what your therapist really thinks

‘The Woman My Father-in-Law Married Is a Nightmare’

Illustration: Eugenia Loli

Dear Therapist,

My wife is very close to her father, especially after the early death of her mother. About six years ago, my wife’s father remarried a significantly younger woman, a childless-by-choice professional. This woman is a very cool and aloof person. Apart from my wife’s father, she seems to have no close relationships at all, even with her own family. Yet from the moment she entered our lives, she developed an obsessive attachment to our four children. Actually, she often seems to have trouble remembering that they are our children. She forcefully offers my wife unsolicited opinions on everything from toilet training to discipline to where they should go to school. The other day she referred to herself as “a member of the parenting team.”

Meanwhile, she refuses to heed any of our rules, from bedtimes to pocket money. She buys the children extravagant presents that we could not afford — and if she hears of any special family plan we have, she’ll make a point of preempting our plan in a more expensive way when the children visit their grandfather. What escalates the situation to the truly disturbing is her habit of playing favorites among the children. She’ll invite the children to draw pictures and give a prize to the child who does the “best” job. At Christmas, she’ll give one child a lavish new toy; another child will be given a used piece of luggage she no longer wants. She’ll heap praise on one and only one child in front of the other three. Family visits typically end with at least one child in tears.

It’s impossible to talk to my father-in-law’s wife about any of this. She erupts in rage against anything she takes as criticism. She’s always telling us how much people admire her. Anyone who doesn’t admire her she dismisses as envious of her. She’s already assigned my wife and me to her enemies list. At the start, we tried to talk to my father-in-law. That’s becoming more difficult too. He just shrugs and says, “Yes, but deep down she’s a wonderful person.” We want to preserve the relationship with my father-in-law if we can. But we have to protect our kids. Any ideas?


Dear Exhausted,

I agree with your father-in-law: “Deep down, she’s a wonderful person.” And by deep down, I mean the toddler deep inside her, because that’s about the age at which she began to develop what sounds similar to traits associated with a personality disorder.

Before I go on, there are three very important disclaimers here: First, I can’t diagnose somebody I’ve never met. Second, there are always — and I mean always — at least two perspectives to a situation that are equally relevant, and I’ve only got one here. And third, having traits associated with a personality disorder doesn’t necessarily mean that a person has a personality disorder. The fact is, most of us, at one time or another, have displayed traits of various personality disorders. (If you don’t believe me, just ask somebody close to you, like your spouse or best friend.)

That said, I can help you understand why your wife’s stepmother may act this way, why I have so much compassion for her, and why it will help you to feel better if you have some compassion, too.

Let’s start with some background. What struck me most about the behaviors you describe are their pervasiveness. Personality disorders are a distinct diagnostic class that, as “personality” implies, involve fixed characteristics developed in early childhood, often related to difficult or chaotic caregivers. That’s not to say these characteristics can’t be modified; it’s just that the treatment they demand is often intensive and long-term. So while you or I might fly off the handle on an especially rough day, have our controlling moments, or feel criticized when nobody is criticizing us, a person with, say, borderline personality disorder will have these experiences often and in many different contexts (i.e., not just with one person, or not only at work). Hallmarks of BPD include difficulty with close relationships, inappropriate boundaries and anger, sensitivity to perceived criticism, black-and-white thinking (people in their lives are either “all good” or “all bad”), and a distorted self-image (like believing that those who don’t admire you must be envious). Checking any boxes?

Interestingly, while these don’t sound like particularly appealing traits in a friend or stepparent (or even a teenager, many of whom seem like they have BPD; thankfully, adolescence is temporary), many men find them irresistible in a lover.

Why? It might be that because people with BPD have an extremely fragile sense of self, they use their chameleon-like skills to become whatever the other person wants. They live with the feeling that they only exist in the context of others, and that makes them hyper-focused on their partners, which can feel quite flattering if you’re on the receiving end. Yes, these partners are “high-maintenance,” but they’re rarely dull. Often they’re intelligent, interesting, seductive, and exciting (especially in bed), and they fill a need for passion that your more even-keeled father-in-law may be craving after the death of his first wife. Think of them as a female variant of the alluring “bad boys” to whom even the most reasonable women find themselves drawn at some point

Granted, like you and your wife, many of us find those with BPD infuriating. Their behaviors stir us up in the most uncomfortable ways, which is why therapists think of them as “the patients we love to hate.” But we don’t actually hate them. Often we love them (at least while they’re idealizing us) because they tend to seduce us, too. But if we’re aware of the strong feelings they provoke in us, we also begin to see the ways in which they started out as wonderful beings who ended up in unfortunate circumstances and found a way to cope. They want to be seen, to know that they matter, and they’ll go to great lengths to get their fix of attention from others. We know that as much as they wreak havoc on others, they wreak the most havoc on themselves, desperately wanting to feel less empty and more whole. And we bear this in mind especially when they’re storming out of our offices in response to a perceived slight. It can take years to get past those defenses and help them see themselves more clearly, and when that happens, their lives, and the lives of those around them, improve dramatically. But it doesn’t sound as if your stepmother is interested in looking at herself or her personality style in that way – at least right now.

You asked if I had any ideas on how to maintain your relationship with your father-in-law and also protect your kids. My answer starts with a cliché: You can’t change other people; the only person you can change is you. Which is to say, instead of expecting things to change if you talk through your frustration in a logical way, expect your stepmother-in-law to be consistent in her behaviors. Similarly, expect your father-in-law to continue to view his wife through the prism of his own needs and desires, and let that be okay. He may come to view his wife differently, or he may not — but that’s his business. As for protecting your children, I’m not sure that they need it, given that their step-grandmother is erratic but not dangerous. They can survive a sucky gift or losing a contest or not being the favorite of the day. (And if they choose careers in Hollywood or politics, spending a limited amount of time around a person with borderline traits is excellent job training.) Let the kid stuff go, love your father-in-law in his own right, and when you want to strangle his wife, bear in mind that she’s suffering far more than you are. I promise you that’s true. Remember, you get to go home. She doesn’t.

One thing we often forget when we’re feeling trapped in a situation is how much choice we actually have in the matter. And you have so many choices here that you don’t seem to see. For starters, your father-in-law’s wife may dole out parenting advice, but you can choose how to respond. Do you want to make a comment that will leave her feeling rejected or result in an argument, or do you want to smile politely and move on? (Sometimes people in therapy will say, “My mom always makes me feel guilty” and I say, “Just because she sends you guilt doesn’t mean you have to accept delivery.”) Likewise with the impact that you seem to believe your father-in-law’s wife will have on your relationship with him. Is she keeping you from seeing him? Is she saying that you can’t enjoy him anymore? If you choose to tell a man who loves his wife that something’s wrong with his wife, a rift might indeed develop. But if you choose to embrace this man’s good fortune after a tremendous loss — after all, he found somebody to love who loves him back — your relationship with him will likely remain quite close. And the more you choose to look very hard for the ways in which this woman really is — deep down — if not wonderful, then at least full of human longing, the less upset you’ll feel when she behaves in ways that bother you. The more compassion you can have for her internal world, the more you’ll appreciate whatever joy she brings your father-in-law, and the more you’ll be able to take in the love, however imperfect, that she tries to show for you and your kids.

Because underneath it all, she’s really asking to be loved, flaws and all. And isn’t that what all of us want anyway?

Lori Gottlieb is a writer and a psychotherapist in private practice. Got a question? Email therapist@nymag.com. Her column will appear here every Friday.

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‘The Woman My Father-in-Law Married Is a Nightmare’