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Excellent Insights But Lacking In Helpful Advice
on October 25, 2005
I often recommend Susan Forward's other books, "Toxic Parents" and "Emotional Blackmail" in my ministry for adult children of abusive or controlling birth-families (Luke 17:3 Ministries). I read "Toxic In-Laws" in the hopes of adding yet another dimension to the damage overbearing or controlling parents can do to your life.
I liked how the book started out, describing the types of toxic in-laws, which include Critics, Engulfers, Controllers. Rejectors, and Masters of Chaos. The analysis of why they behave this way was right on. Examples of the reasons why include concern over "what people will think", a missing empathy gene, holding onto your partner (their child) at all costs, acting out old scripts, and exorcising their demons by attacking you. The author is so right when she warns young marrieds that if they think the in-laws are controlling now, just wait till the grandkids come along! She teaches us that although many of us cling to the false hope that "once they get to know me, they'll like me", time doesn't help and usually worsens the hostility.
We are shown that we are part of a triangle- often viewed as competition by our spouses' parents. Many times they don't like that they now have to deal with you, and that their issues are no longer just between them and their child. They know you influence their child and are angry that their child has "left them" for you. They may have rigid opinions, think they know everything and you (and/or their child) know nothing , and will distort reality to make it conform to their truth.
Unfortunately, the child of such in-laws usually does not stand up for his or her spouse. The spouse is left feeling like an outsider with everyone against her. She often feels totally betrayed by a spouse who lets his parents criticize, insult, or abuse her.
Much of the rest of the book is devoted to enlisting your spouse as an ally so that you can make a united front against his parents' behavior. Unfortunately, in my ministry experience, most attempts at getting your partner to stand up to his parents and defend you will fail, but I agree that it's worth a shot, before taking matters into your own hands. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a waste, but I did feel that the author devoted a great deal of time to strategies for getting your spouse to support you, when what he will really need before he can stand up to his parents, is years of therapy!
There is an empowering chapter on rights and responsibilities. Many of us ask ourselves if we have the right to upset everyone, to speak up to our in-laws when they hurt us even though they're not our parents, to put our spouse in the middle, or to expect him to take our side.
The author lists our rights as a person and with our spouse, which include the right to be treated with respect, to protect your own emotional health, to get angry, to raise your children without interference, to change your mind, to express your own feelings and opinions, to set guidelines with your partner for your household and have them honored, to protest to your partner when his parents hurt you, to expect your partner to put you first, etc.
Our rights with our in-laws include the right to say no, to disagree, to not love them, to let them know when they've offended you, to have them stay out of problems between you and your husband, to set limits on how much time you spend with them, to take an active part in how holidays are celebrated, etc.
We are warned that although these rights are a matter of freedom and common sense, everyone resists change. Accepting the fact that in many cases, we will be standing up to our in-laws alone, the author prepares us for confrontation by teaching us the skill of non-defensive communication in setting limits on our in-laws and their behavior. She teaches us how to stand fast against their reactions, and appropriate responses when they pull out the big guns such as denial, anger, playing the martyr, or accusing us of being the problem.
Sometimes we will set limits on our in-laws (or parents) and they will not respond at all. We may not hear from them again. We may be confused and wonder what is going on. But the author tells us that "No answer is the loudest answer of all." We are helped to accept that sometimes nothing will get resolved, but that will be their failure, not ours. The important thing is that we hold to our truth and live in peace, with or without them.