The Washington Post
In-laws hate dogs, want us to give up our puppy
Dear Sahaj: My husband and I live in New York and adopted a puppy about a year ago. My in-laws hate dogs and insist we give up the puppy. I got along pretty well with them until now. We knew my mother-in-law doesn’t like dogs, but we didn’t think it mattered much since they visit us for two to three weeks a year, and we planned to board our puppy. Unfortunately, my mother-in-law gets very upset when dogs come up, so we didn’t talk about our decision with her before getting the puppy. When we told her, my in-laws stopped talking to us or taking our calls. They sent us a message months later, saying that our relationship is broken, I manipulated my husband and that we were not transparent with them.
My mother-in-law has an instinctive hatred for dogs that seems like a phobia. My in-laws think it is mentally unhealthy for us to have any emotional connection to a nonhuman being and that we will become emotional addicts to dogs if we have one.
They want a relationship where I am the daughter-in-law who has entered their family, and they have the final say on important decisions. They insist that we should have 100 percent transparency with them with all our decisions and that there should be no boundaries.
They do not want us to assert ourselves, and think that I, as the independent-minded daughterin-law, am behind this. We are both in our mid-30s. I find this parent-child deference very stifling. Thankfully, my husband agrees. He hasn’t lived with his parents since age 15 and hasn’t been transparent with them because of this expectation to comply with their views. When he tells them this, they ignore him and say that I am the one stirring up the rebellion. I don’t want my husband to be estranged from his parents, but I also find it highly unreasonable that they are extending their hatred for dogs to our lives. How can I handle this delicate situation?
— In the Dog House
In the Dog House: Your in-laws are being unreasonable and are unwilling to respect your and your husband’s boundaries. While this seems like a question about your dog, it’s about much more than that.
No matter how hard you try, you will never be able to change someone’s mind if they are set on misunderstanding you. I know this is a tough pill to swallow, as you want to feel accepted by your in-laws. I encourage you to grieve the relationship you may not have with them and find other sources to help process this.
In your question, I hear a struggle to accept the consequences of your decisions. If we are rooted in our own values, then usually it’s irrelevant what others think — as most of our decisions don’t affect them. But in your case, your in-laws feel a (misplaced) sense of ownership and betrayal, and are unable to navigate their emotions in healthy ways.
People who don’t handle their emotions well often project them onto a scapegoat. Your in-laws won’t accept that their son is hurting or disrespecting them — as they see it — so it’s easier for them to pin that blame on you. In families where independence isn’t encouraged, children-in-law are often an “easy target” to explain why the family is changing.
Be mindful of how you may be internalizing the narrative that
you are the problem. You are not the problem, and yet it would be easy to try to bend yourself backward to prove this to your inlaws.
Consider what specific boundaries you need to put in place to protect your mental health. This may be opting out of certain conversations with your in-laws to let your husband navigate them or pulling back on how much you share with them to avoid feeling criticized.
It’s important you and your husband continue to communicate openly with each other and stay on the same page. Your husband seems to be doing his part, so give yourself permission to differentiate between your responsibility and his. While you may care deeply and want to be involved, your husband needs to initiate and have these difficult conversations with his parents.
It’s also his responsibility to push for a new family dynamic. If he hasn’t already, ask him to be direct in shutting down conversations when his parents disrespect you, rather than trying to change their mind. This may sound like: “I won’t continue to have this conversation when you talk about [your name] like this.”
Hard and rigid boundaries may be the only way to handle your in-laws’ need for control, especially as it doesn’t seem like they are willing to budge. With that said, I know that it may not feel culturally apt or like a desired option right now.
When people use the silent treatment, as your in-laws have, it is often because they are unable to tolerate the emotions coming up, so they withdraw. It’s also a form of manipulation to retain control. By stonewalling, your in-laws are shutting off any opportunity for repair. You may need to have a script you repeat until they are ready to act in ways that are acceptable to you. This may sound like: “I can tell you’re upset by this, and we respect your need for space. It’s hurtful that you are ignoring us or are saying X.” Or, “I don’t feel like you care about what makes us happy.”
You and your husband have to decide what your bottom line is and what, if anything, you are willing to do to maintain the relationship with his parents. Repair would require both parties to want to reach a compromise, or one party to change their mind. You need to relinquish control over how this issue pans out. I empathize with not wanting your partner to be estranged from his parents, but ultimately that choice isn’t yours to make.
When families start to outgrow the way they were functioning, it can take time for all members to adjust. We don’t get to decide how others behave; we can only control how we respond to and interact with them — or choose not to interact with them. Release yourself from managing the situation, and instead focus on what you can control and enjoy your new puppy!