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Grandparents & the Cycle of Abuse

By Amalah

The Way We Talk To Our Children Becomes Their Inner Voice by Peggy O'MaraHi Amy,

My husband and I are having a tough time dealing with his father.

He is estranged from his side of the family for reasons we aren’t sure of, and has a difficult relationship with his two sons (my husband is the eldest). He is emotionally & verbally abusive towards his wife. She has been a closet alcoholic at least since my husband was old enough to realize it, and he suspects it is because of this abuse. She always takes his side and helps to perpetuate his manipulative nonsense, which I’ll get to later. He was physically & verbally abusive towards my husband from a young age (using a belt for punishment) and it wasn’t until my husband was big enough to defend himself in high school that it stopped. My husband was a troublemaker in grade school, but has really turned out to be a wonderful guy, despite his upbringing. Since my husband and I got engaged in 2009, his father has made meager attempts to heal the relationship, which mainly consist of him buying us things.

My father-in-law takes travel assignments for work as much as possible. When we get together with them (which is usually just for holidays and special occasions), he speaks harshly to his wife and berates her in front of us. He has brought her to tears on several occasions. Awkward, to say the least.

Have I mentioned my husband and I have a beautiful little boy (15 months) and are expecting another baby in August?

In addition to being abusive towards his family, he says inappropriate things to me about my weight & appearance (even when I was pregnant!) I tried to make jokes and brush it off, but it really infuriates my husband.

A few times, my father-in-law has cornered my husband at a family gathering and gave him a big guilt trip about how we aren’t close enough with them, claiming I don’t “like” him and that we don’t visit enough. They live 45 minutes away, my husband and I both work full-time, and they have made no effort to create an inviting environment for our son. They have no toys, no high chair, no baby gates and no baby proofing so whenever we do visit them, we have to haul along everything and then make sure he doesn’t touch anything or crawl up the stairs when we’re there. Talk about relaxing! They have been to our house twice in the 2 years we’ve lived there. There are no offers to babysit, and the times I have asked, there is always an excuse why they can’t do it. My mother-in-law will not drive at night, so if her husband is traveling, she will not stay at our house for extended periods of time (and she refuses our offers to sleep over). She loves her grandson very much, and cries when we leave family get-togethers. As far as me not “liking” my father-in-law. Well, no, he is not my favorite person in the world, due to all of the reasons above. However, I am cordial to him. I am not going to be sickeningly nice to try and win him over. I just can’t be fake like that.

This past Christmas, we were completely blown away by my father-in-law’s rudeness. He has never thanked us for a gift – ever. However, we continue to buy for him at Christmas. This year he totally crossed the line. We purchased him a very nice & expensive GPS system (we knew he didn’t have one, plus he travels a lot). He accepted the gift when we were there, and then over a week later, my mother-in-law called my husband to tell him that he didn’t want take to the GPS and that we should return it. No real reason was given… he just didn’t want it. We were very offended and decided not to replace it with another gift.

During the phone conversation about the GPS, my husband blew up at his mother and said some truthful, but unpleasant things. I am sure that word of this got back to her husband, because now he claims he wants to keep the GPS. Um….

My husband and I are in agreement that this behavior is not normal. My father-in-law is clearly trying to manipulate us in some way and I can’t stand the thought of him playing these mind games with our children, or even having our children in their negative home environment when they’re old enough to pick up on it. We are also unsure of how to handle Christmas in future years. His parents always overbuy for us and frankly, we just cannot afford to spend the same amount. We have student loans and a second baby on the way.

I’m not trying to magically fix my father-in-law, because I don’t think he can change at this point. I’m just hopeful for some practical advice on navigating & saving our relationship with my husband’s family. I do want them to see their grandchildren grow up. I just wish getting together with them wasn’t so uncomfortable.

Thank you!

I’m sure by now long-time readers are sick to death of hearing me repeat my Guiding Grandparent Principle, but here it is again, with feeling: I believe we as parents need to be willing to make any and all reasonable accommodations to ensure that our children have a relationship with their grandparents. This means we need to get over ourselves, our past difficulties with our own parents, and any and all petty slights from MILs; and to accept that our parents and in-laws have different views on child care and upbringing and that most of the time, that’s okay. This means we agree to not be the obstacle or stumbling block keeping children from forming a close bond with even the most imperfect grandma or grandpa, and to keep our mouths shut at home and those imperfections to ourselves when our children are young.


To channel Liz Lemon from 30 Rock, DEALBREAKERS. There are and frankly MUST be dealbreakers. Things that go beyond the whole “reasonable accommodation” bedrock. And frankly, my dear, your letter is chock full of them. Like, dealbreakers, falling from the sky all over the place. Abuse. Alcoholism. Manipulation. AND DID I MENTION THE ABUSE.

