Carolyn Hax: Positive responses to in-laws' constant negativity
Advice columnist Carolyn Hax answers a question from a man whose in-laws always accentuate the negative.
DEAR CAROLYN: No matter what my wife and I do, my in-laws can't manage to say one positive thing about it. I'm talking about big ticket, couple-y things. Our new-to-us car: too old, could break down. Our new house: weird floor plan, no room for multiple babies (we have no kids). Our new city: too expensive. I'm serious — not. one. positive. comment.
It brings me down, hurts my feelings (these are, after all, reflections of our tastes) and makes me think they think we're idiots, like we had not considered these negative things they bring up.
I'm no Joe Chipper, but I was raised to be noncritical: "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything," and I can't get over how, well, rude they can be. I know they won't change, so how do I respond the next time they can't manage to at least compliment the silverware at the next restaurant we take them to?
— Crushing NegativityDEAR CRUSHING: What does your wife say about this?
I plan to answer you more fully after you respond but, in the meantime, I feel comfortable saying (nay, thrilled to say) their comments are not reflections on your tastes or intelligence. If they had the rare objection to something you chose or did, then you might have grounds to internalize their criticism, but what you're talking about is pan-negativity, and that reflects nothing but their own pathology.
CAROLYN: My wife says that's just how they are and that I should just let it roll off me, or do as she does. She ignores it or rolls her eyes and tells them to cut it out.
I'm not comfortable with the roll-my-eyes approach (I think it's kind of rude — and they're not my parents), so I guess I need some other way to handle this.
I really, really want to have a great relationship with them and look forward to their visits, but it's reached the point where I just don't want them to know anything about our lives for fear they'll find something wrong with it, and I just don't want to be around them and their endless complaining.
— Crushing Negativity againDEAR CRUSHING: You've nailed it — you need some other way to handle this — but not the complaining. It's the "Really, really want(ing)" that's messing you up. You aren't going to have the "great relationship" with your in-laws on the terms you prefer, so you need to accept that.
And, to improvise: It's called making lemonade. You can: be positive in the face of their barbs ("Huh. I love the floor plan; oh well!"); cliché them into irrelevance ("Different strokes, I guess"); use humor "("Well, good thing you don't have to live here"); "Wow" them; you get the idea.
The trick is to reflect their criticism back to them in a way that suits — or even amuses — you, instead of absorbing it all and taking personally what really isn't personal.
You can also dispense with your fear of their faultfinding, because you know it's coming. Expect it. Anticipate it. Open a betting pool on it.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org and