"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
November 15, 2012
Critical In-Laws
by Cyndie Swindlehurst

Question:

We live a long distance from my husband’s parents. I am happy about this, because every time they come to visit, my mother-in-law spends most of her visit criticizing us.

Most of the criticism seems to center around her belief that we are “fancy”: we stay in clean hotels instead of flea bags, we don’t eat in our car, we throw away socks that get holes in them. When she sees us doing something “fancy,” she tells us how dumb it is, and we have to explain why it is not dumb, and we end up in an argument. If I have to hear her say, “My son was not raised that way!” one more time, I will scream.

Worse, she seems to think that once we are older and have a family of our own, we will suddenly come to our senses and move back to her hometown and hang out with the extended family every day and do everything the way she likes it done. This is highly unlikely.

She is coming for a visit soon, and I need some help getting through the week.

Any advice?

Answer:

It is very unpleasant to be criticized. Especially by a guest in your home. If this happened during a visit from a non-family member, you would simply never invite the person again.

But because they are family, you have a two-pronged problem. One, what is the polite way to respond? Two, how can you build a relationship with them when they constantly criticize you?

Because difficult as it may seem, your duty is to build the best relationship you can with your in-laws. They are family, so unless they are truly horrible, toxic people worthy of being expunged from your lives (and there are such people), you should treat them with respect and try to develop a warm relationship with them.

A little compassion and humility will go a long way in this endeavor. Perhaps your in-laws think your “fancy” ways are a purposeful repudiation of their ways. You must admit that would be an unpleasant feeling. It might be useful to try to see things from their perspective.

You must remember, however, that you have no power to change your in-laws’ opinions, tastes, or personalities. You can only accept them as they are.

The other thing you must remember is that you and your husband are adults. Around one’s parents, it is easy to slip back into the role of a child who thinks his parents should accommodate him instead of the other way around. But adults are expected to take the high road, be the bigger person, look at the big picture, and be patient with others. Adults should behave correctly no matter what other people do to aggravate them. (Whether or not they do is another question. And this is not to imply that children and teenagers should not also strive to meet this standard.)

In your situation, being adults means that you will extend to your in-laws all of the consideration they are owed as your husband’s parents and guests in your home, whether or not they deserve it. You will not fight with them, sulk, or criticize them. You will be unfailingly polite no matter what they do.

Specifically, I suggest a new response to their criticism. Instead of stridently defending your positions, which, as you have admitted, always leads to an argument (which is neither polite nor relationship-building), try mildness. Refusing to defend your position doesn’t mean you agree with your in-laws. It simply means you refuse to fight with them.

So, when criticized, try one of the following tactics, delivered in a mild tone of voice:

  • Change the subject. “How is Cousin Tabitha’s new baby?”
  • Ask questions about her opinion. “Really? You always darn your old gym socks? How did you learn? Do you need a special attachment on your sewing machine? How much thread does it take? How many times can you darn a sock before it has to be replaced?”
  • Agree with them on some point of the criticism, but not with their conclusion about what you should be doing instead. “You’re right. We do live far away. We miss almost every family event.”
  • Express sorrow at their displeasure. Your words should be sorrowful, but not your expression. “I’m sorry you don’t like the potatoes. I thought you would enjoy them. Here, let me put them over here by me.”
  • Pleasant disagreement. “We are going to stay at the Big Hotel, but you don’t have to.”

All of these responses should be made as you continue to do whatever it is you were already doing.

These mild responses should be especially do-able for you because you only have to make them for a week. Your in-laws’ behavior may be just as difficult to endure as before, but at least you will enjoy the satisfaction of acting nicely.

With any luck, your newfound mildness with reduce tension and strife between you and your in-laws, leaving room for the more pleasant interactions on which warm relationships are built. There are also several other things you can do as hosts to try and minimize the criticism while building a relationship.

Expect to be criticized. An unpleasant situation is much more difficult to endure when it is unexpected. So prepare for the worst.

Avoid recurring bones of contention. If, while grocery shopping, your mother-in-law always says she can’t believe you shop at Fancy Supermarket because it is so expensive and Husband just wasn’t raised that way, then do your shopping before she arrives. If she loathes Fancy Restaurant, take them someplace else. If she scoffs at the many throw pillows on your guest bed, remove them. Supermarkets, restaurants, and throw pillows are not worth an argument.

This rule does not extend to moral issues. If your in-laws can’t believe you don’t watch a racy show or that you go to church every Sunday, well, so be it. You should continue to do what is morally right with tact (that means you don’t criticize their way of doing things), but no apology.

Prepare a tag-team distraction plan. When your husband observes his mother heading into a criticism of you, he could butt in and insist that she come watch a TV show with him or talk about relatives you don’t know or something like that. If she starts in on him, you could ask her to please come and show you how to do whatever skill she has that you admire, or to please tell you about the exciting project she just finished. You must act eager for her company or expertise.

Plan the trip to be enjoyable to your in-laws. If they like aquariums, go to the aquarium. If they like Chili’s, eat at Chili’s. If they like the air conditioning turned down low, endure it for a week. If they want to try an Italian restaurant, try one even if you prefer Thai. If they like new things, try new things. If they like familiar things, do familiar things. Do things they will enjoy, not things you wished they enjoyed. You can do your favorite things on your own time.

Hopefully, they will see that you respect their opinions and enjoy their company. In theory, this will strengthen your relationship and inspire your mother-in-law to take a break from pointing out your differences. It may not work quickly, or at all, but you will have done your duty by trying.

Finally, in some families there is room for a very straightforward approach to criticism: telling the person to knock it off.

Caution! Because this approach calls attention to your guests’ bad manners, it is a serious deviation from etiquette. It is only acceptable in families where offenses are quickly and explosively resolved, and then promptly forgotten with no hard feelings. It is the rare family that actually operates this way. In most families, such a breach of basic manners would damage a relationship.

If you and your husband are sure your in-laws will not think it is rude or hurtful, and if you want to be the kind of people who say such things to guests:

  • Do it immediately upon hearing the criticism.
  • Respond only to the particular criticism.
  • Be pointed, but not huffy or nasty.
  • Don’t insult them or be sarcastic.
  • Express no resentment. Instantly forgive the offense.
  • If you offend them, you must apologize.
  • Do not attempt it unless you can pull it off without sounding like you hate and resent them, or crying.
  • Consider whether your husband, who has the deeper relationship with them, should be the only one to attempt this approach.
Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!


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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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