Dealing with Difficult In-Laws (2)
By: Beth McHugh 2006
Want to find out what’s happening with Helena and Dave, and Dave’s “fun” brother, Dean? How about Claire and her intrusive mother, and Elise and Carl and the mother-in-law who just won’t hear? Read on!
In the last article on Dealing with Difficult In-Laws (1), we read that Helena and Dave had a problem with Dave’s brother, Dean. Or at least Helena had a problem with Dean and his constant money borrowing. Dave seemed to think that, as it was only $50 here and there (plus the occasional bigger hit), it was all okay. Helena, as we remember, wanted to save in order to have a family, and was becoming increasingly furious with her brother-in-law. Her husband’s over-tolerant attitude made Helena even more frustrated with her charming, but cash-strapped, in-law.
The mistake that Helena is making here is that she believes her problem is her brother-in-law, Dean. Initially, Dean was the problem, as he was using his position as a family member to “borrow” money off his more financially stable older brother. But as long as Helena believes that Dean is her problem, she will feel stuck, angry, and resentful about the situation. This is not uncommon. In fact, it seems reasonable and logical to think that Dean is the problem here. He is the one continually borrowing money and taking advantage of the good nature of his older brother, isn’t he?
Yes, he is. So, it’s quite natural for Helena to feel increasing rage at her brother-in-law and see him as the source of her problem. But things aren’t always what they seem. Helena’s real problem has shifted from her brother-in-law and onto her husband. Dave is putting his relationship with his brother ahead of his relationship with his wife, although, to be fair, Dave would probably not be aware of this. He is probably just helping out his brother as he has probably done all his life, and sees this help as a “brotherly” thing to do. Again, it is generally a good thing to help out family members when they need a hand. Up to a point.
What Dave doesn’t realize it that Dean has crossed the line of acceptable behavior. Helena is recognizing and reacting to it, and Dave is just carrying on doing what Dave has always done: bail his little brother out. The situation is complicated these days because a) Dave is now a married man and his first responsibility is to his wife, not his brother, and b) Helena and Dave are wanting to start a family and Helena will be giving up work for a couple of years and they need to save.
As the problem is not being resolved despite (or because of) Helena’s constant complaints, the best thing for Helena to do in the short term is recognize where the true problem lies. Continuing to hassle her husband about Dean or even confronting Dean has not worked. In fact, Dean isn’t having a problem at all! He’s getting free accommodation whenever he feels like dropping in, plus a handout when things get a little tight in the money department. Why would he be having a problem? And why would he change?
Having realized that the problem lies with her husband, Helena needs to move the spotlight off her brother-in-law and place it firmly where it belongs: on her husband. She needs to emphasize to her husband that they are a family of two, hopefully very soon of three, and that his responsibility lies firstly at home, not the home he came from. Helena does not need to get angry or aggressive with her husband. She merely needs to state how the situation really is: that they are not working together as a team, and that Dean is taking advantage of the situation. Helena and Dave need to come to a mutual agreement of what they will and will not do for Dean.
By changing his thinking and acting, Dave will actually be doing his brother a favor in forcing him to take responsibility for his own life, and will have the added benefit of strengthening his marriage. If, however, Helena cannot get through to her husband, and the situation is causing her continuing stress, seeking counseling would allow a dispassionate third party to point out to Dave the unhelpful dynamics of the present three-way scenario.
Next blog in this series: the problem of the intrusive mother, and the mother-in-law who just won’t hear.