Dear Thelma: My in-laws are intrusive and make decisions for us

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Dear Thelma,

I married my husband 10 years ago. I can say that our married life is rather happy except for one thing that had been bothering me since we got married.

His parents, being too protective and caring about him, would often tell/teach me what to do and how to take care of him whenever he is sick or feeling unwell.

Recently, he had a minor surgery and I had been taking care of him in the ward until he was discharged. Everything was good.

However, after surgery, his mum started to tell me how to take care of him, what to be extra cautious of after surgery, etc, every now and then. I find it rather frustrating because it’s as if I don’t know how to take care of other people.

I can’t stand it as she had been nagging too much and I feel very disturbed. I told my husband about this and was told to not bother about it.

Because of the parents being over-caring about their son, very often my husband and I lack privacy and our own space. They like to come over to our house together with their grandchildren (husband’s sister’s children).

The children would make a mess and this is rather annoying too.

I understand that they like to have family time together but I find it happening too often, hence the lack of privacy.

Apart from this, the father would also decide on most of the things; if we disagree with his decision, he would get angry and put on a sour face and scold people.

When his father gets angry, my husband would tolerate him and accept his decision eventually.

Why are we the ones tolerating and listening to them? We are adults as well. Why can’t we make our own decision? What should I do, Thelma?

Sad and Lost Clara

Dear Clara,

I'm sorry you're stressed. Overall, you describe a lack of communication but there's also some disrespect and bullying. The issue is a common one and there are several ways to approach it.

First, I think the hospital issue may be separate. It's awful to see someone we love being ill. We feel helpless, anxious and frightened.

One thing that can help is to feel that we are contributing. As I read your letter, you were anxious but got some relief from your role as caretaker. I think your mum-in-law was also anxious, and she soothed her fears by bossing you around.

That is irritating and it's no wonder you were annoyed and frustrated, but as you were all upset, I think that it's one of those situations where compassion is the best approach.

Your husband telling you to suck it up was unkind. He is your partner and he should have listened and empathised. He definitely dropped a loop there.

However, you say you have a happy marriage overall, which suggests there is no pattern of his being dismissive of your feelings. Again, it suggests he was simply tired from being ill, so I advise compassion.

I do hope your husband has recovered, and that you all have had a chance to rest and reset.

As to the bigger problem, your husband's parents visit often, bring their grandchildren who make a mess, and your father-in-law sulks like a spoilt toddler when he doesn't get his way. Ouch. What a horrible situation.

The sulking is completely unacceptable. Your husband doesn't help by tolerating this nonsense. However, he is their child and so the habit of blind obedience is possibly longstanding. But clearly, that part of the relationship needs a reset.

The approach depends on whether you and your husband are a team and whether you can talk openly and honestly with the family.

Ideally, you talk to your husband and agree on how often are you OK with family visits. You then communicate this with your husband talking to his parents.

"We love having you to visit, but it is intensive with young kids. We need some time to ourselves. Why don't we set a date? Come every Saturday for afternoon tea at 4pm."

You may also limit visitors to one room, and have the kids help you tidy up when they're done.

Reasonable guests respect open communication and make changes so you're all happier.

You don't give an example of the kind of decisions you are pushed into. Is it small things like where to eat? Or big things like career decisions?

Either way, in small things a healthy approach is give and take, and in larger matters, elders can give advice but they should be gracious if you decide not to take it.

Parents do sometimes forget that their kids have become adults, so a warm and open conversation can help update how you communicate with each other. Ideally, it goes from talking down and "knowing better" to respecting each other as independent adults.

I'm sorry to be broad strokes, but without details, this is the best I can offer.

I'm afraid that your letter suggests they will not be reasonable. Your father-in-law sounds entitled and spoilt. Like a toddler, he may scream and sulk, hoping that emotional blackmail will get him his way.

Bad behaviour is a prime reason for family estrangement. It should be addressed before it spoils your relationships.

If you can, have your husband talk to his dad man to man. Be firm but kind. Remind him you are all adults. Mutual respect and kindness are a must.

It won't be easy but make the effort. Otherwise, your relationships will suffer and when father-in-law is older, he may find his family don't like him very much. That would be devastating.

If your husband refuses to engage with his parents, you can try and do it solo. I'm not sure though if you can or what effect that may have. If your father-in-law is an abuser, he may set the rest of the family on you.

A safer option is to be open with your husband about your needs and to look after yourself. That may include going out when the family park themselves on you, and telling your partner he is in charge of clean-up.

Couples deal with this solution differently. Some love it and others fight over it; it depends on your marriage dynamics.

Frankly, if I were you, I'd invest in two or three sessions with a therapist who specialises in abusive and toxic relationships. It will allow you to walk through all the options and figure out what will work best for you and your family.

But do make changes because you sound upset and angry. That is never good because it will impact on you, your marriage and your family. So reach out and make some changes so you're happier, OK? Good luck and know I'll be thinking of you.

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