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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!
M

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.

UNLESS.

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

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

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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MR
Guest
MR

Amy is spot on. Why would you TRY to forge a relationship with him? Your letter seems to be about how to make this work, but it SHOULDN’T. I don’t mean to be harsh, but I am flabbergasted that you have asked them to babysit and are upset they haven’t! You should be grateful they haven’t. Why would you want to put your child into the line of fire? Draw the boundaries, cut him out of your life and that of your kids. The Christmas gifts thing is a non issue because you won’t be seeing him any more and… Read more »

claire
Guest
claire

You’re happy to have a closeted alcoholic babysit? We will not allow our son to stay at my in-laws overnight because they get drunk. Not tipsy but drunk. They babysit their other grandkids overnight and do this. Not ours. Alcohol and children does not mix. As for the abuse. He hit his son. What happens if your son misbehaves and he takes a belt to him? Take your children the hell away from this man. I feel sorry for his wife but she is not your responsibility. Your children are. Try and get her help, let her know you’re always… Read more »

Julie
Guest
Julie

AMEN, Amy. Especially the last line!

Stacy
Guest
Stacy

I agree, the thought of these people babysitting is abhorrent. I would be dictating the terms of their visits and supervising the entire time. If they came over and behaved themselves, fine. But I’d reserve the right to say “gee it’s been nice seeing you but time to go!” if FIL said or did anything inappropriate. I feel bad for your MIL but I’d put my kids and family first!

Danielle
Guest
Danielle

Glad I’m not the only one who is horrified she asked these people to babysit. Yikes.

Heather
Guest
Heather

Yes to everything Amy said. In many ways you just described one of my kid’s grandparents (fortunately, divorce means a simpler dynamic with the other grandparent on that side). My husband and I had many long talks even before my pregnancy about appropriate boundaries because this person doesn’t have any. We had to have several come to Jesus talks about the relationship we wanted to have vs. the relationship the parent was capable of. It can be a hard truth to accept that this man will never be the dad his sons needed him to be, but as parents we… Read more »

Bonnie
Guest
Bonnie

I have to wonder what would happen if her husband answered his dad’s whine about “she doesn’t LIKE me” with “Well of COURSE she doesn’t, dad! You treat her and everyone else like crap and say horrible things.” I mean… what’s the consequence he’s trying to avoid by not saying that? And is it possible that the consequence would be better than the current state of affairs?

Julia P.
Guest
Julia P.

My mother had a very similar problem with her father when my brother and I were very young children. She tried to maintain a relationship with her parents for years, mostly because she loved her mother very much, but my grandfather is both an emotional and physical abuser. I cannot attest to the sobriety of either grandparent, but what I can tell you is very important. We stopped going to my grandparents house when I was around 4 and my brother was 9. Twenty years later, we both still have vivid memories of the abuse that we witnessed and were… Read more »

IrishCream
Guest
IrishCream

Yup, everything that Amy said. Your family’s relationship with your FIL is broken. There’s not a damn thing you can do to fix it. If by some miracle he decides on his own to seek professional help, make radical changes, and try to make amends, then you could begin to CONSIDER slowly reintroducing him into your lives. I believe it’s a moot point, though, because it’s so very unlikely. Cut your losses, protect your kids, move on. Your MIL has a hard life. She is sad. Maybe she wants to be a better grandmother. None of this is your fault,… Read more »

neo
Guest

Yes, I agree with all of this advice. I had a grandmother that we had to tip toe around. She was physically and verbally abusive and scared the crap out of me. I hated being baby sat by her. When she died I did not shed tears.  My mother was very abusive as a child and I told her that if she ever treated my baby the way she treated me, she would never see her grandchild. She was shocked and angry that I said that. It hit her like a bucket of cold water. BUT. She is a very… Read more »

Lesley
Guest
Lesley

Oh, M. I cannot begin to imagine where you got the idea that you have to accommodate any of this behavior from either in-law. And, you have a gift in that your husband is WITH YOU one this. One less battle you have to wage when it comes to keeping your children safe. That is what this is really about; your children are not and will not be safe with these grandparents in their lives. Emotionally, no matter what the relationship and physically if you do not (please, please) heed Amy’s last line here.  I know there must be guilt… Read more »

Angie
Guest
Angie

I was offered up as a band-aid/peacemaker baby. I got sent into my grandparents like a little lamb to the slaughter, that’s how badly my mom wanted her having kids to heal them. I am typing this on my phone in the waiting room at my therapist’s office. Enough. Your kids deserve better.

