The Washington Post

Carolyn Hax: An emotionally destructive dance between son, daughter-in-law


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

Just spent weekend with Son and Daughter-in-Law. Son behaved horribly toward Wife, to the point that I had to get between them and, concerned for safety of all, I told him to leave.

Daughter-in-Law, however, lit into me for “placating” son, not seeing the “real” him, creating a monster, and she started all over again in the morning. I saw a completely different side of her as she verbally attacked me. This is the side Son has only recently shared with me.

Please hear me: He was over-the-top angry and wrong. Made it clear to him.

But she also was berating him, over and over, went to bed and got up an hour later to scream at him out of the blue . . . I could see the emotionally destructive dance. They are in counseling now, but there is a 4-month-old baby involved. How do I offer help but also create appropriate space for self and them?

Son and Daughter-in-Law Fury

Wow. Poor kid. Poor everybody.

There’s one thing you can do immediately, and that is to urge your son to supplement the (I assume) couples’ counseling with his-and-hers individual counseling — and if you can, offer to pay for it. Solo therapy is in his best interests regardless, whether she turns out to be an emotional abuser, he does, or both. That’s because emotional abusers don’t just hit pause on their abuse when they enter a therapist’s office; they are known to manipulate the proceedings to their advantage.

If you live near enough to them (doesn’t sound as if that’s the case, given the all-weekend visit), then you can offer to babysit on a regular basis, a “shift” that’s on the calendar every week. It could be an oasis for this child, while also alleviating some of the caregiving pressure on the parents — which, in turn, could help them deal with other pressures a little better. It also gives you a vantage point from which you can discern the truth.

If you’re not local, then try to visit often, even if you have to stay off-site to avoid crowding them.

Re: Fury:

The daughter-in-law could be experiencing postpartum depression. One of the signs of depression — way down on the list — is anger. Maybe she should be screened for that. Unless she’s always been this way, in which case it could be general depression or something more serious like bipolar disorder.


Yes, PPD is a possibility, thanks. She also might have gone off meds to have and nurse the baby; maybe, too, she’s abusive and the baby cemented her control, freeing her to let loose.

If the son is forthcoming, the parents can get a decent idea of the context from his wife’s background and the timing of any behavior change. If it came with the baby, then PPD is likely; if it started when they shacked up/got engaged, escalated at marriage and spiked at Baby, then abuse is the strong candidate. Of course, he’d be able to speak to any diagnosed conditions, and they’d know whether he has abusive traits of his own.

There’s a limit to how much is a parent’s business, obviously. However, informed parents can provide extra hands, plus the kind of clarity that only distance allows.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Subscribe at



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