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Originally published Sunday, October 20, 2013 at 5:30 AM

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What to do about critical daughter-in-law

Columnist Carolyn Hax advises a woman whose daughter-in-law is hypercritical to let it slide for the sake of her relationship to her son and grandkids.


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Dear Carolyn

DEAR CAROLYN: My son, his wife and two children live a substantial distance away. My son and daughter-in-law have demanding, stressful careers. My husband and I are self-employed, so we can be flexible. We try to be as helpful as the distance permits. We have, for example, gone on short notice to baby-sit.

Although my daughter-in-law can be effusively appreciative, she frequently scolds me or my husband. I have received emails that do not say, “Dear MIL, thank you for your help,” but only, “You left the garage door open and a raccoon could have turned over the garbage. You need to be more careful.” Once when we were 45 minutes late getting home with the children, I received an email chiding me for not being respectful of her parenting preferences. When we take family vacations (often to a location she chose), she complains that someplace else would have been better.

When I asked my son how I should respond to her criticism, he said she doesn’t intend to be mean, but she reacts/types without thinking. Of course, it is important to have a good relationship with her, we appreciate that we get to see our grandchildren often, and we don’t want to put our son in the middle. Should we just ignore her critiques?

— S.

DEAR S.: Mostly, yes.

You’ve covered the main reason: grandchild access, which is good for all of you. I get that it can feel like a hostage situation, but you do have the occasional “effusively appreciative” moments to hang onto as validation. And, of course, that priceless time with the kids.

If she is as critical of your son and their kids as she is of you, then your son will need people whom he can count on to love him and his kids purely, and who can serve as touchstones for him; relationships with difficult or critical people can really bang up one’s sense of self. If you engage with his wife on these insults, which are more about her than you, then you can’t be fully available to him as a safety zone.

Another possible reason: The criticisms you cite strike me as a little bizarre, as does her emailing them to you later instead of just saying as you arrive — “You’re 45 minutes late!” Throw in the career and the fact that her criticisms aren’t tirades, but instead rather bloodless corrections — right? — and I wonder if this isn’t more about her poor grasp of social norms and cues.

DEAR CAROLYN: At what point do you drop a friend because you just can’t deal with her lifestyle choices?

A friend from college married after graduation and returned to her hometown. Seven years ago, she learned her husband had a mistress of five years.

At this point, she is resigned to the situation. She indulges in occasional bouts of self-pity but for the most part insists that “everything else in my life is pretty good,” so she’s not willing to abandon ship.

When I think back to the beautiful, vivacious and ambitious friend I knew in college, I want to scream. Sad to say, I have simply lost respect for her. Any suggestions?

– L.

DEAR L.: A funny thing happened as I was reading your letter. Your opening line nudged me toward “lifestyle choices” that involve recklessness or malice.

But no. If you’re right about her lost vivacity, then her choices harm mainly her, with sadness.

So here’s my advice: Act with love for her, since it’s possible she can’t right now.

“When I think back to the beautiful, vivacious and ambitious friend I knew in college, I want to scream. I can see how the past X years have affected you. Your light is going out. I don’t know how to respond anymore.” A good friend won’t drop someone without first trying the truth.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com and follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax. Find her columns daily at www.seattletimes.com/living



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