Autumn
Guest
Autumn

To quote Alton Brown on Iron Chef  “just walk away”   If your husband wants to have a relationship with his parents, that’s his issue.  Not yours.  If you were to read your letter, I bet you would understand why the rest of the family has nothing to do with their parents.   My MIL is a passive agressive piece of work.  She is not allowed alone in our home or alone with our toddler because she has continually not been able to follow small instructions (when visiting, please stay on the lower level in the morning till we say… Read more »

Oscar's mom
Guest
Oscar's mom

I am floored by the author’s repeated requests to have her in-laws babysitting her kids–what a relief they never say yes! I’d literally be afraid for their physical safety!

I second the suggestion that she and her husband go to family therapy to help develop ideas and emotional acceptance of what a healthy family dynamic should be like. They seem to be on the same page together, which is critical. I hope they can move forward to a more positive, healthy place–likely without FIL in the picture.

Mandee
Guest
Mandee

YES! Thank you so much for your very honest and correct answer to this concern. I have seen these cycles and am so vigilant to keep my son away from them–it breaks my heart to think of any child being placed in such a terrible place by well-meaning parents. Protect your children first!

Suzy Q
Guest
Suzy Q

Dear M, I am so sorry for what you are going through. What Amy and the other commenters have said may seem harsh, but it is a wake-up call you seem to need, together with whatever permission you might have unconsciously been seeking to cut this man out of your life. If you take these brave and necessary steps, he may try buying you back again. You can just return to him any gifts with a polite note, or even without a polite  note.  It probably seems difficult to imagine now, but after you free yourselves of this man, it… Read more »

Kat
Guest
Kat

Oh, honey. This is tough – but it is time for you to be the one to put your foot down. It sounds like your husband recognizes the unhealthy behavior, but perhaps hasn’t gotten to the point where he is ready to say “enough is enough”. You need to be that person, your children DESERVE to have you draw those boundaries (however difficult/painful/drama creating it may be). My MIL is unstable. My son is not allowed at her house, she will never babysit (or even be with my son without me standing right there). She lies and steals, says inappropriate… Read more »

Sara
Guest
Sara

M, I had/have a really similar situation, and unlike some of the previous commenters, I understand about the requests for babysitting, and I also understand that they might not be understanding the full context of your requests. I grew up in a very loving home,but my husband’s family is totally dysfunctional and even though I know what normal looks like, it can be very confusing dealing with his family. It’s easy to make judgments reading someone else’s story, but much harder to be so clear when you’re in the midst of it. All this is to say, don’t beat yourself… Read more »

Catherine
Guest
Catherine

M, I second Sara’s comment above, and understand why you may have asked them to babysit.  It can be especially hard if you grew up in a relatively normal family to deal with something so dysfunctional – sometimes you think you can help fix it, or that they’ll act normal if you just ask them to do normal things, or that they will straighten up if you just show them what they’re missing out on.  But, as others have said, you can’t fix either of them.   Growing up, my grandparents on my mother’s side sound very similar to your… Read more »

Anne glamore
Guest

I think u are writing about my family 17 years ago.  I grew up watching the verbal abuse but thought my parents would be different around my boys when they came along.  So. Wrong.  My mom was an enabler.  Altho she wanted to babysit, he controlled her and having them around interfered with his plans so she’d cancel last minute, crying.. He is classic narcissistic personality disorder.  The best things I did were 1: read The Wizard of Id and other (something).  Hubby should also read. You will die at how much echoes your situation. 2: draw and stick to… Read more »

