Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Mother In Law

“Julia” writes:

Hello,
 
I’ve had an issue with my MIL not letting go of her son since before we got engaged.  She wants to be the center of his attention constantly and makes nasty remarks (which my husband will NEVER recognize as nasty or says he didn't hear it) to me.

I'm of Hispanic descent and over breakfast she told her little grandson (my blonde, blue eyed nephew) that he should never ever date dark haired women, only blondes...and if they are dark haired, then they'd better highlight their hair blonde.  As a Latina, we are very proud of being "brown" and having dark hair (some of us...since we come in a rainbow).
 
This is about the 20th incident in the past year where she has made some type of dumb/insensitive remark.  My husband sat silently as usual, and when I brought it up later, he got very defensive of her as he always does...she can do no wrong.
 
Any advice?
 
Thanks.

Dr. Einhorn replies:

Well, it might mean something that he didn't marry someone like his mother!

“Julia’s” question raises a couple of interesting questions: How do we know what we’re getting ourselves into? And, How do we deal with prejudice?

Disappointment, as Idries Shah points out, occurs because we have an expectation. We can’t always know what the expectation was, but we can sometimes discover it by tracing back our disappointment.

Julia says that her MIL hasn’t wanted to let go of her son since before they got engaged, and her son thinks she can do no wrong, so she certainly had information about what she was getting into. I wonder if Julia expected that her MIL and son would change after they got married, and if so, why she would assume that?

Now, prejudice, as I said at the National Fair Housing Conference of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1994, is a natural function of how the brain works. The efficiency of mind is that it categorizes everything and then we can recognize and respond very quickly and with minimal effort to what we have categorized. Perception itself is prejudiced, one might say, in that we pre-judge everything, noticing very little about what we actually see, hear, and so on. That makes life efficient, because we can concentrate on what we need to, instead of having to re-learn about everything we see. The problem with the system is that stupid prejudices develop, and we don’t naturally differentiate between the efficient prejudices and the stupid ones. That takes work. As Edward de Bono points out, the brain forms perceptions of patterns as it goes forward, and then those patterns become perceptual habits, and it does that very efficiently. Once patterns are formed, however, changing them requires special effort and methods.

So--taking Julia’s report at face value, and remembering that there is always more than meets the eye and more than is contained in the initial report--Julia is faced with the prejudice of the MIL and the habit of relationship between the MIL and her son, Julia’s husband. Now that Julia’s expectations that her MIL will come around and that her husband will stand up for her on his own have been pretty well disconfirmed, what are some of the choices she has in this situation?

It seems to me that she can choose one or both of two paths; she can try to directly discuss the issues with her MIL and husband, or she can try to engage with them emotionally and relationally to change their minds and behavior. We might call them the straightforward path and the sneaky path.

The straightforward path involves having direct conversations with her MIL and her husband about the fact that her MIL is making racist comments about her in the presence of their nephew/grandson. It sounds like Julia hasn’t really had a conversation with her MIL about it. Widening the focus, Julia might open up the conversation to include her impression that her MIL has never really welcomed her into her son’s life, or her own. She might emphasize that she really loves her son and wants to be a part of the family, and she might remind her MIL that many families today include people of different backgrounds and ethnicities; and are the richer for it, as long as everyone has a place at the table.

Julia might also have a straightforward conversation with her husband about his not standing up for her. It sounds like she does mention it to him, but then he makes some excuse and that’s where their conversation stops. She might tell him that the conversation doesn’t stop there as far as she is concerned, and that this is something that very much concerns and hurts and frustrates her and that she expects him to recognize that and wonders why he doesn’t, and why he allows it to continue to happen without stepping up to speak with his mother about it.

Those are straightforward verbal conversations Julia might have. There’s a section on “Difficult Conversations” elsewhere in this blog with some information about having them more effectively and avoiding some of the pitfalls that difficult conversations can fall into.

Then there’s the indirect approaches; which, from a brain function point of view, might actually be more direct, because they go directly for the prejudicial and habitual behavior processes themselves. The key here is that that the way to respond to emotionally off-putting behavior from MIL is to engage positively with her around it. Here’s a couple of ideas about how to do that, offered constructively and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and I hereby disclaim all responsibility if you try them and they blow up in your face!

Humor can sometimes be more effective than straightforward verbal discourse. For example, when MIL makes denigrating comments about dark-haired people, you can point out that all humanity seems to have emerged from Africa, and the light-haired ones just went further north and got pale to get more Vitamin D from sunlight (I don’t know about that last part, just made it up). Say it with good humor, and never mind if she doesn’t respond or shrugs it off. It might have the effect of disconcerting her for a moment, during which some fresh air might get into her mental stereotypes and prejudices. Collect a bunch of comments like that, good-humoredly showing how dark-haired people are better, or came first, or have advantages, which might not be noticed at first by lighter complexioned folks, and just keep bringing them up when she makes prejudicial comments, as kind of throwaway remarks. It’s a more indirect way of responding to her prejudice, that might facilitate some change over time.

Although it’s politically incorrect to suggest it nowadays, you might consider engaging relationally by responding in kind; although you'd have to do it in a better-natured way than she is, teaching by demonstration, by raising the bar higher. "Oh, there you go, those light-haired people, always thinking that they're better!" Or, "You can always tell a light-haired person, but you can't tell her much!" But you have to really do it in a good natured way, not in an implicitly resentful one.

These remarks focus more or your MIL than your husband. Maybe it's time to think about marital therapy to work on this lack of communication in your relationship, and the obstacle that his relationship with his mother presents?

Here’s the ultimate manipulation, which I take absolutely no responsibility for if you decide to go ahead and do it: get pregnant and give Grandma another grandchild. She’ll probably fall in love with it and then you’ll rise up in her esteem. Except, with your luck, it’ll probably have your husband’s light features and you’ll still be in the doghouse. Asi es la vida.

Julia replied:

Thanks so much - this is such an insightful response! To answer your question...when he is defensive of her, I immediately get aggressive and not nice because it hurts me that he is "choosing" her over me yet again. It also angers/hurts me that he doesn't take the time to recognize that this is a real issue...I certainly thought about the repercussions of marrying into a non-Latino family, I don't think he did. I'm expected to "blend", and we sweep these types of things under the rug instead of settling them.

Ay, yay, yay - well, thanks again, I really do appreciate it!

Dr. Einhorn reflects:

Julia's problem is of particular psychological interest because it shines a light on two usually hidden sources of unnecessary suffering. The first is the activity of prejudice itself, and I think the cure for prejudice is not to try to eliminate it--because if prejudice is a natural product of brain activity, it can't be eliminated--but to make a human connection with people so that they can realize, through that human connection, that their prejudice was mistaken. The second is Julia's own unconscious assumptions that somehow time and marriage would cure her MIL of her prejudice, and her husband of his non-critical attachment--I'm trying to use neutral language here--to his mother.

P.S.: A reader sends this youtube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0Ti-gkJiXc.