No more favors for my FIL

My in-laws are always asking for us to do stuff and my wife can’t say no. Our elder has some tips on how to establish boundaries.

Dear EWC

My wife and I have been married for nearly 17 years and she never tells anyone else no. If her parents or an aunt or a cousin or whoever needs something she will drop what she is doing to assist them. Currently she is a teacher and is working on getting a national board certification. But she is neglecting getting ready for that because her aunt and her father keep needing her to do less important stuff to help them. Also, her father is constantly trying to get me to do stuff for him that I don’t want to do. I usually end up doing it not to rock the boat. Every once in a while I will not, but it’s rare. Also we are next door neighbors to her parents. I want to move. She does not. My mother in law isn’t a problem. She still works and doesn’t ask for much.

My father in law is the problem. He was laid off from his job about a year ago and so he sits around all day doing nothing then wants me or her to help do stuff after we get off or on the weekends. I have tried to talk to my wife about him but she gets defensive. She doesn’t want to tell him no. He is a stubborn, hard headed kind of guy who thinks he is always right and knows everything. You know the type. What should we do? He is not planning on ever going back to work, either. Thank you for your advice!

Grandpa-Matt replies

When you ask, “What should we do?” there is no one-size-fits-all solution, because each of you presents a different dynamic that needs to be addressed. For you wife, she is in a ‘people-pleasing’ mode of acting like a caregiver to her family. As such, she is falling into the trap of failing to take care of herself and her needs first.

I’m sure she realizes that in delaying her preparation for certification, she is making a conscious choice to put her parents first and her welfare second. I am not a therapist, but I can think of many reasons why she might do this. Sometimes, it is a lack of self esteem causing one to think that they have to ‘buy’ the love or affection of others.

It may be a guilt trip that a person feels like they owe the person for some past treatment or mis-treatment. Occasionally it could be to even-up the score somehow for feeling better off, happier, more abundant, etc. than the other person. Another possibility is that it could be the “honor-thy-father-and-mother” biblical command. We don’t know the driving force behind her position.

It is unlikely that she will change her mind. What would help her is to enforce some personal boundaries. This would be the same recommendation for you. See: This will remind you that you are entitled to come first. Your experience of your personal power will increase.

When you avoid “rocking-the-boat”, as an excuse to allow your father-in-law to become a problem for you, it is allowing him to control the situation. It is up to you to stop this pattern, while attempting to keep the peace in the family. It is possible to set some limits on the assistance you are willing to help, without appearing insensitive to your in-laws needs.

My suggestion for going forward is to put the brakes on her overuse of your generosity. A creative way it could be done is to determine how many times a week or month that you can devote to one act of assistance for them. Let’s suppose it would be five times per month. Then make up five little cards or tickets for her to turn in to you for each action she requests. The cards or tickets can be a fancy or loving message/reminder of the demand of your time, to be collected each time.

Let him know that you recognize your place in the family, but that this is what’s required so that you can take care of yourself. This is the same as we are told by the airlines to put on your oxygen mask first and then assist other passengers.

I hope this works out for you. Let me know how things turn out. Good luck.

Letter #: 458926
Category: Marriage

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