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Dating Maze #371: Abusive In-Laws

November 22, 2012 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

My future in-laws are aggressive and violent. Help!

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I have been dating a woman for almost two years. We come from the same city and knew each other for a while before we decided to start going out. I graduated from college last year, and she is still studying.

We've both grown a lot during the past two years, especially during the time I was on the West Coast for a six-month internship program. That trip was hard for both of us. We Skyped and texted almost every day, and while it was a good way to get to know each other more deeply, we saw things in each other that we didn't like – ways of dealing with certain situations, and different viewpoints. It took a lot of talking and working together to understand each other better and find ways to compromise, and sometimes to just accept our differences. Today, most of these "issues" have been resolved and our relationship has grown.

But there is one big problem that I don't know how to handle. It has to do with her parents. Our parents come from different cultural backgrounds, and hers are very controlling and aggressive. Every little difference of opinion in their house, whether involving parents or siblings, means a big fight – screams, cries, anger and nasty threats.

This is awful for me to accept and I want my dating partner to understand that this isn't the way for healthy families to interact. I have been very patient in this process, even though seeing what went on in her family made me quite tense and triggered fights between the two of us.

Her parents do more than just yell. She's been hit from the time she was little.

I recently discovered that her parents do more than just yell. She called me crying because her mother hit her. I thought it was an isolated incident. But a few weeks later her mother hit her again. This time, she admitted that she's been hit from the time she was little.

Needless to say, my attitude toward her parents has changed dramatically. They have always been kind to me. Whenever I’m around, they are very loving to their daughter. Now I have lost my desire to even be in their house, and I feel that I have to be on guard to protect her against them. I also worry about their becoming the grandparents of my children and them family fighting in front of my kids. I am also concerned about how my friend will react to difficult situations that may arise with our children, especially when I'm not home.

I have invested two years with this woman. We enjoy being together and have similar visions about what we want for the future, how we want our home to be, and the kind of Jewish life we want. I mentioned that I'm writing to you and she also would like to hear your advice. Can you help?


Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

Rosie and Sherry's Answer:

Dear Nick,

Thank you for writing. This is not an uncommon dating situation: Two people develop a close connection and want to move in the direction of marriage, but one of them discovers a family dynamic that worries him deeply. Often, he doesn't know what to do with this new information. He may be afraid of saying something because he doesn't want to start an argument, or fear it is overstepping a boundary. He may think he's overly worrying that the nice person he's dating could be capable of the same extreme reactions to stress and disagreements as her parents and siblings.

Fortunately, you were able to voice your concerns to us, as well as to the young woman you're dating, and she wants help addressing them as much as you do. You're also fortunate to have both learned to discuss your disagreements and work together to resolve them. When a couple has good communication and problem-solving skills, they feel they can work as a team. They experience a deepening level of trust in that they can be honest with each other. You might not have had the courage to bring up the sensitive issue of unhealthy family dynamics if you didn't feel you could do so safely with this woman. Now that you have, the two of you can take much-needed steps to address these concerns.

You've described a family who hasn't learned how to deal with frustration and disagreement in a calm, productive way. Their unhealthy dynamic may have started because the parents couldn't communicate well with each other, and as a result often felt they weren't heard or understood, that their opinions or feelings didn't matter, and/or that weren't getting the emotional support or empathy they needed. They channeled this disappointment and frustration into anger, yelling, threats and even physical "punishment." Their children seem to have learned the same poor skills.

Perhaps this woman’s family does not like this approach of yelling and threats, but they don't know any other way to communicate in such stressful situations. When there's no conflict, they may be loving and agreeable, and simply view this mixture as a normal family dynamic. Sometimes, a child first begins to realize there are healthier ways for families to deal with conflict when she spends time at the home of a friend, moves away to attend college, or dates someone whose family interacts with each other in a calmer, more communicative way.

This seems to be what is happening here. This woman understands that her family’s pattern of interaction isn't healthy, and she turns to you for emotional support when she experiences something painful. She appears to share your concern that she might "fall into" similar patterns of behavior when she has a family of her own.

Even though they may not like it, this dysfunctional behavior can become comfortable.

You're both very wise to understand that this often does happen, even to people who hate the yelling and physical punishment they grew up with and insist they will never repeat it with their own spouse and children. They do this when they respond to disagreement and stressful events by going on "autopilot," using the same responses they repeatedly observed and engaged in when they were growing up. The dysfunctional behavior is familiar to them, and even though they may not like it, it feels comfortable in a way.

Someone who doesn't want to copy her family's unhealthy behavior patterns has to turn off the autopilot and instead use healthier ways of interacting. She can learn how to identify what triggers those unhealthy reactions, and learn better ways to respond. That's how many people who vow to do things differently than their parents succeed at having highly functional, happy family relationships.

Therapy can be very helpful to someone in your friend's situation, to learn a new set of relationship skills. But she can also make many beneficial changes on her own. We encourage her to start now, because these changes will improve the overall quality of her life even while she's single. And if the two of you decide to get married, she'll have a "toolbox" of skills that can help to begin building a good life together. Here are some suggestions:

(1) Realize that her goal is a personal one. She wants to learn optimal ways to communicate, and to stop using ones that aren't working well. She shouldn't try to change how her parents or siblings behave. Once she can acknowledge that they are not her responsibility, her own process will go easier because she only has to worry about herself.

