The Dance of Connection

Rescuing women and men from the quicksand of difficult relationships.

Have Kids? Be Kind to the Grandparents

Kids raise the stakes for how you treat your kin.

How you behave with your parents and in-laws is your children’s blueprint for family. It will influence how you get treated when they grow up and how they learn to deal with difficult people.

How you navigate these adult relationships is an important legacy that you leave your children. They are watching you.

Kids want nothing more than for all the important adults in their life to get along. If, for example, the tension is high between you and your mother-in-law, little Hannah is caught in a triangle. She will not be able to figure out her own relationship with her grandmother, free from the tension between the adults. Kids need their grandparents, even if they see them infrequently and no matter what you might think of these people. And they are especially attuned to how their parents treat their own parents.

Nor can you fool your kids just by biting your tongue and pretending to be civil. If you’re silently seething because your mother-in-law has brought 11-year-old Jason an electronic game, after you’ve told her “nothing electronic,” Jason will pick up on the tension. Even little children have radar for disturbances in the emotional field, and some are more sensitive than others. You may have one child who can let emotional intensity between adults float by her, and another who absorbs it like a sponge.

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Always aim to lower your own intensity with the grandparents. Being calm and kind to grandparents is not the same as having an “anything goes” policy.

To the contrary, you each need to deal directly with your own parents, when they habitually do something at the expense of someone in your household or violate your ground rules. That is, you tell your mother to respect the “no electronic games” rule, even if it’s your wife who has the strong feelings about it. Of course you and your partner can speak up to your in-laws—but you won’t get far if your partner disappears from the fray and lets you be the emotional reactor for the two of you.

Watch out for this common triangle that I describe in The Dance of Anger: two women (wife and mother-in-law) have the “problem relationship” while the man stays out of the action.

Triangles obscure the real conflicts, which makes it impossible to identify and resolve them.

For example, the mother-in-law is actually angry about her son’s distance, although she targets his wife. The wife is actually angry that her husband doesn’t speak up to his own mother, but this marital issue stays underground because she targets her mother-in-law.

Wherever you find a wife and mother-in-law slugging it out, you’ll find a son who’s not speaking up to either his mother or his wife. If you change your part in this triangle it will have positive ripple effects through your marriage and every family relationship.

Kids raise the stakes for how you treat your kin, especially parents and in-laws. Take the high road.

Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., is best known for her work on marriage and family relationships and the psychology of women. Her book The Dance of Anger has recently been reissued.

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