Saturday, May 27, 2017

Step-mother-in-law Is a Witch

You might be surprised, but Ask Polly, the New York Magazine advice columnist, has been showing more good sense lately. Hats off to Polly. Now, the magazine has offered the views of a credentialed therapist, the better to allow us to examine the thinking of a real therapist. Polly, of course, is a satisfied patient.

The therapist is Lori Gottlieb, and, sorry to say it, but she makes Polly look like a fountain of wisdom.

Yesterday, a man wrote to Gottlieb to ask how to handle his out-of-control and highly intrusive stepmother-in-law. The man feels a need to protect his four children from his wife’s stepmother. One wonders why said wife did not write the letter, but the man’s concern for his children and for the appalling behavior his stepmother-in-law is exhibiting toward them is perfectly normal.

For your edification, here’s the situation, described by a man who calls himself Exhausted:

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.”

And also:

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.

Of course, they tried to speak with her and with her husband, to no avail:

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.

And, finally:

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?

Before launching into Gottlieb’s appalling advice, I would mention one point. The couple in question seems to be less wealthy than the wife’s parents. Thus, they have a financial incentive not to cross the wife’s father or his new wife. Gottlieb does not mention this, because therapists have no sense of reality.

Gottlieb does not know what the couple should do, so she says that they, whose primary moral duty is to protect their children from a toxic step-grandparent, should show Dad’s new wife… COMPASSION. After all, if a grandparent reduced your children to tears, systematically disrespected you, pretended to know more about parenting than you do… you would naturally think that she is mentally ill—or as Gottlieb says—suffering from a personality disorder. And you would naturally want to feel compassion for her—regardless of the effect it has on the children. Huh?

Gottlieb suggests that the woman is suffering from a borderline personality disorder—dubious diagnosis in itself—but she seems to believe that people suffering from BPD need for you to be compassionate. Does she really believe that compassion can do anything more than to feed the illness? Is she willing to sacrifice four children’s lives to placate someone who is mentally ill?

For the record, BPD is a serious disorder. It used to be called a borderline psychosis. The National Institutes of Mental Health take it very seriously, indeed:

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a serious mental disorder marked by a pattern of ongoing instability in moods, behavior, self-image, and functioning. These experiences often result in impulsive actions and unstable relationships. A person with BPD may experience intense episodes of anger, depression, and anxiety that may last from only a few hours to days.

Some people with BPD also have high rates of co-occurring mental disorders, such as mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders, along with substance abuse, self-harm, suicidal thinking and behaviors, and suicide.

Just the kind of woman you want to have babysit your children. Gottlieb has clearly lost it here. One suspects that she feels compassion for the woman because the woman is childless.

For the record, a quick search reveals that Gottlieb herself is a single mother, having been impregnated by a sperm donor. For all of her training she feels some considerable sympathy for the stepmother-in-law’s childlessness. What good are all of those so-called professional studies if you are still thinking only with your emotions and if you are incapable of offering anything but empathy… even for an unsavory character who is deranged.

Anyway, to allow Gottlieb her say, here it is:

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.

Trust me, if this woman’s behavior is harming your children, you ought not to feel any compassion. Your primary responsibility is to your children, not to your rich relations.

For her part, Gottlieb does not think that exposing a woman to the erratic behavior of someone who is borderline psychotic is not dangerous. Considering that BPD is a serious illness and considering that the woman’s behavior has already hurt them, Gottlieb is clearly off the wall here.

She writes:

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.

Whatever does that mean? If the woman is harming your children you must do better than to imagine that she doesn’t get to go home. the notion is meaningless and absurd.

It is obvious that father-in-law is being manipulated. And that he does not know any better than to allow himself to be manipulated. He has been completely cowed and fears the wrath of his new wife. Again, that is no reason to sacrifice your children. Gottlieb thinks that the new wife loves him, but clearly the woman lacks a moral character, so I do not believe that she loves anyone but herself. Gottlieb thinks that finding him has been the father-in-law’s good fortune—but clearly she is an appalling human being, a poisoned gift. Clearly, Gottlieb is imposing her own fictional fairy tale on this marriage... about which she knows nearly nothing. What she does know is that the man is being completely manipulated by his new wife.

Since the stepmother-in-law has never been a mother, she has no business telling parents how to bring up their children:

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.

