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Ask Dr. Jenn about in-laws always on the outs

April 14, 2014

Q:

I am a 40-something-year-old female who is happily married with two children. For the most part, my life is happy and secure, but I am always struggling with the fact that my husband doesn't just dislike  my family, he hates them. It keeps me up  at night. What can I do?

A:

A few people are lucky enough  to have loved ones who get along great! Most of us, however, have some people  in our families who don't get along at all. It is normal to feel your own stress and  unhappiness when others around us who  we care for deeply are not getting along. The problem often comes when you either have to hear about the conflict from both members of your family, or you take it upon yourself to try to intervene.

Here are a few things we can do to manage our own stress around other people's relationship struggles. First, sometimes we need to practice better listening. Usually when people vent to us, they don't want us to solve their problem for them. They just want empathy and a person who won't tell them they are wrong and crazy. My guess is you have a tendency to want to take sides with either your husband or your parents at times, but it's important to ready yourself for their venting sessions and focus not on making them feel differently, but on just hearing their words and the emotions behind their words. Try reflecting what you hear them say and the emotions you can tell they are having.

Second, it is crucial that you not become part of an unhealthy triangle between your husband and your family. Listening to them vent is one thing, trying to intervene is a bad idea. It won't work for you to talk to your family about your husband and his feelings, or him about theirs. This simply puts you in the middle of their conflict.

Ideally every adult should be able to manage their own conflict with another without a third person intervening and trying to influence the way the two behave or think. In fact, I believe it is the only way they will grow and learn is by trying to resolve their own differences themselves without another family member between them. But until they are ready to sit together and make a plan for how to keep the peace, they won't be ready for you to step in the middle. What will happen is your husband will be upset with you and your parents will be upset with you, and then you will resent them both for "putting you in that situation" when really it was up to you to not engage in the first place.

Families grow and change over time, just like individual human beings do. Families have a developmental process, and we can expect that over time things will change naturally. But it is also true that if families change in an unhealthy way and do not work hard to improve their relational health, they may get stuck in poor patterns of communication and behavior.

Having said that, it is not up to us individually to fix our families' problems. Seek a therapist who is trained in family systems theory who can help you and your family members think through what they are willing to change and what they simply won't budge on. Be patient as they weigh the pros and cons of getting along for the sake of you and the rest of the people who love them equally.

Want to meet with a therapist?

If you would like to meet with one of our therapists here on campus, we offer Commitment to Campus benefits for all staff and faculty after you have utilized your Employee Assistance Plan benefits. That means 50 percent of the cost of your therapy with us is covered by the University. We have no waitlist and therapists who are highly trained to deal with exactly these kinds of issues.

Call the Center for Family and Couple Therapy at 970-491-5991 or cfct@colostate.edu for a confidential intake.

Jenn Matheson is an associate professor of Human Development and Family Studies and the director of the Center for Family and Couple Therapy. She will respond to questions from the CSU community focused on relationships on a regular basis in CSU Life. If you have a question or topic for Dr. Jenn, email her at cfct@colostate.edu.


Contact: Gretchen Gerding
E-mail: gretchen.gerding@colostate.edu
Phone: (970) 491-5182