Fittest loser
Article posted: 10/27/2013 6:14 AM

In-laws wrestle with how to deal with email bombs

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By Carolyn Hax

Q. My only child, his wife and two children live a substantial distance away. Both my son and daughter-in-law have highly demanding, stressful careers. My husband and I are self-employed, so we can be flexible. We see our son and his family every couple of months and try to be as helpful as the distance permits. We have, for example, several times gone to visit on short notice to baby-sit.

Although my daughter-in-law can be effusively appreciative, she frequently scolds me or my husband. I have received emails that do not say, "Dear MIL, thank you for your help," but only, "You left the garage door open and a raccoon could have turned over the garbage. You need to be more careful." Once when we were 45 minutes late getting home with the children from a play group, I received an email chiding me for not being respectful of her parenting preferences. When we take the family on nice vacations (often to a location she has chosen), she complains that someplace else would have been better.

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When I asked my son how I should respond to her criticism, he said she doesn't intend to be mean, but she reacts/types without thinking. Of course, it is important to have a good relationship with her, we appreciate that we get to see our grandchildren often and we don't want to put our son in the middle. Should we just ignore her critiques?

A. Mostly, yes.

You've covered the main reason: grandchild access, which is good for all of you. I get that it can feel like a hostage situation, but you do have the occasional "effusively appreciative" moments to hang onto as validation. And, of course, that priceless time with the kids.

Another reason to let her scoldings bounce off you: If she is as critical of your son and their kids as she is of you, then your son will need people outside his home whom he can count on to love him and his kids purely, and who can serve as touchstones for him; relationships with difficult or critical people can really bang up one's sense of self. If you engage with his wife on these insults, which are more about her than they are about you, then you can't be fully available to him as a safety zone.

Another possible reason: The criticisms you cite strike me as a little bizarre, as does her emailing them to you later instead of just saying as you arrive -- "You're 45 minutes late! Now they're late for hula-hoop lessons!" Throw in the career, maybe -- is it a brainy one? -- and the fact that her criticisms aren't tirades, but instead rather bloodless corrections -- right? -- and I wonder if this isn't more about her poor grasp of social norms and cues than anything else.

Not that this would make her emails a bucket of giggles to open, but it might help you mentally quarantine them in a way that minimizes their effect.

Q. At what point do you drop a friend because you just can't deal with her lifestyle choices?

A good friend from college married soon after graduation, and returned to her small hometown. Seven years ago, she learned that her husband had a mistress. Not "had an affair." Had a mistress, of five years' duration.

I went with her through the original shock and outrage, while she decided what to do. At this point, she is resigned to the situation. She indulges in occasional bouts of self-pity, but for the most part insists that "everything else in my life is pretty good," so she's not willing to abandon ship. When her husband recently went into the hospital, she and Mistress took turns caring for him.

When I think back to the beautiful, vivacious and ambitious friend I knew in college, I want to scream.

Sad to say, I have simply lost respect for her. I don't want to do anything as dramatic as make this proclamation and cut her out of my life, but I am fed up with the situation. Any suggestions?

A. A funny thing happened as I was reading your letter. Your opening line nudged me toward "lifestyle choices" that involve recklessness or malice.

But no. If you're right about her lost vivacity (and not just judging her)*, then her choices harm mainly her, with sadness.

So here's my advice: Act with love for her, since it's possible she can't right now.

"When I think back to the beautiful, vivacious and ambitious friend I knew in college, I want to scream. I have some distance here, and can see how the past X years have affected you. Your light is going out. I don't know how to respond anymore." A good friend won't "drop" someone without first trying the truth.

*Not all complicated marriages are spirit-snuffers. If you do judge her, then be honest about that, too.)

• Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her online at 11 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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