A passive-aggressive mother-in-law

Columnist November 14, 2011

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I need a better way to handle my mother-in-law. She’s passive-aggressive, gives the silent treatment, doesn’t understand that she’s not the victim all the time (everyone else is just mean, etc.), complains about not seeing her grandkids but then always has something better to do than actually spend time with them (and the cycle continues).

Usually I just roll my eyes at her behavior and move on. However, it’s getting worse, and my husband lets his frustration build until he snaps at her, which is not productive. As my children get older (5 and 2), I don’t want them to learn that her methods are appropriate.

So what to do? And what sort of conversation with her will work?

Grown-ups acting like teenagers

She has already made clear that a “conversation with her” won’t work; she’s not receptive to constructive criticism. She thinks everyone else is the problem.

This is one of those “you can’t stop her, you can only hope to contain her” situations. Devise a plan that takes her various land mines into account and works around them. It sounds like work, but most of the effort is in setting up your approach well enough to make the times you interact with her more relaxed.

Start by determining a visit schedule that’s as close as you can get (without losing your mind) to a complaint-proof frequency.

Then, choose terms for the visits that help you avoid predictable conflicts. For example, if she’s always on your case about the way you run your household, then visit on her turf; if she refuses to childproof because “you should teach your 2-year-old not to pick up knives left on the floor,” then visits are mostly at your house or kid-friendly venues, like parks or children’s museums.

Also, have distracting activities planned, since busy people are much less obnoxious than bored ones (this goes equally for kids, needy adults, eye-rolling adults and fed-up adults who bottle up their frustration till they snap).

Combine these steps with the basics of keeping visits short, avoiding contentious topics, and acting as a gentle buffer between Grandma and grandkids, and it might be possible to keep Grandma in your kids’ lives without its becoming a drain.

Hi, Carolyn:

The guys I like the most don’t seem to like me as much, and the ones who do like me, I can’t bring myself to like back. When I like someone a lot I tend to clam up and not show my true self. When I am not interested, I am comfortable with myself and I attract guys really easily. How do I get over this?

Relationship saboteur

Everyone has this problem to some degree.

And the solution is universal, too: Put yourself in situations where you get to know people over time and through a common activity. That will give you natural conversation topics and things to do in the silences, which will push you through awkward stages. Choose an activity you enjoy enough to lose yourself in, and you’ll be yourself without knowing it.

Even better, it will turn your attention from seeing people as prospective dates to just seeing them in action, which will help both of you see each other more clearly.

More from Carolyn Hax:

Pregnant and fretful

Parenting in the good old days

Husband wonders how wife became so distant  

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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