attention to us, but so we will pay attention to ourselves.
What we refuse to acknowledge comes to us as fate.
When we attempt to close the door on anger, it knocks louder until we turn toward it. In our fight to eschew conflict we beckon it closer, usually in ways that do not serve us.
Welcome conflict to the table and it will leave when its message is heard.
A few years ago, a friend was criticized by her supervisor in front of her coworkers. Angry and humiliated, her head became flooded with vengeful fantasies of quitting her job (in a dramatic blaze of glory), insulting her boss, or deflating the tires of his new Maserati. It felt wrong to act on these thoughts, but it felt equally wrong to do nothing.
Instead of communicating with her boss about the incident, she started showing up late for work and missing important deadlines. Her boss inquired about her change in behavior and the two had a productive conversation. Had this conversation never happened, my friend certainly would have been fired, fanning the flames of a victim story that undermined her strength.
Then next time you find yourself at interpersonal odds, here are six steps to help you get from frustrated to free:
1. Identify the rub. When you feel the gut punch of anger, stop. Count to ten (or 100). Break down the offensive interaction into factual steps and identify the resulting feelings.
As you do this, avoid giving away your power with assumptions about the other person (e.g., "He said that because he's got it out for me!"). Stick to the facts as you experienced them.
In the example above, my friend felt hurt, angry, and humiliated because negative feedback was given to her, in front of her peers, without her prior consent.
2. Determine the goal. You know what happened and how you felt about it, now it's time to figure out what you want the outcome of the conflict to be.
My friend wanted to avoid future embarrassment in department meetings. Though she could not control how her boss behaved, she could give him the information needed to avoid repeating the same scenario.
3. Determine the ask. Figure out what question or questions that, if asked, could help achieve the goal and/or provide greater clarity.
My friend wanted to ask her boss to schedule a private meeting should he have feedback about her performance in the future.
4. Determine the audience. Once you know what questions to ask, identify the person who most needs to hear them and set up a time to talk, face-to-face. Make a statement of the facts as you experienced them. Then share the ask.
Unless doing so would compromise your personal safety, always address conflict at its source.
5. Listen. Having asked the appropriate questions with the desired outcome in mind, it's time to sit back and listen. Keep an open mind and give others the benefit of the doubt. You'll be so much happier with the outcome!
Please note that it is never okay to yell or name call. You are entitled to end a conversation when these behaviors are present. Step away, breathe, and revisit the discussion when both you and the other party are calm.
6. Watch and wait. You've honored your anger by listening and responding appropriately to its message. So what now? Sit tight and observe. If either the situation of your outlook about it improves, you have achieved resolution. If the situation remains the same, consider repeating steps 1-5 and see what happens.
There will be times when nothing changes, despite our best efforts. This is actually a gift. Some conflicts are meant to help us change course altogether. Conflict should be a temporary stop along the way; not a permanent destination. If you're spending more time in conflict than contentment, it is time to consider walking away. If you've tried everything and nothing seems to be working, consider seeking professional guidance from a qualified therapist or counselor. Your peace of mind is worth the effort!
Because no two people think, act, or feel alike, there will be relationship discord from time to time. In honoring anger, we care for ourselves. In opening to conflict, we care for our relationships. Follow the steps above. Time and life will sort the rest out for you.
Got a good conflict resolution story? I'd love to read about it in the comments section below.
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, therapist, and counselor. She offers grief therapy, divorce support, and other counseling services in the Phinney Greenwood area of Seattle, WA. Need help resolving conflict? Schedule a risk-free consultation to find out how therapy or counseling can help you get from "frustrated" to FREE!
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, grief counselor, and dating coach. Her coaching and therapy practice is located in the Phinney - Greenwood area of North Seattle in Washington.