(2) Begin by making a list of the behavior patterns in her family that she dislikes, such as snapping at another person when interrupted, or insisting on certain behavior and threatening when the other person doesn't comply. She should also look at her own behavior patterns and make a complete list of the unhealthy ways she reacts or behaves.

(3) Before she can stop these behaviors, she needs to understand why she does them – what events, feelings, and thoughts may be triggering them. She probably does most of them without thinking (on autopilot). Have her keep a pad and pen for a week, writing down any time she notices herself engaging in a behavior she wants to change. Include the date, time and context – where the behavior took place, who was present, what each person said and did, what she was thinking, and what she was feeling. She can add how she felt after she yelled, threatened, got angry, etc.

(4) After a week, take some time to look at the diary. She may be surprised how often she reacts in ways she later regrets, or that she does many of the same things she hates seeing in others. Look for patterns – what are the triggers that cause her to yell, slam a door, or make a threat. Look at patterns in another way, too – how does she generally react when her sister makes a snide remark, when her mother yells at her, when her father says something critical. Now go one step further and try to identify how she feels in each of these instances.

(5) Did you ever experience this – you’re in the market to buy a new car or cellphone, and you notice all the cars and phones everywhere you go? Now that your friend has identified the behaviors she wants to change and what triggers them, she'll be more aware of when they happen. That awareness is the first step to turning off the “autopilot.” The next step is choosing one or two situations where she will stop the negative behavior as soon as she notices a triggering event. For example, "The next time I notice myself feeling resentful when my mother asks me to do my sister's chores, I won't yell like I always do."

(6) It is hard to simply stop yelling if you haven't learned how to calm down when you get upset. This process is called self-soothing, and it helps to cope with overwhelming negative emotions or situations that frustrate or distress you. Learn and practice some self-soothing techniques, such as taking a walk when you begin to feel anxious, overwhelmed, or frustrated. By removing yourself from a distressing situation and paying attention to the sights and sounds that surround you, you can begin to feel calmer. (See here for self-soothing techniques.) The more you practice them, the easier it will be to calm yourself down – and to replace the automatic reactions you want to change.

(7) Sometimes simply calming down won't be enough. She may feel the need to say or do something, such as telling her sister that she wants her to return the blouse she borrowed without permission. Can she think of a different way to do this without yelling or being sarcastic? Can she think of a calmer way to respond if her sister gets angry? This part of the exercise may be difficult if she's not accustomed to calm interactions. She can try to think of people who might be role models for more even-tempered responses, and think how they might handle the situation. Or she can try to remember a time that she properly handled a situation and try to use that skill again. Over time, she'll feel more natural using these new skills and will have to think about them less. They'll become second nature.

Protect and Rescue?

If your friend finds our suggestions too difficult to do on her own, we encourage her to work with a therapist. Also if the two of you decide to get married, you should meet with a couple's counselor while you're engaged, and participate in a marriage preparation program like Prepare and Enrich.

Right now, you seem to be communicating well, but she may need to develop additional communication skills that will help when she encounters the normal stresses of married life. A counselor/couple's therapist, or a marriage preparation program, can help you together learn additional ways to problem solve, express concerns, have a productive argument, make financial decisions, and divide up responsibilities. This is beneficial for all couples, but it is a real necessity when one or both partners comes from a family with weak relationship skills.

We'd like to briefly address your concern that your friend's parents are "controlling." It sounds like you're saying that this mother and father want their children to act or think a certain way and can't accept the fact that they have different points of view or ways of doing things. There is a difference between your friend being able to maintain her own point of view even though it is stressful for her, and her feeling forced to conform to her parents' wishes.

If she feels she can't freely express herself or think on her own, or if she has gotten into the habit of avoiding even a small disagreement or confrontation, these may affect how she relates to people outside of her family. On the other hand, she may have found ways to minimize conflict with her parents and feels that she can be independent and assertive outside of her family, i.e. when she is with you. This question needs to be examined carefully.

Your role is not become her rescuer.

So what's your role in all of this? To be supportive and understanding. We understand your strong instinct to protect the woman you care about, but you should not be her rescuer. Instead, you can be the person who encourages her when things are difficult, compliments her for the work she's doing, and understands that the changes you both want will come about gradually. You can continue to work together to strengthen your relationship by using the communication and problem-solving skills you developed together, and the new ones you will pick up along the way.

As difficult as it is for you to be comfortable with her parents, it's important for you to appreciate the fact that they have probably tried to do their best as parents, but lacked some important skills that could have helped their family function better. They raised the woman that you care about, and they love her. When you visit their home, remind yourself of this – it may make things easier for you. If the two of you decide to get married, you will have to discuss how often you'll get together with her family and in what circumstances.

We'd like to add a word about another issue that is important to address. You mentioned the parents' have a history of hitting when they get frustrated or angry. Certainly, this is unhealthy behavior upsetting to hear about, and it may be classified as domestic abuse. It's not normal for parents to hit adult children, but an adult has many recourses – leaving the situation, moving out of the home, reporting the abuse to authorities, or insisting on family counseling. If there are younger children in the house who are also victims of this physical rage, they need to be protected and someone may want to get the local family service agency involved.

We wish you success in navigating the dating maze,

Rosie & Sherry

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