In-laws without baby gates or baby gear? Eh. Stressful and irritating, yes, but ultimately solvable. Buy some used toys/gear (Pack n’ Play, fold-up booster, etc.) on Craigslist/yard sales and take that with you, then find a corner of the basement or attic to leave it so it’s there next time. But oh my God, that would ABSOLUTELY not be my primary reason for not visiting these people.

The whole “rude response to a Christmas gift?” Eh. Not really a dealbreaker either, and not necessarily at all shocking or surprising, given everything else you’ve shared about him. Giving electronics to an older person who has never used that device before sometimes works out; sometimes it confuses and frustrates or just plain intimidates them. (My mom once freaked out over a gift of a microwave oven and demanded it be returned. This year my sister and I got her a Kindle Fire that went over just fine.)

But obviously, your father-in-law has deeper personality issues — probably a personality disorder of some kind — and seems to seize (and relish) and take the opportunity to make you guys and everybody else in his life feel like crap. You need to stop letting him, because right now he’s yelling at his wife and your husband and making rude comments about your weight, but honey. HONEY CHILD, it’s going to be your kids one day, and probably soon. That’s just how these cycles go, when they aren’t broken, and obviously this cycle is alive and well, given his treatment of your mother-in-law and you guys. No wonder the rest of the family has washed their hands of him “for reasons (you’re) not sure of.”

One day, your children will make too much noise, eat too much food, make too much of a mess, and they will get the brunt of this man’s terrible temper. Their grandmother will obviously do nothing, so…what will you do? Will you say something to his face? Will you leave? Will THAT be the dealbreaker? Or will you guys continue to pursue a “relationship” with this abusive — ABUSIVE — asshole? I understand that you feel for your mother-in-law, but at this point putting yourselves (and your babies) in the line of fire because she’s trapped in an abusive relationship and doesn’t know how or want to extricate herself is NOT the right answer.

Stop going over there. Continue telling your mother-in-law that she is welcome to come visit when he is traveling, but he is no longer welcome in your home. And no, it’s NOT because of the GPS, it has NOTHING to DO with the stupid GPS. But it has everything with how he treats her and that you simply will not have your children hearing emotional/verbal abuse and thinking that’s okay because everybody keeps tiptoeing around this jerk and forgiving him over and over and trying to please him and make him happy and get him expensive gifts and lots of grandchild time because maybe that will help him change.

You admit he isn’t going to change, yet a lot of what you’re doing (visits! gifts! holidays! wishing for more visits/babysitting/acceptance!) suggests that someone — your husband, maybe? — still kind of hopes he will, provided you guys do everything “right.” You guys cutting him out of your lives (and your children’s lives) probably won’t do it either, as he’s lost family members before. Maybe your MIL getting the cajones and strength to walk out on him will help him change, or a diagnosis of a personality disorder followed by lots and lots of cognitive behavioral therapy will help him change. Or he’s simply destined to reap what he’s sown and live the rest of his life out alone and bitter and miserable.

But none of that is your fault. And none of that is your responsibility. You do not need to fix this man, or any of the battered relationships he’s left in his wake. What you need to do is to protect your children from this mess.

I had a grandmother a lot like this. And while I cannot go into a ton of details about what she did to my mother (and then to my dad and all of us grandchildren, at various points), let me assure you that it would have been much, much better for me to have NOT had a relationship with her. Instead, we all spent decades making excuses, trying to please her and appease her, thinking that if we all just worked hard enough or were “good” enough she’d love us back, and be a “real” grandmother. She wasn’t capable. I don’t know what broke her along the way, in her early life, but she remained emotionally abusive and vicious until the day she died. I wish at some point, someone had simply said “ENOUGH” and walked away — and taken me with them, before I grew up so confused because I was taught to love and respect a woman who openly shunned and hurt me and everyone else I loved, just because she could.

I see a lot of my grandmother in your father-in-law, only possibly even worse, as he’s still openly abusing his wife. Verbal abuse IS ABUSE. Like, for-real, honest-to-God abuse and it’s no better than the physical abuse he inflicted on his children. And what you guys see is likely the tip of the iceberg — I shudder to think what might be happening behind closed doors and would encourage you to talk to the domestic violence hotline at (800) 799-SAFE. The fact that she won’t stay overnight with you could be a red flag that he’s also controlling where she can go and when, with “consequences” if she isn’t home when he dictates. It’s heartbreaking that she’s crying when she leaves her family and her grandbaby, but sadly this is simply not a good enough reason for you guys to look the other way while she’s berated and belittled and offer up your baby as a peacemaker/band-aid of sorts.

Make getting her safe your focus (rehab, maybe?), not on trying to win his favor or make visits less awkward and uncomfortable or worrying about where to spend next Christmas. (Solution: ANYWHERE BUT THERE.) Your husband should be the only person who has any contact with his father, if he isn’t ready to cut ties or worries (perhaps validly) that he needs to stay involved for his mother’s sake, but he MUST understand that your babies need to be kept out of this mess. No more.

(And oh my God, please don’t ever ask them to babysit again.)

Photo source: The Silver Pen

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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