M
Guest
M

Author of the letter here. I want to thank each of you for your passionate, truthful & heartfelt advice. I wrote this letter to Amy because I really did need a wake-up call. I don’t have many people to discuss this situation with and I’m so glad I’ve heard what all of you have to say. Deep down, I knew it. It’s so frustrating because I knew all of this, and probably didn’t want to admit it because it’s going to be extremely difficult to deal with. I am so glad my husband agrees with me, but he is also… Read more »

Kim
Guest
Kim

Sara, I want to thank you for your kindness. I was getting uncomfortable reading the comments – OMG ARE YOU CRAZY is almost never helpful. M, best of luck. It is baffling when your family is healthy, your husband is healthy, and then his family is so screwed up, I found myself trying to protect him the whole time we were there, and I’m grateful that his mother died before she met my girls. I wonder how your husband acts around them? Because mine had no idea how his behavior changed until I pointed it out to him. Good luck!

Jessica
Guest
Jessica

I wonder if they didn’t refuse to babysit knowing that they are not fit to do so?  I mean…obviously they want to be part of the grandchildren’s lives and babysitting is the obvious way to do so. But if you’re asking and they’re not responding, I’d bet deep down they know it’s not OK.   The FIL I’m sure knows that abuse is not OK, and the MIL knows that she needs to not be in that situation but obviously they can’t break that cycle for themselves.   Maybe it would be helpful to find some people for them to… Read more »

Felicity Marie
Guest
Felicity Marie

Baby sitting and sleepovers with these grandparents are not safe. Period. You would not hire a baby sitter with a history of hitting children, so don’t leave your children with family who do the same. 

Momtobe
Guest
Momtobe

M, I think therapy might be helpful for you and your husband. Nothing you suggest to your toxic inlaws will change anything. What you need to do is change how you are looking at/dealing with the situation. My inlaws are toxic as well and I wish they would go away, but we will never, ever be free of them. My brother in law is special needs and he is our “inheritance” (yes, actual term that my FIL has used since my husband was a kid) so we need to stay involved for his sake. Of course there is nothing in… Read more »

Elizabeth
Guest
Elizabeth

M,  Please don’t take to heart all the comments suggesting you are insane because of the babysitting issue. In my opinion, those people are being sickeningly judgmental and NOT AT ALL helpful. (In advance to Amy and M, please excuse my emotional reaction and heavy caps-lock-reliance.)  I do have one issue with Amy’s response, and I don’t think anyone else has brought it up, so I feel strongly that I should bring it up myself. This line: “Maybe your MIL getting the cajones and strength to walk out on him will help him change….” Amy, here I address you directly… Read more »

Lucy
Guest
Lucy

It is sad when a woman is trapped in an abusive relationship. But when her children are being abused and suffering as well, then I do have judgment. A mother’s job is to protect her children. Period. It takes strength to leave an abusive relationship, particularly for the sake of the children. Amy wasn’t wrong for saying that.

Dori
Guest
Dori

I am in tears right now because i am going through a similar situation with my dad and mom. The difference is that i actually have written my abusive alcoholic dad from my life. He has been a mean ass drunk my entire life and physically/emotionally abusive to my mom and us kids. I have two sibs. We are all in our 30s with children of our own and we all carry baggage and damaged goods in one way or another. In my situation, i am content without my dad in my life. I had anxiety about visiting my parents… Read more »

betty
Guest
betty

Leaving an abusive relationship for sake of kids often puts them in even greater danger as now kids are left alone with the abuser without any protection. Sometimes abusers have greater financial resources and end up with a greater share of the custody and do extreme damage to their children and their relationship with the protective parent. And yes brainwashed is the best way to describe the state of mind of abused women. Judging victims of domestic violence for not “simply leaving” when the situation is so far from simple just plays into the hands of the abusers. That said… Read more »

Lainerx
Guest
Lainerx

This post was gold. I ran into this article just because Im dealing with a similar situation, but not because I have Inlaw’s, but because I actually still live with my abusive grandma (and about to move out, at last). I can add to what Amy said that, even if abusive grand parents apparently “have a change of heart” when their grandkids are born, and behave very lovingly and tender when their grandkids are still babies, I ASSURE YOU, this all FADES AWAY (and hear me out, oh please), I repeat, IT ALL FADES AWAY ONCE YOUR KIDS GROW UP… Read more »