I can't cope with his needy mother

I can't cope with his needy mother

QUESTION:

your avatar   Amanda, 21-year-old woman

My husband and I live in the same building as his mother, right down stairs to be exact. Every single day she calls him at least five times and knocks on the door at least three times. We have never spent just one day without her coming to get him. He thinks that I'm just trying to cause problems but her neediness bothers me a lot. He is my husband, the father of my children and yet I cannot have him for one day. My husband and I argue and fight about this a lot. He says that it doesn't bother him and that it shouldn't bother me because when she calls she's calling for him not me.

How can I get her to understand that she needs to give us some space? How can I get my husband to realize that this is causing a strain on our relationship?

What should I do?

ANSWER:

    Brenda Kofford, LMHC

Dear Amanda,

When a young couple begins the process of establishing their own family, it is a natural movement away from their family of origin. This change, for both families of origin and for the newly forming family, takes on different forms for different families and generally stirs up all kinds of issues, new and old. Therefore, it takes time for a young couple to define their marriage; such as, who will they see on holidays and when and how others are invited into the family. So the formation of a new family brings about change and the process of accepting and adjusting to change is a difficult undertaking for everyone.

What I gathered from your writing is that you and your husband live in the same apartment building as your mother-in-law. She lives alone, is isolated from family and friends, and is dependent upon your husband. Also, due to the frequent occurrence of your mother-in-law's request for assistance and the building up of feelings within you, the conflict between you and your husband isn't resolved before you hear the phone ring or a knock on the door. These sounds may be like placing a toy block on top of a shaky tower. Eventually, the blocks scatter all over the place as they tumble to the floor.

When one person in a family speaks about his/her own emotional pain, it generally is a message that the whole family is hurting. Also, since you are the one who has found the courage to speak of your pain, you may be the one who has the ability to take on the challenge of changing the dynamics in this emotional triangle.

Observe the feelings you feel when your mother-in-law reaches out to your husband, those you feel when your husband responds to his mother's "neediness," and those you experience when you personally respond to her request for help. What is different about your thinking, feelings, and actions when you are more OK with the interruptions in your daily schedule?

Identify how much time would you like to have alone with your husband, alone with the children, with your husband and the children together, and with your mother-in-law. What would these times be like -- talking, watching a movie on TV, eating dinner without any interruptions, playing a game, reading a story, etc.

Brainstorm how you could arrange to invite your husband to spend time alone with you, with the children, and with his mother.

Formulate your feelings and desires into "I" statements. Remember, those statements that state or imply that the other needs to change, are an invitation to war and therefore are responded to with a counterattack -- "No, I am not the one to change, you are!" The blocks will continue to tumble and scatter.

Arrange for a time/place where you and your husband will not be interrupted. Share your feelings, thoughts, and solutions with your spouse. Keep to those "I" statements!

Be open to creative problem-solving scenarios. Some of the greatest marketing plans began with the most ridiculous ideas.

Accept that change occurs in small steps and there will be set backs.

Repeat the above with your mother-in-law.

Explore how you could develop and maintain a positive relationship with your mother-in-law.

Remember--change is difficult.

In closing, as a child, one of my favorite TV shows was "The Waltons." In this family series, John Walton, his wife, and their seven children lived with John's parents. During one segment of the series where conflict arose due to a lack of family boundaries, the family reached an understanding that when a potted germanium was placed on the porch this was a silent message that a marital couple was requesting privacy. The theme I found in this story is that in all families, anxiety surfaces when there is either too much distance or too much closeness. Therefore, it is important for someone to take responsibility for his/her own relationship needs by explaining to others the purpose of the potted plant, by placing a potted plant on the porch, and a reciprocal need for the others to respect the message of the potted plant.

Don't problem-solve or make decisions when you're upset. Your solutions will mirror your mood.
"If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito."
Dalai Lama
Reclaim responsibility of your emotions, and you'll regain your ability to regulate them.
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