DEAR HARRIETTE: I am a regular reader of your column and enjoy it very much. It appears in the Post Express in Washington, D.C., and I check it every day while on the train.
I am usually in sync with your answers, but I was caught up short on your response to the man with the in-law problems. I'm not sure what you intended to say. Do you feel he should appropriately apologize as someone who is "wrong"? In the interests of "keeping the peace" with family, is he opening himself up to a life as the doormat or family "goat" of a psychologically abusive couple?
Some observations: I am glad his wife has his back. I can see getting together and coming up with a decision, together, that may involve behavior such as deciding to apologize, etc. Then, if there comes a thaw and a chance for interaction (at the moment, the father-in-law has "banned" him), they could work out some ground rules together, such as "no yelling." Become more tactical and always gracious (the gift issue could have been handled more smoothly), but through controlled interactions. Never let them know when they've cut you and drawn blood.
This young man needs to build up some serious boundaries to protect his mind and soul from these people, family or not. At the moment, his in-laws are not his allies or friends. During crisis (I've gone through layoffs myself, and they are awful), did they offer support? Guidance? Or did they take the chance to tear him down and kick him when he was at his weakest?
I suspect they didn't care much for him from the start. Maybe because he was married before? His job? His financial status? "Props" to the son-in-law for getting out there after his layoff and finding any job he could!
There is a feeling of malignancy and a sick need to control here. I see all the signs: mocking behavior (eye rolling), extreme reactions (banning the son-in-law), labeling ("you're the one with issues"/"playing the victim"), judgment, the demand by the father-in-law for total capitulation. Again, he is a young man, loves his wife and wants so much for things to work. But offering your jugular to (what I fear to be) narcissistic people like this only emboldens them. What comes next? Will they want to dictate where he works? How he and his wife name and raise their kids? Will the in-laws move in with them later and demand to be waited on hand and foot? BEWARE!
I speak from some experience. I married what I later realized was a true "malignant" narcissist and barely got out of the marriage with my sanity intact. -- Been There, Washington, D.C.
DEAR BEEN THERE: Several people wrote in about the husband who was beaten down emotionally by his in-laws and my response. Your letter is so thorough and reflective, I decided to run it in full.
My intention was to have the husband and wife act as a united front and approach the parents with a grace they haven't demonstrated. I fully respect the need not to be a doormat. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.