No one knows that she is bringing joy to the wife’s father. Considering how the man describes her, it feels more likely than not that she has taken over his mind and his heart and is using him to enact a scenario that she voluntarily chose to forego. One suspects, incidentally that she did not choose voluntarily to be childless.

As for the solution: the couple should cut back on seeing Dad and his new wife. Be less available. Invite them less. They should tell her that if she does not treat the children equally she will not be welcomed for holidays. If it comes to that, cut back entirely. Perhaps then Dad will come to his senses. You ought never to sacrifice your children to an old man’s willful blindness or to his wife’s mental illness.


Anonymous said...

Regarding that first sentence... Am I supposed to be surprised that Polly is giving better advice or that you are happy about it?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Good point... I clarified it.

James said...

The guy has to make a choice (kids or money) and live with it. Of course he should pick kids and the hell with what step mom thinks, she's the one who needs to adjust not the parents. Of course he may pick the money, people do that all the time and almost without fail live to regret it.
The guy never should have had to write a letter in the first place and as you say where's his wife in all of this? There is this mantra that's been around since the 80s (maybe longer) that If I feel bad for whatever reason, you must feel bad too and excuse any of my behavior. Well no.

Sam L. said...

I'd like to know where the wife stands on this.

James said...

Sam L,
That thought loomed large in my mind. My guess is she and her dad are trying to play both sides and come out unscathed which I doubt will happen. I think there is some strange history with her and her father, it's this background that probably led to him marrying this woman. He's older (wanted something younger)and afraid she'll leave. She's younger probably married for security (but now feels the childless problem) and is insecure about the whole thing (remember) she's not close to anyone. I think there is something there about the original wife that we're not getting. Well enough of my psycho-babble.

Anonymous said...

1.) there are a gradation of BPD people. This woman is a classic. Most are female.
2.) I married into a family of them. They can be very pleasant and seductive and normal for short times if they are trying to get something.
3.) They have no insight and blow up at others giving them insight or feedback.
4.) They are masters of DARVO (deny, accuse, reverse victim offender) you will not win using normal logic against them but they do not realize this kill relationships.
5.) they use black and white thinking completely lack any empathy for anyone but them selves.
6.) You can not win or even break even with these people. Avoid them at all costs. The wife in this case may be one herself. The husband should set iron clad boundaries and enforce them.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

I've always felt stepmothers have a significant burden in forming relationships with the husband's children. It seems like a serious challenge, worthy of some compassion or consideration. At least a benefit of the doubt or some affirmative effort.

That said, this woman sounds like a verifiable wacko... the BPD diagnosis notwithstanding. She's quite assertive, while deference would be the couth approach. Not in her repertoire, I guess. I had a suspicion this was the case when the writer said she was significantly younger than the father-in-law. Not usually a good recipe for family fun, and certainly not a compliment.

Gottlieb prescribes pity, not compassion. Pity seems like the sentimental go-to solution for sophisticated types these days. No judgment from them, nay-nay, save the BPD diagnosis, which is hardly flattering... but professionally sanitized for the Ask Polly audience, no doubt an army of the really, really, really, really non-judgmental types. After all, it's grand virtue-signaling, with no direct action required of the wise advice-giver. Just say yes to everything and compassionize your life. After all, the BPD-in-law has a really, really, really, really tough road ahead. Wouldn't want to trade shoes with her...

Wow. Feel better?

Ares Olympus said...

I can't say whether or not this mother-in-law has BPD, but I suppose the implication, the call for "compassion" is that this woman isn't intentionally trying to cause problems, but she is unable to see how other people see her, like the recent topic of a lack in "external self-awareness".

So the "compassion" side I think only means you don't need to blame her for her poor ways of relating, but you still have to find a way to manage it, and assuming she isn't going to change on her own. And so Stuart's solution, set some standards, and put up boundaries when she can't follow them, that's the minimum needed.

I've seen intrusive (biological) mothers and mother-in-laws, and grand-mothers as well, and perhaps the good-cop, bad-cop approach is also necessary, which may end up wives (as daughter) being the bad-cop, setting limits and consequences, and husband (as son-in-law) good-cop, listening to a couple hours of whining using compassionate 'active listening' before saying 'I'm sorry your daughter is firm on this'.