Q. My husband and I have been married for 1 1/2 years and live -- for better or worse -- very near our parents.
We get along fine with my mother, who is divorced, but have a real problem when we visit his parents. My husband never really got along with them, and so we only see them on special occasions.
His father -- a retired engineer -- monopolizes every conversation with extremely technical topics that no one else can join, and is so loud that my ears ring after we've been with them.
What really gets to me though -- and to my husband -- is the way he discounts anything I say, or shows a total lack of interest in it. I am college-educated and pride myself on being very current and involved in the everyday world.
When men treat me this way I feel angry, because my own father could never accept me or my siblings as we were. He even said we'd never amount to much in life although we all became successful, happy, outgoing people. I shouldn't have to take such put-downs after what I went through in childhood. I'm going to stay married and be part of my husband's family for years to come. How can I make my father-in-law treat me better? I'm not afraid to sit down and talk with him.
A. Since he doesn't listen to your opinions about the world, he probably won't listen to the matters close to your heart -- and these are the matters that make his behavior so painful to you. You won't be able to deal with it constructively until you resolve your past.
This man is your father-in-law, not your father. He's not the one who put you down as a child or turned away from you and your siblings. Your father-in-law is just a lonely fellow who has stored up a thousand things to say; a vulnerable guy who talks about technical subjects because no one else can top him; a distant person who is afraid to get too close, and he's probably someone with a hearing problem too. People who monopolize conversations, have very loud voices and pay little attention to women often behave this way because they can't hear very well, and they especially can't hear women. Female voices are usually higher and much harder to hear than male voices.
You can test his hearing at home if you stand out of sight while you speak sweet words, the same way you'd offer sweets to a child if you thought she had a hearing problem.
Walk a few feet behind his chair and softly tell him that you like his new tie or you think he's so smart. If he doesn't respond, speak a little louder, then louder still, until you get some reaction.
It would take an audiologist to check your father-in-law properly and to recommend the right hearing aid if it's needed, but at least this home test can tell if he should have a work-up.
If he does, let your husband be the one who arranges for him to see the specialist. It doesn't sound like he'd pay much attention to you. Even if he gets a hearing aid for each ear, and they're both programmed to screen out background noises, they won't turn him into a lovable old duffer. Your father-in-law still will be vulnerable and distant, perhaps because one of his parents seemed unkind and uncaring to him when he was growing up. As you know so well, these old hurts hang on, but they don't have to pass from person to person, like a baton in a relay race. It's time to break the cycle.
A caring daughter-in-law could be just the aid he needs to help him do that. If you take an interest in him and if you give him some no-strings-attached compliments, he should improve, because he won't have to go to such lengths to get attention.
This won't be a barrel of fun for you, but the strong really are obliged to take care of the weak -- and you seem to be considerably stronger than he is. You also have an obligation to make things a little easier for your husband, but don't think you're just being nice for him or for your father-in-law either. Your compassion will help you work through your anger at your dad and you need to do that, either on your own or through therapy. If you can't get over it, you'll get mad every time a colleague, a boss -- or a husband -- goes through a cranky phase, and this reaction can even make you quit a job -- or a marriage. When you base a decision on the past, it can damage your whole future.
To get along better with this new family of yours, read "How In-Laws Relate" by Leah Shifrin Averick (Shapolsky; $15.95). The more you understand them, the better they'll look to you.
Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.