By Esther Mann, LCSW
When I met my daughter-in-law Sandy several years ago, she acted supersweet to me and everyone in our family. Nonstop smiles, hugs, and kisses—really over the top. I wasn’t used to such an abundance of demonstrative affection. It seemed a bit suspicious, but I went along with it. My son seemed to be crazy in love with her, so who was I to make waves?
After they married, things changed. In place of the constant smiles was a side of her that was moody and even sometimes downright grumpy. Suddenly the show was over and I was getting a better glimpse into her true nature.
As time went on, it went from bad to worse. It seemed as though anything I said to her would turn into a fight. I am not a fighter by nature. I almost never raise my voice to anyone. But the simplest conversations with Sandy would turn into an argument. Sometimes, if I had to call her about something specific, I would prepare a script for myself in advance, in order to keep the conversation on a safe path. I would practice what I had to say and begin the conversation all chipper and calm. But in no time flat, we would be arguing. It was and is amazing to me how this inevitably happened. Though I am part of it, I just can’t understand it. I hang up the phone wondering, “Was that person on the phone really me?”
For instance, let’s say I wanted to call her to tell her what time I would be coming by to drop off some clothing I’d bought for the baby. Before I knew what was happening, she would be accusing me of not being considerate of the baby’s schedule, and how could I do that? Even if part of my script was to say, “So, what time works for you?” somehow it would be turned around into a situation where I’m being inconsiderate. And this is when I’m trying to do her a favor! It’s so crazy. And before you know it, she’s raising her voice and so am I.
I never get into things like that with anyone else, and no matter how hard I try to manage the conversation in a peaceful way, she somehow figures out how to press my buttons and make me sound like a lunatic. Yes, Sandy sounds insane, but I have to admit—so do I!
You’re probably wondering where my son—her husband—fits into all of this. I’ve tried to ask him about her behavior, and he just won’t talk about it. I can see that she has him wrapped around her finger. I often cringe when I see how she talks to him and how he quietly just takes it from her. My son is an easygoing kind of guy and I guess he’s able to deal with his wife’s craziness. I hate to see him so mistreated, but I know it’s not my place to tell him how to deal with his marriage. I can’t imagine that he is happy, but maybe he truly loves her and is able to overlook her issues.
It’s come to the point that when I see her name appear on my caller ID, I immediately get a knot in my stomach. I start feeling sick, nervous, and agitated. I don’t know what to do. At this point, when a call comes in from Sandy, I just don’t answer the phone. And then my stomach is in knots, wondering what kind of crazy message she’s left on my answering machine. At some point I muster the energy to listen to her message, and usually it sounds pretty nutty and disturbing. I don’t want to return the call because I know it will only go downhill from there. Because no matter how much I prepare myself in advance, and how much deep breathing I do to ready myself for her attack, and no matter how many times I tell myself that I’m going to stay calm no matter what she says, I know that the inevitable will happen. She’ll manage to get the conversation to escalate to a crazy place.
My husband agrees with me and ignores her altogether. He has no reason to call her or get calls from her, and when we are all together, he tends to avoid her. With Sandy being the mother of my grandchildren, as much as I try to distance myself from her, there are times when we just have to speak to each other. And it’s so painful I could cry.
Are there any tips you can give me for dealing with people like Sandy? Is there a secret formula that will allow me to have a conversation with her and remain calm? And if not, if my daughter-in-law is bound to turn everything into a fight, how do I protect myself so that my stomach isn’t in knots and I don’t find myself getting sick after every conversation with her?
Aside from the regular Joes, there are two dramatic types of people in the world. There are those who share their positive energy with the people they come into contact with and leave something terrific behind. Even a simple hello from such a person can feel warm, loving, and immensely nurturing. A small encounter with these types can leave you with enough joyful energy to affect the quality of the rest of your day. These are the people who possess an abundance of positive energy and share their energy with the universe. Hopefully, we all know a few people like that, were probably drawn to them the very first time we met them, and look to them when we’re feeling a bit low and can use an infusion of happiness.
And then there are the energy drainers. Those negative people who seem to suck everything good out of people. Whether they know it or not, they deplete energy from the universe and replace it with discomfort and pain. These people are sometimes diagnosed as having a borderline personality disorder. But diagnosis aside, since putting a name to a problem isn’t going to help you one way or another and it may not even be applicable, the bottom line is that they are very hard to be around.
Firstly, I’d like to validate your experience. When anyone finds herself ending a conversation red in the face from yelling, it’s easy to wonder what is wrong with herself and whether she has totally lost it! People like Sandy manage to turn any conversation around to the point of madness. It doesn’t matter how many scripts you’ve prepared, how much deep breathing you’ve done in advance, or how well intentioned you are when you start a conversation with such a person. The energy drainers among us have a knack for inciting inappropriate dialogue, unresolved communication, and a general feeling of frustration bordering on insanity. Sadly, it’s just their way.
Readers may think that I’m too quick to put this all on the daughter-in-law and wonder why I’m not challenging your complaints. The fact that you’ve said that yelling is not your way tells me that you are being manipulated against your intention. And anyone who has had an energy drainer land in their lap will relate to your story and share your immense frustration.
I’m sorry to say that I don’t have much hope for Sandy. Perhaps lots of therapy and probably medication could somewhat smooth out her very rough edges, but only somewhat. My guess is that she will always be an energy drainer, unable to give you what you need and deserve as a mother-in-law. Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound as though you hit the jackpot on this one! Such is life; we win some and lose some.
What can you do with your current frustration? On a practical level, I suggest that you text Sandy when you need to communicate with her. It can be a real blessing for you. Texts don’t yell, and even if her texts are mean-spirited, somehow it doesn’t pack the same punch as a real conversation. I think you are wise to check your caller ID and not pick up when you see her number. This will give you some breathing room to prepare your response, which you will text to her.
Avoid trying to explain your case to her. You may have logic on your side, but Sandy does not seem to be operating from a logical platform. Give over your message, and if she needs to rant and rave, let her exhaust herself doing so, and walk away. The idea is to protect yourself from being drawn into her realm of negativity. Imagine yourself surrounded by a shield that protects you from her energy.
And finally, make sure you have plenty of people in your life who give off sparks of love, support, peace, and happiness. Many people are introduced into our lives that we have no control over. But we do have control over our ability to seek out and nurture ourselves with energizers rather than energy drainers.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.